April 12, 2010

Thoughts on Education, Part Three

Let’s go back and check in again with my grandfather, RWD, and his presentation to the Eastern Public Speaking Conference (EPSC) back in April 1939. 

One of his key points was that the taxpayer demands that pupils must pass. This was one of the things he learned being president of his local School Board, and from his perspective this was the fundamental job of public schools – ensuring that pupils must pass. So, why was this the cornerstone of what the schools were supposed to be doing?

Because, according to my grandfather, if students didn’t pass, then there must be something wrong with the school, and if there’s something wrong with the school, then the taxpayer’s not getting his money’s worth.

For his day job, RWD was employed by Oneida Ltd, the company that grew out of the Oneida Community. He was able to make a clear connection for the EPSC between silverware made in the factory to students ‘made’ in the schools. Here’s how he put it:

“In our factory, we know that if the silver spoon does not pass inspection, then one of three things must happen:
(1) either the spoon must be refinished at considerable expense
(2) or else it must be classed as a ‘second’
(3) or it may be so bad that it must be scrapped.”

And, when speaking of students: “The taxpayer’s instinct, if you will, tells him that, just like the spoon in our factory, the pupil who does not pass:
(1) either must be refinished – emotionally
(2) or else he is likely to become a ‘second’ – of less value to himself and to society than he might have been
(3) or he may even become ‘scrap’ – only you cannot throw a human being into the scrap barrel and forget him.”

So, what do you think? Can we make a correlation between a spoon that doesn’t pass inspection and a student that doesn’t pass inspection?

We know that a set of silverware seconds, or clothing seconds, or china seconds, cost less – in fact are worth less – even if the reason for having been deemed a ‘second’ is not visible to the untrained eye.

The difference with a human ‘second’, however is that we generally can tell who they are: the under-employed and under-motivated; the on again/off again unemployed and unmotivated; and the ones who are always in the wrong place at the wrong time, the ‘scrap’ who are perpetually engaged in the system: the public assistance system, the drug rehab system, the criminal justice system… all of the systems except the educational system, which might have saved them from being cast aside, if only everyone understood the rules.  And that was RWD’s second contention.

People must know the ‘why’ of school.  Just like in the factory, where the rules had to be known and understood by everyone if they were to be successful, he made the point that teachers needed to be able to explain the ‘why’ of what they were teaching, in ways that everyone, particularly the students, could understand.

But if you ask me, the ‘why’ part goes beyond the teachers - more on that next time.