Friday, May 23, 2008

In Which It Gets Worse

I wish it wasn't so easy to bash the public school systems. Sometimes when I read stories that send me in that direction, I stop and think possibly they're reacting to the material they get from the homes and streets. Surely most teachers are doing their best.

Then I hear what's going on in my 17-year-old son's classrooms. Now, my son's school district is rural and not especially geared toward sending every kid to college. Mine was suburban, wealthy, and highly competitive. Yet where his seems to me to fail him is not institutionally, but on the level of individual teachers. His middle school education was quite good. Some of his high school teachers have been inspirational. But more of them have been flops.

He's in 11th grade. His course in American history -- or whatever name they disguise that by these days -- is coming to an end and the finale is a big project that will largely determine his grade for the quarter. In my high school, the college-tracked kids were taking electives by that time, and I remember writing two 20-page papers, on topics of the student's choice, approved by the teacher. One of mine was on the legal challenge to Reconstruction after the Civil War, the other was on the Congress of Vienna.

My son's comparable assignment: To write about the significance of the lyrics of "We Didn't Start the Fire" by Billy Joel.

And it gets worse. I might be able to grasp that assignment if this was a class of low-achievers who were hyped about nothing but pop music and this was a current hit song. It's not, they're not, and it's not. These are the the district's college-bound kids. And this is the best the school district has to offer them: Analyze the lyrics of some dimwit pop star's ripped off (from R.E.M.) oldie. A third of the references even the writer didn't fully understand (but he'd heard of them), I bet, and anything that can't be jammed into a rhyme isn't in there. This is called "studying history."

And it gets worse.

They don't even have to listen to the whole song! The teacher broke them up in groups and gave a little bit of it to each clump of kids. My son's group's verse is 1952 to 1956. "When I was a boy" comparisons are tiresome, but how else am I to judge this? My son is as smart as I was, as capable of mental work as I was. On his own, books he's read include Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist" and John Dower's book on the society and culture of post-defeat Japan. When I was a senior in high school I took an elective history course called "Crucial Years," which covered 1945 to the present, the present being 1978. We spent half a year on the Cold War, in other words. My son for the equivalent part of his public school education will spend a few days on a part of a song from the 1980s about the early 1950s.

And it gets worse.

The students don't even have to research everything in their assigned verse. They were told to each take one angle on it: one to write about the political, or social, or foreign policy, or pop culture qualities of the words. And then one of them has the job of putting it all together for a presentation.

And it gets worse.

When they got the assignment, they started researching it the way kids do nowadays: by doing Google searches. The first term they plugged in was "Brigit Bardot." The first thing they discovered, besides racy pictures, was a Web site in which someone went through the song, line by line, and wrote about the identity and significance of each thing in it.

Research done. No reading required. No learning required. The slim chance that the project would lead to something bigger than the song died aborning. But when the generation that is about to get the ability to vote makes its mark on America, it's good to know they'll have Billy Joel as their touchstone.

Does it get worse than that?

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