July 8, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Charles P. Pierce:
Moral Hazard, the Irish setter owned for photo-op purposes by New York Times columnist David Brooks, had the week off, and he was enjoying being out in the open air, far from the stuffy confines of the Young Fogies Club. Master was off at the Aspen Big Ideas Festival — Motto: “Hey, What’s The Big Idea? Shut Up, Kissinger.” — so Moral Hazard got loaned out to a farm family in Pennsylvania. He slept until noon, ran around with the sheep, chased a stick with two little boys for hours, and then dozed contentedly in a shady corner of the big wraparound porch, and he didn’t even need to lick his balls to relax. True, there weren’t vast spaces for entertaining, but Moral Hazard felt there was enough room for a dog to be a dog, and that was enough for him.
He idly watched the swallows bobbing and weaving around the barn and above the two boys, who were pushing each other on a tire swing beneath a great grandfather of an oak tree. He liked this family a great deal. He was just about asleep when that day’s paper landed on the steps with a solid thump. Moral Hazard rose, stretched as best he could, and fetched the paper up onto the porch. His heart sank. Apparently, there was sufficient down time at the Big Ideas Festival — between the Wagner Karaoke Sing-A-Long and Bobbing For Fellowships — for Master to grind out a column. He brought the paper over to his shady corner and nosed it open. He looked again at the two boys, laughing as one of them spun the other around in the tire. This would be the place to live, Moral Hazard thought, the swallows dancing above him. Yeah, that would be cool.
Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most appealing characters. He was rambunctious when young and courageous when older. But suppose Henry went to an American school.
Holy Ram Dass, Batman, they’ve got some fine drugs out there in Aspen, don’t they? “Answer when I call your name: Paxton, Wanda, Peters, Gomer, Plantagenet, Harry…” Or, to keep faith with the author’s well-crafted hallucination: “Oh, for a muse of tedium/that would ascend the brightest heaven of malarkey…”
By about the third week of nursery school, Henry’s teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry “had another hard day today.” He was disruptive during circle time. By midyear, there’d be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry’s parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it, and they find school much easier.
At which point, Henry IV, in all of his parts, and being pissed off with that whole Percy family squabble, would have the nursery school teacher drawn and quartered, her head hung on Traitor’s Gate for a month, and I probably shouldn’t give our country’s school “reformers” any ideas. “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France/Or may we cram into our vast spaces for entertaining the very casques that did affright the air at Cleveland Park?”
By elementary school, Henry would be lucky to get 20-minute snatches of recess. During one, he’d jump off the top of the jungle gym, and, by the time he hit the ground, the supervising teachers would be all over him for breaking the safety rules. He’d get in a serious wrestling match with his buddy Falstaff, and, by the time he got him in a headlock, there’d be suspensions all around.
That’s okay, because he would invade France during one of his free periods, when he was supposed to be making a baking-soda volcano in Science class. He would also busy himself scribbling “Mr. Catherine Of Valois” on all his notebooks and cut off the heads of anyone who laughed at him. ”And let us, ciphers to this great account/on your imaginary forces work/And pretendeth that this whole thing doth not reek of the grandest Fail.”
First, Henry would withdraw. He’d decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he’d just disengage. In kindergarten, he’d wonder why he just couldn’t be good. By junior high, he’d lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet. Then he’d rebel. If the official high school culture was über-nurturing, he’d be über-crude. If it valued cooperation and sensitivity, he’d devote his mental energies to violent video games and aggressive music. If college wanted him to be focused and tightly ambitious, he’d exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture. He’d have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realize them. Day to day, he’d look completely adrift.
Look, I like you people. I really do. But do I have to go on with this? Either Brooks is stoned to the gills, or the Times gave every editor in its payroll a free trip to Neptune. And actually, what Henry did was withdraw to the tavern, get roaring drunk in evil company, fuck whatever tavern wench happened to fall in his lap, and in all ways engage in pursuits that an unstoned David Brooks otherwise would find appalling among those people who eat government cheese in their double-wides while watching Cops and having the sexytime without his permission. This is behavior, of course, that bothers Brooks not at all when engaged in by the world’s proper owners. Sucking up to the Plantagenets. Wow. You have to love a courtier pundit who tries to curry favor with a ruling elite that lost its power in 14-goddamn-85.
This is roughly what’s happening in schools across the Western world. The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.
Ah, a point stumbles blindly out of the extended historical metaphor. Yes, “roughly” this is the case, just as a lemon zester is “roughly” the same as a toothbrush. Can’t you be both disciplined and rebellious? Ambitious and rebellious? Weren’t we just talking about Henry V? And, I don’t know if Brooks noticed, but that list of things that the education system has “become” is exactly the formula the parochial schools have used since shortly after Pope Leo XIII kicked, and I am forever hearing education “reformers,” most of whom did not live through it, as I did, cite it as an ideal solution.
Far from all, but many of the people who don’t fit in are boys. A decade or so ago, people started writing books and articles on the boy crisis. At the time, the evidence was disputable and some experts pushed back. Since then, the evidence that boys are falling behind has mounted. The case is closed. The numbers for boys get worse and worse. By 12th grade, male reading test scores are far below female test scores. The eminent psychologist Michael Thompson mentioned at the Aspen Ideas Festival a few days ago that 11th-grade boys are now writing at the same level as 8th-grade girls. Boys used to have an advantage in math and science, but that gap is nearly gone.
And this has to do with not being allowed to punch kids at recess how, exactly? If schools are failing boys, and Thompson’s work is admirably judicious on the subject, then it’s not because schools are curbing their natural aggressiveness. It’s probably because we’ve got teachers making $45-grand a year trying to make do with outdated textbooks, heckling from the peanut gallery, and who also have to be Mills Lane at recess. I think Thompson’s work actually is worth going on with, as they say in the old country, But hell, you know what’s coming, right?
But the big story here is cultural and moral.
X gets the square!
If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is just not that easy.
Schools are “feeding kids meds”? The kindly old secretary in the office has replaced the lollipops in the jar on her desk with Xanax? I am absolutely sure that high-pressure lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry has had absolutely nothing to do with the over-medication of our children. (Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the corporate underwriters of the Aspen Ideas Festival, is very big in helping large pharmaceutical companies do their business.) And what in the holy name of Baal is his problem with the Newbery Awards? Not that I have any real objection to letting pre-adolescents do book reports on I, The Jury, but I suspect other parents might. I hope Judy Blume beats the crap out of him at recess. And, while we’re talking about how difficult “social engineering” is, I feel obligated to point out that, in Louisiana, where they’ve gone all-in on charter schools, children are being taught that evolution is a fake because the Loch Ness monster exists. Just sayin’.
Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.
This may be the God Particle of moronic right here. Boot camps do not “engage people as they are.” They break people down in order to build them into a homogenous model dedicated to a single purpose. I’ve never been any closer to Parris Island than Brooks has been, but, Jesus Mary, even I know that dedication to “cultural diversity” never has been high on the To-Do list of drill instructors. Haven’t conservatives been battling the idea of “cultural diversity” as contrary to “military virtues” in the coniext of female soldiers, and then gay soldiers, for decades? And, not for nothing, I would not want to be the teacher or the principal who puts David Brooks’s idea of a well-rounded education into practice on David Brooks’s kid. You wouldn’t be able to get Brooks off the ceiling with a crowbar.
The basic problem is that schools praise diversity but have become culturally homogeneous. The education world has become a distinct subculture, with a distinct ethos and attracting a distinct sort of employee. Students who don’t fit the ethos get left out.
Actually, we had schools like this. Mitt Romney went to one. I think this whole column is about David Brooks’s secret desire to be one of the kids who was laughing when Mitt cut off the hippie faggot’s hair.
Little Prince Hal has a lot going on inside. He’s not the unfeeling, uncommunicative, testosterone-driven cretin of common boy stereotype. He’s just inspired by a different honor code. He doesn’t find much inspiration in school, but he should.
We would have all such offenders so cut off, and we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.
— Henry V, Act 3, Scene 6.