The thinly veiled jubilance of Joe Lentini’s self-congratulatory letter to the editor last week revealed a good deal about the chairman of Conway’s school board. It showed, for instance, his habit of cherry-picking information, such as his claim that ours is the 46th-lowest-taxed state in the country. One survey does claim that, and he repeats it often, but another lists our property taxes as the nation’s second-highest. Joe typifies the reason for that.
Joe also demonstrated how closely he associates education with the ultimately pointless activity that provides him with an income, and how heroically he views his participation in both activities. Why he equated the formation of the Mountain Rescue Service to the creation of a strategic plan for the school district, I can hardly guess. The rescue service seems devoted to saving fools from the consequences of the grave risks they take in accomplishing an unnecessary task — which, although it costs a great deal of money, produces nothing of value beyond a fleeting sense of accomplishment.
Wait. I wonder if that might be where he saw the connection? Let’s hope not, but I suppose it’s a possibility, considering some of the trends in what currently passes for education.
The primary fallacy of Joe’s letter was epitomized in the first sentence, in which he announced that “our community voted” last week. Actually, more than one community voted. From what I’ve observed since he first grew active in 2011, Joe represents the community of hyper parents and educrats who religiously revere any activity within a school building as educational and worthy of unlimited support. Their public participation usually encompasses the years in which their own children are among the consumers. After that, the community is no longer really theirs.
From the perspective of someone whose preferred occupation depends on having a highly literate and academically curious audience, American public schools seem to be phasing out actual education. Our district is no exception. For over three decades, curricular focus has drifted toward specific vocational training that was traditionally available outside of school — and is less available now precisely because public schools absorbed that responsibility. In an era of notorious frequency in career changes, the precious years of secondary education are now increasingly wasted on job-training. That shift has been accomplished at the expense of the now-scorned academic fundamentals that most students will seldom encounter outside the classroom. Academic disciplines have deteriorated further through the fragmentation of minutely specific courses, which created perennially undersized classes and encouraged a bloated faculty roster.
I was initially encouraged by the apparent recognition of at least that latter problem in a reorganization of Kennett High School’s program of studies presented at the Feb. 11 school board meeting. The principal explained that he was consolidating a number of English courses that had regularly attracted as few as half a dozen students, including such detailed offerings as the literature of war and sports writing. That made perfect sense to me, as did replacing the last level of German with AP Spanish.
Unfortunately, the number of courses that were discontinued appeared to be matched by the number of new ones proposed, as though to avoid a reduction in faculty. None of the new classes sounded like English courses, either, and the declining proficiency in what is still our principal language is a serious problem, as Joe’s letter helped illustrate. One of the new courses was another specific vocational program for prospective licensed nursing assistants. “Freshman academic support,” meanwhile, had the disturbing ring of remedial education for those who had not fared well in the elementary mill.
Two new subjects caught my eye. “Cultural studies” sounded innocuous enough, and it could well be, but it seemed a little ominous that it was mentioned in conjunction with a course called “diversity and tolerance.” Given the potential political implications of the latter, one might have expected a question or two from the school board, but there was not a peep.
Aside from the overemphasis on vocational training, the major objectionable element in public education is ideological indoctrination. It’s nothing new, of course, and in years past the indoctrination was largely conservative. In the McCarthy era, we Pine Tree School students were steeped in our teacher’s anti-communism. As late as 2003, my Quaker-raised stepson was humiliated by his homeroom teacher at Kennett for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Today, the direction in political persuasion is much farther to the left. “Diversity” and “tolerance” are battle cries among those who are seldom ideologically diverse or tolerant, and combining them in a single title seems almost to promise more persuasion than enlightenment.
The question is not whether we support education, as Joe seemed to think. The question is whether education is what we’re getting.
William Marvel is an award-winning author who specializes in 19th-century American history, with particular focus on the Civil War era; he is a third-generation denizen of Davis Hill, in South Conway, now living in the house where he grew up.