Politics & Policy

A Letter from a Child

Not everything that happens in a classroom is "education."

Recent videos of American children in school singing songs of praise for Barack Obama were a little much, especially for those of us old enough to remember pictures of children singing the praises of dictators like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

But you don’t need a dictator to make you feel queasy about the manipulation of children. The mindset that sees children in school as an opportunity for teachers to impose their own notions, instead of developing the child’s ability to think for himself or herself, is a dangerous distortion of education.

Parents send their children to school to acquire the knowledge that has come down to us as a legacy of our culture — whether it is mathematics, science, or whatever — so that those children can grow up and go out into the world equipped to face life’s challenges.

Too many “educators” see teaching not as a responsibility to the students but as an opportunity for themselves — whether to indoctrinate a captive audience with the teacher’s ideology, manipulate them in social experiments, or just do fun things that make teaching easier, whether or not it really educates the child.

You can, of course, call anything that happens in a classroom “education” — but that does not make it education, except in the eyes of those who cannot think beyond words. Unfortunately, the dumbed-down education of previous generations means that many parents today see nothing wrong with their children being manipulated in school, instead of being educated.

Such parents may see nothing wrong with spending precious time in classrooms chit-chatting about how everyone “feels” about things on television or in their personal lives.

But while our children are frittering away time on trivia, other children in other countries are acquiring the skills in math, science, or other fields that will allow them to take the jobs our children will need when they grow up. Foreigners can take those jobs either by coming to America and outperforming Americans, or by having those jobs outsourced to them overseas.

In short, schools are supposed to prepare children for the future, not give teachers opportunities for self-indulgences in the present. One of these self-indulgences was exemplified by a letter I received recently from a fifth-grader in the Sayre Elementary School in Lyon, Mich.

He said, “I have been assigned to ask a famous person a question about how he or she would solve a difficult problem.” The problem was what to do about the economy.

Instead, I replied to his parents: With American students consistently scoring near or at the bottom in international tests, I am repeatedly appalled by teachers who waste their students’ time by assigning them to write to strangers, chosen only because those strangers’ names have appeared in the media.

It is of course much easier — and more “exciting,” to use a word too many educators use — to do cute little stuff like this than to take on the sober responsibility to develop in students both the knowledge and the ability to think that will enable them to form their own views on matters in both public and private life.  

What earthly good would it do your son to know what economic policies I think should be followed, especially since what I think should be done will not have the slightest effect on what the government will in fact do? And why should a fifth-grader be expected to deal with questions that people with Ph.D.’s in economics have trouble wrestling with?

The damage does not end with wasting students’ time and misdirecting their energies, serious though these things are. Getting students used to looking to so-called “famous” people for answers is the antithesis of education as a preparation for making up their own minds as citizens of a democracy, rather than as followers of “leaders.”

Nearly 200 years ago, the great economist David Ricardo said: “I wish that I may never think the smiles of the great and powerful a sufficient inducement to turn aside from the straight path of honesty and the convictions of my own mind.”

The fad of assigning students to write to strangers is an irresponsible self-indulgence of teachers who should be teaching. But that practice will not end until enough parents complain to enough principals and enough elected officials to make it end.

Thomas SowellThomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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