Stories, Learning & Place

Monday, January 31, 2005

Quality education for all
   Coming home from the legislature

I drove over to Helena last week to attend some hearings in the legislature, to get a better feel for how education is being shaped by politicians in our little corner of the universe. It was enjoyable. I liked everyone who spoke and found something to agree with in most of what was said.

I enjoyed what seemed to be a room full of people trying their best to be wise, methodically slogging toward important decisions, trying to figure out how to define a “quality” education for all Montana students. I was in a good mood when I left.

Afterwards, I stopped at Hardee’s for a quick burger before the 3-hour drive home. I overheard a couple of 15-year-old girls talking about their sex lives, their parents’ views, and the social dynamics of high school. I didn’t feel I was eavesdropping, because they spoke loudly enough to be sure everyone heard them. In fact, I had intended to spend a few quiet minutes reading Paul Schullery’s excellent book, Mountain Time, and I wasn’t in the best mood to contemplate the emotings of confused adolescents.

But there they were. I know they were fifteen because one of the girls said her mother was, like, totally amazed that she had made it to that age without getting pregnant. They were scantily clad in tight tank tops, talking angrily and loudly about what jerks the boys they were having sex with were, about what interpersonal dramas had transpired at recent parties, and how much they hated their parents’ counsel: “My Mom doesn’t care if I get an abortion or give the baby away as long as I tell her.”

They sounded appalled by the guidance they were getting from adults, though they weren’t articulate about what they would prefer. It seemed clear enough that their consciousness was centered on their nascent sexuality and the effect it was having on those around them, that they were troubled and angry and hurt, and that they were not getting answers that satisfied them.

In contemporary jargon, the girls were “at risk.” Both Senate and House bills currently on the table include language indicating that the state has responsibilities to help such kids. I’m doubtful their plans will work. What we need is a culture--a set of tools for living--that will help kids make wise decisions long before they are themselves wise. Though Montana does have such a culture, it has largely been excluded from public education.

What we have is plenty of people whose sinecure is linked to “addressing” the problem of lost children who are dangerous to themselves and others. Handling kids whose parents have given up is a growth industry, even though success stories are rare. We have developed a somewhat nightmarish underworld of lost kids, social workers, treatment programs, therapists and therapies, cops and entrepreneurial hospitals that is so ugly and ineffective that I long ago began to wince inwardly at the phrases “getting treatment” or “seeking professional help.”

Our schools are interwoven with a network that has medicalized the spiritual and educational confusions of youth and that operates as something of an anti-church, teaching choice and self-protection instead of service and responsibility. This web thrives on government and insurance payments to pay staff to prop up young people trying to create workable selves without family or community, trying to recover from disintegration into the bottomless abyss of self. It serves as a valuable adjunct to educational bureaucracies organized according to the principles of social darwinism--schooling understood as a technique of wealth and power.

When I taught at a psychiatric hospital for troubled adolescents, it was sad how little of the human wisdom of traditional communities the counselors and therapists called upon, though they did keep close track of the census and the billable hours.

It’s obvious that uncontrolled sexuality often leads downward through a dark spiral of degradation and self-destructiveness. But charting and dramatizing the darkness seems high art to many young people raised in this culture. Nothing is forbidden. Neither transgression nor transcendence is real. We are liberated and do not have to endure consideration of such old-fashioned virtues as prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude.

It isn’t hard to imagine likely futures for the young girls. I’ve worked in the same community long enough to see what happened to troubled girls I saw in the high school when I was principal. As a volunteer EMT I’m frequently called to help women who have not been able to organize lives that link them in decent and reliable bonds of affection and responsibility with others. They are at odds with their boyfriends, children, parents, and friends. They gave their youth over to experiences with alcohol, drugs, and sex which led to a series of transient relationships. They came to feel used and abandoned. They became so demanding or so depressive that nobody wants much of a relationship with them. They have some children, but they lack both the knowledge and discipline to provide a reliable and intelligent environment for them, and so the kids grow toward constant trouble--becoming like everyone else, refusing to meet their needs. I pick them up at a bar, still getting drunk, hoping the warm intoxication will undo the gnawing sense of inner collapse, the hopeless disintegration of personality. Or I find them at home, quietly swallowing pills, in shabby houses littered with cigarette butts and fast food containers. Lonely, lonely, lonely.

The public discourse about education was taken over long ago by the therapy industries, and when it comes to sexuality this has often led to a hostility toward traditional morality along with a moralistic insistence that all forms of sexuality are great as long as they are not coerced. You can learn on tv or at school that sex comes in many flavors none of which have any moral significance. It’s only about personal pleasure.

Kids are given lessons in critical thinking before they’ve experienced clear ethical teaching that tells truths about the world, before they have any notion of fundamental assumptions, which is the basis of critical thinking. Kids need teaching about ought and should given by adults who have more than an 8-5 concern about them. But ethical teaching is precisely what they are unlikely to get at school. Kids raised by parents who know little about how to stay with each other are vulnerable to the vulgar morality taught by MTV--that “girls just want to have fun"--or by Planned Parenthood--that sex is about pleasure and self-protection.

I believe many young girls would have far greater chances at happiness if they had learned a more traditional understanding of the relationship between sex, courtship and marriage. I think few young women who understand their sexuality as a power to help bring a man into their life who wants permanence, whose courting includes words like “forever,” ends up regretting it.

Similarly, young men and women whose shared sexuality makes a family possible, and who are helped by wise traditions they learned as second nature, making obvious to them a thousand secrets of taking care of relationships--the willingness to set aside personal moods and desires, the desire to serve, the readiness to overlook faults and to forgive, patience, cheerfulness, resilience--such young people have the best chance of escaping loneliness.

The girls in Hardees see a different universe than the special interest lobbyists at the legislature, and they reminded me why I had quit following the debates about public schools. By the time you get the discourse stripped down to what most professional education bureaucrats are now comfortable with, there’s not much left that can be said. Professor A. A. Hodge of Princeton (1823-1886) described the practical result decades ago:

It is capable of exact demonstration that if every party in the State has the right of excluding from the public schools whatever he does not believe to be true, then he that believes most must give way to him that believes least, and then he that believes least must give way to him that believes absolutely nothing . . .

When it comes to at risk students, the professionals have few answers. They believe far too little to help young people who have been led to believe they can do whatever they want, which is a way of teaching them that they do not matter.

There are answers, but they can’t be expressed within the prevailing wisdom. We’re fortunate in Montana that most kids are still taught the secrets of good fortune by their families and churches, but we also have many young people who, when it comes to the most important questions in life, are getting mostly silence. Or someone who believes the important thing is to show them how to put on a condom.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/31 at 04:45 AM
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©2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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