Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Nightmare Palace of John Derbyshire

Wandering through Arts and Letters Daily today, an article caught my eye. Called "The Dream Palace of Educational Theorists" and written by a John Derbyshire in the New English Review, the article infuriated me to the point that I found a response necessary. My essay here will make little sense without Derbyshire's as context. It can be found here.

Before I comment on Derbyshire's article, in which he is far angrier than I could ever be, I want to note that his point about college education actually gave me pause. While his comparison between college and Chinese women's foot-binding or German men's duels is overstatement to the extreme, His point that college-educated persons wind up able to "get low-paid outsource-able office jobs, instead of having to descend to high-paid, un-outsource-able work like plumbing, carpentry, or electrical installation" had some merit. As a recently-unemployed college graduate with all the storebought accolades, I have been surprised at the dearth of well-paying positions for which I am qualified, and aside from singing "What Do You Do With a BA in English?" from Avenue Q, I am also dismayed. Does this excuse Derbyshire's blasting of the "college racket" from which, no doubt, he has likely benefitted (admittedly I can find no bio to affirm this), however? Certainly not--if only because his calling this "a racket" while refusing to consider the achievement gap in education anything so cohesive is inconsistent and unnecessarily derisive.

As for the rest of Derbyshire's post: I have to be careful not to take this all too personally. It is tempting to revolt for personal reasons, knowing many of those whom he calls "saints and masochists" personally. However, it is because of my personal knowledge that I can not intellectually excuse him for noting, "I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods in order to put in 15-hour working days, but I doubt there are many such." Certainly, his depiction of urban education is accurate in some instances; in fact, it fails to go far enough. He is also correct in assuming how few would be willing and desirous of this challenge (though, I should add, an organization like Teach for America does receive over 19,000 applicants a year). What bothers me, though, is his use of this black-and-white depiction as an excuse for the achievement gap, which might best be described as the difference in achievement between poor students and students of color and their wealthier and/or white peers, in public schools.

This is not all that bothers me. Derbyshire evidences his clear sexism and other biases when he exclaims that in public schools "boys are pressed to act like girls, and dosed with calming drugs if they refuse so to act; girls are encouraged to act like boys by taking up advanced science, math, and strenuous sports, which few of them have any liking or aptitude for; and boys and girls alike are indoctrinated in the dubious dogmas of 'diversity' and political correctness." I will let this statement speak for itself.

What bothers me most about Derbyshire's article is how easily he dismisses every shred of public education as we know it and the attempts to improve it -- without attempting to offer any form of an alternative or even a coherent, unifying critique. Even someone who agrees with Derbyshire that teachers in unions are overpaid and underworked and that asking parents to help with homework is like forcing them to do the teacher's job might leave Derbyshire's article asking: "So now what?" The man has an easy time blasting "leftists" and insinuating that education is a crock run by Democrats (ever heard of No Child Left Behind, the latest crock of them all?), but he falls into the same trap that many claim afflicts Democrats: criticizing to the point of attacking without offering an alternative solution.

It's popular to criticize public education--or better yet, American education in general--and until recently I fell into the same trap of solutionless ranting. I think I might have a solution, and I'm currently drafting a 10-year plan for a non-profit I plan on founding as early as 2007 that will possibly help me to attack some of the problems in American education. It is a stopgap solution, but I'm also a proponent of small victories in lieu of waiting for the perfect solution to come. I can criticize with the best of 'em (a rank I do not ascribe to Derbyshire), but what will happen if we all stop there? Probably more than merely the pollution of the blogosphere.

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