American public schools - 03 January 1992

Not long before the bells began to peel and the hooters to hoot and the fireworks to blast off, I was quite ready after many hours of listening to sermons on the meaning of 1991, I was quite ready to switch off the box and greet a couple of very old friends and bend an elbow and cross our fingers and hope we'd be here to tell the tale a year from now.

But just as I was leaning forward to the telly, feeling I'd done enough homework, two or three final precious thoughts came from two or three experts far apart. One was a negotiator in the dreadful Serbian-Croatian war, he I thought would have something promising or wise to say. What he said was, until we have a ceasefire in the war, we can't go forward with peace. Ah so.

Next came a police chief from Los Angeles, announcing with no pride or pleasure that in 1991 there had been 2,439 bank robberies in California, certainly a record for the nation and he guessed probably in the world. This touched a chord and I thought perversely of Willie Sutton, long gone now but for a whole lifetime the most notorious and the most continuous bank robber in the United States. When he came up for sentencing for the umpteenth time the judge asked, "Willie, why always banks?" I was rehearsing this famous little scene when the picture switched to a big FBI man in Los Angeles, who in dead solemnity supplied Willie's immortal reply. "They do it," said the FBI man, "because that's where the money is."

My third pearl of wisdom came when we switched yet again, this time to a fairly eminent stock market economist in New York and he brought a timely message to us all. He said, "We are planning on the basis that one year is ending and another is starting." Well, all we needed to have a perfect little collection of sayings to live by was something from the great "Yogi" Berra, a legendary baseball player renowned in his day as the Yankee's catcher and renowned ever since his retirement for many great sayings. He was the one who first declared "it's not over till it's over". And sure enough, he sent us off into the New Year with a thought we should keep in mind whenever we decide to go out to dinner at a restaurant we haven't visited for some time.

There is in upper Manhattan a restaurant where once all the baseball players and the sportswriters used to hang out. Somebody asked Yogi how the place was doing these days, he said, "Ah, the place is packed, nobody goes there anymore". Well we've been having, as I'm sure you have, exhaustive and exhausting round-ups of opinions by everybody from presidents to bar tenders who sometimes make a lot of sense, about the state of Russia, the scare of scattered 2,700 nuclear war heads, trade with Japan, what will happen to the English pork pie if Brussels doesn't like it and other momentous issues facing 1992.

One subject which you might think had been argued into the ground is that of the shocking state of public education in the United States. There is, however, good and I think you'll find funny and bracing news for other countries too, from the Deep South, from the state of Alabama. Now you know that most of the education controversy in this country is over what should be taught and how, and for how long of the students day, term or year. Suddenly, through all the thrashing cross currents of argument and theory, one clear confident voice has lately come sailing through like a salmon through a rip tide. It is the voice of a cheerful, young, middle-aged man with a trim beard and a simple positive theory of what's wrong with most American schools.

His name is Welch, Kevin Welch, born in Pennsylvania son of a postal worker, earned a PhD at the University of Pittsburgh, ran a rural public school for a year or two, and since the late 1970s has lived way down yonder in Alabama where he's now a professor of education at the state university there. Mr Welch is just as concerned as any other good teacher about the decline of public education and I think, I hope he would agree with me that for too long, for 20 years or more the public schools have been guilty of setting what I call easy and dithering standards, at least that accusation would explain the childish competition over how your school stands on tests as against other schools in the state. And the practice more widespread than most parents would care to admit of either keeping the tests easy or faking the results so as to have your school come out on top or close to the top of the heap.

Mr Welch is sceptical of the general lament that Johnny can't read, write and do his simple arithmetic, what in this country is always called math. Mr Welch believes that Johnny is quite capable of reading well, writing well, doing creditably at his math, what holds him back Mr Welch is convinced is not the quality of his mind, but of his character. How's that again? Put it another way, Johnny comes out badly on paper in social intercourse and out in the school yard because nobody has set for him in the first place a required minimum standard of behaviour. Such as? Well, at work he skimps punctuation and maybe soon loses the trick of it. He looks for quick fixes in maths, and quick answers in other subjects. He shouts out an answer whether he's been recognised or not, he doesn't ask permission to leave the room, after an art class he leaves dirty brushes around, he likes animals as pets, but doesn't clean up after them.

I can imagine how a past generation in our culture, my father, his father, and the present generation of parents in especially Asia all responding with the same shocked question: but what were the parents doing, did he not learn these things at home? Mr Welch says that's just it, we've gone on assuming that the present generation of parents still sets such habits of duty, manners, whatever you want to call it, before their children ever go to school, but says, Mr Welch, most households in the United States have either only one parent or have both parents out at work. So nobody is taking on the job of bringing up their children as responsible young humans and not as brats.

I remember – oh, it must be 10, a dozen years ago – when a young tennis star who shall be nameless began throwing tantrums and tossing obscenities at blank-faced umpires, who for many too many years did absolutely nothing about it. A friend of mine, a golfer who by any standard was a world champion, shook his head and said, don't blame him, blame the father. He, the golfer, told of how when he was barely in his teens and was sweating away at the game every free hour after school, how coming to the last hole of a game he was very much on top of, he blew it with a fumbling double bogie. The lad hoisted his putter and hurled it off the green. On the way home his father said to him, "Jack, I want to tell you something. You throw just one more club and you won't play golf for another six months." Jack told the story with as much pride as fear, flashed his ice blue eyes and said, "And, by golly, I knew he meant it. I never threw another." Well, I can almost hear the smirk through the nostrils and see the shaking heads of the various psychologists, professors of child development and one professor of developmental psychology who have been quick to speak up and condemn Professor Welch's ideas as, naive, superficial and misplaced.

The trouble here the inevitability of the conflict between Mr Welch and the psychologists is I'm sure due to the fact that Mr Welch uses words like character, self discipline, rules, for heaven's sake and if every school teacher assumed a responsibility for training character, instilling self-discipline, prescribing rules, then the psychologists would be out of business. They cannot take Mr Welch seriously when he says for instance that when you set rules of behaviour, quote, "Children actually experience joy in finding and fulfilling responsibility." To which the professor of child development a thousand miles away in New York by the way, retorts "Decorum in the classroom can stifle creativity and Professor Welch is not taking the cognitive development of children into account." I must agree. I'm pretty sure that cognitive development is the last thing on his mind, he's too busy going after a student who sprayed graffiti on the walls of the school building and instead of congratulating the poor kid on his creativity. Mr Welch imposed a fine and said, clean it up.

I hesitate to use so crude and superficial a phrase as, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – I don't know the developmental language for that, but Professor Welch pursuing his own misplaced ideas has 12 times in 12 years been named teacher of the year by the university of Alabama. Educators in other states want to hear from him, his courses are packed and over-subscribed, the schools in Alabama that have applied his ideas say, that so many of these simple souls, the children, have been fired by a desire to do the best they can that the schools have had to improve their academic standards and enlarge their courses in the sciences and in languages. One high school principal head mistress told the New York Times, "It's hard for me to imagine anymore teaching children reading and writing without also attempting to build their character". That groan you hear comes from a host of modern development psychologists who refuse to use the phrase character education. What Mr Welch means, they say, is values clarification.

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