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June 25, 2009

We Are a Pragmatic People

Unfortunately, some school officials believe children ought to receive monetary rewards as an incentive for academic performance. Sure, maybe this would be fine if education were primarily for future economic gain. Instead of pursuing education as a means of further good, this practice makes education a purely pragmatic step toward the next step...whatever that may be.

Pragmatism hardly leads to the type of virtue that true education should develop.

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jason taylor

In the first place do we really think public schools competent to teach our kids virtue?

In the second place, when I was young I always determined that I would never forget what being a student is like. And indeed I never did. Going to school is a kind of forced labor and the old trope, "What you learn will pay you latter in life" does not help matters. Besides the fact that it is not always true, that defense could be made of any type of forced labor. More over no one seems to think that should be applied to conscription.

A student is ripped from the comfort of his family and placed in an alien environment. It would seem arbitrary to anyone and it easily seems arbitrary to students. Furthermore we patronize by saying students resent it because they "are unable to see the long term benefits". Very few would care much about "long term benefits" under such circumstance. I remind you of all that to bring up the point that telling a student to be "virtuous" is just as likely to convince him that virtue is a mask for injustice, as it is to make him virtuous.

Furthermore, virtue is always taught by incentives and has been since time immemorial. Do we apply this same logic to raising kids at home? Should we refrain from punishing or rewarding children because we wish to teach them "virtue". Teaching virtue always starts with teaching crude enlightened self-intrest. Then it moves into teaching honor(virtue through group loyalty), and sometimes from their it can evolve into virtue.

And finally, and again, allowing the State to teach virtue is placing a frightful power in the hands of the State. If the State demands that students be taught how to survive and be useful students that is reasonable. For them to be taught to be "virtuous"(as defined by the teachers who are of course notoriously in agreement with our understanding of virtue), is a dangerous thing. Why not go all the way and let the State choose our preachers for us?

There is nothing wrong with paying students. It is a healthy stimulus and if it is not "virtuous", it at least gives a student a feeling of dignity and some reward for his work. And it is far better then a system in which Big Teacher is Watching Your Children.

Amanda Bush

Whether or not public schools have the inherent responsibility to cultivate virtue, we ought to be thoughtful about condoning practices that potentially detract from forming virtuous character. So, the issue is not that the State should be teaching virtue, per se, but rather should we be supporting State practices that detract from virtue?

As far as public schools go, I had several great teachers who made significant impacts on my life; they sharpened both my character and academic life.

Regarding punishment, Jason, our characters indeed need chastening. But I think that paying children to perform well in school misses the point of education.

jason taylor

There is nothing inherantly unvirtuous about taking pay for labor. There is something inherantly unvirtuous about a squire telling his serf that he should not resent being a serf. It is all very well for Paul to tell servants to love their masters. For a master to say this is very cheeky.

I have had some teachers that made an impact on my life too. However the net effect has been to steal a large part of my life away without proper compensation. Most of what I know I learned out of school and the chief effect of the system was to make employment practically unaffordable.

In any case, the Dewey system is dehumanizing and more fit for Spartan(or more accurately, Prussian) children then for a free people. Eliminating it is utopian just as eliminating a lot of distasteful institutions is. But approving of it is a different thing.

In any case, what kind of virtue would be taught in such an environment? C.S. Lewis once said that one reason British couldn't become Fascists is that they were taught the Thou Shalt Not Snitch rule. Now British schools were of course far more "Spartan" then modern American ones. At the same time one might point ought that teaching students to love being herded is one step on the way to building a Staasi.

Paying students to do well in school does not detract from virtue. There is no virtue in working because one is compelled to, there is only misfortune. Trying to teach "virtue" in such a context is to teach a student to hold virtue in contempt. You cannot teach virtue in such a way. What you will be more likly to teach is either rebellion or servility.

Jason Taylor

The whole premise of this complaint is that taking pay for labor is ignoble. That is not in the spirit of American ways-for better or for worse and one should think that schools for teaching American citizens should at least teach them how to be Americans. And the idea is closer to aristocratic values then it is to Christian values. There is nothing wrong with paying elementary students to get good grades. And if you have to pay High Schoolers to remain chaste(an amusing reversal of the usual proceedure)you might as well give up on teaching virtue. But as far as the later goes there is an old military saying "never reinforce failure."* It is pretty obvious that the school system is not teaching virtue and I fail to see how anyone expects it to do so later.

The school system as it is presently run is a way to at best turn out a mass production of well-trained proles. In practice it turns out sullen, incompetant and apathetic proles who have to be psychologically rebuilt by experience at their jobs when they enter the workplace. Maybe I exagerrate, and yes I am to some degree motivated by resentment. But do we really expect it to teach virtue?

*If someone is bothered a little by the idea of making my millitaristic metaphors about the school system they might consider taking a second look at the school system.

jason taylor

I'm sorry for being a little to angry in speech Amanda. I do realize that some form of education is necessary, and that the present form was built to allow the poor to be taught as well(though one would point out that a format designed for that purpose is inherently suspect because it is a lowest-common-denominator: just as mistaking hardtack for bread is suspicious). And there have been wholesome changes in the modern system including various alternatives and complexities that can possibly provide both a more wholesome environment to raise a child and more efficient education.

My main objection to the point is that demanding that students be taught to study out of virtue sounds Orwellian: like the UN Charter in which is guarenteed a "right" to COMPULSORY education. If children must be conscripted to an educational system so as to make them efficient future workers then they must be. But demanding that they work out of virtue sounds suspiciously like trying to control their thoughts.

And yes, as I said, I have been resentful. I have often felt that in my case the system failed and I would have been better off just becoming a hamburger flipper at 17 but I was to docile and continued in school until I ran out of money. And some of it was my own fault: in such things there is always some fault to be shared around. And of course every policy has collateral damage and it is not really good to make a fuss simply because I was the collateral on one occasion.

But my personal bias does not make what I say completely untrue. For a preacher to ask a student to do his work out of virtue is asking him to be saintly and doing so is a preacher's duty. For a teacher to do so seems to me to be taking away a students dignity.

Rachel Coleman

What about learning as an act of worship? That's how I see it, as I educate my children at home. As a homeschooler, it's obvious that I agree with much of what Jason has said in regard to government schools and the futility of expecting such to impart virtues of any kind (they are godless).

But as to monetary reward ... in any setting, I'm with Amanda. Learning is hard work, true, and it can be joyful (but not always). Its laboriousness, however, does not mean it should be rewarded with money. I think of that verse (sorry, don't recall the reference) that "it is good for a young man to bear the yoke while he is young." One of my goals is to teach my children the intrinsic value of doing well, doing right, aiming for excellence and making all that habitual. This develops self-discipline, patience -- a plethora of virtues.

So, what I tell my children is, "Let's do this education thing whole-heartedly, as unto the Lord, for his glory." No stickers. No tokens. No money. Occasionally, we celebrate together.

With ice cream.

Rachel Coleman

Jason wrote: "The school system as it is presently run is a way to at best turn out a mass production of well-trained proles. In practice it turns out sullen, incompetant and apathetic proles who have to be psychologically rebuilt by experience at their jobs when they enter the workplace."

Have you read John Gatto's "Underground History of American Education?" You have describe his Angry Meter Maid.

Character Education

100% True Amanda "Pragmatism hardly leads to the type of virtue that true education should develop." This what i use to say to every one, but people make excuses.


Compulsory education troubles me, because I was largely educated at home. My home education was very thorough -- much wider than most of my colleagues, actually. Many of my friends resent their high school, middle school, elementary years, while I harbor little such resentment and remember with affection being given free reign over 80% of my education to read what I liked, discuss what interested me, and write about what I thought. One can begin to call education "ennobling" when it resulted in what mine did -- independence, curiosity, an interest in the world, an appreciation for things different from my experiences, compassion for mankind. But these are not the trademarks of the public educational system.

The kind of education one receives is just as important as the receiving of an education. We have seen this in Afghanistan and Pakistan as terrorist groups set up "schools" which serve as training grounds for young terrorists who will later go out and kill others and themselves because of ideological indoctrination. Surely this kind of education is less desirable, is not ennobling, is, in fact, actively a form of evil. And yet I believe the ability to go to a school that would allow young people the "right kind" of education -- one useful to their circumstances, one intent on making curious and independent minds -- would do much to alleviate the suffering of the third world (and the first world, for that matter) at present.

Why pay one's student? Is education its own reward? A certain kind of education is its own reward, and I'm not sure that's the kind being offered in America's public school system. Knowledge is power -- at its best, knowledge grants an ability to determine how to interact in a meaningful way with society, with the world, with the self, with God. But how do we change the system to empower those who need this knowledge to receive it? How do we do so without penalizing them (financially, socially, psychologically)?

And how do we get rid of rubbish education that demeans students and wrecks their minds? Ruining a mind ought to be a crime, but surely the system we have in place now has turned out more tired, barely-literate, emotionally stunted, apathetic, curiosity-less, dependent, and uninterested graduates than any ennobling system ought to.

jason taylor

"But as to monetary reward ... in any setting, I'm with Amanda. Learning is hard work, true, and it can be joyful (but not always). Its laboriousness, however, does not mean it should be rewarded with money"

You are, I beg leave to point out, a mom.

jason taylor

What I fear is that telling a student to not merely do his duty but to work enthusiastically in such a setting comes close to telling him to kowtow. And trusting the government to teach virtue seems suspiciously like a low key version of sending River to the Academy(Firefly fans will get that). That is of course hyperbolic; I hardly intend to imply that I seriously think schools are like that. But the point is made.

Rachel Coleman

Jason, your comparison to kowtowing helped me understand where you are coming from. When a family member of mine worked as a trash truck driver for low wages and in conditions that were not as promised, he was chastised and fired for "not being enthusiastic enough."
Didn't know that was a requirement for trash collectors.
You could make the argument that driving the trash truck should be done wholeheartedly, as unto the Lord, etc. etc. and it should. Of course, one would like to be paid.
I just think the rules are different for children, wherever they may be educated. Paying them in a home school (where presumably they are being taught virtues on purpose) would probably do *less* damage than doing so in a public setting.
And yes, I am a mom. Did you eat your vegetables today, Jason?

jason taylor

Not yet, mommey.

jason taylor


Apparently I am not the only one who thinks the modern school system was an ill-omened development and(by implication)is glad of recent changes.

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