Saturday, April 26, 2014

Valerie Strauss’s Double-Header: A Pair of Curmie Contenders

If there is a better education journalist in the country than the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, Curmie doesn’t know who it is. The last two days in a row, her column, “The Answer Sheet,” has highlighted a couple of prime contenders for the coveted Curmie Award, presented annually to the person or institution who most embarrasses the profession of education.

Steve Green, who apparently runs the Mustang schools now.
Yesterday, it was about the Mustang school district in suburban Oklahoma City that has blithely decided that including a year-long course on the Bible would be just a peachy idea. Of course, sanctimonious and venal plutocrat Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green, whose Museum of the Bible (could I make that up?) minions wrote the curriculum, assures us that “This is not about a denomination, or a religion, it's about a book. We will not try to go down denominational, religious-type roads.” Gentle Reader, if you are even tempted to believe that line, may I humbly suggest that perhaps you have stumbled onto this blog by mistake. There’s a living-in-the-real-world requirement here. Turn back while your tender ignorance is unsullied.

First off, there’s the whole “Museum of the Bible” thing. No, that couldn’t be about (gasp) religion, could it? Next, notice the first person subject: “we” won’t be proselytizing. In other words, it’s not the district, much less the teachers, who will control the curriculum. Need more? Well, there’s this, from the AP article by Bailey Elise McBride:
From the outset, the book describes God as eternal, “faithful and good,” “full of love” and “an ever-present help in times of trouble.”

“The first pages of the Bible spotlight God's desire for justice and a just world,” the second chapter says, but adds, “When humanity ignores or disobeys his rules, it has to suffer the consequences.”

The course also says people should rest on the Sabbath because God did so after six days of creation.
Nope. No religious indoctrination there. Look, if you really want to have a course detailing the relationship of the Bible (and of Christianity) to history, art, and literature, fine. But somehow I doubt that students in such a course are likely to hear much about the barbarities associated with the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition, or pay a lot of attention to that business about camels and eyes of needles, or read that barely a generation ago even evangelical doctrine argued that fetuses aren’t the same as babies. Here’s McBride again:
Andrew Seidel, a lawyer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote to the Mustang district this week complaining that “negative aspects” of God, such as jealousy or punishing children for the actions of their parents, are not mentioned in the course.

The book phrases contradictory questions and answers — such as references to the Israelites being slaves — in ways designed to favor Christianity, Seidel said. He said it also poses Christian thought as rhetorical questions, such as asking, “How do we know that the Bible's historical narratives are reliable?” rather than, “Is the Bible historically accurate?”

“They assume the answer in the question and stifle all scholarly discussion,” Seidel said.

Dr. Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University who reviewed the curriculum at the AP’s request, said it lacked scholarly insight.

“It’s more of a very basic background book,” he said, adding that he found the curriculum “full of land mines” and used scripture from only one tradition, evangelical Protestantism.
Of course, the yahoos who run Mustang schools intone that the clown show that passes for a school board wouldn’t have approved the curriculum if they thought it “crossed a line.” There are only two possibilities, which of course are not mutually exclusive: they have the cumulative IQ of a pile of rotting tilapia, or they’re lying. My money’s on the latter, although thinking that no one would notice their egregiously unconstitutional indoctrination attempt does require a level of stupidity beyond the comprehension of the average mortal.

Today’s Strauss story of educational ineptitude may be even worse. At least there’s a logic to what the folks in Oklahoma want to do: they want to use public schools as a means of advancing their religio-political cause. It’s not constitutional, it’s not wise, and it’s not honest. But at least we can figure out why they want to do it. Not so with the news out of Elwood, NY, where the kindergarten show at Harley Avenue Primary School was cancelled because… wait for it…
What it lacks in substance it makes up for in pomposity.
We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.
Yes, that’s right. That’s why the five-year-olds can’t do a show that, according to more than one signer of the petition on (which Curmie wouldn’t object to your signing and sharing should you be of a mind to do so), is a long-time tradition at the school.

Curmie has seldom seen so much stupidity in one place. We’ll leave aside the smugness and pomposity of the school’s response. “Please don’t fault us” [because we know what’s best, you insignificant little parent]? Or the fact that none of the letters’ signatories were available for comment after their obnoxious missive? Superintendent Peter Scordo wouldn’t talk about the glaring idiocy of it all, but sent forth a minion, one Michael Conte, who pompously pronounced that “the Harley Avenue Primary School educators believe that this decision is in the best interest of students. I don’t have anything more to add for your consideration.” Anybody but Curmie think these folks are a little longer on self-image than on sense? Finally, the apophasis du jour: we won’t even mention the irony of career-readiness being advanced by someone like Keri Colmone, who doesn’t even know where to sign a business letter.

For the school’s decision to make any sense in pedagogical, inter-personal, or public relations terms, three things must all be true. (None of them are.) First, it must be something other than laughable that it is in any way the “responsibility” of any pre-primary educator to prepare his/her charges for “college and career.” That this is the insane rhetoric of wealthy helicopter parents who “love” their kids so much they deny them a childhood, and of Arne Duncan, the worst cabinet member of the millennium (and yes, Curmie includes the likes of Alberto Gonzales and Donald Rumsfeld in that analysis) doesn’t make it any less risible.

Secondly, we must forget everything we know about child development, or of our own educations. I learned how to read in 1st grade, not kindergarten, and yet I somehow managed to get an Ivy League undergraduate education and subsequently a PhD from a really fine Research-1 university. And… get this… I actually had some fun as a kid. I read literature because I wanted to, learned about science because it interested me, and I performed in some musical and theatrical activities. Every authority on childhood behavior (and the current Secretary of Education is about as far from that as it is possible to be) agrees that play is not merely a significant part of a child’s development, it is in fact crucial. Play teaches, and any educator who doesn’t understand that is fit for no job requiring intellectual skills greater than those required to inquire whether the customer would like fries with that.

But, let us pretend that the function of kindergarten is to move five-year-olds a step closer to career-readiness, and that having fun is at best a distraction. Fine. So in order to cancel a “show” for that purpose is to suggest that there are no careers in the arts per se, that speaking in public is never going to be required, that learning to be part of a team is irrelevant as a life skill. It is to declare the long-term uselessness of confronting and meeting deadlines. It is to pronounce that problem-solving never manifests in the production of a show. It is to proclaim that the memorization, development of muscle memory, and inter-personal requirements of mounting a production, any production, aren’t central to developing the intellectual and social maturity of any child.

And let’s take it yet one step further. Let’s even pretend (if that’s still allowed in this post-cancellation-of-theatrical-event world) that the school’s rationale has the slightest relationship to reality, that there’s a kernel of sense buried somewhere under that mountain of bovine feces. So… the school needs to spend more time on developing other skills than those relevant to the production of the show. Perhaps the way to do that would be to have full-day kindergarten classes, like virtually every other district in the area does. Ah, but that would require work and money, precisely the two things no one in the Elwood district seems ready to expend.

Had Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit and her dim-witted underlings drooled down their chins and slurred a few sounds that never quite rise to the level of language, in other words, they’d look better than they do now. The letter is condescending, rendered especially ironic by its utter disregard for tradition, pedagogy, child development, logical argument, or comprehension of what happens in the mounting of a show. One suspects that the “teachers” found out that producing a show actually involves a little more than a pile of old clothes and an uncle with a barn, and they really didn’t care to do their jobs if they… you know… had to work. Luckily for them, there’s enough pseudo-pedagogical jargon to wrap themselves in. Alas, it’s a little less fortuitous for anyone who actually cares about kids, education, or the future of the country.

But I can pretty much guarantee that Best-Laimit and company won’t go away empty-handed. There is a virtually certain Curmie nomination in this for them.

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