In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

Maybe it’s because I’m marking essays, but this essay in the Atlantic rings true. American education has been in trouble for 50 years and things aren’t improving (HT: MIke O’ Connor).

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. As a former English teacher, this was a fun read.

    But as someone who has also worked in various educational capacities (including standardized student assessments currently), there is a big difference between the anecdotal musings of an English teacher and assessing something as broad as American education wholesale. Heaven knows, I appreciate the temptation to generalize as one slogs the duties of teaching, but bad students have always dotted the landscape, even before 1958. Some call it being under-realized, but I have never been one much for certain forms of pessimism any more than unwarranted optimism.

  2. Hi Z,

    Certainly you are right that there have always been students who simply lacked ability or will but my experience over the last 13 years tracks with the observations of this prof. Every year I spend more time explaining basics to grad students.

    There are lots of statistics that suggest a broad-scale failure in the state-school system (grad rates, teachers failing basic exams etc). Much of this isn’t new. I said “50 years” because I was thinking of critiques of education written in the 50s, which I read last summer, that sounded as if they were written last week. There are systemic pedagogical and social and cultural problems that persist.

    Among these systemic problems are the refusal to require young children to memorize. We refuse to take advantage of the ability and will of young children to memorize. As a consequence we wait to teach them languages until it is almost too late and much more difficult. We seem to be unwilling and unable to teach critical thinking. Our radically egalitarian culture means that teachers have to convince students that courses are not ala carte. The other day I saw a program in which HS teachers who still believe in learning are being driven out and replaced by teachers who openly espouse an entertainment model. Bleary-eyed students staring mutely at monitors while the teacher uses a high-tech screen up front. No discussion. Just glorified multiple-choice quizzes. The lit teacher, who was trying to get students to actually read a text, to engage it, to interpret it, to discover the author’s intent (horrors – you mean authorial intent trumps reader reception? It can’t be!) was dispirited and talking of retirement. Students freely and unashamedly announced that they have no time for reading books, not even articles. They read snippets.

    When I send my grad students to the library to use books, some look at me as if I’m from Mars. Once they discover the wonders of the reference room they come to appreciate it but it’s a challenge to get new students into the library.

  3. “Our radically egalitarian culture means that teachers have to convince students that courses are not ala carte. The other day I saw a program in which HS teachers who still believe in learning are being driven out and replaced by teachers who openly espouse an entertainment model.”

    Funny thing this perspective stuff. You like to lay things at the feet of an egalitarian “culture” (read congregant or student) which the “real” or “faithful” teacher, pastor is having to overcome, and I’m always laying waste to the leadership (teacher, pastors, theologians, parents) that necessitated the birth of the “egals.” It’s a chicken or egg thing. Being “egalitarian” as you call it, is the attitude that helped me overcome the teachers and pastors working off the entertainment model. Striking out on my own and defying the authorities over me, is what got me out of the entertainment culture, educational or otherwise.

  4. Hi Sean,

    This is fair enough. I struggled through college partly because it was, or seemed to be, such a hostile environment for Christians. I had to overcome indifferent teachers. Not many were entertaining to be sure — Bob Miewald was very funny. I think I took 2 or 3 municipal government courses just to hear him tell jokes and stories. Phil Dyer was a huge influence but no so with many of my profs. I had one, during a brief sojourn in the teachers’ college, who gave no evidence of having had a serious thought in her life.

    Modern egalitarianism is the child of the Enlightenment. Maybe I’m guilty of trying to have it both ways? I don’t know. Were it not for the sort of upward social and educational mobility only possible really in the modern period, I would probably not be teaching at a sem. At the same time, there are such things as offices (pastor/laity; teacher/student). In a world of endless options students seem to think that I’m just another content provider and they can switch channels/click to another site as they wish.

    I’m not immune from the “entertainment” model. Med-Ref always occurs on Thurs/Fri 1:45-3:45. It’s often the last class of the week for many students. They’re tired. It’s after lunch and I’m trying to interest them in the intricacies of medieval theology. It’s a challenge so I liven it up where I can.

    It’s a negotiation to be sure.

  5. Dr. Clark,

    I get your issue, even if I don’t empathize much with it. My elders have laid waste to the educational and ecclesiastical landscape and I’ve literally found myself in pitch battles in both arenas to not only get educated but “try” to hear the gospel preached. I, at this point am just waiting for the boomers to “go away”. What’s tough for you in your situation is either you get students and congregants who really do expect to be entertained or spoon fed or you get cats like me who have fought so many battles with authority figures that when we do run into one who is deserving of deference we’re slow to grant it.

  6. Hi Sean,

    of course the fifth commandment applies to both of us as does the 1st. Thus we have to balance duty to man and God. Where they conflict, duty to God trumps. We must obey God rather than men.

    I realize that the situation is pretty dire in some places. We’re blessed out here to have a lot of options. I’m deeply thankful to have a minister who preaches the law and the gospel faithfully every Sabbath. I’m hopeful that others will have that too. That’s one important reason for this blog, to encourage the spread of Reformed, confessional ministry.

  7. Dr Clark,

    I hear you. I appreciate your blog. Keep it up. I’m just a touch ornery. My only defense is that I used to be sweet.

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