ITEOTWAWKI (It’s The End Of The World As We Know It)

And I Don't Feel Fine

Union-Grove-crosswordAn eighth grader Union Grove elementary (Milwaukee, WI) brought home a politically-charged homework assignment recently. It was a crossword puzzle with obviously prejudiced characterization of a particular political position. When the assignment was publicized via social media the teacher, school, and school district began receiving phone calls and public criticism.

In response, Brenda Stevenson, Superintendent of Union Grove Elementary released the following statement:

At Union Grove Elementary School we have always encouraged parent feedback and have strove to present a balanced curriculum. We sincerely regret any disapproval associated with this particular assignment. We will continue to evaluate materials used in the classroom.

There are three aspects of this statement that deserve scrutiny.

First, every school should welcome “parent feedback.” The school operates in loco parentis, i.e., it functions in place of the parent. Contrary to claims recently made by a certain national television host (and Tulane University professor) children belong by nature to their parents. The family is the most basic social unit. The school operates at the behest of the parents (hence the principle, in loco parentis). It is not the job of the school to alienate children from their parents but to do on their behalf what the parents are not able to do for themselves (e.g., teach math, science, and English). When a school is responsive to parents it is only fulfilling one of its most basic obligations. In other words, responsiveness is not an act of supererogation.

Second, I’m sure the school does regret disapproval generated by public awareness of how this teacher is (intentionally or unintentionally) indoctrinating his or her students in partisan politics. In the news coverage I’ve seen the teacher is said to be surprised at the nature of the materials but has yet to take responsibility for the materials sent home with the student. Are we to imagine that the teacher was unaware of the homework that was assigned? Either the teacher is lazy (didn’t review the study materials before assigning them) or dishonest, neither of which cover the school in glory.

Did you notice how the school responded to negative publicity? The internet now requires every leader of every institution to decide how to respond to negative publicity. The days of being immune to public criticism are over. The gateways that once limited public criticism are gone. The editor of the “Letters to the Editor” section has been replaced by a free-for-all in the comment section (combox) of the newspaper website, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. The best response is not spin (“that’s not what we meant”) or expressions of regret that some disapprove but, when appropriate, an acknowledgement that an error was made and what steps are being taken to correct it. The other approach, as in the case of Melissa Harris-Perry, is to “double down” on the original assertion. In the latter case, Prof. Harris-Perry was made to look foolish since she also believes that the right to abort a human infant in utero is not a collective decision but a purely private one. In which case, her call for collective parenting is incoherent.

Expressing regret that they’ve been found out or that some disapprove is exactly wrong. In the current new media environment virtually everything is the subject of disapproval by someone and now everyone has the ability to express that disapproval. Does any leader of any institution imagine that everything they do will be met with universal and constant approval? The reality is that institutions have always been subject to disapproval but now that disapproval finds quick and easy publication. Institutions and their leaders must get to grips with this new reality.

Third, we should be shocked that the Superintendent of Union Grove Elementary seems to lack basic skills in English grammar.1 She writes “we” at the school “have strove….” Really? The use of the auxiliary “have” with the verb “to strive” signals that she intended to write in the past perfect. She intended to say that this has always been the pattern of the school or at least that it has always been the pattern of the school under her administration. To complete the construction she wanted the participle “striven” (or strived) as in “have striven” (“have strived”) but it’s not grammatical to use the auxiliary “have” with the simple past tense. If she wanted the simple past tense then she might have used “strove” as in “We at Union Grove strove to do x” as a way of indicating the intent of the exercise.2

If this criticism seems pedantic to you, well, perhaps it is but schools are supposed to be pedantic. Ms Stevenson represents a primary and middle school the chief function of which is to teach basic English grammar. If she cannot write correct English how is she supposed to teach her students to speak and write correct English?

So, we have two reasons to be troubled. A growing number of publicly funded educational institutions seem to be more energized by partisan politics than by the art of true education and, at the same time, the evidence seems to be mounting (e.g., sex scandals, cheating scandals, and declining literacy) that schools are less capable of performing the very important function for which they are being paid.

1. I am aware that criticizing the grammar is a dangerous game. If I’m wrong, I’m happy to be corrected. The point here is not to be right but to get it right.

2. There are some older examples of the construction “have strove,” most notably Abraham Lincoln used it in an 1863 letter. I found another, more recent usage, in what seems to be an OpEd piece in a college newspaper but that essay is sufficiently marred by other errors that it doesn’t recommend itself as evidence for the wide acceptance of the expression in literate circles. A search of the Grammar Girl site returned no results for the string “have strove.”

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  1. I is very upset you be so criticle of this publick skool supperintendant. Why you be dissin her, you religous nut. You obviouslee be against educashun. You am a very big meany, you ignorunt man.

  2. After reading this post, I am all the more thankful for the opportunity to educate my own children. As far as grammar is concerned, I am having to learn too. I am a product of the public education system but not a huge fan thereof!

    • Thanks Daniel,

      According to Follett’s Modern American Usage repr. 1980 ed. Jacques Barzun et al, this is an area where British and American usage differ. British usage favors “an historian” and “a 1863 letter” but modern American usage favors “a historian” and “an 1863 letter.”

    • I don’t think that Daniel is suggesting “a” vs. “an” but “used it” instead of “used the it”.

  3. When my son attended high school back in the mid-90’s he had a most remarkable American history teacher who went out of his way to make certain that his students graduated with a good understanding of the political system in this country, it’s foibles as well as it’s benefits.

    Since almost 20 years have past, that teacher is now retired and he likes to travel around the country to visit with some of his former students to see how they’re getting along. Last year he made stops in the DC area for this purpose and my son, realizing that he was retired and could speak freely, asked his opinion about the current state of public education. The man candidly admitted that it has become a failure in this country during past several decades.

    I began thinking about this and, with access to various kinds of information available on the Internet nowadays, took a look back over the past 50 or so years, since that timeframe seems to have marked the beginning of the end, so to speak. I graduated from high school in the mid-60’s and I recall those final years being ones where students were carefully scrutinized by the deans (of boys and girls) who strictly controlled everything from hair length and facial hair to styles of dress. But only four years later when my brother graduated I was surprised to see kids going through commencement with everything from shoulder-length hair to beards along with shorts and sandals.

    So I investigated Supreme Court cases having to do with education and found two landmark decisions along these lines: Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) and Goss v. Lopez (1975). The first of these involved the suspension of two Des Moines area students for violating clearly stated school policy when they wore black arm bands protesting the Viet Nam war. The second one had to do with an automatic 10-day expulsion of a group of students for vandalizing school property during some sort of melee.

    Both of these cases were sponsored, of course, by the ACLU, and both were decided by the liberal Warren court and its successors. The Tinker v. Des Moines ruling stated that students had First Amendment rights, as do adult citizens. In the Goss v. Lopez case, it was decided that, since education is a publicly mandated requirement by the state, students have “due process” rights, as do adults.

    So there you have it – extrapolating a bit, all authority was removed from school teachers and administrators in so far as dress and personal expression was concerned, not to mention the advent of the “you can’t tell me what to do” attitude that has been so prevalent in recent decades. Subsequent USSC decisions are a patchwork of bandaids attempting to restore a semblance of order to public education where possible.

    It’s not clear exactly when public education made a gradual left turn from the basics – teach math, science, and English as Dr. Clark points out – to the liberal curriculum so common now. But, if anything, these court decisions seem to point be a turning point or sorts. It’s difficult to see how a group of classroom students can be controlled by any teacher these days, especially if he or she is teaching a subject that is mandatory, but not necessarily popular.

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