Friday, June 28, 2002

Central Europe or Eureka?


One of the problems of writing columns is that the old ones come back to haunt you. An opinion once righteously held changes over time and circumstance, but essays since Montaigne have been more about locating truth than assembling facts. Truth is tough to find and as I get older I settle more and more for provoking discussion, trying to get a dialogue going that's somewhat out of the box.

Here in Europe and particularly ex-communist Europe, where I live, I've been struck by the damage done to young minds by a general dumbing down and skewing of the facts of history. The past thirteen years of 'freedom' has been a cold splash of water in the face as western influence creeps (and sometimes gallops) into the fabric of society and there's not all that much change to show for it. In Europe or Eureka, the differences bind our similarities.

Where is truth? It was supposed to come with the falling of the wall and what has come in its place is just a different brand of educational management, something still boringly and endlessly called school. I get questions from my Czech friends and the more I try to defend western (read that American) schooling, the more it becomes evident we're in a slightly different ideological boat, but a boat all the same and it floats on managed water. A quiet pond called 'schooling' rather than the infinite, wave-raged ocean of education.

What's going on here? How can the freedoms of western education mirror what I'd always scorned as merely a system of propaganda? Why does the communist remnant feel so recognizable under my western sea legs? How come Czech school phrases like "well adjusted" and "works well with classmates" sound so familiar to my ears? Could both systems hark back to the same boat yard?

You bet.

It's the German model, but in the 1880's called Prussia, a conglomeration of Germanic states that was not yet united into modern Germany. No matter, the lab work was done at Heidelberg and Berlin. The Industrial Age required a class of workers, skilled but not very inquiring, historically ignorant and clock-sensitive.

Europe swallowed it whole, providing as it did, a more socially acceptable distinction between the aristocracy and all those worker-bees. Landed gentry and serf were on the way out, manager and worker on the way in.

Our new American aristocracy was equally and perhaps even more fascinated, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller providing equity capital to usher the United States into the era of 'public' schooling. A grand plan to provide the unquestioning worker, the resultant insatiable consumer the wheels of industry would come to depend upon. It couldn't be voluntary, must be nation-wide, federal, hierarchal and management driven. And by God, it was (or soon would be, remember these were the 1880's). The system today is heavily administrative, based on the industrial bureaucratic model.

40% of those mucking about with our children's education don't even teach. Teachers don't even teach without restraint, they answer to administrators. Boards of Education that parents can't reach, answer to state administrations that answer to federal administrations and TV1 is in the schools and Johnny can't read. To my chagrin, even with the school similarities, Pavel reads well as a student and voraciously as an adult.

My Czech friends, former (but no longer) communist, bemoan the fact that they were tested early in school and directed off by result to the manual trades, or to more specialized training, a very few at the top siphoned into medical, engineering or law university. A life proscribed by testing. Sound vaguely familiar?

Public school downplays (or ignores entirely) philosophy, music, the arts, reads no Shakespeare or Tolstoy, marginalizes history and language, sidetracks geography and political theory. Public school disdains argument and rewards agreement, promoting intellectual disinterest. Philosophers are an impediment to consumer society. The arts are okay, but mostly if they center on Hollywood or Madison Avenue. A study of history might not support short-term pragmatic diplomacy. Inconvenient, to say the least. Required foreign language might possibly remind us that there's someone out there other than us and who needs that? Geography and political theory, let's not even get into that. Politics is tough enough without citizens understanding it. Whoa! Scary!

Let's face it, these are schools (both European and American) and schools are no longer about education. Education is about learning to think. Education is about having a rational background for argument and then doing it. Education is about expanding interest, taking side roads, risking failure and becoming whole. Education promotes rational difference of opinion, strongly held positions and the personal confidence to change those opinions.

I've never been in the position of having to defend my own American schooling and it's been an eye-opener to do it here in Europe, where people love to not let you off the hook. They don't so much mock Americans as insist you are just like us. They're right! We all slid out of the same boat yard. French, German, English, Czech and American schools all go back to that stiffly proper, class distinct and manipulative Prussian model. All have been polished on MTV, the Sony Walkman, shopping malls and Hollywood.

Think of that!

We have been educationally restricted to almost entirely consumer models and devices. Not burnished by the heat of debate, not spiffied-up by defending an intellectual position, not spit-shined by arguing the merits of Twain over (or under) Dickens, nor even knowing who the hell Montaigne was. I wonder if Winston Churchill or Thomas Jefferson could exist in today's undereducated environment. Jefferson isn't being taught anymore in American public school and Churchill is a dimming remembrance in Europe. Soon they will both be gone, along with Monty Python. Someone may actually miss Monty.

So, what of the old column that haunts me? Written in the middling nineties, it had to do with getting Hollywood directly involved in a more visual approach to learning. Which may have actually been an interesting experiment, but God knows schooling has suffered from an excess of that. The haunting comes from my plea that "schools are more businesses than bureaucracies and their business is education." I was wrong, way wrong. Public Schools are vast bureaucracies, supporting consumerism and the separation of classes, cripplers of critical thought.

Wealthy and knowledgeable Americans wouldn't be caught dead sending their children to them. And having said that, my Czech friends catch me flat-footed. "In the old days, Party Members wouldn't either," they hoot.