Daniel Pinkwater and Public Education

It’s always a blessing in disguise when you fail to turn your kids into clones of yourselves, but still, I feel a slight twinge in my gut when I realize that my children don’t love Daniel Pinkwater’s books.  Yobgorgle, The Last Guru — my absolute favorite The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death — all of them classics, and the list could continue.

Ethan Iverson, the pianist of the jazz trio The Bad Plus grabbed my attention with his musings on Pinkwater here.  The fact that a Pinkwater fable from his book Borgel was recently included on a standardized test in New York is more than a bit ironic, as anyone familiar with his books knows.  The only really evil thing in his books are the schools, and from what I recall he gave them names like “Bat Masterson Junior High,” and “Ghengis Khan High.”  Pinkwater responded to the kerfuffle here for those interested.

I believe that just about everyone involved in education means well.  I have some good friends who do a lot of good in the public school system.  My dad devoted his life to public school education. I went to public schools, and while it could have been better, you can say that about most things in life.

I pull for public schools, in the immediate short term at least.  Society asks schools to do far more than is really possible, given the circumstances.  We ask them to teach huge groups of students with diverse abilities and backgrounds and make it all come out in the wash.  Aside from that, feed them, tell them about drugs, sex, and provide exciting and meaningful extra-curricular activities.  How does anything happen at all?  Having said that, public education has serious, systemic problems, even if we don’t have any one person or group to blame.

Toynbee once declared,

In a previous part of this Study we have seen that the process of growth [leads to] civilizations becoming differentiated from one another.  We shall now find that, conversely, the qualitative effect of disintegration is standardization.      — “The Study of History,” vol. 5

The unintended consequences of education reform have resulted in vast increase in standardization.  This mad rush to standardize cannot serve education, which should ultimately have an expansionistic and not reductionistic character.  It cannot serve political freedom, for it subtly encourages everyone to think in the same way.  As to why we standardize, the answers are grim:

  • We standardize because we lack the willpower or ability to think of more creative solutions
  • We standardize because we have no other choice — we are completely overwhelmed with a problem that we cannot fix.
Related to this second answer, a friend of mine who teaches 9th grade English has commented to me that of course he would like to assign more essays, but how can he grade 175 of them at a time?  So, Scan-tron it is.  If Toynbee is right, once standardization takes hold only a few outcomes remain:
  • A slow drift towards Kafka-esque absurdity, irrelevance, and disintegration, or
  • A reversal towards greater freedom and mobility of mind, but this can only come when the standardizing system gets forcibly dismantled.  This process brings with it large amounts of pain and disruption.
The fact that an alternative to public schools, or a solution to the problem within public schools, seems impossible to fathom is an indication that we are deeply embedded into a problematic system.  We have a long way to go.

I have been too gloomy for my tastes, so all who have read this far need rewarded. .  .

From The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death:

Everybody ate in silence until the Bullfrog Root Beer was served. Then the conversation at the table got started. Aunt Terwilliger began making a sort of speech about grand opera. She was against it. Later, Rat told us that her aunt had just about every opera recording ever made. Her aunt spent hours in her bedroom listening to them, but all the rest of her time was spent arguing that people shouldn’t listen to operas, and, above all, they shouldn’t go to see them performed. Rat said that Aunt Terwilliger makes regular appearances in Blueberry Park, where she tries to convince people to live their lives opera-free. She feels that operas take up too much time. Also, she has an idea that people who like opera will become unrealistic, and not take their everyday lives seriously. Most of all, she believes that operas are habit-forming, and once a person starts listening to them, it’s hard to stop, and one tends to listen to more and more operas until one’s life is ruined.

Aunt Terwilliger has pamphlets printed up that she hands out. Her most popular one is called “Grand Opera: an Invention of the Devil.”