Dave Brat’s genius observations in Congress about education

Published online 14 February 2015.

Here I am referring to Representative Dave Brat (R-Virginia), whose spoken-word theme in recent House Education and Workforce Committee proceedings was the matter of how genius comes about:

During a House Education and Workforce Committee proceeding on Wednesday to reauthorize the nation’s elementary and secondary education law, Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) said, “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and then Plato trained in Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”

Now, I know that Representative Dave Brat made these comments during a hearing on the ESEA, so what they were really talking about was the No Child Left Behind Act, which is a matter of using money to hold America’s educational systems hostage so that all states can be required to tithe to the testing industry.But yeah, what Representative Brat said there ought to please the autodidacts — we don’t need educational funding to “achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”  There is a core of truth to what he said, but there are some nicely begged questions as well.  So here are some questions for Representative Brat:

1) How many of these “greatest minds” do you want, and how high do you want them to reach?  History before the “12th century Renaissance,” long before the 19th-century era of state-supported education, and not far into the history of universities, produced one Socrates, one Plato, and one Aristotle.  And then what did these people do?  Well, Socrates was famous for pestering other thinkers with questions until they admitted that they didn’t really know.  Plato was an idealist, who believed that ideas are the most fundamental reality.  He wrote about what he thought was the perfect city-state, too, but then backtracked on the idea later in life, as if the promise of ideas wasn’t as alluring as he once thought it was. (If Representative Brat wanted to make more of an impression upon the world, he might have mentioned Democritus, Epicurus, and the materialists, but that’s another story.)  Aristotle was a rather quotidian thinker in many ways.  From Scientific American:

Unfortunately, as pointed out by 20th-century philosopher Bertrand Russell, Aristotle was a good observer but a poor experimenter, allowing his preconceived notions to influence his observations.

So yeah.  Representative Brat needs a reminder from his constituents about why there is state funding for education, and thus about why said funding needs to be adequate.  The idea of state funding of public education is so that education can be general, i.e. so that those regarded as “smart” will be assured a community in which to practice their arts (Socrates, after all, needed a community, but he lived in classical Greece, and not in 21st century Virginia).  Moreover, a prosperous society should be disinclined to letting its greatest thinkers (regardless of the qualities of their genius) feel like the fabled one-eyed individuals in the land of the blind.  I’m sure that the intention behind the ESEA was closer to this rationale for public education when Lyndon Johnson signed it into law than it is today.2) It turns out from the rest of his short comment that Representative Brat does have an idea of what to do with public education.  What’s that about?  Get the CEOs in the classrooms and create a real “revolution,” or something like that.  Unfortunately this is what is happening now.  Bill Gates is in the classroom, pushing Common Core standards upon America’s schools.  The result?  Diane Ravitch tells us:

My fears were confirmed by the Common Core tests. Wherever they have been implemented, they have caused a dramatic collapse of test scores. In state after state, the passing rates dropped by about 30%. This was not happenstance.

Oh, and the other part, too, about bringing the CEOs into the schools.  Diane Ravitch again:

Say goodbye to public schools: Diane Ravitch warns Salon some cities will soon have none

The subtitle is revealing:

“Why destroy public education so that a handful can boast they have a charter school in addition to their yacht?”

Go ahead and read the rest of the Ravitch interview — “reform” as it stands today is pretty frightening stuff.  Representative Brat needs to know.3) If Representative Brat wants to compare American schools internationally, why not compare American schools with those of Finland?  What’s Finland’s secret?  Anu Partanen, from The Atlantic:

Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model — long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization — Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.

And also:

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

Well, that’s part of it.  What’s the other part?

Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed.

Yeah.  It turns out American schools do OK, if you leave out the part about impoverished schools teaching impoverished students while “reform” as practiced today brings them to ruin.  Make the poor richer, and you might actually help American education.Does that help?

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