Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Thu, 8 Sept 1994

Nursery rhymes. That was what I was thinking about as I glided through the streets of Valdosta late this morning in the usually delightful cool air. I was thinking about one particular rhyme. I modified it so that it goes like this: "The five little kittens had worn the wrong mittens and they began to cry. 'Oh, mommy dear. Oh, mommy dear, the wrong mittens we have worn.' 'What? Worn the wrong mittens? You naughty kittens! Change them or you shall not get any pie!'" As I repeated that verse over and over like a metronome, I started getting hotter and hotter. The five little kittens were five teachers in a Texas school system that treats all its teachers like little dependent children and whose teachers apparently act like meek kittens rather than the professionals that they are. The system has a dress code for its teachers. Well, for you who don't know the story, it seems that five of them broke the code and they were sent to the principal's office. I can see him now: sitting pompously upright behind his desk. On the other side of the desk sitting shoulder to shoulder, hands clasp in their tight laps, are five frightened teachers. He leans over and starts shaking his heads and wagging his finger at them and lecturing them about how the "proper" clothing makes them better teachers, how they have to set the "proper" example of behavior and decorum. Why if they wore the wrong clothes who knows what moral decay could erupt among the students. Law and order in the halls would deteriorate into anarchy. Classroom discipline would disintegrate. To avoid such predictions of chaos of "biblical proportions," the principal then sent the teachers home to their mommies and daddies, no doubt accompanied by a note, for a change of clothing. And, the teachers, for fear that they would lose their pie, like dutiful children, meekly went home to change. I wonder if such mindless obedience qualifies them for merit pay in that system. I couldn't believe my ears any more than could the head shaking Tom Brokaw believe what he was reading. And I wondered. How could these teachers now teach anything in their classes but control, order and submissiveness; how could they help the students to learn self-worth when they have stripped themselves of it; how could they demand anything other than conformity when they have succumbed to it; how can they promote individual creativity and imagination when they have surrendered their individuality; how can they command respect from their students or even respect their students or even respect themselves if they are not only treated as half adults and half children but allow themselves to be treated in such undignified manner. Now this may too harsh of a judgement and there may be more to the story. But,when this story hit the national news services, I thought what people must think about teachers and the superficial concerns of our educational system. All over Tom Brokaw's face was written ridicule. "With all of education's ills," his smirk said, "this is all they have time to bother with? This silly stuff is the best they can do?" It is little wonder than so many people have diminished respect for teachers and the credibility of education has fallen so low.

Now this may be an extreme case, but I think it is symptomatic of the state of education and indicative of many of the attitudes at all levels from K through university that play as obvious and subtle varieties on this theme. I'm wondering what do so many of those involved with education--parents, members of boards of education, administrators, teachers--ask of themselves and other people. They say that they offer guidance, but do they have courage to lead; they say that they offer enrichment, but do they have the courage to grow; they say that they offer new horizons, but do they have the mettle to challenge; they says that they offer growth, but do they take risks; they say that offer expertise, but do they have vision; they say that they deal with people, but do they make time for a single person; they say they are preparing the future leaders, but do they relinquish control.

Confusion reigns in our ranks because we are guilty of committing the sins of redefinition. We define standardized scores and called it intelligence; we define classroom performance and call it potential; we define grades and call it achievement; we define awards and honors and call it wisdom; we define tests and call it learning; we define majors and call it professional; we define GPAs and call it worth.

It is customary to blame society for the ills of education. We say that society's judgement of education is determined by budgets, test scores, grades, and job-getting. We say society interprets education myopically in terms of acquisition of facts and display of skills. Yet, what do so many of us say in reply? In our rush to gain respectability in this age of measurement and accountability, we prance around as social scientists "jargonizing" our speech, talking in lifeless bookish scholarship, displaying test scores, and imposing dress codes for teachers. We expunge the poetry and celebration of our craft as well as the faith in our students, ourselves and our colleagues. We dress out the body of education so that we strip its bones of the intimate flesh that proclaims that education is a human activity involving intriguing and complex real people with real names having real hopes and dreams and strengths and fears and frailties. And we are left with an education is that it has become so skeletal, so institutionalized, so pedagogical, so guarded, so submissive. On the whole, students do not think that education is not an exciting event or an expanding experience or an enjoyable occurrence. That is more than a shame; it's a tragedy. But, don't blame society. So many educators grovel at society's feet begging for pittances, patronizing the writers of checks, and saying whatever we think society wants to hear rather than what it should hear.

It would be more honest to blame education for its own ills. Education is on the defensive because it has become so dull, fossilized, oppressive, insipid, and at times irrelevant. But, there is no surrogate for commitment, no substitute for a sense of mission, no alternative to love. I am always hurt and stunned by the almost universal surprise students display when a teacher cares for them and respects them as individual human beings. When love of learning is replaced by habit of presentation, when reverence for the craft is replaced by pedagogy, when calling is replaced by dogma, when mission is replaced by discipline, when feeling is replaced by structure, when education loses the vitality of a living fountain, when educators speak in class to students and to each other in the name of authority rather than with the voice of support, understanding, and compassion, the message and purpose of education becomes confusing, shallow, if not meaningless, and certainly not respectful.

Education has lost sight of the person of the teacher as well as the person of the student. It has become an impersonal affair, an imbalanced intellectual endeavor, an institutional discipline, a business operation, a fractious loyalty to a discipline rather than a unifying commitment of a craft, and simply a vocational training ground for a job. It finds it difficult to teach and learn in a way which is compatible with the truth and wholesomeness of the human being. It operates and survives on the noisy and visible level of activities and instant evaluation rather than in the shrouded stillness of commitment and long-range growth. By education is meant what is done intellectually rather than that which comes about spiritually and emotionally. The chief virtue is performance rather than conviction. Inwardness is ignored. Attitude is cast aside. The values of humility, honesty, pride, integrity and excellence are suborned. The spirit is a myth. The students and teacher treat themselves and each other as if they were spiritless machines.

We are too concerned with things and appearances. It is not buildings that is important; it is what goes on inside of them that is. It is not classrooms that are important; it is what goes on inside of them that is; it is not what teachers do or wear in the classroom that's important; it is what goes on inside of the teachers that is.

Education without caring, without a soul, without spirit, without purpose beyond subject matter, is as viable as a person with a brain but without a heart. Pedagogy, technology, techniques are no substitute for love and caring. Scores, budgets, grades are no substitute for meaning and purpose. But, who is proclaiming this to the public? To the contrary, education has fallen as a willing victim to the belief that the real is only that which is capable of being seen and measured: SAT, ACT, LSAT, GMAT, IOWA, heavier content courses, longer school days, longer school terms, dress codes.

Yet, the failure, as grossly evidenced in Texas, to realize the fallacy of such substitution seems to be common in our educational institutions. It will not reform education because it does not address the essence of education. Education is not a rearrangement of chairs; it's not the introduction to new technologies; it's not more standardized tests; it's not more of the teach to the test syndrome; it's not a grab bag of presentation tricks. Maybe this is the more urgent challenge and task facing us educators: to recognize, acknowledge and save the inner person of the student and teacher, to remind ourselves that we are a duality of mysterious grandeur and a mass of measurable, self-righteous dirt both of which should be served by education neither of which can be ignored. Education is as much about soul craft than a brain craft. I have always said, and will constantly repeat, that education is an inward journey not a classroom performance. It's about changing character, behavior, and attitude; it is about growing and changing, not just performing. Teach students to become principled and purposeful, and *meaningful* achievement, not just passing a test or getting a grade, will follow. High grades and test scores do not generate excellent professionals, good citizens, and caring people. There are a lot of good people around without good grades. Honors students are not necessarily honors people. Just look at the Keatings and Boeskys of this country, look at those physicians who tamper with data in breast cancer studies, look at the cadets involved in the recent cheating scandal at the Naval Academy, look at those involved in Watergate, Contragate, Irangate and any other gate you can think off. They were not dummies. They were bright students, achievers, graduates in the top of their classes. Those involved in these scandals were not high school drop outs. But, they were character drop-outs.

This is my most important thought as a teacher. Our education must depend upon our appreciation of the reality of the splendor of thought, of the dignity of wonder, and the reverence of the individual. We each have a stake in the life of each and every student as well as in each other as human beings. The true meaning of an education is outside the classroom, beyond the campus, aside from the job; its purpose lies in every facet of a person's life throughout that person's life. We have a stake not just to teach students more information, but to insure that they learn to live truer lives; we have a stake not just to teach them to succeed materially in the world, but that they learn how to make it a better world.

Yet, the difficulty is that this idea does not offer a band- aid remedy. It is not a quick fix. It's not presented by Speedy Alka Seltzer with educational fast, fast, fast, relief. It's not glitzy; it's not politically "sexy." It can't be preached, and it cannot be imposed from the outside by others. It has to come from within. It has to be lived by each of us. It has to be discovered by each of us. It must be experienced. And having a dress code for teachers won't do it for us or for the students or ultimately for society.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
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