Sage advice from the past

Check out the Economist story about the plan to reform education.

Today’s column is a heavy lift. It is a task only a consummate controversialist like H.L. Mencken or an acolyte at his altar, such as yours truly, would tackle. Today we go after the Holiest pair of Holy Grails—reformers and education.

Being a mere acolyte, I shall often rely on the biting comedic genius of said Henry Louis Mencken. The Sage of Baltimore attacked reformers, educators and other fauna in what he identified as the oddest of species—Boobus Americanus.

To the chase:

“Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses,” wrote Mencken. “He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.”

Acknowledging I’m as prone to jackass-ism as anyone—Mencken didn’t exclude himself, by the way—I hereby flaunt my disdain for reformers and offer a critique of public education.

The Obama administration and congressional fall partners are foisting upon us what Democrats refer to as health-insurance reform. It is a revamp only; it will do as little good and as much harm as your average garden-variety reform.

Next we turn to other revamps under the banner of change—financial services reform, recycled attempts at jobs-inducing stimuli, education reform. I’ve written on the first pair, so I pivot to the third.

President Obama & Co. aim at altering the No Child Left Behind Act provided us by the last set of reformers. You remember those strange bed-follows, the neoconservative President George W. Bush and the late liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Public education needs real reform, if anything in this nation does, and such a progressive animal exists. But my take is the last education reform didn’t work and neither will the next. Such reform won’t take compromise, but overhaul. Mencken again:

“The public schools of the United States were damaged very seriously when they were taken over by the state. So long as they were privately operated, the persons in charge of them retained a certain amount of professional autonomy, and with it went a considerable dignity. But now they are all petty jobholders, and show the psychology that goes with the trade. They have invented a bogus science of pedagogy to salve their egos, but it remains hollow to any intelligent eye. What they may teach or not teach is not determined by themselves, or even by any exercise of sound reason, but by the interaction of politics on the one side and quack theories on the other.”

If that doesn’t convince you, try this HLM assertion: “In the case of the American reformer, in his average incarnation, the motive seldom gets beyond the yearning for power, the desire to boss things, the itch to annoy his neighbors.”

Face it, folks, the “reform” term is BS, and public education doesn’t work. Many kids escape school with but rudimentary skills. If public education were a business or a sports team, it would lag behind AIG or the New Jersey Nets.

My detractors will say private education is elitist. So be it. Once more I cite HLM:

“The only way that democracy can be made bearable is by developing and cherishing a class … sufficiently honest and disinterested to challenge the prevailing quacks. No such class has ever appeared in strength in the United States. Thus the business of harassing the quacks devolves upon the newspapers. When they fail in their duty, which is usually, we are at the quacks’ mercy.”

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck …