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Transforming Mush into Mush

By Pat Farenga


Talk about straight shooting – or putting your foot in your mouth – I’m not sure how to categorize this story.

The University of Richmond, VA, is one of the nation’s costliest schools, but its president does not hesitate to chasten the poor quality of its graduates. According to Zinie Chen Sampson of the Associated Press, William E. Cooper said the following during a “state of the university speech:”

“The entering quality of our student body needs to be much higher if we are going to transform bright minds into great achievers, instead of transforming mush into mush, and I mean it…”.

He later apologized for his remarks and said they were misinterpreted . . . At a recent home basketball game, some Richmond fans wore buttons proclaiming, “Mushheads Unite.”
The president’s remarks are really nothing new: Educators from Ancient Greece to modern America have always complained about the poor state of its current students and schools. After all, this complaint is good for business – “Keep them coming to school; they’re so hard to educate that they need school now more than ever!” It’s good for educators’ self-esteem: “Those kids just aren’t making the effort they need to learn what I’m teaching them.” And, complaining about students is much safer than complaining about poor teachers, teaching methods, or other school conditions because students don’t vote or pay salaries. So I’m not surprised at the president’s bold comments about his alumni.

What I find amazing is how people in politics and education continue to make this argument decade after decade, in effect failing students rather than failing schools, and why students and their families continue to accept the blame. Related to this is an important educational issue that almost never gets explored: Are schools really powerful institutions that transform “bright minds into great achievers?” Why can schools get credit for turning already smart kids into “great achievers” but they blame the student when school’s alchemy doesn’t transform the leaden student into the golden student?

John Amos Comenius (1592 – 1670) is often referred to as “the father of modern education.” According to the New Standard Encyclopedia, “He was a pioneer in improving teaching methods by the use of vivid, interesting materials. He broke with the custom of teaching in Latin, using instead his students’ native language. Comenius added courses in singing, arts and handicrafts, science and social studies to the school curriculum.” I also found in this entry that “In 1642 Comenius went to Sweden to reform that nation’s school system…” Isn’t it amazing how schools are always being reformed throughout history, yet educationists insist that today’s students aren’t as smart as previous generations?

I also learned, from Ivan Illich’s work, that Comenius had a motto: “To teach everybody everything perfectly.” Knowing from my experience how hard it can be to teach a child math, or to help an elderly person learn to use a computer, I think Comenius is, at the least, overly-enthusiastic with this claim. However, when I learned from Illich that Comenius was also an alchemist, one who believed in and sought the secret – referred to as “The Philosopher’s Stone” - that would transform lead into gold, I gained an understanding into why his motto underlies his work and most modern theory and practice of education. Comenius’ claim that everyone can be taught perfectly suits the model of schooling as a factory that transforms the raw power of human beings into knowledge commodities that in turn drive our national economy. But, as the second part of the president of the University of Richmond’s statement makes clear, what if schooling is just a matter of “garbage in, garbage out?” What if the educational alchemy of schooling is no more than empty rituals?
Opening that discussion makes everyone uncomfortable, not the least reason for this discomfort being that millions of jobs and billions of dollars hinge on making sure education is provided to the masses, so why rock that boat? However, the mere act of homeschooling opens up a dialog about what it means to learn in a society that considers education to primarily be a commodity purchased from experts. Every homeschooling parent is open proof that one need not be high priest of educational alchemy to help children learn, and the educational alchemists are nervous about this.

Rather than give up the search for the Philosopher’s Stone though, educationists continue to seek the one best way to educate children in school. Using pharmaceuticals, computers, brain scans, behavior modification, legal action, and massive media campaigns, the education alchemists insist that more and more years of schooling, more and more tests, more and more personality and psychological profiles, will enable them to turn all children into good citizens (the legal rationale for compulsory education) or, in the code of today’s consumer mentality, “great achievers.”

Homeschooling parents, some with no more than a high school degree, help their children find work worth doing, get into college and university, and find their place as good citizens and great achievers in today’s world. Homeschoolers don’t use the same curricula and methods as one another, let alone the schools, yet they have proven success. An entire generation has been homeschooled by now, and homeschooling continues to grow in popularity because it works, not because it is supported by educators, political parties, or big businesses.

This is the complaint educationists often make against homeschoolers: That we don’t know what we’re doing because we don’t have all the training and facilities that conventional teachers have. However, we’re not teaching 15 – 30 kids in a classroom, under pressure to complete units or lessons by certain dates regardless of how many children actually understand what is being taught. Homeschoolers do not need the same skills and materials as classroom teachers because our functions are so much different from classroom teachers. We are living and learning with our children and can be parents first and foremost, not instructors trying to keep a job for next year. We can shift gears and focus on new interests; we can act as facilitators and hire instructors or purchase courses when and if we need them. Many homeschoolers do use conventional school techniques and materials when they begin homeschooling, because we all tend to teach the way we were taught. If conventional school methods work for you in your home and your family is happy with them, there’s no problem. But if school methods prove to be boring or unworkable in your home situation, you are free to do what classroom teachers can not do: You can easily and readily find other ways and schedules to accomplish those goals, you can switch or drop those goals, or you can just go for a walk with your kids and talk about what you want to do together. There is no evidence that people who are homeschooled are more behind or more disadvantaged than people who attend conventional school.

Indeed, in the same month that president Cooper noted that his school was merely “transforming mush into mush” two studies appeared about declines in college graduates’ literacy. After more than a decade of national and state standardized education reforms, the only things that have improved appear to be the profit margins of educational testing companies. One study, conducted by the American Institutes for Research and reported by Ben Feller for the Associated Press, says that “…50 percent of students at four-year schools and more than 75 percent at two-year colleges lacked the skills to perform complex literacy tasks. That means they could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees, or summarize the results of a survey about parental involvement in school…The students did the worst on matter involving math, according to the study.”

The other study, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, reported by Lois Romano of The Washington Post notes:
“…The reading proficiency of college graduates has declined in the past decade . . . While more Americans are graduating from college, and more than ever are applying for admission, far fewer are leaving higher education with the skills needed to comprehend routine data . . . The declining impact of education on the adult population was the biggest surprise for us, and we just don’t have a good explanation,” said Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of education statistics . . . What’s disturbing is that the assessment is not designed to test your understanding of Proust, but to test your ability to read labels,” he added.

After years of standardizing education in the name of high expectations, making college the ultimate goal for children, and viewing our children as resources to be developed for our economy, like oil and gold, we are still left with the fact that most children and teenagers do not respond well to this treatment. Test scores have risen, diplomas are granted, more people than ever are applying for college admission, yet the evidence is still there: We aren’t much smarter for all these expensive efforts.

Why do we blame ourselves instead of our ideas about schooling for these failures? Indeed, as these studies suggest, the treatment our schools proffer – more intensive schooling -- might even be counter-productive! As homeschooling shows, we can conceptualize the field of education as akin to anthropology or gardening instead of a knowledge factory or alchemy. Mushheads unite! P.F. ■