Once Again: Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Which is the take-away from this Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article on the insoluble quandary for parents of schoolchildren:  To help with homework or not?

The article cites several pedagogical researchers all of whom agree that helping children with their homework actively impairs the learning process.  The child who knows that mother or father is going to sit them down and go over it all again anyway is less motivated to pay attention in the first place.  The child whose attentions to school work are directed at home does not learn the self-initiative and responsibility for learning — his ownership in his education is diminished.  On a more basic level, when parents ensure their children do their homework, help them do their homework, and even of course when they in effect do the homework themselves, they deprive their child of the vital life lesson that actions (and inactions) have consequences.  When parents do more than just help out with explanations, the teachers get a misleading feedback of their students’ progress.  Spending three or four hours a day on homework robs the children of play time, of sport time, of experiencing daylight hours (I’d observe that those objections go more to the amount of homework than the manner in which it gets done).  When the parents mix themselves into their child’s homework, in contrast, they acquire ownership of the child’s school progress and perceive the child’s difficulties and failures as their own.  The parent’s adoption of the role of cattle-driver also damages the parent-child relationship.  At least one of the parents quoted in the article is willing to consider not only a change in school (from a Gymnasium to the lower Realschule), but even a change in country, specifically England or America.  She mentions a friend of hers who took her son to England and the boy went from a problem child to star student . . . in a school where he had to learn in a completely different language.

And yet.  No one wants to be the parent of the only child in the class who’s getting no help at home.  In point of fact unless you are sufficiently fortunate to have a highly gifted, self-starter of a child who needs neither assistance nor supervision, allowing your child to go it alone in school, when all his peers are in effect doubling down on instructional time will put him at a competitive disadvantage relative to his classmates.

Behold the dark side of the societal paradigm of formal education as the path to advancement.  In any system, no matter for what purpose, those who most successfully master the system will experience, as a group, the best outcomes.  That’s true on a basketball court; it’s true in a military hierarchy; it’s true in the hierarchical churches.  It’s true in law skool (with the result that we get judges who are great law stoodints, but who all too frequently have only modest observable understanding of the actual world people actually have to live in).  It’s true in grade school. 

We in the West in general and the U.S. in particular have devised an excellent system for weeding out, on the path upward, children who do not do well in formalized school environments.  We have done this through requiring credentialling utterly unrelated to performance requirements or ability, with specific programs for specific sorts of children that have defined and narrowly circumscribed entry points and little or no lateral access, and with massive dilution of credentials that are available.  If every college degree provided reasonable hope of similar economic benefit, there would not be phrases like “higher education bubble” current in American discourse.

Overlaid on these winnowing mechanisms is the crushing weight of a thoroughly dysfunctional public education system, so that unless a child’s family is unusually well-off, or wiling to live on Alpo and wear sackcloth and ashes in order to send Junior to a half-way decent private school, Junior’s likely — not inevitably, by any means, but just very, very likely — to be extruded from the far end of the system having had minimal exposure to teachers who actually have studied in their fields, and who have been obliged to spend massive amounts of time on what can only be described as penny-ante administrivia, and who have through curriculum mandates and/or personal preferences devoted a good chunk of the remaining time to what is in essence political indoctrination.  As sad as it is to say it, your child in public school is much more likely to be well-versed in the Approved dogmas of “climate change” and the need for “diversity” (in everything except thought, by the way) than he is to be familiar with the grammatical structure of the ordinary English sentence which is, as Churchill noted, “a noble thing.”  I will state categorically that this situation is objectively harmful to the children and to our larger society.

Even if you can scrape together the money to send your child to a private school, he’s still only going to get X hours per day of the kind of instruction which will teach his mind to think critically, systematically, and logically — in other words, math.  So you get to sign the poor kid up for Kumon or its analogues.  When he gets home from that he’s got all his course work to attend to and all of his supplementary stuff.  Add into that the résumé-building of sports, “volunteer” (although how voluntary can something be when it’s done on the well-founded supposition that without it you haven’t a hope of getting into a college that will even begin to enable you to recover the cost of having attended?) activities, and so forth, and the next thing you know you don’t have a child any more.  As Petra, one of the mothers quoted in the article and herself a teacher, says of her son, “The child’s only just functioning; that’s not a childhood.”

And what if you haven’t the available time because in order to keep your family’s head above water both of you have to hold full-time jobs and maybe additional work as well?  What is the likelihood that your child is going to be able not merely to keep up, but to maximize his performance in the classroom?  If he doesn’t maximize that performance, and pretty early in his school career, then he will not get picked up for Program X, Y, or Z.  He won’t screen for certain programs.  And these programs tend to be accessible only at one end.  Miss that eligibility gate because maybe a parent’s lost a decent job and has to take two lousy ones so the family doesn’t lose its home while he or she looks for another, or because someone in the family got sick and mommy spent her evenings attending to the convalescent, or Junior just had a bad year in school . . . and while his future trajectory has by no means been determined where it will go, you most certainly have now answered at least some portion of the question of where he is not going to go.

All this builds feed-back loops, at both ends of the distribution.  Children of parents who have done well at The Game are much more likely to do well at it than children of parents who have not.  Children from either end of the spectrum are much more likely to marry and have children with each other than with someone from the opposite end.  And so the dynamic perpetuates itself and becomes more pronounced as the generations play out.  It is one of the chief benefits of capitalism, and indeed it is one of the principal moral justifications for it as a method of social organization, that alone among those systems devised by humans thus far, it permits and even promotes bi-directional changes in circumstance within individual lives and across generations of families, according to how useful individual people make themselves to other humans.  But the implications of the situation described here make that transmutation ever less likely, at least from the lower to the upper ends of the spectrum of human existence.  Yes, there will always be the occasional out-lier, but that’s exactly what those people are: out-liers.  Bill Gates was a college drop-out, but you know what?  It was Harvard he dropped out of, and it was no accident that he got there in the first place (I refer Gentle Reader to Malcolm Gladwell’s book on the subject for a better idea of how Bill Gates grew up).

Perhaps it’s no wonder that birth rates are dropping through the floor.

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