Friday, February 18, 2011

Rigour or Rigor Mortis

Back in America, a battle is brewing in my home state of Wisconsin concerning public unions. The new governor is proposing budget cuts in the face of mounting debt which include an end to collective bargaining for teachers, requiring public employees to contribute more to their health care and pensions, among other things. Predictably, union members and teachers in particular are protesting these cuts on the basis of workers’ rights.

For those unfamiliar with the history of Wisconsin, it is known as one of the leftist laboratories in America. Public salaries and benefits are higher on average in Wisconsin than many other states. The city of Milwaukee once had a socialist mayor even, which to some is a real accomplishment. Having spent a fair amount of time in Eastern Europe as a younger man, I consider it more of a guilty admission, not a cause for celebration.

It is instructive that the primary protesters in Wisconsin are teachers. They even staged a ‘sick-out’ to enable them to flock to Madison, the state’s capital, to protest Governor Walker’s bill. Whilst I cannot verify that teachers dragged their unwitting students along to these protests, I do have an old friend who advocated this.

The grim joke in this affair is the one thing the teachers aren’t doing currently, which is teach. My intention here is not to talk about whether or not I support Governor Walker. That is a topic in of itself. What alarms me is the audacity of some teachers who assert a right to a job, with lavish benefits on top of it. In my profession, I am rewarded on the basis of how well I perform my job. If I fail to live up to it, then I am rightly reprimanded and, if my bad performance continues, summarily shown the door. In addition to this, I am only as good as my last achievement. I must continually prove my value. The result for me has been a rewarding career in the software industry, stretching back 15 years.

Are teachers in Wisconsin and other American states paid on the basis of their performance? Must they prove they are imparting knowledge and training young minds? Do they even know what a proper education entails? I have yet to see evidence that the protesting teachers are bothering to think about what their recent actions mean to the kids denied the very thing we entrust teachers to do.

Perhaps a bit of perspective is in order. At the young age of 17, I left the comfort of my hometown and ventured to Belgium to live with a family and attend a Belgian high school. My primary goal was to achieve fluency in French, which I did. What I witnessed in my Belgian school, however, shocked me to my core. Not only were my Belgian counterparts better educated than my fellow American students, but they were expected to perform. No mollycoddling. No excuses. Excellence was expected - full stop.

Just what did a last year Belgian high school student learn? In geography class, he was expected to grasp the nature of the Soviet collective farm system and compare and contrast it with western private farming. He was expected in French class to write eloquently about Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien, among other advanced works of literature. In religion class, he was expected to have a good understanding of the world’s religions and offer up cogent commentary on them. In maths, he was expected to offer critical analysis of concepts barely seen in American universities. In addition to the daily rigour, teachers examined a student’s notes for their accuracy and penmanship and he would be marked down for illegible writing and poor grammar.

At test time, a student received two marks in each subject: one for the material and another for his ability to write. Finals consisted of both oral and written exams. What did this mean for me, an ill-prepared American kid? I was utterly lost. I constantly felt ashamed for the education I didn’t receive and simultaneously revolted by the schools American teachers in Wisconsin are now abandoning in favour of their ‘rights’.

Fortunately for me, my French teacher took me under his wing to help me achieve the one modest goal I had set for myself. He gave me special reading that was within my grasp, but also challenged me to learn more and more vocabulary. I wrote short essays on the books he assigned me and he thoroughly corrected every last sentence in French. He gave me elocution lessons to improve my diction. By the end of my year in Belgium, I could write fluently and could discuss advanced topics with my teacher. Because of this preparation, I was able to attend a French language university and study successfully with native French speakers.

Returning to the paltry excuse for schools in America, I ask the protesters to prove their value or get out. I ask them to rise to the task to become like the late Jean Marchal, my Belgian mentor and intellectual saviour. I demand that they stop allowing children to languish and do their jobs. The heroes in education are not the mob mentality protesters demanding benefits beyond all reason, but those who treat excellence in education as their only goal. Nothing less will do.

1 comment:

  1. Well spoken my friend. What strikes me most ironic in this protest is that come May when the seniors start to plan "Senior Skip Day", most if not all teacher will threaten the students to show up or receive a failing grade for some bogus test.