CSotD: Back to School (maybe)

We’re starting to move kids back into the schoolrooms, and Signe Wilkinson (AMS) questions the wisdom of the move.

There are many layers of this issue, and “Follow the science” is deeply tangled up with “Follow the sociology.”


Joe Heller takes a similarly skeptical view of the development.

Is it science, or is it something else?

To start with, when we talk about school children, we usually think of little kids in elementary school, while, when we talk about students, we tend to expand our thoughts to encompass high school.

Which is trivial until you consider that the science we should be following makes a distinction between young children and adults in terms of their vulnerability to contagion.

I have not yet seen a proposal that has said, “We want to open K-6 schools while keeping 7-12 grades safely remote.”


However, Dana Summers (Tribune) questions Biden’s cautious rollout of openings, not because of danger to health but because of the strain of home-schooling on working parents.

I’d be on board with this and similar calls for resumption, if I felt that those who cite this reason to re-open schools took the experience as proof of our need for pre-K’s and more generously subsidized childcare.

Or for increasing basic wages so that one parent could choose to stay home.

But, joking aside (because you would only suggest that outcome as a joke), this whole thing is a reminder that we only have public schools because we needed to get the little bastards off the streets, where merchants were complaining about them, and out of the mines and factories so that adults could have those crappy, repetitive, dangerous jobs.

The Jane Addams and Jacob Riis do-gooder crowd wanted serious educational opportunities to lift children from poverty, but most parents simply wanted basic literacy and math.

That is, some wanted their kids to rise up beyond their station, but a greater number were content for them to have enough education to be competent farmers and craftsmen within the family circle.

Kids came to school when they weren’t needed in the fields, but, as the cities grew, idle urban brats became a nuisance and the social workers were thrilled to be given the go-ahead to establish universal education.

All of which is to say that Summers is right and we should not bullshit one another about our motivations for having schools at all, and for requiring that children attend them.


But, even if we ignore the danger of adolescents catching and spreading the coronavirus, teachers are adults, and Bob Gorrell (Creators) may not like it, but their unions want them protected.

They are demanding or requesting or begging that safe procedures be mandated from on high, and that local schools follow those procedures even if it seems inconvenient.

They’re also wanting — but not demanding — to be closer to the front of the line for vaccination, because they know, from years of random, predictable September illnesses, what disease vectors their tiny snot-nosed charges can be.

But Gorrell is right that teachers unions tend to be flawed (though I’d like to know which unions he considers righteous).


Drew Sheneman (Tribune) offers a window into the vagaries of teachers’ unions, and I say that as (A) the son of a labor negotiator for a major school district, (B) the father of a teacher and (C) someone who, over the course of a quarter century providing educational services, visited hundreds of schools and worked with — and ate lunch with and gossiped with — hundreds of teachers.

The biggest problem I’ve seen is that, while there are major, national teachers’ unions, they’re significantly decentralized compared to, say, auto workers or miners, such that they are uniform in some regards and totally random in others.

Which is how you may end up, for instance, with cookie-cutter contracts, so that teachers might make (to use Sheneman’s numbers) $35,000 regardless of where they live in a state.

In those cases, teacher in the rural places can live comfortably middleclass lives, while in more expensive urban centers, they need second jobs and still barely make ends meet.

At the same time, there are unions that offer the kind of ironclad protection that makes it hard to fire an incompetent or abusive teacher, and there are unions that offer little more than hand-wringing in the face of arbitrary administration decisions and mandates.

And some in the middle, doing a good job.

The bottom line is that, if you want to talk in specifics about teacher’s unions, teacher’s salaries and teacher’s working conditions, you can only speak of local conditions and, before you speak at all, you need to visit, examine and listen.

(Which, BTW, is good practice anyway.)


So what are we teaching?

Marc Murphy (Courier Journal) notes the shortcomings of the “Great Man” approach during Black History Month, though this is a symptom of a far wider flaw in how we teach the overall subject.


But it did remind me of this wonderful Boondocks (AMS) strip, which is from 2000, but could run today with equal relevance, and, by the way, peanut butter is not one of the many uses of the legume Carver developed.

Instead of making kids memorize the names of Elijah McCoy and the guy who invented the stoplight alongside Edison and Bell, perhaps we should, as Murphy suggests, teach Great Movements instead, focusing Ken-Burns-like on how major events and movements impacted average people and changed society.


And try not to cast blame and make history seem intentional, since so much of it flows out of Great Movements, in which intentions are secondary to impact and where deliberately evil things can, 50 or 100 or 400 years later, still exhibit unintentional, unfair outcomes, like the one seen in Andy Marlette (Creators)‘s cartoon.

The days when those in control deliberately forced minorities into subservience are largely past, but, as noted here, objects in motion tend to remain in motion, and outcomes continue long after the original cause has faded.

I don’t know how you teach that, but the people who write the curricula, and the people who approve it, need to understand it.

Meanwhile, do as the man says: Spread this on a cracker.