An Ignorant People Cannot Remain a Free People

To quote Michael Ventura, “Sam Adams, like many of our founders, believed democracy would flourish ‘as long as education was extended to the masses.’ An ignorant people cannot remain a free people.”

No Child Left Behind the President’s unprecedented education policy remains the focus of much debate across the country. This was no exception at the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs annual conference in Duluth.

The keynote speaker was William Cala, Supt. of the Fairport, New York School District. He supports the idea of a national diploma based on demonstrated proficiency, not test scores. He has gotten the attention of the Economic Policy Institute and regularly is quoted on Susan Ohanion’s website as well as Alfie Kohn’s, both past speakers at IALA (International Association for Learning Alternatives) conferences. He strongly criticized No Child Left Behind as a failed policy highly destructive to schools and kids.

My friend Steve Allen and I gave a presentation on surviving change in tumultuous times.

Much of what we talked about drew upon the work of Charles Handy and Carl Jung. But we also talked about our own experience and dialogued with participants about the struggles they faced in their schools with difficult economic times for schools. It seems under the current administration there is declining support for different approaches to working with disengaged students.

An interesting presenter is Joe Graba of Education/Evolving and Senior Policy Fellow at Hamline University, who argues that the biggest mistake politicians make when attempting to implement reform is that they mistake what is a design problem for what they believe to be a performance problem. Our current system was not designed to accomplish the goals of NCLB and doing more of the same will not bring us closer to meeting them. Joe’s research leads him to the conclusion that it’s nearly impossible to reform the current system from within. He believes that experiments away from and outside of the traditional setting need to be encouraged and given the autonomy and resources to succeed.

Joe’s career in public education spans forty years and an impressive array of leadership positions. Education/Evolving’s thinking on system questions and legislative policy are influenced greatly by Joe’s ability to integrate knowledge gained as a high school teacher, union leader, state legislator and administrator influencing a variety of education committees, national education committee member, and a higher education administrator.

Tom Keating, Minnesota’s 2004 teacher of the year gave a keynote address on Friday, and urged all of us to continue to fight for our students and reach out to those often left behind. I had the pleasure this last week to meet with Tom and his staff from Montecello.

Four past presidents of MAAP joined Wayne Jennings current Board Chair of the International Association of Learning Alternatives(IALA) to discuss the necessity of national voice for education reform. Dan Daly cited Bill Gates – new three ‘R’s, the basic building blocks of better high schools:

– The first ‘R’ is Rigor – making sure all students are given a challenging curriculum that prepares them for college or work;
– The second ‘R’ is Relevance – making sure kids have courses and projects that clearly relate to their lives and their goals;
– The third ‘R’ is Relationships – making sure kids have a number of adults who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve.

In a recent speech to the governor’s association, called “High Schools are Obsolete” Gates added, “The three ‘R’s are almost always easier to promote in smaller high schools. The smaller size gives teachers and staff the chance to create an environment where students achieve at a higher level and rarely fall through the cracks. Students in smaller schools are more motivated, have higher attendance rates, feel safer, and graduate and attend college in higher numbers.” Unfortunately the only R the governor’s seemed able to focus on was Rigor. Rigor that is in the form of testing.

We also let people know about the upcoming Annual IALA conference, “We Were Meant to Fly” is scheduled for April 6-8 this year at the Sullivan Brothers Center in Waterloo, Iowa.

If you are interested in attending here is a registration from and conference brochure.

For conference info and lodging click here.
You may wish to visit the IALA website updated by Wayne Jennings, his blog has great information about education from across the country.

IALA is an organization dedicated to promoting innovation and reform in education, with the goal of meeting the needs of all learners. We echoe Joe Graba’s concern that too many think the problems of our education system have to do with accountability and testing, when what is needed is the recognition that not all students need the same kind of schools. We believe many models including schools as they currently exist should be encouraged, not a retreat to ‘one shoe fits all’ method promoted by conservative reformers.

I was alarmed by discovering a recent reprint from the Austin Chronicle in the City Pages called
Slippage by Michael Ventura, no relation to Jesse I understand.

Ignorance is…. A) Guaranteed by the Bill Of Rights; B) Evidence that our schools are working; C) Bliss

Statistics on American education tell a dreadful story, the story of an advanced technological society slipping back to a state of ignorance and superstition. If that sentence seems extreme, consider these facts:

– The United States once ranked first in the world in high school graduation rates. We have slipped to 17th (the New York Times, Feb. 1).
– Respect for the free exchange of ideas is dimming among our young. USA Today, Jan. 31: “One in three United States high school students say the press ought to be more restricted, and even more thought the government should approve newspaper stories before people read them.” Which means that our Bill of Rights often is taught poorly or not at all–a very dangerous sign for the future of our liberties.
– The United States is 49th in the world in literacy (NYT, Dec. 12, 2004).
– We rank 28th out of 40 countries in mathematical literacy (NYT, Dec. 12, 2004).
– “Our students, a new report has found, are lagging far behind the pace set by scientific whiz kids in Europe and Asia, and the number of Americans choosing science as a career continues to dwindle” (Los Angeles Times, quoted in The Week, Jan. 14).
– One-third of our biology teachers support the teaching of creationism or “intelligent design” (NYT, Feb. 1). Creationism is religious dogma, contradicting literally tons of data. “Intelligent design” claims that the universe was created or designed by a higher order of intelligence–a claim that cannot be tested, and therefore is not science and doesn’t belong in a science class. When scientists use the word “theory,” they don’t mean a hunch or supposition; the scientific use of the word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation and experiment . . . accounting for the known facts.” All science is incomplete because “the known facts” are incomplete. There nevertheless are many known facts, millions of them, that demonstrate the evolution of life from simple to complex organisms over eons of time. Yet one-third of our biology teachers don’t accept this—a willful ignorance among educators found nowhere else in the developed world.
The result:
– “Only 35 percent of Americans accept Darwin’s theory of evolution, while 45 percent prefer the creationist view” (NYT, Dec. 12, 2004).
– “In other industrialized countries…80 percent or more typically accept evolution, most of the others say they are not sure, and very few people reject the idea outright” (NYT, Feb. 1).
– Sixty-one percent of Americans “believe the biblical story of creation is literal truth” (ABC, World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, Jan. 18).
– Forty-three states have debated teaching evolution in the last three years (ABC, World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, Jan. 18).
– Surveys show that many high school science teachers simply skip lessons on evolution, even when the material is in their textbooks, for fear of controversy. This self-censorship is widespread, especially in the South, Midwest, and West (NYT, Feb. 1). An interesting note: Two popes, Pius XII and John Paul II, have stated that evolution and religion are compatible; the surveys found no dodging of evolution in Catholic schools.
– “Scriptural literalists are moving beyond evolution to challenge the teaching of geology and physics” (NYT, Feb. 1).
– Bill Moyers reports “nearly half the U.S. Congress…231 legislators in total…are backed by the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th Congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian rights advocacy groups” (, Dec. 8, 2004). Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, in a statement supporting “intelligent design,” stated that evolution is one of the “big social issues of our time,” equal to abortion and gay marriage (Newsweek, Feb. 7).
– The Christian right’s influence in Congress is no doubt the source of headlines like this: “Money to Fix Space Telescope May Be Cut by House” (NYT, Jan. 23). The Hubble is our most successful space project to date. Many of its findings contradict biblical myth. The Hubble “established the age of the universe at 13 billion years…. Every week, [the Hubble transmits] about 120 gigabytes of data…the equivalent of 36,500 feet of books on a shelf. More than 2,600 scientific papers based on these findings have been published so far” (The Week, Jan. 21). The Hubble will fall in 2006 if not repaired. That won’t sadden the Christian right.
– Hostility to science exists at the highest levels of our government. “With rising intensity, scientists in and out of government have criticized the Bush administration, saying it has selected or suppressed research findings to suit preset policies, skewed advisory panels or ignored unwelcome advice, and quashed discussion within federal research agencies” (NYT, Oct. 19, 2004).

These stats combine to paint the portrait of a poorly educated people seeking to compensate for their ignorance with beliefs that spread such ignorance further–while the rest of the developed world laughs in pity or contempt, and leaves us behind . . . From the highest levels of government to the littlest rural school power-savvy factions are spreading an easy-to-digest but ultimately fatal ignorance. Poorly educated, well-intentioned, fearful people, craving order in a chaotic world, are eating it up. They’re no more or less stupid than the well – informed, but they haven’t the resources for research and they’ve no body of knowledge by which to weigh what they’re told. The poorly skilled and scantily educated have nothing to judge information by except whether it satisfies their emotions. If it makes them less afraid, it must be right.

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