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Corn: Disdain for teachers reflects common view

POSTED: May 7, 2010 1:00 a.m.

On Wednesday, Donald Landrum wrote to the Times deeply disturbed by a social encounter with a man he referred to as an "elderly gentleman." While out with his son, who happens to be a high school English teacher, an acquaintance of the family stopped to chat and then abruptly passed from courtesy to insult, belittling Mr. Landrum's son and his work by calling him a "babysitter."

It is an oddity of our society that people often ask your occupation before knowing your name, being only too eager to pin down your salary and put a price tag on your head. What was offensive to Mr. Landrum, however, was the brazen disrespect voiced by the man, and he wrote to raise questions about the state of education in Georgia. He also asked about how negative public opinion of such an essential profession may embolden politicians to future cost cuts in schools, and he contemplated how these cuts could adversely shape the state's future.

One of America's great teachers once said "teaching is not a lost art, but regard for it is a lost tradition." In other civilized countries this is not the case. In Italy, a high school teacher carries the title of professore, or dottore (denoting a man of higher learning), and he is always referred to as such in public. In Arab countries he is called ustad.

In America we have largely done away with titles, supposing them contrary to democratic values, where we refer to even heads of state by their diminutives: Jimmy, Bill, W. and the like.

Disregard for teachers is one thing, but deliberate insult is altogether different, and one has to wonder at the offender's motives. Did he never have a good teacher? Does he not care for learning? Perhaps his concern is economic; teachers' salaries take away from his Medicare and Social Security funds. Maybe he doesn't care for children and disdains those charged with civilizing the wretched creatures.

Whatever reasons for the man's prejudice, it serves to demonstrate a larger disenchantment with American schools decried for at least 50 years. Many fads and gimmicks have been employed over the decades to right the public system, yet the public remains unsatisfied.

The latest attempt to enforce standards can be seen in the weight given to multiple choice examinations and linking the results of such tests to teacher pay. But what do these exams tell us about a student's understanding? Can he tell the story of the Civil War with all its giant personalities and raging societal forces by choosing A B or C?

Does this type of test measure a pupil's ability to form coherent descriptions in French? Can it demonstrate his capacity to explain biological functions, like what happens to food after it is swallowed? The answer is clear: none of the above.

Yet this trend in testing has gone to the absurd extreme that we now admit students to college, even the best universities, based on a test that measures almost nothing other than English vocabulary and speed in solving equations. What's more, to give all this authority to tests we seize it away from teachers. It seems we no longer trust a human assessment of a student's learning, having willingly ceded this responsibility to scanners and their dumb mechanical likeness.

It is telling that athletes are never judged with these tools. Michael Jordan was the best basketball player in the world for nearly a decade, yet rarely led in more than one statistical category. A machine that ranks players using such figures would miss his stature entirely. That is why able coaches rely very little on statistics when choosing players. They want to see them play. By seeing players perform in competition, they can best understand their strengths and weaknesses.

Coaches are also usually given autonomy when making a selection. Teachers are not granted the same rights.

The reason probably lies in unrealistic expectations. Few parents predict remarkable athletic feats from their children, like jumping from the free throw line to dunk a basketball. But in matters of study they are much less restrained in their demands. So the teacher is ever more disdained for his inability to make little Johnny into the next Thomas Jefferson, or better yet, Bill Gates!

If schools are to improve again they ought to be left alone to do their serious work and be judged by their fruits, which are of course the young minds they develop, not the test scores they turn out.

Getting back to the encounter that raised these concerns, perhaps Mr. Landrum took the insult a little too much to heart considering its source. In Rabelais' catalogue of fools, he lists 241 different kinds, including the jovial fool, and the mercurial, ducal, common, lordly, pedantic, strouting, greedy and senseless fools. He forgets one sort however that is immortalized in the English expression, "there is no fool like an old fool."

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears every other Friday and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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