Column by Tim Hartnett.
Exclusive to STR
Tony Soprano spoke out for a lot of people when he asked a school psychologist: “What constitutes a fidget?” The mob boss wasn’t buying the results of a test contrived to smoke out a condition known as ADD. His boy, AJ, was in hot water after getting caught nipping sacramental wine at the Catholic school he attended. That he was just being bad was too simple an explanation for the hierarchy there. Practitioners of clinical pedagogy know that inventing pathologies can be lucrative business. Parents who go right along with child-labeling authorities may not be aware what they are getting themselves, and junior, into. A ready cure, for a malady once known as rambunctious boyhood, now often comes in a bottle with Rx on it.
When Tony and I went to the parish elementary, the administration wasn’t so creative in attempts to explain unruly behavior. In that less enlightened age, kids were perpetually suspected of being up to no good. The problem school authorities found in cases of poor conduct was the wrong focus rather than the lack of one. Negative reinforcement was their go-to prescription to put troublesome pupils back on track. It didn’t always work then, and certainly wouldn’t be approved by modern experts in the employ of pharmaceutical companies listed on the NYSE, either.
Back in the 1970s, it was the students who felt class went more smoothly under the influence of intoxicants. Some must have grown up holding on to that opinion and not unnaturally got themselves jobs for big Pharma. It would be interesting to find out how many with careers in the education establishment today went to algebra class stoned in the Ford-Carter-Reagan era. Big Brother was just a reading assignment when kids cranked up Led Zeppelin in vacant fields on the outskirts of the suburbs beneath dense clouds of earthy smoke.
In the throes of any craze, there is always a coercive faction of the clique bent on demanding conformity and excess from the recalcitrant. These kinds of people do inevitable damage to others no matter what kind of culture they get caught up in. We find them in religious movements, financial circles, sporting clubs, political parties, neighborhood bars, drug coteries and damn near anywhere people are not acting alone. They see weakness in anyone lacking the inane enthusiasm of the mob. The ones abusing the quiet kid for stopping at three bong hits 30 years ago now want their colleagues’ heads on a platter for opposing the latest crackdown in the halls of Riverdale High.
The adolescents these days are often told what happens is not their fault, but that doesn’t stop the rifling of their belongings, speech restrictions, draconian penalizing, intrusive inquiry and numerous other totalitarian policies that have become routine in the education system. The touchy-feely psychobabble turns out to be a ruse employed by a tyrant more deranged than the ruler-wielding nun of legend. A student admitting to anything that triggers an institutional stereotype engages in highly risky business. He was a lot safer in a place that didn’t care quite so much but simply rapped knuckles and moved on. A young punk who overestimates his own cleverness can never tell where attempts to manipulate the system may come back and haunt him. The crude educator of yesteryear knew delinquents would make up anything to avoid trouble and lighten punishment. Only the idiots of the old school faculty, who everyone preferred getting caught by, weren’t rolling their eyes much of the day.
Teacher skepticism is a vital component of motivating people on the verge of adulthood. A 16 year old has no conception of how much better he has to do to make it in the real world. A highly institutional structure that turns every event into an elaborate process only prepares him for a career in government or businesses about to go under. Unacceptable is not acceptable and confrontation with that reality is the ultimate path to success. Encouragement has its place, but that isn’t perpetuating failure.
There was once a day when people could fail miserably in school and succeed marvelously in life. Education had its place even then but was only taken so seriously. Edison, Ford and the original Rockefeller didn’t take the Ivy League route. A man could once stand on his own, independent of a university brand name. The playing fields that are out of plumb and level are in Washington and on Wall Street where the right alma mater puts new employees on the fast track. Recent results in US industry, education, diplomacy, banking and government fiscal responsibility indicate that this hiring priority isn’t fixing what is going wrong in this country.
Numerous polls over the last few years (see here , here  and here ) show that most are unhappy with their jobs. The American workplace was never any kind of utopia but reading through the above articles tells us that employee dissatisfaction is getting worse. All the tweaking that’s gone on in the education system since it became a government department in 1980 doesn’t appear to be helping. Isn’t that the primary goal of schooling, placing people into suitable occupations?
There is obviously a lot of overthinking going on at the top floor of the Lyndon Baines Johnson building where the Education Department is headquartered. It never seems to occur to anyone there that it’s possible to expect too much from the classroom, and that contributes to the diminishing returns. This article should not be taken as an attack on anything as necessary as education. Teaching children is an art requiring many refined skills and lots of imagination. He who can does and inevitably does even better showing others the way. A hierarchy that places speed bumps and hurdles throughout the term needs to go with a boot on the hind quarters at the front steps.
American academia has become a costly, burdensome, administration-laden industry that is making students want to shoot each other. Giving them dope and bizarre, intrusive questionnaires appears to be more likely to result in violent backlash than corporal punishment ever did. Over a decade ago, a fictional TV psychopath confronted the establishment with, “What constitutes a fidget?” No real life parent should still have to do it. Especially since we have an unequivocal understanding of what constitutes a failure. The Jeopardy question to that answer is: “What is the Department of Education?” if we are going by anything measurable. It’s hard to see how we’d be worse off giving the ED’s 1.89% of the budget to Al Queda.