Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Monday, May 17, 2010

Class Envy

“As the nation was perishing, I was born. Thirty thousand Frenchmen were vomited on to our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood. Such was the odious sight which was the first to strike me.” Napoleon Bonaparte

Last week, New Jersey tea partiers marched on their statehouse to advocate and activate for school choice in New Jersey. Garden State residents want to know – why not the best for their students?

Why are the wealthiest scions of society sent to elite boarding schools like Phillip-Exter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and the Eton School near Windsor, England (the alma mater of Prince William), both four-year high schools. What is the attraction to these schools?

Is it all about crests and ties, bragging rights, and old boy networks? Is that what helps these students later get into Yale, Harvard, and Oxford? An article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal discusses the return of Etonians to Great Britain’s No. 10 Downing Street after a long absence.

Private schools are actually considered “public” schools in England According to Eton College’s website, until 1902, there were no publicly-supported secondary schools in England. Schools were either privately owned by an individual or family, or ‘endowed’; that is deriving part of their income from an endowment often in the form of land and run by a governing body.

In both cases, tuitions were charged. The endowed schools were known as “public schools” to distinguish them from the “private” schools being run for profit by an individual or company. In that sense, Eton is considered a “public” school.

Private schools have long had their own very bad reputation to live down, as bad as any school system in New Jersey – Newark, Trenton, Camden. The WSJ cites a British MP who, going to work as a manager in company that hired blue-collar workers, downplayed his blue-blooded education.

“How could I tell the garbage collectors I was managing that I went to Eton?” he noted to the WSJ?

The elite school curriculums are known, above all, for their classical curriculum. Latin, Greek, and sometimes Hebrew, are the haute-couture languages well-bred schoolchildren must master. While blue-collar and middle-class children are struggling with phonetics, their uppercrust classmates are learning Phoenician.

Eton is so demanding that Latin isn’t even on its curriculum. Prospective students must know Latin before they even fill out the application to the school. That’s the language in which they must write their entrance application essay. Now that’s a tough school. If you don’t know Latin, don’t even bother applying.

While normal schoolchildren are learning about Washington crossing the Delaware and maybe (if they’re the lucky) the Battle of Lexington and Concord, their counterparts at Phillips-Exeter are learning about Alexander the Great.  The schoolchildren of Camden and Exeter are mere musket shots from historical landmarks. In terms of educational curriculum, they are worlds and centuries apart from one another.

Part of the answer to this pop quiz is the educational background of the teachers themselves. You can’t teach Phoenician if you don’t know it yourself, and a Phoenician teacher is certainly going to command a higher salary than a teacher who only knows English.

Our public school teachers here in New Jersey, while they’re not Phillips-Exeter caliber (as far as I know) anymore than I’m a Phillips-Exeter caliber writer (!), certainly aren’t lacking for degrees. That’s how they accumulate their astronomical (to us taxpayers) salaries and exorbitant benefits.

What we taxpayers want to know is, what have those teachers, with their advanced Masters degrees, learned? What are they teaching our students that makes them better teachers? In inner cities like Newark and Camden, our students are failing miserably. Just what are we getting for our money?

For all these advanced degrees, we sure don’t hear the kids in Newark speaking Phoenician.  Before we get to the teachers, though, it’s important to note that Exeter is a high school, so its students are already well-versed in good study habits. Those begin back in kindergarten and earlier.

This particular school employs the Harkness Method, which is a roundtable method of teaching. There’s no hiding in a roundtable class. The reason for lecture hall style teaching is to promote respect for the teacher and to keep the young students’ attention focused. The teacher is the authority figure. That doesn’t seem to work too well in inner city schools in Newark, where there’s no discipline, much less respect for authority figures.

Generally, the upper class doesn’t send its littlest progeny off to boarding schools, where they live away from home. Some boarding schools begin as early as the 6th grade, but not much younger than that.

While Exeter is the gold standard of college-prep boarding schools, West Nottingham Academy, is the oldest boarding school in America (1744). So where do the elite send their precious darlings before they send them off to boarding school?

Private day schools, of course. But that’s all about location, location, location. New Jersey has an impressive 1,451 schools (Massachusetts only has 923). To be fair, though, these include religious schools, military academies, and schools for special education.

Exeter doesn’t teach Phoenician (that was just a joke), but they offer just about everything else, and you don’t get everything else unless you’re prepared for it and have earned it. No, good education begins much earlier than that.

In New York City, parents practically sell their souls to get their budding academicians into private kindergartens.

Saddle River Day School is a K-12 college prep day school, with the hefty tuition to vouchsafe its ambitions. There’s the Morristown-Beard (formerly the Bayley-Ellard) School (6-12) in Morristown, the Wilson School (Pre-K-8) in Mountain Lakes, and the Far Hills Country Day School (Pre K-8) in Far Hills. To name a few. A very few. Their student-teacher ratios are enviably low, even if their tuitions are not.

Let’s take a look at Far Hills Country Day School. What can your little first grader expect to learn at Far Hills?

Well, for starters, Chinese and Spanish, along with Language Arts, and Math (not Arithmetic - Math). According to Far Hills’ website:

They continue developing geometry skills by composing and decomposing plane and solid figures while building a foundation for such properties as congruence and symmetry. Students extend their knowledge of algebraic thinking by reading, writing and explaining the symbols and by describing and applying number patterns and the properties of number (i.e. odd and even).

Did I mis-copy something? Did I mistake the Seventh Grade curriculum for the First? Nope – that is the school’s plan for First Grade.

By the 5th grade at FHCD, students use the commutative, associative, and distributive properties to show that two expressions are equivalent. They evaluate expressions and they understand that variables represent numbers whose exact values are not yet specified. They construct and analyze tables, and they use equations to describe simple relationships (3x = y) shown in a table. Grade five students continue to study with Hands on Equations to provide a solid foundation in algebra readiness.

By the 8th grade, these kids are well-versed in Latin, Algebra, and Geometry. The English section doesn’t describe what literature these students are reading, but it’s probably sufficiently impressive. Here’s what they say about their Chinese skills at this point, though:

Since students are now quite comfortable with writing Chinese characters with correct stroke orders, the focus is to empower students make meaningful linguistic connections so that they can write simple sentences and carry on simple conversations in Chinese competently. Students will recognize approximately 300 characters with basic knowledge of grammar.

One very interesting class for these pint-sized Platonians (and Plutarchians) is Library. This is a specific class for them. We had Library class in my middle school, come to think of it. Our elementary school library was in a janitor’s closet. But that’s an adventure story for another day.

Here’s FHCD’s promise to parents.

Our Promise


Hallmarks of a Far Hills Country Day School Graduate

Far Hills Country Day School graduates:


• Acquire strong foundation skills and tools for achievement, innovation, and confidence in the face of change
• Possess an enduring passion for learning
• Understand and develop their strengths and affinities
• Ask significant questions and possess discernment to make informed decisions
• Think critically and creatively to solve problems
• Have the confidence to take reasonable risks, and learn from mistakes
• Write effectively for diverse audiences and in diverse modes
• Communicate articulately and confidently in public forums
• Collaborate with understanding, respect, and empathy
• Appreciate their own accomplishments and celebrate those of others
• Value excellence, hard work, and perseverance
• Appreciate and participate in the arts
• Pursue wellness of body and mind
• Compete with strength, integrity, and grace
• Act as responsible, engaged, and compassionate leaders of the local and world community.

Imagine getting that kind of guarantee from our public schools. But that’s the best education the best money can pay for, in N.J. (which isn’t bad). So – what do average parents do? How can the public schools – and public parents - compete with that?

Well, let me tell you about my Mom and Dad. They came from the Bronx, New York. Dad certainly wasn’t from a wealthy family, and Mom, a formerly affluent clan. In spite of their poor backgrounds, Dad learned to read and write college Latin, and Mom can quote Shakespeare.

Money isn’t everything. It isn’t necessarily the be all and end all in education, though it helps. But even at Exeter and Eton, there are bottom-dwellers. Somebody’s got to be at the bottom of the food chain.

My brother’s friend D. went to the same elementary school we did. He went on to design and write and write about Unix programs. He speaks many languages. He used to discuss advanced mathematics with my father (D. was my father’s favorite BFOB – “best friend of Billy”).

It’s not just about demanding more of your school system and your kids’ teachers, but demanding more of yourself and your kids. I blame teachers for a panoply of educational ills, and for dereliction of duty in teaching fake science (i.e., global warming) instead of the real deal, communism instead of American history, transformational grammar instead of English.

For forcing kids to read Ring Lardner Jr. (please – reading him was like being plunged into a dark pit – ugh!!) instead of Charles Dickens (a day at the fair, by comparison). Do you understand why we study literature? So we understand about humanity, about people, about life and love, wealth and poverty, and all that other good stuff.

Through literature, we learn to empathize with others. Because we can’t exactly peep through our neighbors’ living room windows. Instead, we read books about other people’s experiences, whether the book is a romantic novel or a biography. Lately, we’ve settled for reality television shows to inform us (and our kids) about others, but it’s hardly better than peeping through living room windows.

Are we teaching our children to become peeping toms instead of empathetic, intelligent human beings? Are we letting the television do our job of teaching them? Are we teaching them to let other people think for them? That’s what’s happening in our schools and we’re allowing it happen.

When it comes to how well the kids read, write, and ‘reckon, sorry, but it goes to home (as the English say). Kids are little copy machines. If they don’t see mom and dad readin, writin’, and reckonin’, they’re not going to be any better at it.

Or if they do, it’s out of sheer dumb luck. Praise be to the Tea Party parents and to their motivator, Glenn Beck. They’re reading about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Maybe they’ll even get to reading about the philosophers who inspired them, like John Locke.

Take it to the next step, Tea Party moms and dads: let your kids hear you quoting Shakespeare, too. Let them hear you thinking aloud about legitimate science, the theory of quasars, or the science of tectonic plates.

Let them hear you name a geological age [i.e., the Paleozoic Era, (the Greek word combo for old or ancient life) the earliest of three geologic eras of the Phanerozoic Era 542 million years ago]. Just a quick foray into Wikipedia (which is what I just did) will tell you it had to do with the formation of the great North American and European forests from coal beds. Was that hard?

I’m the mentally-laziest person on this planet; I was a miserable, unmotivated student, the 90-pound mental weakling of the family. As teens, when we watched Jeopardy, my older brother just left me in the intellectual dust (even though my IQ was five points higher than his). When they made my brain, they must have applied a little too much teflon.

I’ll be the first to admit (as my father would charge me, were he still alive) that was I too much the intellectual wanton, squandering my educational opportunities when I had them. My parents warned me that studying was like putting money in the bank: if you didn’t make the deposit, the knowledge wasn’t going to be there on the rainy day when you needed it.

Nevertheless, I ask you and put it to you: Doesn’t it pique your curiosity and make you want to study up on the subject a bit more? Especially you Dads out there who maybe aren’t all that into Shakespeare.

Let them hear you quote a poem, “The world is too much with us, coming and going; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!.” John Wordsworth. I didn’t have to Google that one. It’s one of my favorite poems. Forget about Dancing with the Stars. Well, I mean, that’s okay. I understand about pop culture. But for God’s sake, try to diversify a little bit, expand your minds.

Does the whole world have to revolve around rock music? Can you at least try to listen to an opera? Carmen’s a good one; very sexy. La Traviata – do you know what it’s about? Remember the old film classic weepy, Camille with Greta Garbo? There. Now you know what it’s about.

You guys are good on Broadway. But how about some swing music from the World War II era (Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing! is amazing. There’s an incredible drum solo in its midst; I just go crazy every time I either hear it on CD or we play it). If you want some musical adventure, you can go with pop classics like the 1812 Overture or the Ride of the Valkyries.

Or if the kids are driving you crazy, you can try something more subtle like one of Chopin’s numerous nocturnes. Or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Very soothing to frayed maternal nerves.

Let’s not forget about the art world, either. You can mix a little history with art. Art and history are great buddies. Glenn Beck was talking the other day about the Apotheosis of George Washington (the painting on the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol).  Washington was, indeed, a revered figure. Yet, when he sat for his bust, he would have no uniform or even Lord of Mount Vernon finery. Do you know why? Because he said there was no point in trying to impress God with epaulettes.

If you’re Christian, when was the last time you picked up your Bible? Not to thump it on someone else’s head (thumping your kids on the head with it is okay, though) but to really reflect on it. When was the last time you told a Bible story to your littlest kids, the pre-schoolers?  The Bible is a marvelous example of storytelling . God spoke with a Bronx accent when I was little. What accent does The Almighty speak with in your household?

Have you tried speaking a few phrases in some other language besides English? Don’t get me wrong – I consider English the numero uno, primo language. It’s the language best-suited to our culturally diverse country. It should be the first language. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the only language!

Don’t care for Spanish? Okay. Well, tell them. “Tyvarr, men jag tycker inte om det!”

I’m constantly driven crazy by people smarter than me. They’ve gotten college degrees far in advance of mine. They know more than I do. Yet, once they’ve gotten what they wanted – an A, a degree, a raise, a promotion – that’s it. They no more care about the subject than a Paleozoic Era denizen.

After a parade one day, we were walking back to our cars – a trombone player, his trombonist friend, and the friend’s father, a tuba player. The two guys had gone to high school together and were discussing Napoleon, as he factored into the movie, Master and Commander.

“Yeah,” the friend said. “Napoleon came to power in 1812 and it was all over.” Or something like that. In other words, he got his date wrong. His friend, a history buff, went berserk.

“1804! He declared himself emperor in 1804! What’s the matter with you?! You and I were in the same history class! We studied together, we took the same test. We both got As. You got an A! And now you don’t remember when Napoleon came to power!? How could you have gotten the same grade I did and not remember something simple like that?! I just can’t believe you!”

The history buff remembered the history lesson. His friend simply memorized it and promptly jettisoned it as soon as it was no longer useful to him. That’s why you don’t pay kids to learn in school. Even the rewards of good grades are not enough. You have to teach kids to jump into the pool of knowledge body and soul, not just dabble their feet and be satisfied.

The teachers, in their defense, can’t do that. They’ll do their best, but inspiration is your job. Or it ought to be. Some parents fail miserably, and a teacher will be willing to come in and take up the slack for the kid’s sake. But those are exceptional circumstances.

This is primarily a parent’s job.  Remember my friend G.? G. knew all about the Greek gods. At eight years old. That was the result of her mother the librarian’s influence (G.’s father certainly didn’t teach her about Greek gods).

Those people were poor as church mice. They lived in a flood zone. But still, G. knew the Greek myths at the tender of age 8. Money isn’t everything. What was it Otto Frank told his daughter, Anne (in the 1959 film, at any rate): no one can place a lock on your mind?

No one has the monopoly on knowledge or information or learning.

You don’t have to memorize the entire Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. In Latin. (Wouldn’t it be great if your kids could, though?) You don’t have to know the name of every star in the sky, although a few wouldn’t hurt. But you could at least try. You might just wind up being able to name every one of them.  Your kids might even grow up to discover a few they haven’t found yet. At least, they could start by memorizing the names of the presidents of the United States.

Don’t blame them if they can’t remember the present title-holder, however; he’s a pretty forgettable guy. If, as President of the United States, you can’t manage to remember that the car was invented in Germany, not the United States, you deserve to be forgotten by history.

If you can get your hands on a book, whether at the library or on the internet or even at a garage sale, you’re on your way and no one and nothing can stop you. Or your kids. Don’t get too tied up in knots, then, envying Eton graduates or Exeter upperclassmen. It’s not the Eton ties that bind knowledge to the mind; it’s the family ties.

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