Contra Costa, Solano County, CA November 7, 2000 Election
Smart Voter

Educational Reform

By Martin Sproul

Candidate for United States Representative; District 7

This information is provided by the candidate
Throughout America, education fails a basic test: it does not develop the creative intelligence of the student. At the core of every educational approach should be a technique or teaching method that develops the full potential of students, so that they are prepared to enter adult life as independent, creative, informed and pro-social citizens, with thorough comprehension of civic issues and willing to ask what more they can do for their nation.
During the course of a life-long quest for knowledge, I have benefited from the wisdom of remarkable teachers. At Harvard College, I learned from the eminent literary critic and Blake scholar, Northrop Frye. In an address to alumni of Victoria College given on April 12, 1983, Frye clarified the civic significance of education:

"The basis of my own approach, as a teacher of the humanities, has always been that we participate in society by means of our imagination or the quality of our social vision, and that training the imagination and clarifying the social vision are the only ways of developing citizens capable of taking part in a society as complicated as ours. Society supports compulsory education up to the point of producing passive, docile, obedient citizens. We must learn to read in order to read traffic signals and government handouts; we must learn to count to make out our income tax; we must learn to write to sign the income tax form. Obviously learning to read and write on this level is as essential for living in the modern world as food and shelter, and we periodically hear public complaints that the schools are not enabling children to grow up in a real world. So we get such slogans as a "back to basics" movement. The "basics," however, are not bodies of knowledge: they are skills, and the cultivating of a skill takes lifelong practice and repetition. All genuine education starts with the passive knowledge of elementary reading and writing and then tries to transform this passivity into an activity, reading with discrimination and writing with articulateness. Without this background of practice and repetition, one may be able to read and write and still be functionally illiterate. It is, admittedly, discouraging for a student to find that he has reached university and is still totally unable to say what he thinks. It is even more discouraging to realize that the real trouble is that he cannot think, thinking being a by-product of the skill developed in the practice of language." "The View from Here," at p. 69 in Frye, Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays 1974-1988, Denham ed., University Press of Virginia 1990.

We will not solve the fundamental problems of education by chanting slogans, by increasing the stresses on an under-funded and dysfunctional system, or excessive emphasis on standardized tests and exit exams. These are bankrupt solutions offered by legislators who cannot think beyond superficial generalities. The educational process succeeds best when guided by dedicated educators instead of politicians and bureaucrats. A standardized curriculum issuing from Washington is more interference than aid. The teacher in the classroom is positioned best to understand the diverse natures of individual students, to assess the pace at which a given student can learn, and to find and draw out the inner creative genius within each student.

We must get away from the shortsighted utilitarian view that sees the primary goal of education as the production of workers for the economy. We ought to avoid altogether applying economic models to the educational process, as Milton Friedman likes to do. Models drawn from the dismal science will produce dismal results: chains of factory charter schools whose promoters are motivated by profit, not love of education, where students are taught to obey such creativity-deadening rules as "don't work ahead." Education according to such philosophies will impede rather than stimulate the entrepreneurial intelligence that has made America a leader among nations.

I support charter schools that truly arise from the community. I also support progressive voucher programs, such as that outlined by former labor secretary Robert Reich. Under such programs, students with greater financial need would be eligible for vouchers worth more than the vouchers available to children of affluent families. This approach would tip funding toward the inner city schools most in need, as contrasted with the inequitable funding according to present laws that in effect give parents virtual vouchers with the purchase of homes in better school districts. Under a progress voucher system, both public and private suburban schools could balance their budgets by competing for good students from the inner cities.

My limited use of the word "competition" above should be distinguished from the current fashion that invokes that buzzword indiscriminately. Because I do not believe in the economic model, I also do not believe that competition is the carrot with which to motivate teachers and educators to do the best job they can. More often than not, competitive anxieties about performance on exit exams, funding and allocation of resources distort the educational experience. Right now, across the nation, we are seeing troubling erosion of academic independence brought about by the intense competition of colleges and universities to receive grants and other funding from government and from private industry. I am proud to be the grandson of Robert Gordon Sproul, the educator of University of California fame. But I am dismayed by, for example, Cal's recent public-private partnership with the biotech giant Novartis. We should be profoundly disturbed to see the influence of corporate cash trickling down to lower grades. Yet that is increasingly what we see, as television, corporate sponsors and advertisers invade schools in their hunt to snare, condition and own the child consumer at the earliest age possible.

If we demonstrate educational methodologies that work, educators will adopt them out of desire to do the best thing for their students. For that reason, I am firmly behind the Natural Law Party proposal to showcase, at the federal level, model schools that use the best and most innovative techniques. The consciousness-based educational approach of the Maharishi Schools, which has been written about approvingly in the Wall Street Journal, is one example. The Waldorf Schools pioneered by the Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner provide another example. True educators chose their profession motivated by their love of learning, hence they are open to new ideas and willing to learn when new approaches are shown to work.

The goad of competition is necessary mainly to overcome the inertia and resistance to change of those in the system who are not genuinely inspired by the educational mission. The resistance to change often takes the form of dire warnings of the consequences if any public money finds its way to private schools. Certainly it is true that throughout the educational system, public and private and at all levels, teachers do not receive income commensurate with the value they add to the economy. This could be remedied, however, by the changes that the Natural Law Party would bring about in the national approach to defense and crime prevention. Every school in the country could be rehabilitated with the money that Congress currently spends on weapons that the Pentagon says it does not need. When benefits are added to their basic compensation, prison guards make more than junior college professors. These facts illustrate a deep distortion of national priorities.

I will not support laws that drain funding from the public school system before multi-partisan coalitions find a way to direct additional tax revenues to schools, by means of cutbacks in pork-barrel expenditures larded throughout other areas covered by the federal budget. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that interaction between strong public and private school sectors benefits both, and to that end, I support private schooling and home schooling that meets basic standards.

It is a prejudice to suppose that private institutions either provide flawed education or serve mainly elite clienteles. My toughest and most rigorous course of study was neither at Harvard nor at Boalt Hall School of Law at U.C. Berkeley, but instead at the private American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. For the last twenty years this school has operated a community clinic that provides low cost alternative medicine to Bay Area patients, including numerous patients who are HIV positive or have AIDS. I contributed 2000 unpaid hours of unpaid work to the school clinic. While studying there, I met many dedicated individuals from diverse ethnic and educational backgrounds, united in their desire to serve and to care. These healers did not have the prospect of incomes anywhere nearly comparable with those of their allopathic colleagues working in the national disease care industry. When federal funds and Medicare reimbursements are made available to such institutions, it benefits underserved communities, not elites.

I believe that educational institutions at all levels should demonstrate a strong commitment to diversity. Diversity improves the educational experience for all students. Diversity is necessary to ensure that all communities in our diverse society are served by professionals and educated leaders. And diversity is necessary to overcome the continuing effects of bias and past racism in our culture. Bias is still a major problem in our society; those who do not think this is so are living in denial; they would benefit from education on the subject from those who must live with such bias every day. I support affirmative action. I am deeply troubled that tests such as the Stanford 9 and exit exams have a discriminatory and exclusionary impact on the poor, on minorities, on children for whom English is a second language, and on those whose creativity and intelligence expresses itself in ways that multiple choice tests and the limited intelligence of test-makers fail to capture.

"Leave no child behind" is a hypocritical slogan so long as, in fact, our governmental policies condemn countless children to repeat cycles of poverty by effective denial of access to educational opportunity. We can achieve a society united behind an inclusive vision if we do not minimize the importance of what has been accomplished by the democratic revolutions of the Western Enlightenment, and if we avoid "replac[ing] political knowledge about human nature with cultural mystiques about races and racial heritages" (John Patrick Diggins, On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History, Yale University Press.). My vision of civil rights is that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: it is grounded in a unifying spirituality, as distinct from the fractionalized power politics of racial, national, religious or ethnic identity groups.

We are still in the process of working out societal consensus and manifesting the transcendent ideals of liberal democracy. As a nation working toward such ends, we also profit from diversity of ideas and educational theories. Cal recently lost a needed alternative point of view and an extraordinary teacher--Pedro Noguera--to my alma mater, Harvard. His stated reason for leaving was the decline of minority enrollment at Cal that followed the ending of affirmative action there. His community involvement, activism and pro-social philosophy present refreshing challenges to the often too rigid and removed educational establishment. Dr. Noguera is a shining example of the sort of educator that any institution would be lucky to have. There is something fundamentally amiss with policies that result in the loss of talent such as that which he represents.

Drugs and violence are indeed serious problems for many schools. We need to do more to keep drugs and guns out of schools. Yet on these subjects our culture sends children conflicted messages. Students appreciate the hypocrisy of a society that condemns marijuana but for too long has glamorized cigarette and alcohol consumption, and that turns first to pharmaceutical solutions, such as Ritalin, to mental and emotional problems. And if we are going to ask youth to express themselves constructively rather than through violence, then we adults have got to find another way to express the principles of democracy abroad than by bombing and starving civilians oppressed by regimes we do not like. Every educated, civilized person should appreciate that violence, coercion and force of arms are the recourses of the incompetent. In a country founded on ideals of freedom and civic education, instilling fear of the state by means of force should not have pride of place as the solution to either domestic problems or foreign crises.

The founders of the nation believed in the liberating power of knowledge. They believed that a society organized according to the laws of nature would promote success in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness by all its citizens. An inadequate and excessively rationalistic understanding of human creative intelligence flawed this founding vision. A large percentage of the population remained in slavery or poverty; the bondage of prejudice, oppressive traditions and outmoded superstitions constricted the consciousness of the rest. As we have learned more about the mind--about the laws of nature that structure human intelligence--we have come to understand that the rational, generous mind in each person remains in bondage to the irrational, selfish mind until freed by expansion of awareness. We have not arrived at liberty, freedom and justice for all. We are still making our way and we still have much work to do. As the poet Leonard Cohen put it, democracy is coming--slowly, gradually--to the U.S.A. Cohen added that "the heart has got to open in a fundamental way." The progress of democracy is the progressive unfolding of a shared vision in countless hearts and minds. Education is the basic tool in this grand and patient project.

The point of Frye's words, quoted above, bears repeating. We participate in society by means of our social vision. We arrive at a positive, pro-social vision by doing the inner work of developing our individual creative intelligence. To educate citizens who are competent to take their stand in the midst of complex modern life then walk the freedom path to a better society for all, it is absolutely necessary that educators expand consciousness, train imagination and assist students to clarify their social visions. We have to find ways to open hearts and expand minds. There are no other ways. If you will elect me to Congress, as your representative I will devote all my energies to improving education along these lines. Which other candidates in other parties grasp what is necessary to accomplish this project, let alone place it at the center of their campaigns? Your choice is clear. Vote Natural Law. Vote for Sproul for Congress.

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