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by William H. Benson

August 29, 2002

     Last week the columnist Thomas Sowell in two columns pointed out what he considers the obvious failings of America’s schools: that American students repeatedly place at or near the bottom on international tests, that too much time is spent on all sorts of non-academic projects, that the teachers’ union is utterly opposed at having to “teach to the test”, and that the teachers themselves do not know the material which is being tested and therefore cannot teach.

     Sowell’s arguments are similar to the ones that intellectuals have rehashed for several decades now.  To listen to Sowell, one would conclude that our schools are deplorable institutions, incapable of educating anyone, and that students are being badly served.  To all of these charges, I would not completely agree. 

     Instead, I would argue that the teachers in America, especially in the early grades, are our nation’s true champions, for they perform each year a miracle; they teach students to read–which is one generation’s gift to the next, a passing of the torch of civilization.

     Few things have been as beneficial or as rewarding to me personally, as well as to countless other Americans, as that ability to read.  Should I have grown up under other unsavory circumstances–without an alphabet, books, and language, I would have been most miserable.  Indeed, I would have made a very frustrated Neanderthal.

     For a child to learn to read on their own, without any help, happens only in fiction, such as Frankenstein’s creature and Tarzan.  As a boy Tarzan happened to find his dead parents’ cabin in the jungle, and inside he found their books.  Amazingly enough, from them and without any help, he learned the English alphabet and then began to read books.

     Frankenstein’s creature, stumbling alone in a forest and friendless, happened upon an abandoned knapsack, and inside he found three books–Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther, and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

     Of this find the creature said, “The possession of these treasures gave me extreme delight; I now continually studied and exercised my mind upon these histories, whilst my friends were employed in their ordinary occupations.”

     Of course, the probability of Tarzan or Frankenstein’s creature learning to read without assistance is as remote from happening as were the circumstances of their upbringing or creation.

     In addition, something that Thomas Sowell did not admit in his column is that the rest of the world recognizes that our nation’s colleges and universities are some of the best in the world, in fact the best in the history of the world.  These shining examples of academic achievement have exceedingly high standards that American students somehow are capable of achieving.  Surely, the teachers in K through 12 are doing at the very least a few things right.

     The best and brightest of the foreign students want to study in America, and not just at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, John Hopkins, and Chicago, but also at the state’s colleges, and the junior colleges, and the local community colleges.  These foreigners know something that Americans are apt to forget–that education in America, although not inexpensive, is readily available, and offers to anyone a path to a much better future.

     Finally, about one thing Sowell said, I would agree.  Teaching material in order to pass a comprehensive and a standardized examination, even in the early grades, is not necessarily wrong, but is truly a proper course.  Later as young adults students will be expected to pass the bar or the CPA exam or a doctoral examination should they want to enter those professions, and their instructors are constantly “teaching the tests.”  Young students should face plenty of exams.

     And somehow in the midsts of lectures, homework, schedules, and those exams, students may find the time and the encouragement to spend some time every day alone with a quality book.      


     Walt Disney said, “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island . . . and best of all, you can enjoy these riches everday of your life.”  Have a great school year.