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On education: Progressive decay

By Bernard Chapin
web posted February 24, 2003

I have worked as a school psychologist in the state of Illinois for over eight years and I have had the rare privilege of enjoying the vast majority of those days. This is truly a rare statement among American adults and a fact for which I am very grateful. However, at least ninety percent of the pleasure derived has come from interactions with students as opposed to interactions with staff. My opportunity to observe educators is a unique one as I work with them during the week and teach a class to masters' level teachers on the weekend. This total picture has been alarming to say the least. One is forever prepared to accept and accommodate the ignorance of high school students (that's why people at my school are employed) but the vacuity of my coworkers never ceases to confound me.

Given the state of our culture I guess it really is not that surprising that many educators possess a lack of intellectual curiosity but what is most amazing is the extent to which they are not ashamed of this fact. My first exposure to it came a month into my internship nine years ago as my supervisor approached me at my desk in a highly agitated state. "What's wrong?" I asked. He told me that he had just received a subpoena to attend a plenary hearing regarding a student on his caseload. He slouched in the chair across from me for several minutes and nervously kept repeating, "I wish I knew what plenary meant. Then I'd feel better." At first I thought he was joking but after several more recitals of his wonderment I asked, "Why don't you just look it up?" He stared at me vacantly. "In a dictionary," I added. When he made no movement I got up and looked up the word for him in a dictionary that I fetched from a room thirty feet away (the flaw in this recollection is that I have no real way of isolating whether his inactivity was due to mental laziness or garden variety physical laziness). Regardless of my support in his time of need, he viewed me with suspicion for the remainder of the school year.

Prophetically, later the same month I made enemies with one of the other psychologists that worked there after I asked her over lunch if she had read any good books lately. My tone was bland, as it always is when I am the lowest man on the totem pole, and my mood was sunny. She responded with irritation saying, "Why would you ask me that?" I said in return, "I don't know. I just finished one and plan on getting a new one this weekend at Borders." "Yeah, but why did you ask me that in particular?" I made no response as I had no analysis as to the motive behind my question. She began to appear quite fidgety and did not say anything for awhile. Eventually she confided that it was a book by Jimmy Buffet. I said, "Well nothing wrong with Jimmy Buffet" and that was the high point of our communication for the rest of the year.

Full-time employment has already yielded numerous examples of the profound unawareness that percolates through the veins of our "educational elite." My boss of three years who I referred to throughout her tenure by the nickname of "El Jefe" or the old Stalin standby of "Vozd" was an interactive compendium of obtuseness. El Jefe was the perfect sardonic nickname as there were few, if any, situations that she mastered or was capable of mastering. This was exemplified by her never bothering to ask myself or anyone else what my nicknames for her actually meant. She was completely uninterested in explanations. Shortly after her promotion she told me to participate in a tour she was conducting and one exchange from it has been chiseled into my memory ever since. She told a prospective parent that our school was all about practicality and didn't trouble with minutiae like how many Senators there were in the United States. El Jefe confided that she didn't know the answer herself and it never prevented her advancement to her present position so why should the kids be concerned with it. While the parent was in the bathroom I slid next to her shoulder and inquired, "You were teasing about not knowing how many Senators there are, right?" She ignored my question and began barking orders at another employee. I did not pursue it any further as I value food and shelter but suspect that she still thinks the answer is fifty.

On another occasion the Vozd conducted a workshop for all of our staff and during the introduction she stressed the importance of our students obtaining a high school diploma as opposed to a GED. She stated that it would be practically inconceivable that the majority of our students could pass the GED (she was right). Her reasoning though was due to the fact that "if she couldn't pass it they couldn't!" A hand, not mine, immediately went up asking her what she meant. Cheerfully, El Jefe shared that she had taken a practice exam last year and failed the math section miserably and if she, a holder of two masters' degrees in education, could not pass it then what hope did any of students have. Well, I wondered, how does one begin to justify a public disgrace such as this holding a position of leadership in America's schools?

It would get worse as El Jefe began a meeting the next year with the word "recalcitrant" written on a blackboard behind her. Her first words were that a dean from one of our sending schools sent us a student with the description "Student is recalcitrant in his behaviors." I had no idea what was coming next. She explained that this dean couldn't possibly relate to his students if he was using words like recalcitrant with them as she, nor any of us, knew what a word like that meant. I gazed around the table and no one interjected anything. Being the reckless wretch that I am, I raised my hand and said that recalcitrant meant defiant. She had a ready answer. "Yeah but I bet you don't use that word everyday." What my daily use of the word had to do with anything I'll never know. Then I realized that she, like my intern supervisor, hadn't even bothered to look the word up before the meeting so confident was she that no one else had ever heard of it.

This essay is my only way to retaliate towards people like El Jefe. I have no other powers. The Vozd is now gone. She was promoted beyond the likes of me but my present written retort is my belated defense. The only reason I attempt one at all is due to the well-known rule that cockroaches are terrified by expansive rays of light (or even worse publicity). At least documenting the talent decline of the educators that surround me will benefit those of us who were previously blissfully unaware. Any lingering doubts, or cowardice, about committing words to print was finally dispelled at a meeting I attended with El Jefe's successor a few hours ago. There I was, staring at my feet in self-induced exile, hoping that the ordeal of whine would last only ninety minutes as opposed to the requisite two hours, when, in the midst of chirping voices singing verses about why certain staff members have keys to rooms that they should not possess, I heard someone ask the galley (because it was on a handout) what the word "secular" meant. Immediately a teacher with a general English certificate offered that it was defined as "being religious." This was followed by a second of silence and then the jejune singing began again. I could not let the sounds continue. "No" I asserted. "Secular is the antonym of religious. It means 'of this world.'"

"Don't you hate it when he does that?" My new boss asked.

I suspect she'll hate these paragraphs worse.

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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