The New “R”s of Public Education

There was a time when reading, “riting”, and “rithmetic” were indeed the basis of our educational system but, tragically, that time has past. Those traditional “R”s of education have been replaced by three new “R”s: Redefine adulthood, Run to the courthouse, and Retreat from discipline. While any one of these “strategies” is damaging in the classroom, the combination of all three has created a deadly brew to the educational process.

Redefine Adulthood

Over the past decades, various “experts” in childrearing and education have instilled the notion that children should be viewed as small adults. This philosophy holds that children grow, work, and learn best in an environment which provides them with as much autonomy and self-direction as possible. The traditional views that children need strict guidance by adults, that they must learn basics before moving on to more complex analysis, and that they do not, in fact, often know what is best for them have been replaced by a myriad of educational psycholbabble which treats children more like middle-aged businesspeople in need of therapy than immature people still learning, still lacking competence, and still in need of greater control by supposedly more mature, experienced adults. The problem, Kay S. Hymowitz perceptively argues, is that children cannot completely handle being treated, and expected to act like, adults, and that by intoxicating children with adult treatment before they are ready for it, we end up, ironically, with immature teens and adults.

A direct consequence of pushing children into adulthood is that we neglect to focus effectively on things they should learn as children. As a public school teacher for the past three years, I have seen two classic examples of this misguided approach. In one case, English teachers were expected to discuss complex plot and character issues in a novel with students who could barely write a sentence or identify a noun. In another instance, math teachers were expected to teach students how to apply math to everyday situations when those students could barely add or multiply. The analogy is not unlike trying to teach someone who barely knows musical notes a complex Beethoven piece and then wondering why things do not go well.

Run To The Courthouse

An offshoot of treating children as adults is that we will bring adult issues and practices into the school environment. One of the least admirable of these practices is the tendancy to legalize and legislate every detail of an activity to the point of destroying the original purpose of that activity. Over the past 30 years, the courts and legislatures have slowly crept into the classroom to the point that teachers must be careful about their every word or action and carefully debate what to do about every word or action of their students. “Corporal punishment” used to mean physical abuse; now it includes giving students a funny look or calling them “Jack” instead of John. Teachers are urged to avoid touching students in any way, even to avoid fights, unless they want to be sued, lose their job, or even be arrested.

Today's children, trained in adult thinking and much more sophisticated as a result, play on this legalistic environment. There have been many instances where students have accidentally been injured or injured themselves, or even pretended to be injured, and have blamed teachers or threatened to do so. The system presumes guilt by the teacher and innocence by the child in every instance, and students know that they have the power to treaten, log-jam, or use the system as a weapon.

Constitutional issues such as free speech, due process, and the right of privacy have also been applied in schools as if schools were any adult or everyday environment. Freedom and independence are no longer rights which are won with maturity and personal responsibility, but rather are expected and demanded by children at younger and younger ages. Often these kids are vociferously supported by parents who have likewise lost the sense of the proper balance between respect and responsibility.

It was unavoidable that this extreme legalism would spill into the actual educational process. In a recent case, a girl sued her teacher for failing her on the grounds of plagiarism. The student's lawyer argued that the failing grade would traumatize the child for life, ruin her future, and was besides unfair because others had done the same thing and gotten away with it. Many teachers have reached the point where they are merely trying to get to retirement before getting sued.

Retreat From Discipline

The final ingredient of this mix so deadly to education is a clear and expected result of the first two; discipline in many school systems is a joke.

Unruly students have so many rights and so much legal room to play with that they run the show. Our society's phobia with profiling has elminated special schools where disruptive students can be sent and state education laws do not allow for permanent explusion, so schools end up playing “troublemaker tag”, trading disruptive students between district schools. Any disruptive student classified as having a disability is protected by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which mandates that such children must be included within regular classrooms as much as possible. Designed to protect mainly students with physical disabilities, this law is often extended under vague definitions of “disability” to include students with emotional problems. Such children can assault others and be returned to the classroom. Every move a school makes has to be reviewed with a fine tooth comb to avoid lawsuits and hearings.

Confronted with legal attacks and threats from all sides, schools have countered with their own legal strategies and rushed to psychologists to find new, trendy, “workshops” and “research-based programs” with fancy names, slogans, and price tags. Once again, these methods stress 'feelings” and “management skills”. It is argued that if one can just help a student who throws chairs manage his feelings, he will harnass his issues and behave. The sad part is that the lawyers, therapists, and psychologists who propose and push these approaches are usually miles away from the classroom where the teachers are left to fend for themselves and the offices where administrators hide or juggle papers trying to avoid problems.

Toward a Solution

It is obvious that the present “R”s of education are not working because they are based on a misguided view of children as adults with the full rights of adults at a stage and in an environment where respect must be balanced with certain strict codes of conduct and behavior. They are not working because the classroom has been over-legalized and flooded with popular psychological notions, fads, and theories whose efficacy with adults, much less children, is questionable. They are not working because moral discipline based on an understanding of virtue and its cultivation has been replaced with vague notions of “values” , misapplied concepts of personal rights, and unrestrained legal and psychological tinkering. It should not be surprising that a system which often avoids the spiritual in favor of the “practical” or “secular” should be blind to the fact that many of its present ills are based on its moral vacuum now filled with politics, legalities, and bureaucratic agendas.

The irony is that in its drive to protect student's rights, this system is depriving the rights of the very students who really want to learn.


Field, Fraser. “Psychology III: Moral Discipline in Education.” Catholic Insight October 2001

Hymowitz, Kay S. Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future and Ours Free Press, 1999

Hymowitz, Kay S. “Who Killed School Discipline?” City Journal Spring 2000

Gabriel Garnica is a licensed attorney and educator with over 20 years teaching experience at the college, business school, and middle school levels. He has a BA in Psychology from St. John's University in New York and a J.D. from The New York University School of Law. Mr. Garnica writes extensively on spiritual and educational issues and conducts seminars on time management, leadership, and personal development. He is married with two children and lives in Long Island, New York.

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