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Jewish World Review May 22, 2001 / 29 Iyar, 5761

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
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We are all "drop outs" -- HATS off to Jackson Toby, who wrote in the Weekly Standard what few have dared to say in the past three decades: "Let them drop out." He argues that too many students are finding nothing but frustration and resentment at being trapped for hours every day in high schools that are boring and meaningless to them.

This argument was made back in the 1960s by the late and great Edward Banfield in his classic book, "The Unheavenly City." Moreover, he had hard facts to back up what he said. Studies indicated that it was not dropping out that led youngsters into delinquency and crime but staying in school after they had lost all interest in it and lost all respect for it.

Nevertheless, incessant propaganda from the education establishment has made the word "dropout" one that inspires horror. But all of us are dropouts -- and should be. At some point or other, we all leave the educational system.

Some leave in high school, some leave after high school, some leave in or after college and others leave after completing a Ph.D. or after finishing a post-doctoral fellowship. But nobody's whole life is spent going to school. Nor should it be.

The right point at which to leave varies enormously from person to person. So does the time to come back, as millions do.

This is ultimately a very individual decision, if we are thinking about either the wellbeing of the students or the wellbeing of society. But if we are thinking about children in school as meal tickets for the education establishment -- which is often paid on the basis of "average daily attendance" -- then the way to maximize that money is to hold as many kids hostage as long as possible and demonize the word "dropout."

When mere rhetoric and repetition are not enough, the education establishment points to the fact that high school graduates earn more money than dropouts and college graduates earn still more. But one of the first things you learn in Statistics 1 is that correlation is not causation. Unfortunately, it is also one of the first things that many people forget.

The youngsters who drop out of high school are different from those who graduate. Keeping everybody in high school to the bitter end will not change this difference in people, just as joining a basketball team will not make you any taller, even though statistics show that basketball players are usually taller than other people.

Most people who drop out of high school resume their education at some later point, either to complete high school or learn a trade or get admitted to college without a high school diploma (like yours truly). These individuals and their incomes are not counted in statistics about the earnings of high school dropouts.

Given the incredible amounts of time that are wasted on non-academic "activities" and "projects" in most public schools, the 12 years it currently takes to complete high school could easily be reduced to 8 years, if not 6, just by getting the junk out of the curriculum and doing some serious teaching of math, English and other basic skills.

This would lessen the burden and the boredom, enabling many more youngsters to complete their elementary and secondary education. It would also rid the school of the negative and disruptive influence of those students who have no interest in what the school is doing. It would also reduce the pressures to dumb down everyone's education, in hopes of getting the disinterested to stay on for the sake of appearances and fun activities.

It would also shorten the time that youngsters spend in an adolescent subculture and begin sooner the process of their joining the adult world, where they can learn from people who have a lot more experience and maturity than they or their peers have. It might be possible to debate all these various considerations from the standpoint of what is best for the individual and the society. But none of that really matters to the educational establishment.

Their jobs depend on having a large captive audience, and the self-interest of "educators" is served by extending the period of students' incarceration -- starting earlier in kindergarten and preschool, and including summer school for all. There will never be a lack of high-sounding excuses for these exercises in promoting the self-interest of teachers unions and educational bureaucrats.

Only if more parents and voters start looking beyond the rhetoric and spin is the present bad situation likely to change. But have their own years of dumbed-down education made that unlikely?

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate