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Commentary

Old-Fashioned Steps to Make Schools the Salt of the Town

Education: A 17th century Puritan provides some contemporary advice about learning and discipline.

July 19, 1998|CAROL JAGO | Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA

"A woeful putrefaction threatens the Rising Generation; barbarous Ignorance, and the unavoidable consequence of it, Outrageous Wickedness will make the Rising Generation Loathsome, if it have not Schools to preserve it."

Does the warning sound familiar? Cotton Mather wrote it 200 years ago describing Puritan teenagers in rural New England. And he had never heard a single lyric of gangsta rap. Mather's solution to the problem of young people's natural tendency to waywardness was education. He wrote, " A Good School deserves to be call'd the very Salt of the Town that hath it." I agree. Without a school "wherein the Youth may by able Masters be Taught the Things that are necessary to qualify them for future Serviceableness, and have their Manners therewithal well-formed under a Laudable Discipline," a community will founder.

If any doubt lingers that both rural and urban communities have lost track of their children, we have only to watch the evening news for the latest in school shootings. Outrageous Wickedness indeed. But how to create schools that will function as the salt of a sprawling metropolis like L. A.?

First, we need "able Masters," teachers with a love and deep knowledge of their subject matter who can awaken the same in students. This may mean bringing into the profession poets, mathematicians, musicians, engineers and scientists who have not passed through formal education programs. It also may mean paying them extra for their expertise or bringing them in part-time to teach a class or two on campus. Such suggestions give teachers' unions the jitters, but schools are going to have to look outside traditional pathways for more "able Masters."

We also need to define and maintain "Laudable Discipline" on every campus in this town. My own teenage son will stop speaking to me for writing this, but I would like to suggest that the California Legislature take dollars from its budget surplus and buy uniforms every student in the state. I have seen firsthand the impact that a no-hat policy at my school made on campus tone and cannot but believe that further replacement of pseudo-gang clothing style with collared shirts and slacks that cover boys' underwear will help discourage belligerence. The first step toward behaving like a student is to look like one.

Later in his essay, Cotton Mather writes that "the Devil cannot give a greater Blow to the Reformation among us, than by causing Schools to Languish under Discouragements." Unfortunately that is exactly what happens at all too many school sites. How, for example, can a teacher intent upon holding her students to high standards carry on when she has no books for them? Six months have passed since The Times exposed the lack of textbooks in Los Angeles Unified School District classrooms. All kinds of promises were made and money apparently found. Have these translated into a full backpack for your child? The ablest Master in the world can't teach algebra if he is unable to send the math books home. Discouraged, the teacher stops assigning homework. Without practice, children fail.

It may seem odd to be taking guidance from a 17th century Puritan, but I know I couldn't say it better. "Where schools are not vigorously and Honourably Encouraged, whole Colonies will sink apace into a Degenerate and Contemptible Condition, and at last become horribly Barbarous. If you would not betray your Posterity into the very Circumstances of Savages, let Schools have more Encouragement." Amen.

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