Last month, Turner Classic Movies aired a ton of Andy Hardy movies. Starring the ever-young Mickey Rooney, the series deals with the lives of the Andy, his father, the gruff but wise Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone -- no relative), mother (Fay Holden), older sister Marian (Cecilia Parker), and girlfriend Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford), who all live in the fictional , All-American town of Carvel, Idaho. (N.B. Throughout the 20-odd films in the series -- which finally ended in 1958 -- Andy was paired with such relative unknowns as Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Kathleen Grayson and Esther Williams.)
Generally understood to be movie mogul Louis B. Mayer's idealized vision of his adopted country, the series centers around the relationship between Andy and his father, as the teenager goes through such angst-filled issues as dating, making the team and facing the most basic realities of life. As with most MGM movies of the day, everything turns out just fine; Andy heeds his father's sage counsel and is thereby able to look to the future with optimism and understanding.
In comparison to modern times, Andy Hardy's America is wonderfully benign. The kids of Carvel, Idaho didn't need to worry about Global Warming, AIDS, "gangstas," or a society that places greedy consumerism ahead of good citizenship. Andy and his friends never have to concern themselves with the possibility of being iced or outed; hell, they never even get a hickey.
Viewed from a distance of 70 years -- and understanding that Andy, Judge Hardy, Polly and Carvel, Idaho are all fictional -- things just seem to have worked a lot better then than they do now. Andy and his friends were all reasonably literate and engaged; they had social consciences and seemed capable of heeding the voice of experience. And the local high school they attended, although supporting a world of sports, hijinks and petty romance, was nonetheless a place where learning and inculcation were going on in abundance.
Yes, "Andy Hardy" is both fictional and idealized; but then again, fiction -- even at its treacly best -- is at least a pale shadow of reality. Compare the schoolboy world of Andy and his friends in Carvel with the educational reality made public just this week. In its "Program for International Student Assessment" (PISA) the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development assessed the knowledge and skills of an average 15-year old in the 34 principal industrialized countries of the world. Among PISA's findings we learn that American youngsters rank:
- 14th in reading (Shanghai, Korea. Finland, and Hong Kong are ranked 1-4).
- 17th in science (Shanghai, Finland, Hong Kong and Japan are ranked 1-4).
- 25th in math (Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea are ranked 1-4).
In asking the obvious question -- "Why do American students lag so far behind places like Poland, Thailand and New Zealand?" -- no two people seem to have the same answer, point fingers at the same target, or suggest the same possible remedies: Some claim that the test is unfairly balanced, because unlike the United States, which has a heterogeneous population, places like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Finland and Japan are, largely speaking, culturally homogeneous.
- Some aver that the problem is with the school calendar; that America has a far shorter school year than most industrialized countries. (This is true; our school year is still based upon the needs of a largely late-19th, earl -20th century agricultural society in which families needed their children available over the summer months for farming).
- Many see teachers' unions as the basic culprit, for they make it impossible to remove "unqualified teachers" out of the classroom. They embrace market-oriented reform strategies - -performance pay and retention based not upon tenure but strictly upon the results of standardized tests like Florida's "FCAT."
- Then again, when questioned, many feel that students in countries like China and Korea score so high precisely because they have gotten rid of standardized tests and rote learning, and have dramatically raised the pay of classroom teachers.
- "Nonsense," others respond. "American teachers receive the highest pay in the world -- and it's only for working ten months a year!"
- The "solution," some proclaim is to provide vouchers so that parents can choose to send their children to either charter or private schools -- thereby gutting the very system of American public education that served us so well for so long.
- Many Republicans and Tea Party acolytes believe that the first issue on the agenda is abolishing the federal Department of Education and replacing it with local, parental control of local schools.
- Others, like former Washington, D.C. schools Chief Michelle Rhee contend that reducing the number of highly paid administrators and holding principals accountable will go a long way towards solving the problem.
- Still others stress the absolute need to dismantle "No Child Left Behind" -- which the Obama Administration supports -- and replacing it with a new, bolder approach to education. What these folks have in mind is an approach which would combine universal child access to healthcare, early childhood education and the extension of learning opportunities into the summer with what they call an "opportunity to learn" agenda, defined as one which "reduces inequities in funding among schools and helping schools create conditions conducive to learning and healthy child development."
There is no telling what will happen to educational policy now that Republicans find themselves in charge of the House and in much greater numbers in the Senate. There is no such thing as a single GOP strategy for dealing with the problems and issues besetting American public education. Some want to abolish "No Child Left Behind," which they regard as an overreach of federal authority. Others want to gut public education by providing vouchers. And then there are those who simply bewail the fact that "Johnny can't read" because we've strayed too far from Carvel, Idaho.
In the final analysis, the reasons why "Johnny" -- not to mention "Sarah," "Pedro," and "Solange" -- can't read, write, do math or understand science, but that "Ahmed," "Soon-Li," and "Lars" can, has as much to do with parents and social values as it does with the schools themselves. Unlike the good folks of Carvel, Idaho -- or Helsinki, Nanking, Seoul or Osaka for that matter -- we don't hold teachers in terribly high regard. We tend to pay them occasional lip service rather than a substantial wage. Consider that it takes an average classroom teacher here in Broward County, Florida an entire year to earn what Miami Heat forward Lebron James earns every 12 minutes. And, I can tell you that as a teacher/professor who is married to a teacher who is in turn the sister, sister-in-law and aunt of teachers/professors, what we do in the classroom is one heck of a lot more far-reaching and consequential than what Mr. James does on the basketball court.
If America is ever to get back to the level of economic and inspirational leadership we once proudly occupied, it will require far, far more than stimulus packages, tax-cuts for the wealthy or fervent prayers for a return to innocent days of Andy Hardy and Carvel, Idaho. It will require a top-to-bottom reassessment and revamping of an America that has lost its way; one which gladly offers all the "Andys" and "Pollys" products to consume even as it fails to teach them how to tabulate the charges.
-2010 Kurt F. Stone