It has been done before—weaponizing children. Of course in the US we aren’t talking about explosive belts but about the use of children to undermine public education and further political ambition. The term “social conservative” is a case of contradiction—what is being conserved has not to do with society at large. What is being conserved and expanded is wealth for a relative few while the remainder of society is being disenfranchised and impoverished—slowly perhaps but inexorably. And the impoverishment goes beyond money as it destroys dignity and self-respect. Taking over public education is an instrument of impoverishment, a weapon directed against children with a larger and more important strategic goal down the road when they become adults—the social contract. Third grade retention is only one tactic of that strategy.
People don’t often think of the social contract per se even though it influences every aspect of their lives, much less do they link third grade retention to that contract. One can suppose this is similar to fish not being aware of the water they are immersed in. The water is there and taken for granted. We live in society, we interact with others and with social institutions to such an extent that their existence apart from us isn’t any more noticeable than the air we breathe. Who thinks about the double yellow line on the highway? You simply don’t pass cars ahead of you unless… and that “unless” is what we are concerned with here. Personal awareness becomes acute when the contract is violated as when a car passes you in a no-passing zone and is confronted by an oncoming vehicle with no place to retreat save to cut you off. The purpose of double yellow lines is made obvious and the anti-social aspect of the passing driver’s behavior immediate and personal.
A less obvious example is when politicians use public education to further anti-social agendas. Third grade retention as punishment for not learning to read at an arbitrary rate is a classic example. In no rational world is it writ that any child must learn to read by the time they are in third grade, by fourth grade, or for that matter, that they should be prohibited from reading in second grade. This “rule” exists for no reason other than as administrative convenience. Human beings exist as individuals and each individual learns different skills at a rate particular to them. That is a fact and not amenable to politics. This truth may very well be inconvenient but is immutable. Some children warm to arithmetic at an early age but when older cannot learn algebra much less understand differential equations. Are we to consider someone who doesn’t understand differential equations less educated or less intelligent than someone who does? Of course not. After all, you don’t have to know or understand differential equations to be a brain surgeon. It isn’t that differential equations is as fundamental as learning to read but is illustrative of the broad variations in human intellect and understanding.
Having been educated as a mathematician and having known more than a few I do not believe mathematicians are necessarily more basically intelligent than biologists, chemists, philosophers or diesel mechanics. In fact I have known mechanics who were quite a bit more broadly intelligent than some math majors I’ve known. So what is it then with this crusade to punish kids for not being good readers by the end of third grade? In short it is politics and shameful politics at that. It is nothing but pandering and using children as weapons in the war to privatize yet another covenant of the social contract.
Educating children is a matter of public interest, public concern, and most importantly public responsibility for the simple reason that an educated polity is of vital necessity to the survival of democracy. A society needs citizens who understand their role in governance more than it needs mathematicians. A society needs people who can think critically, ask good questions, and see their way through political rhetoric to a logical conclusion—in short a society depends on people with well-developed crap detectors to survive. Corporatized education will produce, in its own best interests, non-thinkers who will also not read well in third grade but they will do what they are told and believe what they are told to believe. They will become de facto soldiers in the relentless war against democracy.