George Pyle: Bishop’s idea of education is an unreal Platonic ideal

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Rob Bishop talks to the Sutherland Institute about innovating education Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

The kind of school that Rob Bishop says we should have — that we could have if we told the federal government, the Utah Legislature and even the local school boards to, as he says, go to hell — actually sounds like it could work very well.

Until it didn’t.

The congressman from northern Utah told those gathered at a local think tank gabfest Wednesday that the best thing the federal government could do for education would be to go away. The states and the locals would then have a lot of money to make up, but that it would be worth it for the freedom they would gain.

Freedom that he says should not just pass to the Legislature, of which he used to be a member, or school boards, but all the way down to teachers, something else he used to be, students and parents.

Bishop ticked off the usual complaints about federal and national education policies, Common Core, No Child Left Behind, etc., as bureaucratic meddling and make-work that just made it harder to be a teacher, what with all those mandated goals, tests, reports, etc.

Just let teachers teach, he said. They know what they are doing. And, if they don’t, they won’t be able to fool their students and their students’ parents for very long.

I can think of a few teachers I had who would have thrived in such a free environment. As would many of their students.

It could have been a Socratic Academy, one respected wise person attended by a dozen, or a hundred, worshipful acolytes, sitting under a tree, putting questions to our master, who would as often answer us with another question, all seeking to coalesce the vapor of human experience into a viable and logical comprehension.

It probably would have worked out well for most of us because, over the long run, it doesn’t matter all that much what you learned as long as you were learning something, exercising the brain muscles, training the neural pathways, becoming deeply literate, honing your trusty BS detector.

At least until the authorities came by to take our teacher away and make him drink a cup of poison hemlock as punishment for some lesson that some powerful person didn’t want the younger generation to hear.

It was ever thus.

The irresolvable dilemma in public education is the same that bothers so much else in life. People who really know what they are doing generally do better when they have a minimum of bureaucratic overseers weighing them down.

But how do we know which people — teachers, cops, park rangers, journalists, doctors, lawyers — those are?

Eventually, probably, all the fakes and posers will be found out. But by then a lot of work will have been done, or not done, and some people and systems will have been damaged beyond repair.

And Bishop’s faith that students and parents will know the good teachers from the bad fails on account of the fact that not every family has the same idea of what a good teacher is.

Is it one who teaches evolution or one who denies it? One who wants you to read and dissect only the best poetry or one who encourages you to write your own? One who holds all students to strict and equal standards or one who always gives the varsity quarterback an A? One who sees all his students as Harvard material or one who knows they will all wind up working at the local slaughterhouse so what’s the bloody point?

One who is knowledgeable about biology and the natural world or one who is as utterly ecologically illiterate as is Rob Bishop?

If your school does well with a cadre of talented teachers expanding the minds of their students, it would probably do less well under the yoke of federal inspectors. If that isn’t your school, students might very much benefit from some state or federal oversight.

It is ironic that Bishop, R-Hill Air Force Base, supporter of all things, and spending, military, seems to have forgotten that the idea that education was a national concern can be traced to Dwight Eisenhower and the 1958 National Defense Education Act, a perhaps panicked response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik only a few months before.

Just as the sovereign nation of Brazil can’t claim that the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is a strictly internal matter, no district or state has the right to claim that it only hurts itself if its educational standards and successes are below par.

As a nation, we are only as smart as our dumbest high school.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, tested well in kindergarten and basically coasted through the next 12 years, until his college Composition 1 professor called him out. gpyle@sltrib.com. Twitter: @debatestate