Education, Education, Education…
The public schools were once the key to California’s ascendance. Universal education turned out well-prepared citizens who were responsible for California’s rosy future — one based on an excellent tripartite higher education system of junior colleges, state colleges, and universities; sophisticated dams and irrigation systems; and a network of modern freeways and roads. In the private sphere, the culture of shame still prevailed, at least in the sense that no one wanted his 16-year-old son identified in the papers (with his home address no less) as arrested for breaking and entering. And such crime was rare. Rural California was a checkerboard of 40- and 80-acre farms, with families that were viable economic units and with children who worked until dark after school. It is hard to steal when you must disc ten acres after baseball practice.
I think it is a fair assessment to say that all of the above is long past. Since about 1992, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing, California ranks between 41 and 48 in math and science, depending on the year and the particular grade that is assessed. About half of the incoming freshmen at the California State University system — the largest public university in the world — are not qualified to take college courses, and must first complete “remediation” to attain a level of competence that was assumed forty years ago in the senior year of high school. The students I taught at CSU Fresno were far better prepared in 1984 than those in 2004 are; the more money, administrators, “learning centers,” and counselors, the worse became the class work.
I finally threw out my old syllabi last month: the 1985 Greek Literature in Translation course at CSU Fresno seemed to read like a Harvard class in comparison to my 2003 version with half the reading, half the writing, and all sorts of directions on how to make up missed work and flunked exams. It wasn’t just that I lost my standards, but that I lost my students who could read.
Life in the Whatever Lane
Does any of that matter? Well, yes. Those who are not educated soon inherit the reins of public responsibility. In practical terms, the symptoms are everywhere. I now expect that my county property tax returns will have common errors, from the spelling of my name or address to the particular acreage assessed.
When entering the bank, I expect people not just to not speak English, but occasionally not to write any language, and thus put a mark down, in Old West fashion, to cash their checks.
When I deal with a public agency, I assume the person on the opposite end of the counter or phone will not to be able to transact the requested service, or at least not be able to transact any other service other than the narrow one trained for. Calling any public agency is to receive a recording and then an incoherent order to press numerous buttons that lead to more recordings. Woe to the poor fool who walks into a Department of Motor Vehicles office on an average day, seeking to obtain a copy of his pink slip or find a registration form. The response is “get a number,” “make an appointment,” “get in line,” “wait,” or “see a supervisor.”
I quit not just riding a bike on the rural avenues where I grew up, but walking upon them as well. Why? There is a good chance (twice now) of being bitten not just by a loose dog without vaccination, but by one whose owner is either unable to communicate or vanishes when hunted down. And then there are the official agencies whose de facto policy is that our ancestors did such a good job eradicating rabies that we can more or less coast on their fumes.
Forty years ago I assumed rightly that cars parked along the side of the road were out of gas or needed repair. Now? I expect that the cars are much more reliable, but the owner of any car parked outside my house is either stealing fruit, casing the joint, using drugs, or inebriated. Last week I explained to a passer-by why he could not steal the peaches from my trees; he honestly thought not only that he could, but that he almost was obligated to.
What makes The Road Warrior so chilling a metaphor is the combination of the premodern and postmodern. While utter chaos reigns in rural California, utter absurdity reigns inside the barricades, so to speak, on the coast. So, for example, San Franciscans will vote on whether to blow up the brilliantly engineered Hetch Hetchy water project (I bet they won’t vote yes), more or less the sole source of water for the San Francisco Bay Area. The National Park Service debates blowing up historic stone bridges over the Merced River in Yosemite Valley — as hyper-environmentalists assume that they have so much readily available power and water from prior generations at their fingertips that they have the luxury of dreaming of returning to a preindustrial California. Of course, they have no clue that their romance is already reified outside Madera, Fresno, or Bakersfield.