There’s one constituency that George W. Bush just ain’t gonna get come November: the unemployed poet vote. The Washington Post has been on a poet roll lately, with op-ed screeds by out-of-work rhymesters (or, actually, non-rhymesters) blaming the Bush administration because they can’t find suitably poetical jobs. (Hey, Posties: If you love poets so much, why don’t you hire some yourselves?)
A couple of weeks ago it was Susan Yuzna declaring in the pages of the Post that it was all Bush’s fault that she couldn’t find a job teaching at a fancy San Francisco-area university. Now we’ve got Ryan Grim, a Washington, D.C., poet bounced from his job teaching poetry to middle-schoolers because the principal decided that the after-school hours during which he taught would be better used helping the kids learn some basic educational material in order to help them improve their scores on standardized tests.
Now, you’d think in a story like this that the culprit would be the appalling D.C. elementary school system, which is among the nation’s top per capita spenders on public education yet manages to rank among the nation’s worst at preparing children for higher learning. No wonder that by the time the kids reach middle school starting in the sixth grade, most lack even the basic skills of math, reading, spelling, and grammar–and thus often need intensive after-school tutoring as well as regular class time just to catch up.
But noooo–Grim’s plaint is instead directed at You Know Who. Bush was a strong supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 federal law that rewards with federal funds school districts whose pupils show documentable improvement (i.e. via scores on standardized tests) in achievement of the educational skills necessary to compete in the workforce and move up to higher learning. Teachers, including Grim, generally hate the No Child Left Behind Act, because it holds them accountable for actually teaching the kids something–in contrast to helping them work on their self-esteem issues, or whatever it is that teachers perceive their job to be nowadays. And by the way, Mr. Grim, it was Congress, not Bush, that pushed the Act into place two years ago.
Grim, like many of his ilk, seems to think that forcing people to master the mechanics of the English language is somehow antithetical to writing poetry. Basic grammar and spelling just aren’t poetical enough for him. He writes that he and his students conducted a hallway sit-in when his poetry program was canceled, and his Washington Post article urges the D.C. school system to join an anti-Bush, anti-standards revolution:
“It should tell Mr. Bush that the only after-school programs it will be canceling will be his test-cramming sessions. If he wants, he can carry on his quest in the hallway outside the locked library. But someone should tell him to be sure to bring his own No. 2 pencil.”
I’m all for poetry myself, and I think that all schoolchildren should be required to read poetry–and memorize some of it–as part of their education. There’s no reason why every child shouldn’t learn by heart at least a few lines of “The Highwayman” and “Paul Revere’s Ride”–both rollicking introductions to the power of rhythm, rhyme, and rhetoric in good writing. Putting rules into rhyme is also a terrific pedagogical device, as I’ve learned myself as a Latin teacher. But first things first. First learn how to harness the powers of language, then ride them. The public-school students of the District of Columbia need less anti-Bush posturing from their teachers and more solid instruction.