Diagnosing Bush – Is there a root dysfunction to his use of language, his style and his disastrous education policies?

August 15, 2001

By Jock Gill for Democrats.com


Insight can come from the most unlikely sources. There may be a great deal to learn about George W. Bush’s “personal style” and his policies for education by considering Thom Hartmann's book on Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder -- ADHD: Help for Your Family at Home, School and Work. To use Hartmann’s provocative language, could Bush be a hunter in a world dominated by farmers?

Hartmann’s chapter on education, for example, explains the two central disasters in the history of education. The first was the introduction of grades in England in 1792 and the second was compulsory, state mandated and funded education in Prussia in about 1855. State mandated education was explicitly acknowledged from the beginning to be about controlling the peasants. It had little or nothing to do with learning how to think critically or creatively. This of course was followed by the invention of Kindergarten, clearly acknowledged at the time of its invention as a way to protect children from too much influence by their mothers!

Hartmann postulates that too often our schools “wound” their students and extinguish their curiosity. His recommendations for healing our educational system are startling. One is to return as quickly as possible to the goal of setting children's minds on fire -- shades of Seymour Papert's 1980s book "Mindstorms" -- by restoring the classical teaching style of grade-free peer mentoring. Everyone reports that they want workers with critical thinking skills, but our factory-style schools are too often antithetical to creative, critical thinking. National standards testing, such as the MCAS tests in Massachusetts, will only measure how well we teach to the metric: ability to excel at rote memory. Memorization is clearly not the same as critical thinking.

This is very timely as a number of careful observers have diagnosed President Bush II from afar as both dyslexic and having ADHD. (It is almost certain that if you are dyslexic you are also ADHD to one degree or another). This is what is most likely behind his relatively unengaged management style and his unwillingness to master the details of public policy – even his own administration’s policies. Bush obviously has to wrestle with the written and spoke word. But maybe he’s not lazy, just different.

If Bush were to acknowledge these traits and embrace them – rather than trying to create illusions about his abilities – it could revolutionize our concepts of what mass education is about and what our children need. Or, in Bush’s famous formulation – “Is our children learning?”

But rather than using his own example to challenge education orthodoxy Bush is pushing for ever more corporate education. What else is privatization all about? This drive to impose the corporate agenda on education will have a chilling effect on critical thinking, imagination and creativity. It will reduce our ability to evolve and adapt to an ever-changing world. It will diminish our ability to strengthen democracy in order to resist tyranny.

Worse yet, Bush appears to want to ignore the travesty of 2 million young students being given the "waste basket" diagnosis of ADHD. They too often inconveniently do not fit the corporate mold and struggle to find their place in the world. What if it were 2 million students who were nearsighted? Wouldn’t we take the simple step of ensuring that they could read the blackboard by getting them glasses?

We have gone much too far in blaming the students for not learning the agenda set by the government and the corporations. Blaming the victim is always the easy way out. Isn't it time we look at the entire cluster of factors that are driving this new plague of waste basket syndromes? It is not simply about standards, or funding or resources. It is about a broken system mis-directed away from learning creativity and critical thinking. It is about a system that has forgotten its moral obligation to do no harm. It is about a system which has forgotten what Thomas Jefferson knew: it’s the caliber and reputation of your mentors that matters, not your grades.

If we are to once again “put people first”, we must acknowledge that spending more hours per day in front of a TV set than in school is shortening our childrens attention span and conditioning them to be motivated by pleasure. Add that to the urgent problem of too little physical exercise and it should be remarkable than any of our young people are capable of overcoming these barriers.

It does not have to be this way. What if we put the physical back into education and read books just 10 hours per week? What if we dropped grades and restored peer mentoring? What if we stopped judging our schools on the basis of their students’ test performance and asked once again what the real purpose of education is?

If we are truly going to put people first, and the corporate agenda second, then we must reclaim the educational agenda. But it looks like we’re going to have to do it without the leadership of a differently-abled president who may not be lazy but is very much challenged by arranging words and mastering language.