Bonita Springs Florida Weekly

Flying over the cuckoo’s nest, Florida style


Education is front and center again, as the question of banning books caused sparks to fly in southwest Florida. Opinions varied and feelings ran strong.



In the latest squabble, liberals clashed with conservatives over HB 1069, which legislates that access to offensive books must be sharply limited in public school libraries.

If you listen closely, you can hear the cries of anguish.

The books include such alleged cauldrons of pornography as Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Tainted authors include Earnest Hemingway and Stephen King.

Among forbidden topics are drugs, sexuality, race, gender, reproduction and all things LGBTQ — whatever might stunt the growth of tender young Florida minds.

As things now stand, over 300 books in Collier public school libraries will be either restricted to certain grade levels or will need parental permission to read. My liberal friends are aghast.

Is this stupid legislation? You bet. Is it really important? I don’t think so.

Other than fueling cocktail talk and spawning lots of letters to editors, it won’t affect real education.

What we should be worrying about, in my view, isn’t the sexual content in books, but rather whether a student can read and understand those books. Forget about the culture wars. They’re not very important. What is important is the basics, preparing students for employment or technical school or college — ensuring they have the skills needed to make a living and contribute to society. Agonizing over anti-woke imperatives is a waste of everybody’s time.

Where do we stand on that? Are students learning the basics? Apparently not. National test scores for 2022 showed 42% of high school seniors in the U.S. met none of the benchmarks in English, reading, math or science. None. Pre-high school learning was even worse, with average 2023 scores in math and reading falling to their lowest levels since 1990 and 2004, respectively. Eighth grade history test scores this year hit an all-time low. Average reading scores for 13-year-olds were the worst since the 1970s. ACT test scores have fallen steadily since 2014 and this year were the worst in 30 years.

What about Florida? We typically rank in the middle of states academically, but with different testing standards direct comparisons are difficult. Within Florida, Collier public schools were slightly above average in 2022-23, with 46% in grades 3-10 unable to meet state standards in reading and 35% in math. In other words, over a third of Collier students could not adequately read or do basic math by whatever measures are applied in Florida.

School officials seemed satisfied. Superintendent Leslie Ricciardelli was quoted as saying, “We are extremely proud of the achievements of our students … CCPS continues to outperform the state.” That’s what I call damning by faint praise.

In the meantime, battles over wokeness continued, including arguments over invocations at school board meetings. Nothing on improving reading, writing and math skills.

And that’s certainly not the end of challenges to education. Artificial intelligence is coming. Here’s an example. A collegiate granddaughter recently showed me how easy it was to get an A+ school paper from AI. She picked a topic, specified the word limit and, presto, it was delivered online. And it was good. It read well.

Ah ha, I said, that’s too superficial. Let’s ask for something with real scientific content, like chemical mechanisms of effective sunscreens. Within seconds I got a coherent, detailed paper that surpassed everything I knew. The bloody machine knew more than I did.

I wonder what it thinks about the culture wars. ¦

— Dave Trecker is a chemist and retired Pfizer executive living in Florida.

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