David J. Mack Jr. turned 85 on Tuesday, and most folks would consider it a wonderful Christmas gift to look half as good at any age.

Mack has spent all of his many years in Charleston, most of them as an educator. He was the first black area superintendent of schools in the city, the first black principal at Rivers High School and a pioneer in adult education.

Before all that, and following a tour of duty in Korea, he was a teacher and administrator in the district for 20 years. And he married a teacher. (State Rep. David J. Mack III is their son).

Bottom line, Mack knows something about schooling.

And frankly, he says, we are doing a lot of things wrong these days.

Amen to that.

Mack was never afraid to express his opinions when he was an education leader, but now he's retired - and that is a blessedly freeing thing.

School officials would do well to listen to him because David J. Mack Jr. is living proof that the younger generation could learn something from their elders.

Too many tests

Mack says today's kids are getting a good basic education.

Emphasis on basic.

They get the basics because that's what's on all those standardized tests that schools spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for these days. School officials may not like it, but those are their marching orders. They drill this information into young minds, make students memorize it, then test them on it.

And most kids soon forget it.

"The thing that's missing today is critical thinking," Mack says. "They are not getting that."

Students are not being challenged enough. The basics don't cut it in today's world, they will not prepare anyone for the highly technical jobs out there today.

"You can teach them chopsticks, but if they learn chopsticks that doesn't mean they can go to college and play the Warsaw Concerto," he says.

Mack says if you challenge students, make them think for themselves, the basics will take care of themselves.

He's absolutely right. He knows because he lived it.

But those standardized tests, which measure school districts against one another, might suffer as a result of such old-school thinking. Not everyone learns the same, or at the same rate. Standardization does not take that into account.

It's not fair to students, but that's the way it is.

Today, school boards don't want to take that chance. If the district's test scores fall, it looks like school officials aren't doing their jobs, and it hurts them at the polls.

So, as usual, everything comes down to politics.

And, take it from the Greatest Generation, all this is hurting the next generation.

Old school

If you think that's controversial, you haven't heard anything.

Mack says there's too much mingling of the education and justice systems. Police never came to his schools unless he called them because back then children were kept in line much better.

If he ever called the cops, the student knew he'd messed up bad. Today, kids barely know how to interact with adults. In Mack's day, teachers corrected kids who were wrong, who spoke incorrectly. They prepared them for life - something far too many people avoid these days.

And Mack did all this during the turbulent times when South Carolina was still struggling with integration.

So how did they do this? Well, they knew all the kids, learned which ones needed extra help. School personnel knew the kids' parents, their ministers, the leaders of their community. Teachers today barely have that luxury. They're too busy making kids study for standardized tests, which, as Mack notes, really don't tell you much of anything.

Mack has learned all this through nearly 40 years in public education. And he's offered this advice to today's school leaders repeatedly.

Unfortunately, no one has done much about it so far. It's probably because they fear that, if they upset the apple cart, they might get involuntarily retired by voters.

That's too bad, because even educators could learn a lot from David J. Mack Jr.