In the business of quality education, nothing succeeds like failure. Every commission report that rails against the mediocrity of our schools translates into a multimillion-dollar government program for education. Every time the literacy rate or the SAT scores decline we get another batch of reforms to raise teacher salaries and fund innovative techniques. No matter what is wrong with the schools, the response is invariably “more”–more spending, more programs, more reports. In the private sector this is called rewarding incompetence. In public education it’s called “investing in our future.”
America has a blind faith in the melioristic power and perfectibility of its public schools. In her outstanding history of post-world War II education, The Troubled Crusade, Diane Ravitch notes the pattern:
Probably no other idea has seemed more typically American than the belief that schooling can cure society’s ills. Whether in the early nineteenth century or the twentieth, Americans have argued for more schooling on the grounds that it would preserve democracy, eliminate poverty, lower the crime rate, enrich common culture, reduce unemployment, ease the assimilation of immigrants to the nation, overcome ethnic differences, advance scientific and technological progress, prevent traffic accidents, raise health standards, refine moral character, and guide young people into useful occupations.
Traditionally, the faith in the wonder-working powers of education was based on the belief that if you could teach people to think well, they would be less likely to fall into poverty, commit crimes, practice racism, or submit to demagoguery. But after 1945, people in and around the Federal Government began to believe in public schools as institutions through which social problems could be addressed directly. Instead of relying on a good education to help blacks get decent jobs that would integrate them into society, the government created a busing program a force integration in the schools. Instead of depending on the standard English curriculum to assimilate immigrants, we now have the Bilingual Education Act, which sponsors curricula in 68 languages, including Siberian Yupik, Aleut, and several American Indian languages that have no written form. Instead of teaching students how to evaluate research reports, or how to understand carcinogens, we now have legislatively mandated health courses telling students not to smoke. The emphasis is on propaganda, not education.
The faith in education is now based on a series of grandiose boasts about public schools’ ability to solve public-policy problems. For example, Lyndon Johnson told the nation, “All our problems come down to a single word, and that word is education.” And last summer, Mary Futrell, president of the National Education Association, demanded more federal aid to the schools with the argument, “Place education first. Everything else will then fall into place.”
Diane Ravitch, who has a tendency to tell a tale and then ignore its moral, smiles on all this. She praises the growth of educational endeavors and concludes her book with the following lump of saccharin: “If it seems naively American to put so much stock in the schools, colleges and universities, and the endless prospect of self-improvement and social improvement, it is an admirable and perhaps even a noble flaw.”
But a quick reading of The Troubled Crusade will be enough to convince one that our faith in the schools’ ability to solve social problems has proved to be a more damaging self-delusion than, say, the Mets fan’s lament, “We’ll get ’em next year.” Education has historically had an impact on reducing poverty, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, improving public understanding of political issues, upgrading common culture, and reducing the crime rate, but it is not clear that it can continue to do this unless it stops trying to implement programs to address these problems directly. People like Thomas Sowell have argued persuasively about the failure of specific programs. But more than that, the spread of educational undertakings has reduced the schools’ traditional emphasis on reading, writing, and calculating. It has contributed to a decline in critical thinking (even among our best student), it has spread semi-literacy, and it has eroded self-discipline. Trying to solve everybody’s problems, the schools have neglected their own.
The Federal Government deserves particular blame for the diffusion of educational goals because, as Diane Ravitch notes, “Almost every federal program encouraged local education agencies to do something they might not otherwise do,” whether it be to provide career education, offer free medical services or hearing and speech instruction, provide nutritional and hygienic information, or develop innovative teaching methods. In 1970, for example, the Nixon Administration launched the Experimental Schools Program, which offered grants to schools if they could devise a new program organized around “a central theme or educational concept that reflects change from what exists at present to what education ought to be in terms of the needs and aspirations of the learning.” Berkeley, California, won a grant for a program designed to stress ethnic pride. It established one school for blacks only, and one school for Hispanics only.
Most schools respond to these federal- and state-grant opportunities by establishing “socially relevant” courses, usually in the form of university-level disciplines bastardized for high-school consumption. A course teaching computers talks little about hard drive repair, as an example. A psychology course tells kids how to get along with their parents. A sociology course teaches that high-school cliques are antisocial. An anthropology course tells the students that we should have peace between cultures.
A few months ago, a teacher confronted me with the observation, “I don’t understand all this talk about ‘back to basics.’ The basics were never gone. I’ve been teaching spelling for twenty years.” Teachers have noticed, correctly, that the back-to-basics movement is misnamed. The basics are still there–the problem is that they are now strangled by the government-funded growth of the nonbasics. The need is not to go back to basics, but to cut the bull. After all, how much resonance does a class on how to write a sentence have when it is surrounded in the schedule by a health class on the evils of drinking, an English class on subliminal advertising, and a bachelor-education class on how to make brownies from a packaged mix? And how successful is a computer technician going to be who has mastered the computer languages but doesn’t understand basic mathematical principles?