The four years of Jimmy Carter's Administration have seen a profound shift occur in this country's longtime debate over educational policy, a shift which makes possible bold and constructive solutions to our educational ills.
As recently as 1977, the American public was caught up in a fervor for returning to the "3 R's," having understandably rejected the results of a decade's worth of unsuccessful educational experiments. In an article entitled "Return the Rod," Newsweek reported that fully 83% of Americans polled would reform the public schools by getting back to reading, writing, and arithmetic, while rating "lack of discipline" as their chief complaint.1
This conservative "back to basics" movement, like the progressivist movement of the '60's and the Sputnik-inspired mania for science of the late 1950's, still left unchallenged an article of faith which has guided educational policy since the turn of the century: reliance upon universal, compulsory education and a hostility toward diverse, voluntary education.
Today, as Jimmy Carter basks in his seeming triumph at establishing a new Department of Education, the public's old faith in government-run "public" education is undergoing a profound reappraisal. The very viability of reform has fallen into disrepute as social change has accelerated, because educators and parents have seen both liberal and conservative reforms discredited by the continuing decline in our students' educational skills. Richard H. Hersh, associate dean for teacher education at the University of Oregon says of the various reforms: "We've been rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."2
Consequently, Jimmy Carter has inherited a whirlwind of exasperation with public schools--the product of a world he did not make, yet a system which both he and Republican presidents in previous Administrations have consistently upheld. "For the first time," observes Professor J. Myron Atkin, dean of the education school at Stanford University, "it is conceivable to envision the dismantling of universal, public, compulsory education..."3
The key to this shift in the debate is
an emerging agreement that the public schools can no longer be asked to
perform their historic function of creating a broad-based consensus of
social values, that trying only plunges the classroom into unresolvable
At first blush the 1980's would not seem to pose unusual strains upon the schools' ability to accommodate social diversity. Despite a rapid growth in the number of Hispanic and Oriental students relative to other cultural groups, today's immigration and population shifts almost certainly impose fewer demands upon public education than did the historic waves of European immigration or the movement of Blacks northward in the late 1950's.
Today's social diversity instead arises primarily from differences in values, particularly political ones. And because these differences, unlike race or cultural background, directly confront the public schools' attempt to establish social homogeneity, they are not for the most part susceptible to cosmetic reform in the schools' approach to teaching.
The relevance of mass education is also being attacked on all fronts by an increasingly more complex and, in the words of Alvin Toffler4, "de-massified" economy. No longer are students wise to serve out their time in high school and college, "preparing" for the routinized, highly structured job which always before lay ahead. In today's economy, with an increasing amount of self-employment and many white-collar workers evaluated primarily on their analytical ability as well as knowledge of closely defined specialties, education as common denominator seems increasingly beside the point.
The need for some basic level of consensus upon which society is built is beyond question. But what is that level, and how best can it be achieved? Tragically, in trying to preserve the unity of the American state, those who would enforce consensus have seized upon relatively superficial, passing, and not necessarily universal "virtues" as defining elements of our unity. The social roles taught in today's schools variously contain bits and pieces of the Protestant work ethic, unstated dress codes, great emphasis on punctuality, sex discrimination, "secular humanism" and a hundred other disputed social mores. In trying to press America's children into such a mold, educators have created conflict--not consensus.
The only consensus which can be achieved, and the only consensus which is truly necessary, is an agreement among the members of American society to live in peace with each other, to practice among neighbors the same respect for individual rights which each demands for himself or herself.
It is basic to the Libertarian platform that respect for individual rights should be defined in law and may rightfully be enforced. Upholding people's inherent human rights resolves, rather than creates, social conflict.
As always, however, example is the greatest teacher. Compulsory public education, with its enforced attendance, cannot teach respect for individual liberty and responsibility. That is why universal public education is long due for a reconsideration.
This White Paper will detail immediate, concrete steps which will be taken by a Clark Administration to set in motion greater reliance on improved, voluntary educational alternatives to a failed public education. It will detail the causes of education's current discontent, and consider the common arguments for and against the immediate programs proposed.
Yet all of what follows should be set in the context of understanding a Libertarian Administration's great concern for ending three inherent dangers which characterize public education today: the inculcation of authoritarian values, the fostering of "programmed ignorance," and the routinization of violence in the lives of students and teachers.
America's children cannot grow up to become free and responsible individuals if what they are taught in school systematically sabotages their independence of thought and action. Such sabotage is endemic to public education today, and it goes far beyond the obvious fact of compulsory attendance.
Take, as an example, the evolution of teaching history in American public schools, painstakingly surveyed in a recent book by Frances FitzGerald.5 Two centuries ago, Jefferson encouraged the teaching of political history so that children might learn to "know ambition under all its shapes and (be) prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes," and for him the future of the republic depended upon Americans, learning "how to judge for themselves what will secure or endanger their freedom."6
Contrast this concept of citizenship with John Dewey's influential view of democracy as mere "industrial cooperation," or with Woodrow Wilson's lecture to the Federation of High School Teachers: "We want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."7 Or with Jane Addams, who wrote in 1902 that the new social studies would make American workers find their tasks "much more exhilarating," in view of their participation on the "team" of industry.8
In Walter Karp's words, "To replace political
history with social studies has been the abiding goal of America's educational
leaders since ordinary Americans began attending high school." At
first, this social studies replaced Jeffersonian citizenship with the doctrine
that "America was chiefly an industrial system and not a republic at all,
that a 'good citizen' is a worker who gets up when the alarm clock rings
and speeds to the job on time. In social studies, too, (children)
would learn that the 'real' history of America is
Deweyite social studies has long since fallen from favor, of course, followed by several eras' worth of pedagogical fashions: the progressive era, the wave of superpatriotism during World War Two, the 1950's anticommunism and GNP-worship, the "New Social Studies Movement" of the 60's, and a more recent shift to outright sociology. Throughout it all, the individual5as-political-actor has been on the decline. Quoting Karp:10
Public education has almost totally banished individual rights, and trivialized the institutions and processes which were supposed to provide our means of defending them. To those with keen foresight, this fact presents a more damning indictment against today's government-run schools than any other.
Hand in hand with the inculcation of authoritarian values goes "programmed ignorance:" the assigning of children to poverty and despair by denying them the education which could liberate them. Programmed ignorance is as traditional as Woodrow Wilson and as modern as Congressman Louis Stokes' anger at the gutted, boarded-up neighborhoods that fill his Cleveland district: "I see these guys standing around doing nothing. I feel so helpless, so hopeless. We're passing from one generation to another a group of people who are hopelessly locked into a permanent underclass."11
With authoritarianism and ignorance having sown the seeds of despair, we reap a harvest of violence which itself is increasingly learned by the example of life in the schools. This White Paper will discuss the failure of education to teach and the growth of violence in the schools in a later context, but for now let us note the unhealthy synergy of all these factors in the life of today's children. The real issue of public education reaches far beyond the apparent inability of the schools to foster a social consensus; it concerns whether we will allow this institution to send up America's young to a life which is "nasty, brutish, and short" because these children have been denied their birthright, their heritage, of natural liberty.
The following analysis suggests that despair
need not be the only alternative.
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