If the moral scheme of multiculturalism can’t deliver on its promise for a moral agenda for America’s public schools, what can traditionalists offer in its stead? This is where traditionalists’ arguments carry the most weight, in my opinion. They can draw on deeply embedded notions about the purpose and function of schooling, what historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban have called the “grammar of schooling.” They can rely on ideas of schooling lodged so solidly in America’s idea of itself that they rarely need to be articulated at all.
In the early 1990s, historian Arthur Zilversmit commented on the strength and durability of these traditional notions. Zilversmit had studied the ways self-proclaimed progressive ideas of schooling had had limited success in the middle decades of the twentieth century. One of the leading reasons for this lack of success, Zilversmit argued, was the surprising strength of Americans’ “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns.”
Of course, from the traditionalist point of view, there is nothing strange about this attachment. Rather, traditionalists believe it reflects a sensible, rational commitment to time-tested ideas about schooling. It only seems mysterious, strange, and emotional to those who assume that schools ought to be radically changing their approach to education.
What are these traditional values of America’s schools? In future posts, I’ll explore each of the next three notions in more detail. But in short, traditionalists can offer three clusters of values: First, schools exist to teach young people things they did not know. Young people go to school primarily to learn these things. And that means that they should gain and retain information they did not previously have.
Related to this fundamental conception of schooling is another: Schools will help people improve their social and economic status. If, that is, young people manage to gain skills and information at schools, they can use that knowledge to secure more lucrative, more prestigious employment. They can move up in society.
Finally, traditionalists can argue that the value scheme of America’s public schools does not need to be radically overhauled in order to include the rich pluralism of American society. Such traditional values as honesty, bravery, kindness, tolerance, and hard work are common to many cultures, including traditional white European American culture.
These values are anything but strange and mysterious. In fact, they are so commonly held that most people do not question them at all. And in spite of decades, indeed, generations, of self-consciously “progressive” attempts to undermine these foundational values of schooling, Americans of all cultural backgrounds and economic classes have continued to cling to these ideas.
Further reading: Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930-1960 (Chicago, 1993); David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, 1995).