What Went Wrong with America’s Schools?

Hell in a lunchbox. 

That’s where America’s public schools have headed, according to a recent essay by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s President R. Albert Mohler Jr.

President Mohler makes an historical argument for the shocking, dangerous decline in American public education.  Does his case pass historical muster?

As I’ve argued in an essay in Teachers College Record (subscription required, but summary available), this historical argument about public education has been a mainstay of conservative thinking for at least fifty years.  Different conservative intellectuals have come up with different timelines and key events to explain the demise of high-quality, morally trustworthy public education.

Mohler echoes this intellectual tradition.

He argues that public schools began as locally controlled entities.  Beginning roughly a century ago, however, “progressive” reformers attempted an ideological coup.  Such folks, led by John Dewey, openly proclaimed their intention to turn schools into secular indoctrination camps.

Luckily, Mohler believes, such plans did not accomplish much until the second half of the twentieth century.  At that point, however, most schools were “radically transformed,” separated “from their communities and families.”

The results, Mohler warns, have been sobering:

Those who set educational policy are now overwhelmingly committed to a radically naturalistic and evolutionistic worldview that sees the schools as engines of social revolution. The classrooms are being transformed rapidly into laboratories for ideological experimentation and indoctrination. The great engines for Americanization are now forces for the radicalization of everything from human sexuality to postmodern understandings of truth and the meaning of texts. Compulsory sex education, the creation of “comprehensive health clinics,” revisionist understandings of American history, Darwinian understandings of science and humanity, and a host of other ideological developments now shape the norm in the public school experience. If these developments have not come to your local school, they almost surely will soon.

Is Mohler’s diagnosis correct?  Does his historical analysis match the record?

In this historians’ opinion, Mohler is guilty of cherry-picking and over-emphasizing.  It is demonstrably true that in the early twentieth century an array of school activists and intellectuals, clustered together under the amoebic heading of educational “progressivism” did try to implement wholesale changes in the nature of American public education.  It is also true that the US Supreme Court made decisions in the 1960s that could have revolutionary implications for the religious nature of public education.  Even more, it is true that leading organizations such as the National Education Association call for school policies that might dismay stalwart conservative Protestants. 

But contrary to Dr. Mohler’s conclusions, such historical facts do not add up to a public school system that “entered a Brave New World from which no retreat now seems possible.”

Historians have examined each of these important trends in American public education.  Arthur Zilversmit, for example, looked at the implementation of “progressive” education policies in the middle of the twentieth century.  In spite of earnest, well-funded efforts to revolutionize schooling, Zilversmit found, schools remained largely the same.  Why?  Zilversmit, sympathetic to the “progressive” project, blamed Americans’ “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns.” 

How about the claim that the Supreme Court kicked God out of the public schools?  It is true that in 1962 and 1963 SCOTUS banned school-led mandatory Bible reading and prayer.  But as political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond found to their surprise, most communities that prayed before the SCOTUS rulings continued to pray in public schools after them.  

Similarly, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued that local school districts continue to function as local bureaucracies.  These “Ten Thousand Democracies,” according to Berkman and Plutzer, remain responsive to local demands and local values.     

This is bad news for President Mohler’s alarmist argument, but very good news for religious conservatives in the United States.  Most of America’s public schools remain closely connected to majority impulses in their local community.  Concerning hot-button culture-war issues such as prayer, evolution, and sex ed—not to mention broader notions such as school discipline, drug use, promiscuity, and general manners—local communities still control their local public schools. 

This local influence helps explain some stubborn trends that have long frustrated progressives like me.  Why, we ask, is evolution taught only spottily?  Why can’t public-school children learn honest, practical information about sex?  Why are public schools still home to coercive prayer practices?

These are all tough questions. 

But Dr. Mohler’s jeremiad raises even tougher ones:  If American public schools are so very conservative, why do conservative intellectuals deny it so forcefully?  Why don’t America’s conservative intellectuals trumpet the continuing traditionalism of American public education?


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  1. I think both progressives and conservatives want state schools, they just want them to teach their brand of knowledge. Conservatives lean towards the tyrannical in matters dealing with social behavior while Liberals lean towards the tyrannical in matters of economics. One thing is certain though, both camps are have a vested interest in the indoctrination of this captive audience of young students.

    An interesting side note to what you have written comes from Murray Rothbard in, “Education: Free and Compulsory”. http://mises.org/daily/2226

    Rothbard points out…”The first modern movement for compulsory state education stemmed directly from the Reformation. A prime force was Martin Luther. Luther repeatedly called for communities to establish public schools and to make attendance in them compulsory. In his famous letter to the German rulers in 1524, Luther used Statist premises to reach Statist conclusions:

    “Dear rulers … I maintain that the civil authorities are under obligation to compel the people to send their children to school…. If the government can compel such citizens as are fit for military service to bear spear and rifle, to mount ramparts, and perform other martial duties in time of war, how much more has it a right to compel the people to send their children to school…”

    I say get the government out of education all together.

  2. Thanks. Extremely relevant and useful post for me. The idea that secular schools indoctrinate secularism is an important part of fundamentalist rhetoric justifying indoctrination in Christian schools. See, for example, Bob Jones III’s sermon “All education is brainwashing, it’s just a matter of what you want your brain washed with”. http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/21763043

    I assume you’ve read David Berliner’s 1997 article, also for the Teachers College Record, Educational psychology meets the Christian Right. He makes similar points to you.


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