Take the Terrible Schools Challenge

This week, I’m asking graduate students to consider a tough question: Are America’s public schools terrible? For our seminar, I asked them to read arguments from a bunch of smart people who say that it is, for different reasons. It leads us to our ILYBYGTH challenge of the week: Can you find a pundit these days who DOESN’T think schools are a mess?

For class, we read snippets from Paolo Freire, E.D. Hirsch Jr., and Terry Moe and John Chubb. They don’t agree on much, but they all started from the premise that most schools are horrible.

For Freire, the big problem was that schools tend to recreate the social hierarchies of an oppressive society. Even well-meaning teachers tend to see school as, at best, a way to help students get ahead in an inherently unfair society.

For Hirsch, the problem was Freire. Well-meaning progressives, Hirsch argues, think that teachers need to liberate students from learning. Balderdash, Hirsch argues. If we really want to make a more egalitarian society, we need schools to pour information into students more efficiently. We can’t afford to have teachers who try not to “bank” information into students.

For Moe & Chubb, the problems are rooted in stultifying tradition and self-seeking politics. Too many schools keep repeating mistakes of generations past, locked into inefficient and unfair structures because of the political power of entrenched organizations such as teachers’ unions.

Three very different visions of how to make schools better, but all with a strong agreement that schools today are terrible. We know that most Americans tend to have a skewed vision about school quality. According to Gallup, people think their kids’ schools are great, their local schools are fine, but the nation’s schools are abysmal.public view of public schools gallup

Why is that? Why do so many of us assume without thinking about it that public schools are terrible, when the local schools that we see every day are great?

Could it be because every pundit begins with the assumption that public schools are, at best, a cruel joke? Like Freire, Hirsch, Moe, and Chubb, writers about education tend to start with dire alarms. Whether you read the retreat-and-regroup plans of neo-Benedictine Rod Dreher, the subway fare of the “failure factory” headlines in the NY Daily Post, or the neo-progressive hand-wringing of Diane Ravitch, you could be excused for assuming that we must be in the midst of an alarming educational crisis.

Whatever their politics, most pundits start from the assumption that schools are terrible. So here’s our challenge: Can you find news headlines that disagree? Can you find stories out there about successful schools and wonderful teachers?

Leave a comment


  1. Balderdash, Hirsch argues. If we really want to make a more egalitarian society, we need schools to pour information into students more efficiently.

    I see this as the fundamental mistake. Education is not, and should not be, pouring information into students. Better to help the students develop their abilities to analyze and understand.

    I suspect that has always been the argument between the left and the right on education. The right wants to indoctrinate students into their way of thinking. The left wants to give students the ability to think for themselves.

    • Dan

       /  September 7, 2017

      There is no meaningful basis for evaluation if you are not comparing two similar and well understood schools or school systems. Bad schools correspond to poor and dysfunctional communities in every country, and they’re all going to be similar — except the US is off the charts in relation to guns and violence. In the aggregate, the US is likely to show it has a lot more poor schools and communities than other “developed nations”/top economies.

      I never saw a real incompatibility between “cultural literacy” and liberatory, student and relationship centered education that tends toward creative, critical thinking, many-solutions pedagogy. If you’re doing the latter you will get in the former as well, but not as some crude list of cocktail knowledge that confers upward social mobility by itself. Liberatory pedagogy is not primarily about upward mobility as a goal the way it is for, say, Jonathan Kozol. It is about understanding the game more than molding players.

  2. Agellius

     /  September 7, 2017

    “The right wants to indoctrinate students into their way of thinking. The left wants to give students the ability to think for themselves.”

    The left doesn’t want to indoctrinate? Puh. Leeze.

    • Dan

       /  September 9, 2017

      It’s better stated this way: arch (religious and nationalist) conservatives have always focused on pushing educational content and opposing critical approaches. Even in moderate conservative schools where students are given a kind of problem-analysis approach to social and humanistic subjects, there are always premises, narratives, conclusions, and authorities that cannot be questioned — and this is usually a matter of employment screening when it comes to the religious institutions. The mainstream academy does not really work this way no matter what trolls like Jonathan Haidt say about it.

      • Agellius

         /  September 9, 2017

        Again I find it hard to swallow that there are not “premises, narratives, conclusions, and authorities that cannot be questioned” in liberal schools.

      • Dan

         /  September 9, 2017

        That’s not an argument, that’s a confession of baseless prejudice.

        Elite institutions, especially universities, are deeply and historically entrenched in the established power structures of the empire the US built after the Europeans demolished themselves twice. The Harvards and Yales are not liberal in their bones; they use the rhetoric of identity-based egalitarianism as moralistic mystification to cover and distract from the ways they make their money and extend their power.

        Certain faculties harbor critics of this political reality. Most tend to be apologists for whatever the so-called liberal center is at the moment. The best way to get punished is to criticize neoliberal sacred cows and make comments like these. A young Cornel West today wouldn’t make it. Any kind of anti-Zionism is the fast track to exile whether you are at Fundamentalist U. or Harvard. Or any labor/union activity.

        You can find professors of any kind in dogmatic fits everywhere, but they tend to be extremely tolerant of undergraduates who disagree with them on some fundamentals, even if they do so in the worst possible ways. When it comes to graduate work, research, and the reproduction of themselves, academics are supposed to be gatekeepers to a point. You go to programs and form thesis committees based on general agreement about the “tradition” you are all working in, including its problems and defects. Some diversity of views and input is desirable — that is what peer review does.

        Nothing like this exists among right wing activist colleges tied to the evangelical and conservative movements. They have failed to build their own mainstream research institutions and have had poor results accessing them through their graduates, so they constantly cry foul and claim the system is rigged. The system is not rigged; elite institutions simply came to certain core conclusions long ago that even they are loath to admit and discuss openly with the masses, which the masses do not deny and know are true but cannot cope with. That’s the real problem. Have you read George Steiner’s little book of lectures called Bluebeard’s Castle?

      • Agellius

         /  September 10, 2017

        As usual you’re talking over my head. All I’m saying is that based on my experience liberals are every bit as dogmatic as conservatives, and I see no reason to believe that doesn’t hold in academia as well.

      • Dan

         /  September 10, 2017

        What do you mean by “dogmatic?” I’ve attended and taught at many different universities, and I’ve never run into professors who refuse to listen to civil, cogent, dissenting arguments from any perspective in appropriate contexts. I can only think of one, a pundit and activist character who made a long career of blogging vitriol, even doxxing administrators and many of his colleagues. This was tolerated up until a student complained about being blocked from discussing same sex marriage in this professor’s ethics class. If he had apologized he’d still have a job, but took ook the hard, legal opposition path and lost.

        Academic politics, especially in the humanities, is a distraction from the real moneyball wherein those at the top of a caste system (or hoping to move up it) manage for their own benefit the financialization of their institutions while presiding over a precarious, poorly paid contract labor force that teaches 75% of the total courses in North American universities. By structure and complicity, the tenured/tenurable faculty tend to be ever more conservative minded company men and women who serve this established order and will routinely offer shockingly reactionary defenses of it. Coincident with the supposed “cultural Marxist” takeover, this highly exploitative labor model grew up and exploded in the 90s and 00s as tuition doubled and textbooks along of all retail commodities saw 1,000% price hikes.

        My theory is the petty bickering that humanities and social science faculty engage in over politics, theory, and method are a defensive fetish that affords them a fig leaf to clothe the nakedness of the immoral systems they serve. The old joke is the fighting is most bitter where the stakes are lowest — only those benefitting at the top of the system can say their institutional politics are low stakes. They may break up into rival cliques of more and less traditional thinkers within their fields, but they tend to come together as functionally identical neocons and neoliberals on real money-power issues. As with the mainstream political realm, these are two sides of the same coin — Boomer beneficiaries of an economy and culture they’ve depleted and nearly destroyed.

  3. Agellius

     /  September 10, 2017

    “Dogma” is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true” (Google dictionary definition). I might add that “dogma” implies a principle that is not subject to verification or proof. In other words it’s not a scientific finding or the product of strict logical demonstration.

    Leftists and liberals lay down leftist and liberal dogma all the time, as do rightists. The difference between political dogma and religious dogma is the nature of the authority that lays it down. The opposite of religious dogma is not leftist dogma but atheist dogma, that is, the denial of any binding religious authority. This is a position that is commonly held — dogmatically — on the left, and its opposite is commonly held on the right.

    But there is an essential difference between religious dogma and political dogma. You can’t identify religious dogma with rightist political dogma (or atheist dogma with the leftist political dogma) absolutely. People often tie rightist political dogmas to Judeo-Christian dogmas, but for its part the Christian religion does not dictate that one be a rightist or a leftist, except insofar as a political dogma directly implicates a religious dogma, e.g. leftist regimes banning or suppressing religion must be opposed, but Christian dogma doesn’t require one to favor or oppose single-payer healthcare or tax increases.

    Tying specific political positions to religion is a matter of interpretation and application of principles to concrete situations, and generally speaking, the results of such a process are a matter of opinion, not religious dogma, no matter how confident one may be in his interpretation. I realize that some Christians fail to grasp this.

    But leftist Christians are themselves fairly adept at using Jesus’ teachings to justify leftist political positions, and often assert those positions with all the confidence of the most dogmatic rightist.

    • Reminded me of Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address in 2005 – ” Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.”

      • Dan

         /  September 11, 2017

        Being trapped in the results of his and other people’s category errors about politics and religion is a problem, but everyone is living with the results of other people’s thinking. It is unavoidable, and it would be undesirable to avoid this — the past is what we have to work with. The problem is sifting through it to understand what you have received and what it is good for — and what it isen’t

        Originally people had something close to a blank slate, or rather the ancient world came into a capacity for basic theoretical thought which could be set down and transmitted, which also brings with it an expansion, post-mythical awareness of history. Ideas about how things work and should work came from observing experiences, customs, and perceptions of nature as divinely inspired or ordained through lawgiving, order-creating, authority-establishing deities who naturally resembled the elites and power structure of the ancient empires that have had the most influence on us.

        The tools of critical-theoretical thought and science in the broad sense allow received knowledge and practices to be interrogated. This is characteristically what the right resists, and the religious right that founds itself on pre-modern thinking in a world filled with supernatural beings does indeed confuse politics with religion in a fundamental way. It is to remain in our cognitive childhood as societies and individuals. The metaphysical grounding of all laws and knowledge in a concept of divinity is the essential core of reactionary politics. It is always manipulated by human demagogues and despots, because masses of people who are eager to give away their freedom and responsibility for thought and action to the arbiters of tradition and doctrine are the most eager slaves.

      • Pretty much agree. I think that way too many people follow dogma without thinking it through for themselves – and that is what I believe Jobs [and I] are referring to. A few folks probably actually do have moments of not living by the thinking of others – Einstein once said something like, genius is seeing what everyone else has seen, but thinking what no one else has thought. Most of us are not geniuses, but it wouldn’t it be great if everyone listened to a variety of opinions and viewpoints, studied the facts, and arrived at their own viewpoint and opinion? It might or not agree with the current dogma, political or religious. I know – dream on! 🙂

      • Dan

         /  September 11, 2017

        We start from ignorance, so to be able to learn to think for yourself, you first need to be given some dogma and become familiar with it. Having this come into question later is painful and will be punished if you were given that dogma to constitute a community of some sort where you are supposed to be a loyal member.

        We do live in a world rich with information and opinion whose early centuries enabled the rise of bourgeois republican nation states with social-democratic politics. Now there is too much information and mobility (of people, money, and ideas) for states and individuals to cope with the conflicts that result.

        A surplus of information may be a big problem, especially when coupled with democratic citizens degraded to passive consumers — poorly educated and broken in their critical capacities. Modern media and education have dragged the human horse to the waters of opinion and perspective, forcing our heads into the trough. You cannot make people drink. Many try but choke. Many drink too little and turn into Alex Joneses and Steve Bannons. The conditions under which a massive quantity of information can be fruitfully absorbed to a working consensus are vanishing.

      • And, in addition to too much information, sadly a fair percentage of that information is misinformation, disinformation and ‘alternative facts.’

      • Dan

         /  September 11, 2017

        Yes, and the problem with that material is that it offers a narrative and appeals only to people seeking such a narrative framing. “Alt-facts” are really about muddying the waters and validating ideas that disrupt, defame, and contradict the remains of the liberal-democratic consensus. That consensus was not a product of pure reason or objective facts; it is most validated by the only thing that ever really matters: the ability to achieve a society loved and called good by most of its members, including those with the least status. As with Adam’s one big point, it is the failure of American communities that makes schools fail. It is also this failure that makes bad leaders emerge and disinformation about. What matters more than knowledge is goodness as a motive; a person of good will toward others who is suspicious of fear, anger, division, and conflict incitement will interpret false facts and misinformation in far healthier ways than someone who wants reasons justify conflict and oppression.

  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s