Decadence and the Fall of American Public Education

Things today ain’t as good as when I was young.

That’s the central notion, the vaguely articulated impulse, the often-unexamined presumption behind a good deal of conservative educational rhetoric.  Schooling these days has declined from glory days of the past.

In an essay in The American Interest, Charles Hill warns of the real consequence of decadence in American life.

As Hill notes, the idea of civilizational decline and fall is an old one.  Yet Hill insists that it retains explanatory power; Hill makes the case that twenty-first century America is sliding into a dizzying downward spiral.  Everything from technologically induced “screen culture” to awkward proletarianization of elites can be better understood as part of a lamentable decadence.

As Hill concludes,

Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, “decadence” arose as a romantically thrilling elitist fashion, providing a “sweet spot” in which a privileged, self-selected class could revel in dissolute practices while applauding their own cultural superiority. At the turn of the 20th to the 21st century something akin has emerged—call it a democratized form of decadence—among a far wider swath of the population, with the support of government and approbation of the cultural elite. Many observers have gazed upon such phenomena, then and now, and have seen mainly the sources of shifts in the art world. We move from the 1913 New York Armory Exhibition to mainstreaming of “street art” a century later rather effortlessly. But if what is at stake is world order, with national character and identity as its foundation stone, and democracy as the procedurally and practically most efficacious political form, then the fate of the art world may be the least of our concerns.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety.

Of particular interest here are its implications for American education.  Hill makes a few points about this himself.  For one thing, he notices the disturbing intellectual ramifications of “screen culture” especially among the young.  A generation accustomed to viewing people on computers, tablets, TVs, and phones, able to view without being viewed, Hill argues, adds a “new dimension” to old ideas about decadence.  Weaned on screen culture, Hill says, young people “can become oblivious to others.”

In a nuts-and-bolts way, Hill notes the way our current decadence has squeezed out learning in favor of training.

Of more consequence than the specific educational ramifications argued by Hill is the sense of decline Hill articulates.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, it is nearly impossible to understand the conservative impulse in American educational thought and activism without grasping the power of the idea of decadence.  Leading conservative intellectuals—even ones from very different backgrounds—have all grounded their educational philosophy on a notion that the educational system in the United States has ground down in a systematic pattern of decline.

In his landmark work Capitalism and Freedom, for example, free-market theorist Milton Friedman insisted that American public education entered a noticeable period of decline after the American Civil War when the government “gradually” (page 85) stumbled into the near-total “‘nationalization,’ as it were, of the bulk of the ‘education industry’”(page 89).

Conservative education leader Max Rafferty agreed about the decadence, but argued for a different time and cause.  The problem really began, Rafferty believed, in the 1930s, when “Dewey-eyed” reformers injected a deeply flawed notion of education into the American cultural bloodstream.  Instead of learning heroic truths and facing moral challenges, students in post-1930 “life-adjustment” classrooms only learned to revel in their own inability to determine right from wrong.  Such decadent teaching and learning, Rafferty argued in his 1963 book Suffer, Little Children, produced a weak generation, unable to combat the existential threat from “a race of faceless, godless peasants from the steppes of Asia [that] strives to reach across our bodies for the prize of world dominion.”

Though he viewed the goals of education very differently from Rafferty and Friedman, creationist leader Henry Morris agreed that public education had declined dramatically.  The root of the problem, Morris argued in his 1989 book The Long War Against God, lay in a one-two punch of Unitarianism and secularism.  The first blow had come in 1869, when Unitarians took over Harvard University.  Their example led American education away from its roots in what Morris considered to be authentic Christianity (pages 46-47).  The second decisive weakening came later, with John Dewey’s rising influence in public education.  That influence, Morris argued, led public schools away from religion into a markedly anti-religious humanism.

These examples could be multiplied nearly endlessly.  William J. Bennett, for instance, has argued with his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators that American culture as a whole—especially including its public schools—has declined terrifyingly since 1960.

It is taken as an article of faith among many conservative educational thinkers and activists that education today is worse than it has been.

This is more than the common griping about “kids these days.”  This is more than the old story about how when I was young I had to walk to school barefoot, through ten feet of snow, uphill both ways.

To understand conservative thinking about education, we have to understand this assumption of decadence.  Not many activists articulate this sentiment as clearly as the intellectuals described here.  Not many offer the careful examination of the meanings of decadence expressed by Charles Hill’s recent essay.

But behind many of the policies promoted by educational conservatives lurks this ubiquitous sentiment: things today are worse than they have been in the past.  Schools today are worse than they have been in the past.

 

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