The Most Important Thing Anyone’s Ever Said

What is the most important line in the history of American education?  Something from Ben Franklin?[1]  Frederick Douglass?[2]  Horace Mann?[3]  John Dewey?[4]

According to Bruce Frohnen in the recent pages of The Imaginative Conservative, that honor goes instead to Annette Kirk.  Her line from the 1980s, Frohnen argues, offers traditionalist conservatives and anyone who cares about real education the only thread of hope in the blasted and devastated landscape of American public education.

Conservative intellectuals have long taken a dim view of the state of American education.  Frohnen opens his recent jeremiad with a nod to the terrible state of today’s schools.  “Can public education in the United States be saved?” Frohnen asks.

Given the stranglehold of teachers’ unions over school districts and state legislatures, the constant meddling of an ideologically motivated federal Education Department, the sheer weight of bureaucracy, and the commitment to mediocrity? Perhaps not.

But traditionalists such as Frohnen are not the only ones who tend to throw the school baby out with the modern bathwater.  Leftist historian Michael Katz, for instance, opened a new era of revisionist educational historiography in 1968 with his assertion that schooling in the United States has always been “conservative, racist, and bureaucratic.”[5]  Also from the left, Marxist economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis denounced American public education in 1976 as a tool of the economic elite.   Libertarian historian Joel Spring famously denounced the cookie-cutter domineering of “The Sorting Machine.”

Frohnen agrees with these folks about the terrible state of public education in the USA.  But it’s hard to imagine Professors Katz, Spring, Bowles, or Gintis agreeing with Frohnen about school’s saving grace.  According to Frohnen, the only glimmer of hope in the last generation has been a line inserted by Annette Kirk into the 1983 blockbuster report A Nation at Risk.

You history nerds out there might think that Frohnen is referring to some of the most famous lines of that report.  Every survey of American educational history, for instance, talks about the reports catchy warning about a “rising tide of mediocrity.”  Most surveys, too, note the apocalyptic edge to the report’s conclusion.  “If an unfriendly foreign power,” the report noted, “had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”  Ouch!  Take that, teachers’ unions!

But those memorable lines were not the ones to which Frohnen referred.  No, the most saving line of the report, Frohnen argues, was one inserted by the true conservative Annette Kirk.  In Frohnen’s words, Kirk made sure that the report included the principle that “parents are the first and primary educators of their children.”

Thanks to this perspicacious inclusion, American education has been saved from the worst strangleholds of state-dominated educracy.  Parents in the United States, Frohnen points out, still have the freedom to free their children from the school system entirely.  Homeschooling offers such parents their last best hope of seeing their children truly educated.

[1] “Genius without education is like silver in the mine.”

[5] Michael Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 3.

PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION II: Breaking Rocks and the School Regime

What are schools for?  Throughout American history, schools have been processing & containment units.  As Michael Katz wrote over forty years ago, public schools have always been “conservative, racist, and bureaucratic.”  If a student came from a wealthy family, the school trained that student to be wealthy.  If a student came from a poor family, or from a beleaguered ethnic minority, schools trained him to remain poor and put upon.

This has been done in big ways and in small.  On a social scale, this has been done by keeping African Americans segregated into underfunded schools.  Before the Brown decision in 1954, this was done explicitly and legally.  At some point since then, it has shifted to being done as a result of social segregation.  Poor people live clustered in poor areas.  Their schools are funded by property taxes on property that is not worth much, from people who do not have much money to give.  As a recent U.S. Department of Education study noted, schools with poorer students tend to pay their teachers less, likely because those schools hire the least-experienced teachers.  Once those teachers get a few years of experience under their belts, they tend to migrate to schools where the students come from more affluent families.  In other words, the poorest schools get the newest teachers.  The most experienced teachers serve the more affluent schools.  Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule.  Many teachers choose to remain in less affluent schools, but it is hard to resist the siren call of a more affluent school or district.

At the human level, this has been done by maintaining dictatorships in every classroom.  Teachers have remained authoritative figures, imposing the cruelties and absurdities of a biased society directly onto its young members.  There is no simple accident in the fact that schools and classrooms get more dictatorial as the students tend to get poorer and darker-skinned.  It is a direct result of the fact that school is used to impose society’s injustices on the young.  For those who benefit from a privileged role in society, the yoke is light, easy to wear, even comfortable and flattering.  They can have classrooms in which the teacher divests his authority and encourages the students themselves to take over.  But for those who are at the bottom of the economic scale, classroom practice becomes an obvious imposition of an unpleasant and unwilling obedience on students who have no good reason for complying.

It ought not to be a surprise that high-school completion rates match very closely to socio-economic status.  As schools become more and more like prisons, students will naturally view them more and more as unpleasant impositions.  As soon as students can get away, they will.  But even for those who remain in school, there are plenty of ways to avoid engagement with the educational regime.  In order to have any sort of meaning, education must be a process in which teachers, administrators, students, and families agree on the importance of the process.  Students don’t necessarily have to enjoy practicing math tables or reading about the Boston Massacre.  But they do need to buy into the notion that school is a place where they can and will do tasks that, in the end, have some meaning for the students themselves.  If they do not, then no amount of imposed authority will be able to force them to learn.

Consider this analogy: there is obviously an enormous difference between working out at a gym with a personal trainer and working on a chain gang breaking rocks.  With a personal trainer, a person has willingly engaged in this enterprise.  Despite the difficulty of the tasks assigned, the person willingly puts himself or herself through the routines.  No surprise: he or she has signed up for this kind of work.  Not that he or she won’t gripe or try to avoid the hardest parts of the workouts.  But in the end, a person working with a personal trainer agrees on the purpose and function of the training.  He or she is much more likely to work hard at it, even if he or she doesn’t like it.

That is very different from the imposition of physical labor as a regime of external punishment.  A person sentenced to such hard labor will not embrace the work.  He or she may be forced to make the motions, but he or she will never go beyond the absolute minimum of effort.  The two experiences are worlds apart.  Yet, in some ways, they are the same.  Both workers are being pushed to work hard.  Both are being pushed to work harder than they would work on their own.  Yet working at a gym with a personal trainer is understood as a privilege, a luxury even.  While working breaking rocks is a punishment.

The educational implications are obvious.  In schools for poorer kids, there is often a perception that students and families have not bought into the process.  Instead of opening up the school regime to encourage student and family buy-in, the depressing American tradition has been to impose sterner discipline and harsher authoritarian structures in order to force students to accept their roles as learners.

That is exactly the wrong approach.  It encourages students to see the schools as an entirely punitive institution, one that can and must be evaded or fought against.  For some students, that means leaving school at the earliest opportunity.  For those who remain, it means putting forth the absolute minimum required effort.  Learning can’t happen that way.  And the proof is seen in test scores and academic achievement measures.  When such scores are low, policy makers respond by saying students must require greater supervision, less intellectual and physical freedom, and a harsher, more demanding environment.  They push for military-style discipline, uniforms, and classroom pedagogies that devolve into teacher-led chants.

Such responses might be effective if students really were sentenced to punitive physical labor.  But in schools, real results can only come out of increased student embrace of their learning.


Further reading: Michael B. Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform (Teachers College Press, 1968); Joel Spring, The Sorting Machine Revisited (Longman, 1989).