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.


As argued in earlier posts, the vision of proper schooling among traditionalist educators is so culturally powerful it rarely needs to be articulated.  One goal of schooling, traditionalists assert, is to learn things.  This seems obvious, yet throughout the twentieth century, traditionalists believe, a small but influential cadre of “progressive” educators has maneuvered the public debate about education into a discussion of ways schools can be used instead to achieve other goals.  Schools, these self-proclaimed progressives have argued, can be the institutions that acclimate students to society.  Schools can be the institutions that help students shed their prejudices.  Schools can be, first and foremost, a way to form the character of young people into more egalitarian models.

Such progressives have denigrated the notion that schools should mainly be a place to acquire more information.  Similarly, progressives have denied the powerful idea that schools must be the way to lift poor people out of poverty; they have denied that schools can be the path to greater economic earning power.  Of course, most progressives and traditionalists agree that school must not become only this.  Both sides want part of school to remain learning for its own sake.  But progressives often attack this notion that schooling can be used to get ahead by countering that this is only a myth of the dominant class.  Scholars such as Michael Apple, Paolo Friere, Michael Katz, and Joel Spring have made powerful arguments that real schools only reproduce social inequality.  They insist that the myth of economic advancement through formal education is the fig leaf that justifies an entrenched economic and social hierarchy.  In order to keep the poor from recognizing the injustice of American society, this argument goes, elites offer second- or third-rate educational institutions to the poor and to ethnic minorities.  Those elites can then claim, perhaps even sincerely believing it, that those poor folks who don’t do well in school are failing due to their own laziness and intellectual dimness.  All the while, those schools for poor people offer no real chance of economic advancement.

This argument, traditionalists counter, ignores historical reality.  In every generation, smart, ambitious, hard working young people have used education as their path to a better life.  Consider just a few brief case studies.  Frederick Douglass, for example, the famous escaped slave, used education as his literal path to freedom.  In his case, the institutional systems of education certainly worked against him.  As a young slave, Douglass was forbidden to learn to read.  One of his owners taught him some basic literacy.  But her husband insisted that such education would ruin a slave.  Douglass persisted, and taught himself to read and write nevertheless.  The reading that he was exposed to, gleaned from snatched secret moments with abandoned newspapers and primers from white children in the neighborhood, convinced Douglass of the fundamental injustice of the slave system.  One of his first activities as an antislavery activist was to found a secret literacy school for his fellow slaves.  The goal of that school was not, as so many progressive education advocates have hoped the goal of schooling would be, to adjust slaves to their lived conditions.  Instead, the goal was to give slaves academic skills and information they did not already have.  Frederick Douglass was convinced that this was the ultimate goal of schooling.  His owners believed it as well.  As soon as they discovered his secret school, they broke it up immediately.  The slave owners agreed that the purpose of a school was to impart knowledge.  In this case, that was something they could not allow, since it threatened to move slaves out of their ignorance and give them literacy skills that could help them escape from slavery.
There was no doubt in the minds of either the slaves or their owners that the purpose of schooling was to improve one’s position.  The knowledge acquired in secret slave schools was used to move slaves out of slavery into freedom.

It does not take such dramatically unjust social systems to see the ways schooling has been used as a way to improve economic position.  There are plenty of examples from more recent history of the ways schooling has served as the path out of poverty.  Consider the case of former US Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell.  Whatever one thinks of his politics, Powell’s career demonstrates the elevating power of formal schooling.  Powell was born in Harlem.  He worked his way through high school, then through the City College of New York. Thanks to his education, he was able to rise in the ranks of the Army, eventually becoming one of the most powerful and influential leaders of the country.

Or how about the story of Sonia Sotomayor?  She was also born in New York City, the Bronx.  Her family didn’t have a lot of money, but she worked hard in school and earned a full scholarship to Princeton.  Her work there propelled her into the legal career that has resulted in her current place on the US Supreme Court.

And what about Leonard Covello?  With his family, Covello came to New York in 1895.  They didn’t have money; they didn’t speak English.  But Covello worked hard in school and earned a college education.  By the end of his career, Covello had become a national leader in education.

It doesn’t take this kind of rags-to-riches story to prove the point.  The number of people who use schooling to move themselves and their families out of poverty is too many to count.  There are examples anyone involved in education could name.  My first teaching job was at an inner-city middle school in Milwaukee.  The school existed, as do so many schools across the nation, to help students use formal education as their path to a better life.  Did it work for every student?  No.  But the life chances of some of these young people would have been far worse if it had not been for the opportunities presented by formal education.  The notion that schools aren’t working if they don’t lift EVERY young person out of poverty represents a mistaken idea about the nature of schooling.  Schooling is an opportunity, not a guarantee.

Historically, one progressive critique of American education is that it has failed in its mission to lift every poor child out of poverty.  American education, in this view, is a failure since it did not end racial segregation.  American education, such progressive critics might say, is a failure since it has not eliminated widespread poverty.  Such thinking is a misrepresentation of the nature of both society and schooling.  It certainly seems true that schools for more affluent children offer advantages not available to kids from families in traditionally disadvantaged groups.  But this kind of structural injustice is more than schools can fix.

The promise of schooling in America is not that it will lift every poor child out of poverty.  The promise has always been that schooling will be available as a lifeboat.  In the meantime, it is difficult not to resent the fact that schools for more affluent children seem more like cruise ships.  Those young people can relax and enjoy the ride.  But those left rocking in unsteady waters in flimsy lifeboats must work tirelessly simply to stay in place, much less move ahead.  Not all of them will succeed economically, whereas a much larger proportion of cruise-ship students will.

The crucial point, however, is not that this situation is unfair.  It manifestly is.  The important point here is one that ‘progressive’ critics of American education often ignore or don’t recognize.  The main point is that schooling itself is not to blame for this situation, any more than the makers of lifeboats are to blame if a ship hits an iceberg.  Lifeboats and cruise ships are not equal.  They are not fair.  But no one has promised every student from every background the same cruise experience.  Rather, schooling in America has functioned and will continue to function as a chance to change one’s economic position, to dislodge oneself and one’s family from received positions in the economic hierarchy.

Let me describe just one example of the kinds of possibilities that formal, traditional education can offer.  One of our students, I’ll call him Student X, came to the United States in fifth grade.  He didn’t speak any English.  His family didn’t have any money.  But he worked hard in middle school, learned English, and set his sights on serving the Latino community.  He worked hard through high school, and earned a full scholarship to a prestigious college and medical school.  He is now on his way to becoming a doctor.  He plans to return to his old neighborhood to serve low-income and recent immigrant families who struggle to find affordable medical care close to home.

This has always been Americans’ expectation of school.  One Gallup poll in 1972 asked respondents to describe their primary reasons for going to high school.  The number one reason was to get better jobs.  The number three reason was to earn more money.

Schooling, of course, must be about more than just economic improvement.  It should make each young person a better person.  But the “progressive” notion that schools have not been able to help people improve their lives just doesn’t match either experience or the hopes and dreams of most Americans.  Most of all, the progressive criticism of schools misunderstands the nature of schooling.  It can not and never has been able to solve poverty.  Instead, formal schooling has been available as a chance, an opportunity, to improve one’s economic position.


FURTHER READING: Paolo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970); Michael Apple, Educating the ‘Right’ Way (2006); Michael Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform (1968); Joel Spring, The Sorting Machine Revisited (1989); David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia (1995); Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of a Slave (1845); Colin Powell, My American Journey (2003); Michael C. Johanek, Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School (2006); Jonah Winter, Sonia Sotomayor: The True American Dream (2010).

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).