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.