Why Do We Want our Schools to Fail?

The numbers are in, and they are good. So why aren’t we celebrating?

Here’s the story: For the past two years, graduation rates have continued to climb for Washington DC schools. And here’s the dilemma: Why don’t we hear more about our continuing love for and satisfaction with our public schools?

Most of us like our local public schools. As Gallup polls have showed over and over again, public perception of public schools is hugely skewed. Large majorities of respondents with kids in public schools are very happy with those schools. But majorities also say that public schools in general are in terrible shape.

gallup people like their local schools

We love our schools…except we don’t.

In our nation’s capital, the news has been good for the last couple of years. In 2016, new programs and policies led to increased graduation rates. That trend has continued this year.

So why don’t we see more headlines about the improving state of public education? Why don’t we hear more about the fact that most parents like their local public schools?

I have a hunch that won’t surprise SAGLRROILYBYGTH. When it comes to our bitter educational culture wars, both sides have an interest in promoting bad news.

Progressive types like me worry that schools for low-income and minority students have always suffered from a lack of funding and attention. When we look at the headlines from DC, it’s easy to a huge lurking BUT. Yes, graduation rates are improving and hitting all-time highs, but they still reflect the cruel inequities of our schools and society. As WaPo notes,

In D.C. Public Schools, black and Latino students also saw a boost in graduation rates — to 72 percent and 71 percent, respectively — but they still lag behind their white classmates by more than 10 points.

Plus, the improvements in graduation rates still vary tremendously by school. At selective high schools—schools that non-coincidentally educate a richer, whiter population—more students graduate on time. The numbers are much worse for neighborhood schools.

DC schools are good

Good news travels slow.

The takeaway? For progressive pundits, saying the news is good feels like a betrayal of all the students and families who still aren’t getting a fair shake.

Conservative education pundits don’t agree with that progressive argument, but they also tend to pooh-pooh any sorts of optimism. For many conservatives, the news from DC is still bleak. Public school systems, some conservatives think, are still throttled by sclerotic union-dominated bureaucracies. They don’t really teach kids. For proof, they can point to other parts of WaPo’s reporting:

At H.D. Woodson High School, for example, 76 percent of its students graduated on time, yet just 1 percent met math standards on national standardized tests linked to the Common Core academic standards. Just 4 percent met reading standards.

Shuttling a bunch of under-educated students across the graduation stage, conservatives might argue, doesn’t mean the schools are really doing a decent job of training students for jobs and passing along the big ideas of our culture. All it means is that union-ruled pencil-pushers are inflating their numbers. What public schools really need, conservatives might say, is an authentic shake up, a thorough-going privatization with charters and vouchers.

In every case, pundits tend to prefer bad news. It’s hard to fundraise when you tell people things are fine and getting better.

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What’s a Guy Like Me Supposed to Do?

I’m torn. I don’t know what progressive historians are supposed to think. On the one hand, whenever conservative politicians try to ban a historian as “anti-American,” it makes us all want to rally around. On the other, though, when that historian has been convicted of peddling “bad history,” it doesn’t seem right to recommend him.

A new celebration of the late Howard Zinn at The Progressive brought all these questions back to mind. To many of my fellow progressives, it seems, Professor Zinn still represents real history, the “people’s” history. Even Matt Damon says so. Academic historians, however, even those with impeccable progressive credentials, have condemned Zinn’s work as schlock.

Most famously, Michael Kazin blasted Zinn’s work as “unworthy of . . . fame and influence.” Kazin pulled no punches. In words calculated to pierce the heart of any historian, Kazin accused Zinn of reducing

the past to a Manichean fable and mak[ing] no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live? His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship.

Ouch.

Kazin is not alone. Top historians could offer only a mixed bag of tepid enthusiasm and vague condemnation for Zinn’s legacy.

From Stanford, history-education guru Sam Wineburg came down staunchly against Zinn’s polemic effort. It might make for good leftist locker-room speeches, but Zinn’s book repeated all the terrible flaws of mainstream textbooks, Wineburg argued.

So what are we to make of Howard Zinn’s legacy? Should we encourage young people to read a book that isn’t great history? Because it might open their eyes to bigger truths about American society? Or are progressives supposed to be the side of unvarnished truth instead of self-serving propaganda?

Wait…WHAT Is “A” For?

A is for Activist. Or…no wait, turns out A is for Apologetics. No matter what your cultural politics, it seems everyone wants to indoctrinate the children. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, that’s just not how education really works.

Here’s what happened: I couldn’t help but notice the odd coincidence I stumbled across recently. From the progressive-y-est progressives to the staunchest fundamentalists, everyone seemed to be shilling similar sorts of books for young people—books meant to inoculate children politically or theologically against their environments.

a is for activist

A recent story in the New York Times describes the trend among lefties. Board books such as A Is for Activist have sold tens of thousands of copies. As one bookseller noted, prog parents seem to want to protect their children from Trumpism. As she put it,

When racist, misogynistic and hateful rhetoric has become mainstream, offering affirming and respectful messages to my children seems more urgent than ever.

The books offer cute lines for young readers, stuff like this:

‘F’ is for Feminist. For fairness in our pay.

‘J’ is for Justice! Justicia for all.

L-G-B-T-Q! Love who you choose.

Who buys such stuff? Progressive parents who worry that their children might not come to these conclusions on their own. As one mother told the Times,

Because we are a white, heterosexual, cisgender family living in a racially homogeneous area…we strove to have people of color in our books, or families, maybe, with two dads or two moms.

Will it work? Not really. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t shared across culture-war trench lines.

Among his summer outreach projects, for example, creationist impresario Ken Ham announced a new set of books for fundamentalist youth. Instead of A being for Activist, though, Ham’s books make A for Apologetics. (B, by the by, is for “Biblical Authority.” C is for “Chronological.”)AIG ABC

If we ignore the content of his warnings, Ham’s attitude sounds almost identical to that of the nervous progressive parents. Why do parents need new ABC books? Because, Ham warns, his “national research” has determined that too many fundamentalist children end up abandoning their faith. In these perilous times, Ham warns, parents and churches need new resources to help keep their children on the straight and narrow.

On both sides, parents are nervous about the future beliefs of their toddlers. Both sides worry that their environments are politically or religiously dangerous. And both sides hope that a well-placed book will make the difference between faith and failure.

And, of course, both sides are wrong. Books matter. But no book can turn any child into something he or she is not. No kid today, for example, would turn into a Puritan if he or she stumbled across the New England Primer.

NewEnglandPrimerAtoM

Whoops! Turns out “A” is actually for “Adam’s Fall.”

Rather, books—like formal schooling itself—are only a small part of the education of young people. If progressive parents raise their children in a homogenous, anti-diversity community, their children will probably think those values are right on. And if fundamentalists raise their children to inquire deeply into their faith, those children will probably grow up to do so.

Culture Wars Update: Who’s Winning?

Is the sky falling for progressives like me? In The Atlantic, journalist Molly Ball argues that liberals are losing the culture wars. The same topic just came up in our recent panel of educational historians. Is Ball right?

Four horsemen?

Four horsemen?

She looked at the results of the recent mid-term elections. In Ohio, voters rejected recreational marijuana. In Houston, they voted against gender-neutral bathrooms. In San Francisco, they booted an immigration-friendly sheriff. In Virginia, gun control struggled. In Kentucky, Kim Davis’s brand of in-your-face culture-war bluster helped win the governor’s office.

Ball’s conclusion?

taken together these results ought to inspire caution among liberals who believe their cultural views are widely shared and a recipe for electoral victory.

Fair enough. But not surprisingly, our all-star panel of historians came to different conclusions. To historians, these electoral losses don’t seem so cataclysmic. After all, consider the historical context: people are voting about making pot legal. Can you really deny Andrew Hartman’s argument that the echoes of the 1960s are dominated by the accents of hippies?

And yes, Houston lost its push for bathrooms that recognize the fluidity of gender. But look again: Who lost? The city in Texas with the openly gay mayor, that’s who.

We can make the same case for the other elections as well. Yes, conservatives here and there will have some successes in blocking the progressive changes that continue to roll through our society. Such blocking maneuvers, however, are a rearguard action.

Voting against gender-neutral bathrooms does not change the fact that we are now considering gender-neutral bathrooms. Thirty years ago—heck, even five years ago—that would not have been up for debate.

I think we need a more nuanced answer to the question of winning and losing when it comes to our culture wars. In my recent book, I looked at the educational activism of conservatives during the twentieth century. A lot of the time, they won. But just as with these recent cases, conservatives tended to succeed only in blocking or delaying certain limited sections of progressive change. Progressives still set the cultural agenda.

Here’s my two cents: first of all, I agree with our dean of educational historians, Jon Zimmerman. Jon argued this week that it is mostly meaningless to talk about winning or losing in this context. As does this Atlantic article, talk about winning or losing is usually a tactic to rally the faithful of each side, not a clear-headed analysis of shifting cultural trends.

Having said that, I think we can discern a century-long trend with these sorts of fights. In every case, conservatives might win or lose the specific battle. They do not win the war. What they do win, time after time, is the right to be listened to, the right to be considered part of the conversation about these issues.

For progressives like me and most of my friends, progressive change seems like an obviously good idea. Of course people should be able to smoke pot if they want. Of course transgender people should be able to use appropriate bathrooms. Of course guns should be controlled, immigrants welcomed, and same-sex marriage rights should be honored.

When we see election results like this one, though, we are reminded that not everyone agrees with us. When we see how strongly people disagree, we should not tear our hair and gnash our teeth. We should not lament the narrow-mindedness of our fellow citizens.

Rather, we should recognize the vast differences between Americans when it comes to these issues. As we do here at ILYBYGTH, we should do our best to understand and even sympathize with those voters who disagree with us.

After all, the only real victory in our bitter culture wars will come when we can respect those with whom we disagree.

What Joe Biden Didn’t Mean to Say

Unlike the GOP, the Democratic presidential hopefuls seem united about education policy, to the point of boringness.  In his promise not to join the race, however, VP Joe Biden made some odd historical claims about schooling.  Surely he didn’t mean to imply what my nerdy ears heard.

Say, it ain't so, Joe...

Say, it ain’t so, Joe…

The Democratic leaders seem to have rallied around the promise of free or reduced college tuition for all.  That was the point Vice President Biden made.  “We need to commit,” Biden intoned,

To 16 years of free public education for all our children.  We know that 12 years of public education is not enough.  As a nation, let’s make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education 100 years ago.

With apologies to the SAGLRROILYBYGTH, let me clarify at the outset: I am no Biden-basher.  I will be voting Democrat in the upcoming presidential election.  Guaranteed.

But that doesn’t mean that Democrats get a free pass to Stupid.  Let’s politely ignore for the moment Biden’s implication that students in the USA now receive 12 years of public education.  For most kids, the real number is thirteen years, including kindergarten.  In many states, it is fourteen years or more, including pre-k and preschool.  But let’s not focus on such details.

The real stumper in VP Biden’s claim is that the United States committed to free high school for all in or around 1915.  That just doesn’t fit, for two reasons.  First, the history of high school attendance and tuition is much more depressing and complicated than Biden implies.  Second, there is a much more obvious parallel that he and other leading Democrats could draw.  Why don’t they?

To take them one at a time: Every nerd knows that a majority of 14-17-year-olds did not begin attending high school until the 1930s, not the 1910s.  Moreover, most so-called “public” high schools—the line between “public” and “private” schools as we know them was vague—stopped charging tuition by the 1870s, not the 1910s.  As historian extraordinaire William J. Reese has demonstrated in his book The Origins of the American High School, the high school has had a long and jagged path from elite finishing school to mass institution.  There was no obvious transformation 100 years ago.

Here’s the worst part for Biden: The reason more kids began attending high school in the 1930s was depressingly obvious.  The Great Depression crushed the economy and squeezed the most vulnerable workers out of scarce jobs.  For young people, there was often no viable option outside of school.  I know Biden didn’t mean it, but his promise to revisit America’s commitment to high-schooling for all implies a desire to return America’s economy to the dumpster.

Nerds have another question for Democrats: Why don’t they make the more obvious parallel?  This great nation has a long history of free college tuition.  Some of the best of our public institutions began with free (ish) tuition for locals.  If we want to go back that far, The University of Pennsylvania was opened as a radical new vision of higher education, one that would be attainable to all.  Cornell University, too, promised that students could work their way through without worrying about tuition costs.

In more recent and relevant history, the University of California system—still home to our country’s most prestigious public universities—long promised a tuition-free education for residents.  The City College of New York, too, was built on the idea of free elite college educations.

Of course, students still paid in one way or another.  School was not absolutely free but rather a mish-mash of fees and living costs.

When they talk about free college, why don’t Democratic leaders talk about this history?  Maybe they do and I just haven’t paid close enough attention.  But in recent debates and speeches, Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders, Governor O’Malley and now VP Biden all repeated this dream of free college as a new thing, an innovation, a shiny promise.

Why don’t they sell it instead for what it is: One of America’s most cherished traditions of higher education?

I have a hunch.  Democratic leaders don’t want to be seen as old-school leftists, rewarming the failed policies of the 1780s, 1860s, 1930s, or 1960s.  Instead, they want to appear to offer the public something new, something bold, something untried and remarkable.

I’m all for it.  My beloved university is not tuition-free for all, but it fulfills the promise of affordable public higher education for many of our students.  I believe in the American tradition of affordable and attainable higher education for those who want it.

But I also believe in learning from the past.

Happy Thanksgiving: Our Culture-War Holiday

Ah, Thanksgiving…when families gather to eat birds, watch football, and shout at each other. The Thanksgiving tradition of fighting over issues such as gay rights, abortion, taxes, and school prayer has been hallowed by generations of angry get-togethers. After all, when you put a bunch of people around a table, related only by genetics, and feed them too much tryptophan and wine, culture-war fireworks are bound to happen. Today we’ll share some of the punditry about Thanksgiving culture-war battles we’ve gathered from minutes of browsing the interwebs.

I Disagree with You, but I Respect your Commitment to your Position!

I Disagree with You, but I Respect your Commitment to your Position!

1.) Progressives Use Thanksgiving to Convert Conservatives:

At National Review Online, Katherine Timpf cocks a snook at “ridiculous” progressive suggestions for fixing conservative family members. Progressives, Timpf warns, are out to get conservatives this year. Some progressives threaten to turn the Macy’s parade into a feminist diatribe. Others will blather on about the fact that many Americans don’t celebrate Christmas. Some might seize upon the progressive missionary opportunities of the occasion, buttonholing conservative relatives on the issue of climate change, then following up with an email from the Union of Concerned Scientists. If conservative evangelical or “Tea-Party” relatives try to belittle gay marriage or Obamacare, some progressives advise their minions to take conservatives down with prepared statements from the government or the book of Leviticus. And, of course, just to make sure everyone suffers from indigestion, there is at least one progressive pundit out there advising folks to use Thanksgiving to laud the Common Core.

2.) How to Win a Thanksgiving Argument with Conservative Relatives:

At Policy.mic, Gregory Krieg offers a progressive how-to guide for culture-war arguments. Your conservative “bloviating cousin,” Krieg warns, will certainly bring up some culture-war issues. Krieg offers ways to put conservatives in their places on issues such as the Ferguson riots, Obamacare, Obama’s immigration plans, Bill Cosby’s alleged serial rapes, legalizing marijuana, and more. In each case, we’re told, there are factual, reasonable rebuttals to the sorts of “unreasonable, knee-jerk opinions” conservative relatives will be spouting.

3.) How to Publicly Shame your Conservative Uncle:

From an Iowan progressive, we see a few tips on ways to beat your conservative uncle in holiday arguments. It’s important, progressive Iowan Trish Nelson warns, not to “appear too thoughtful—conservatives may confuse this for weakness.” After pounding your conservative relative with piles of facts to explode his ill-considered myths, Nelson promises,

your conservative Uncle will be roasting in his own myths and half truths, so forgive him if he’s a bit thrown off. Take your time and be patient, let him fully cook, and patiently explain the error of his ways.

4.) Again with the “Crazy Right-Wing” Uncle!

I don’t know why uncles are the repository for conservatism this year, but from the LA Times Joel Silberman offers progressive advice on handling a conservative uncle. Don’t fall for the temptation to be polite, Silberman suggests. It is a “patriotic” act to pick fights with your conservative relatives at Thanksgiving. Why? Because these days we don’t often get a chance to engage with people from the ‘other side’ of culture war issues. [Editor’s Note: Unless, of course, we read and comment in the pages of ILYBYGTH!] To be fair, Silberman is not advising the sort of knock-down, drag-out, drumstick-wielding family kerfuffle that I remember so fondly from my childhood. Instead, he suggests that everyone guide their discussion with “respect and know when to stop, and remember that relationships are more important than righteousness.”

Good advice, and a good place to stop. But just like every Thanksgiving fighter ever, I can’t resist getting in one last word. Instead of preparing arguments to win Thanksgiving showdowns, what if we progressives all spent time learning the best arguments our conservative relatives might make? Certainly nothing is less productive in culture-war battles than sitting back smugly and assuming our mastery of “facts” will soon bring our “myth”-laden opponents to their knees.

Rather, why not take an ILYBYGTH approach? Why not do some homework to learn why intelligent, informed conservatives might hold the positions they hold? Why not assume that people of good will might disagree sincerely on abortion, Obamacare, homosexual rights, evolution, and even the Common Core?

After all, the way to quiet a jerkface loudmouth uncle is not to publicly shame him. Rather, it might be more productive if we all studied the best arguments our culture-war opponents might make. Instead of asking: How can I trounce that argument? What if we asked: Why might someone believe that? Or, most important, what if we asked: How can we enjoy all of our blessings without screaming at each other?

America: Schools Taken over by Scheming Progressives

What sorts of history did you learn in school?  As I argue in a recent commentary published on History News Network, conservative thinkers and activists have often insisted that school history has been taken over by a scheming, America-hating, progressive history cabal.

It looks as if Dinesh D’Souza’s new film dives headfirst into that tradition.  In America: Imagine the World without Her, D’Souza denounces American education as woefully slanted.

In a recent interview about the film, D’Souza accuses even the best schools of teaching a “doctored account” of history.  Young people, D’Souza believes, have all been taught a skewed leftist history.  In his film, D’Souza hopes to counter this horrible history with a heroic counter-argument.

But as I found when I researched the twentieth-century history of conservative activism in the United States, I found that conservatives have exerted just as much influence over the nature of American education as have progressives.

So why do conservatives like D’Souza continue to insist that schools have been taken over by dunderheaded progressives?  If you want to read my humble opinion, you’ll have to check out the HNN essay.

Want School Reform? Go Medieval!

It’s hard to cross the street these days without bumping into a new panacea to fix America’s schools.  Longer school days, more parent choice, uniforms, more art, more math, more tech, less tech…everybody’s got a new idea to fix education.

We read today in the pages of Forbes Magazine a different sort of proposal.  To fix America’s high schools, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes, we should go medieval.  To be specific, we should emulate the tutorial style of education developed in the middle ages at Oxford University.  Could it work?  Or, more intriguing, could proposals like Gobry’s serve as a new grand educational rapprochement between conservatives and progressives?

In that tutorial system, Gobry argues, students read a book every week and write a short essay about it.  Then they share the essay with a small group, including a tutor and two or three fellow students.  There is no grading, there are no test scores.  The reading list would include great books, however we wish to define them.

Could it work?  Gobry insists that this plan is both practical and “urgent.”  Elsewhere, Gobry wrote that too often education is misunderstood.  His plan would put it back on track.  Even liberal leaders, Gobry pointed out recently, seem to agree that education is meant mainly to produce technically qualified but dead-eyed engines of economic growth. “Nobody stops to ask what education is for,” Gobry lamented,

because the answer is implicitly accepted by all: an education is for getting a job. It is, in other words, for being a cog in the giant machine of post-industrial capitalism. It is, in other words, for the opposite thing that our forefathers wanted for us. I do not use these words lightly, but it is against–in the sense that a headwind is against a ship–the very foundations of our liberty and our civilization.

We could nitpick about whether Gobry’s plan could work.  As a ten-year veteran classroom teacher, I can see plenty of holes that Gobry does not seem to recognize.  But a more interesting question for ILYBYGTH readers is this: Could Gobry’s proposal serve as the foundation of a grand rapprochement between liberals and conservatives?

Here’s what I mean: At the roots of both “progressive” and “conservative” educational reform traditions there lurks a desire to free students of mindless routine and push them to more rigorous study, more authentic, transformational learning.  John Dewey, for example, hoped his school reform program would eliminate mind-numbing recitations and force students to engage more thoughtfully with the big ideas.  And William F. Buckley sparked the post-war conservative fusion movement with his searing critique of the soft and soulless education peddled at his alma mater.

Dewey became the spokesperson for progressivism, while Buckley personified conservatism.  But when it came to the goals and process of learning itself, the two thinkers were not very far apart.  This may seem a shocker, but Gobry’s short essay supports the notion.  What thinking conservative would not support a notion of education that presses students to engage profoundly with the formative documents of our civilization?  That forces teachers to do more than process young humans and train them in lock-step obedience?  And what thoughtful progressive does not want an education that makes human freedom its primary goal?  An education that tears up meaningless standardized tests and instead engages students of every background to struggle with humanity’s oldest problems?

In the end, I don’t really think Gobry’s great-books plan will work as a silver bullet to fix America’s public schools. But Gobry’s line of thinking might serve as a way to get conservative and progressive intellectuals to come together in recognition of their vast similarities.