Why Are Schools So Terrible?

Conservative intellectuals have long asked the question: What went wrong with America’s schools?

Of course, the question presumes that something HAS gone wrong.

We at ILYBYGTH don’t really care if America’s schools are terrible.  We’re more focused on dissecting conservative approaches to the question. How have different conservatives at different times offered different answers to this perennial question?

Now available free online is an argument I put together a few years back. The article appears in the pages of the storied Teachers College Record.

This article looks at the school-history visions of four very different conservative thinkers: Milton Friedman, Max Rafferty, Sam Blumenthal, and Henry Morris. Each of them agreed that public schools had become ineffective, even dangerous institutions. But the reasons they gave for that lamentable decline differed. Friedman, for example, blamed teachers’ unions and government control, beginning just after the American Civil War. Rafferty blasted the wrong-headed “progressive” takeover of the 1930s. Blumenfeld and Morris both looked further back, to a Unitarian coup at Harvard University variously timed either in 1805 (Blumenfeld) or in 1869 (Morris).

These conservative activists do not only differ in the timelines they gave for America’s educational decline, but also in their diagnoses and prescriptions. Friedman wanted a free-market solution. Rafferty hoped for clear-headed traditionalism. Blumenfeld wanted to scrap public education entirely. Morris hoped to heal schools with creationism.

In every case, these conservatives based their arguments about schooling on a historical vision. They are not alone. Activists of every political stripe use history to prove their points. In this essay, I outlined the ways a few prominent conservatives did so.

Beware: “Government Schools”

What’s the difference between a “government school” and a “public school?”

It seems a “government school” is one calculated to impose a sinister ideology of sloth, poor manners, high spending, and bestial morality on its students.

At least, that’s what reading today’s conservative headlines would lead one to believe.

Anyone who browses certain conservative writers and activists will soon notice this ubiquitous usage.  Again and again, we read about “government schools” instead of about “public schools.”

For example, pundit James Ostrowski warns readers to pull their children out of “government schools.”  There’s nothing more important if readers want to “save America, not to mention your own kids.  Government schools,” Ostrowksi warns,

Were not established out of any dire need for them but rather for a variety of crass religious, political and economic motives.  They were not immaculately conceived but rather were born out of a toxic stew of religious absolutism, Prussian militarism, utopian socialist leveling, special interest greed and power lust.

It is not only the history of “government schools” that troubles Ostrowski.  Today’s government schools, he insists, are “loaded with crime, bullying, drugs and sexual promiscuity.  They indoctrinate students into a false view of American history, one that is invariably favorable to ever-expanding government.”

Ostrowski’s jeremiad may sound far-fetched to some readers, but his strident anti-public-school-ism is widely shared among conservative commentators.

“Government schools” force students to act like slaves, we read.

“Government schools” expose children to drugs, sex, and even early deaths, we read.

It seems the phrase “public school” still retains too many positive connotations to suit the taste of some commentators.  In order to convince readers of the terrors of public education, many conservative activists seem to have adopted the label “government schools” instead.  With this flip of a rhetorical switch, those innocent red schoolhouses on the hill have been replaced by gloomy outposts of centralizing overreach.  “Government” schools carry all the terrifying baggage among some conservatives of any other government program.  If schools are outposts of the government, then they must be outposts of the regime to strip Americans of their traditional religion, their ferocious independence, and their hard-earned tax money.

I’ve been intrigued by this common rhetorical switch among conservatives lately.  It is a powerful yet simple change.  After all, no one can gainsay the fact that public schools are, indeed, government institutions.  But if we think of them as “public,” they seem to belong to us all.  If we think of them as the “government,” then we can rally Tea Party angst and energy to reject them.

The historian in me grew curious to track back this change in conservative school talk.  I looked back through all my overstuffed files and reading notes.

The earliest usage I could find traced back to the influential conservative pundit Sam Blumenfeld.  Blumenfeld wielded significant influence in the 1980s.  My research in the National Archives revealed that Blumenfeld’s work was promoted by the highest levels of William J. Bennett’s Education Department.

It was Blumenfeld that offered the earliest example I could uncover of calling public schools “government” schools.

In his 1981 book Is Public Education Necessary?  Blumenfeld warned that public schools did not live up to their own positive reputation.  Public schools did not work to promote democracy.  They did not function as religious and ideologically neutral institutions.  They did not wisely use public money.  They did not hire quality teachers.  In short, public schools, Blumenfeld argued, did not deserve their unassailed reputation as necessary governmental institutions.

In effect, Blumenfeld insisted, a student going to public school “emerges indoctrinated in a body of secular values as if he had gone to a sort of government parochial school.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that today’s conservative pundits are all deriving their use of the term “government school” directly from Sam Blumenfeld.  But his use was the earliest I could find.  My hunch is that Blumenfeld’s considerable influence among conservative educational activists did a great deal to promote the term’s widespread popularity today.



Apocalyptic Academics: Conservatives and the Myth of Outrageous Schools

There it is again!

Today we find yet another example of conservative commentators lambasting the outrageousness of public education.  This firmly ensconced tradition of school-bashing doesn’t make much sense to me.  I would think conservatives would want to promote public education in America as one field in which conservative ideas and ideals have taken firm control.

Today’s example comes from the pages of Public Discourse, in an essay by Professor William Jeynes.  The opening paragraph highlights the terrible activism of public schools:

An inquisitive elementary school student asked his teacher, “Is it wrong to steal?” The teacher replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?” This incident in a major midwestern public school alarmed thousands of parents, and reminded myriad others why they value religious private schools: these schools are usually guided by a moral compass for academics and behavior that public schools patently do not offer.

This notion of vaguely outrageous teaching in America’s vaguely described public schools is a dominant theme of conservative talk about public schooling.

Browsers of conservative media hear about high-school students strip-searched during exams, or teachers rewarded for “stomping” on the American flag.

In all these stories, public schools and their teachers loom as out-of-control dictators, blasting away at traditional morality, patriotism, religion, and common sense.

Nor is this theme a new one among conservative pundits.

In the 1980s, for example, commentator Sam Blumenfeld warned readers that “the neighborhood school is controlled by a national educational and bureaucratic hierarchy completely insulated from local community pressures and answerable only to itself.”[1]

In the 1970s, US Representative John Conlan (R-AZ) worked hard to control what went on in public schools.  Debating House Bill 12851 in May, 1976, Conlan advised,

I think one of the things that perhaps the gentleman from Michigan is not aware of is that there is a significant current in education to teach children that there are no values, there is no right, there is no wrong, that everything is relative, and it all depends upon situational ethics.[2]

As I argued in my 1920s book, conservatives in that decade also insisted on the terrifyingly amoral or immoral dominance of public schools.  For instance, one well-funded insurgent group, the Bible Crusaders, warned that public schools had been taken over by a conspiratorial sect determined “to secretly and persistently work to overthrow the fundamentals of the Christian religion in this country.”[3]

In all these tellings, schools and teachers represent insidious threats to traditional values.  As with Professor Jeynes’ recent warning, a single example, often vague or imprecise, is used as proof of the continuing trend of public schools nationwide. For some reason, conservatives have long tended to exaggerate the perniciousness of public schools.

Of course, this is not only a conservative tendency.  Progressives, too, often hyperventilate over isolated examples of conservative influence in schooling.  As we noted recently, for instance, the specter of creationism often looms much larger in the progressive imagination than it does in actual schools.

In the face of such assertions of apocalyptic academics in public schools, more careful scholarship demonstrates that most teaching fits in with local community values.  Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have noted that most teachers’ values match those of their school and district.[4]

Of course, there always are and always have been some teachers who flout local values.  But such events are newsworthy precisely because they are unusual.  In general, most teachers prefer to avoid controversy.  Most teachers, like most people, try to fit in.  The notion that teachers and schools are out to demolish the values of their students just doesn’t match experience.

Yet conservatives will presumably continue to trumpet examples of outrageous public-school teaching.  To a non-conservative like me, this does not make sense.  I would think conservatives would rather exaggerate the conservative nature of most public education.  These days, talk about public schooling is dominated by demonstrably conservative themes: privatization, competition, and union-bashing, to name a few.

Wouldn’t it make better strategic sense for conservatives to claim all of these as victories?

[1] Samuel L. Blumenfeld, Is Public Education Necessary?  (Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1981), 4.

[2] Congressional Record, May 12, 1976, pg. 13532.

[3] “The Bible Crusader’s Challenge,” Christian Fundamentals in School and Church 8 (April-June 1926): 53.

[4] Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 199-200.

In the News: The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and the “Educrats”

As several commentators have pointed out, the Chicago teachers’ strike puts Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in an awkward position politically. He has been gleefully endorsed by conservative Republicans such as VP nominee Paul Ryan.  Emanuel’s fight with the teachers’ union puts him on the side of union-busting GOP governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. 

In cultural politics, too, fighting with a teachers’ union puts Mayor Emmanuel in the company of decades, even generations, of conservative educational activists and intellectuals. As I discussed in an article in Teachers College Record a few months back, teachers’ unions have often been the primary villain in conservative versions of American educational history.

Free-market pioneer Milton Friedman, for example, blamed America’s educational woes on the increasing power of teachers’ unions. In Free to Choose (1990) the Friedmans explained that even well-meaning teachers and school administrators always want “greater centralization and bureaucratization” at the cost of worse schooling (pg. 157). Since the 1950s, Milton Friedman had argued that teachers’ unions invariably degraded education, since most teachers are “dull and mediocre and uninspiring” (Capitalism and Freedom, 2002 edition, pg. 96). Union control of school, Friedman believed, protected less talented teachers and led to less efficient, less effective schooling.

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Max Rafferty argued that the choking tendrils of unions and educational bureaucracy had almost killed real education. “Education evolved,” Rafferty argued in 1964, “from a sparkling, beckoning opportunity into a more humdrum, sober-sided obligation. It became hedged about with legal requirements and equalization formulas, credentialing criteria and personnel-pupil ratios.” (What Are They Doing to Your Children, 1964, pg. 109).

In the 1980s, conservative educational thinker Sam Blumenfeld called the National Education Association “the Trojan Horse in American Education.” Educational experts, Blumenfeld noted—what he called “remote educational commissions in far-off universities” (Is Public Education Necessary, 1981, pg. 4), had long planned to discredit traditional values in the eyes of American schoolchildren.

For these conservative educational thinkers, teachers’ organizations epitomized all that was wrongheaded about American public education. For free-marketeers like Friedman, unions selfishly choked out all alternate ideas about schooling. For traditionalists like Rafferty, union bureaucracy forced a pernicious pablum down the intellectual gullet of America’s schoolchildren. For more extreme conspiratorial thinkers such as Blumenfeld, teachers’ unions carried out a long-standing plot to rob Americans of their patriotic and spiritual heritage.

And now Rahm Emanuel stands on their side. Emanuel will be gleefully supported not only by contemporary conservative politicians like Paul Ryan, but by generations of conservative educational activists and intellectuals.

Traditionalist Teaching for Progressive Teachers? Lisa Delpit and Fundamentalism in Black and White

Fundamentalists don’t like progressive education.  They may not realize that they have some potential allies deep in the heart of the academic education establishment.

What do fundamentalists mean when they fight against “progressive education?”  For one thing, fundamentalists tend to pooh-pooh reading instruction that allows children to ‘discover’ reading on their own.  And they dismiss the notion that classroom teachers should put authority in the hands of students.  Also, fundamentalists often look askance at education professors who advocate soft-heading, child-centered classroom teaching that fails to deliver basic information and academic skills.

Generally, fundamentalists make these complaints from outside of the academy.  Some historians and other prominent academics—folks such as Arthur BestorRobert Hutchins,  or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—have critiqued the claims of progressive education, but most of the effective critics have worked outside of higher education.  But in the past generation, at least one prominent academic educator has critiqued “advocates of any progressive movement” who fail to consider the opinions of those “who may not share their enthusiasm about so-called new, liberal, or progressive ideas.”  The work of this world-famous educational activist is read at every school of education, especially ones in which teachers are trained to use progressive teaching methods.

Then why does she talk this way?  Because she framed the issue not as traditional and progressive, but as black and white.  Her name is Lisa Delpit, and her traditionalist critique of progressive education did not lead to her exclusion from the education academy.  On the contrary, she has received some of the academy’s most prestigious awards for her work, including a MacArthur “Genius” award in 1990 and Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Outstanding Contribution to Education award in 1993.

To be clear, Delpit demonstrated considerable differences from many other traditionalist education activists.  For example, she backs a multicultural approach to education, most conservative traditionalists do not.  (See the ILYBYGTH discussion of traditionalist critiques of multicultural education here, here and here.)  She supports reading in depth and excoriates rote instruction.

But she also pushes a traditionalist ideology of teaching.  She offers withering criticisms of progressive teachers’ justifications.  In one career-making speech and article from the late 1980s, Delpit castigated progressive educators for their misplaced softness toward students.  She cited with approval one African American classroom teacher who described her anger at white progressive teachers as “a cancer, a sore.”  This teacher had stopped arguing against progressive methods.  Instead, she “shut them [white progressive teachers and administrators] out.  I go back to my own little cubby, my classroom, and I try to teach the way I know will work, no matter what those folk say.”  Delpit suggested that a direct-instruction model matched more closely the cultural background of most African American students.  In one model Delpit described favorably, the teacher is the authority.  The goal is to teach reading via “direct instruction of phonics generalizations and blending.”  The teacher keeps students’ attention by asking a series of questions, by eye contact, and by eliciting scripted group responses from the students.  Such traditionalist pedagogy, Delpit noted, elicited howls of protest from “liberal educators.”

In a sentence that could come straight from such conservative traditionalist leaders as Bill Bennett or Max Rafferty, Delpit supported the notion of many African American educators that “many of the ‘progressive’ educational strategies imposed by liberals upon Black and poor children could only be based on a desire to ensure that the liberals’ children get sole access to the dwindling pool of American jobs.”

In another critique, Delpit argued that white, middle-class teachers hid their classroom authority in ways that were confusing to poor and African American students.  Teachers of all backgrounds, Delpit suggested, need to be more explicit about their power and authority in the classroom.  A good teacher, Delpit noted, was seen as both “fun” and “mean” by one African American student.  Such a teacher, Delpit’s interviewee argued, “made us learn. . . . she was in charge of that class and she didn’t let anyone run her.”

More important for fundamentalist activists, Delpit’s voice is not alone.  A call for traditional pedagogy and schooling seems to be gaining adherents among African American parents and educators.  We could look at the deep traditionalism of such prominent schools as the New York Success Academy Charter Schools.  Or we could probe the attitudes of those who run KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Schools, which tend to serve significant numbers of African American students.  In a recent article about school “paddling” in USA Today, one African American school administrator confirmed that she believed in spanking “because I’m from the old school.”

The numbers indicate African American students tend to receive corporal punishment more often than students of other racial backgrounds, but don’t indicate the level of support for such punishment among African American teachers as opposed to teachers of other races.  There are some indications that African American parents tend to use corporal punishment more often than other groups.  This would support Delpit’s assertion that many African American students have different cultural expectations from other students when they get to school.  But the same study asserts that a huge majority of parents of other groups also use corporal punishment at home.  And, indeed, there is a lot of support for corporal punishment at school among white conservative activists.  But such support generally comes as part of a broader traditionalist, anti-progressive ideology of schooling.

Delpit’s argument is different.  She argues for traditional authoritarian teachers within a progressive, multicultural educational system.

What does this mean?  I’ve got a couple of reflections, and I’d welcome more.

For one thing, it tells us something about the current state of education scholarship.  Seen optimistically, we might conclude that the popularity of Delpit’s work proves that education scholars are willing to embrace a true diversity of opinion.  That is, education scholars might not be the petty intellectual tyrants some traditionalists accuse them of being.  To cite just one example, arch-traditionalist Max Rafferty in 1968 accused the “education bureaucrats” of only speaking to regular people “with that air of insufferable condescension.”  Such “educationists,” Rafferty charged, only listened to one another; they only hoped to turn America’s schools into something approaching a “well-run ant hill, beehive or Hitlerian dictatorship.”  Delpit’s example of progressive traditionalism might suggest that education scholars are more open to dissent than Rafferty and others have consistently charged.

In a less rosy light, though, we might conclude that this is yet another example of the ways the mainstream academy is hamstrung over racial ideology.  We might wonder if Delpit’s ideas would be welcomed as fervently if education scholars weren’t so terrified of being considered racially insensitive.  It helps, of course, that Delpit is a wonderful writer and powerful polemicist.  But it is hard to ignore the question: How warmly would a scholar be welcomed who trashed the idea of progressive pedagogy in general?  Not just for one group of students, but for students and schools in general?

One other point jumps out at us: we apparently need to be more careful when we talk about traditionalist education.  I’ll plead guilty.  I am most interested in those traditionalists who act out of what we can fairly call a conservative impulse to transform American schools and society.  Folks like Rousas Rushdoony, Max Rafferty, Sam Blumenfeld, Mel and Norma Gabler.  Groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion.  Activists from these groups have long believed that teaching must be made more traditional so that American society itself can reclaim some of its lost glory.  But there are traditionalists like Delpit who hope that schools will transform school and society in a vastly different way.

Perhaps we need to treat “educational traditionalism” the way we treat “evangelicalism.”  A lot of folks, scholars and normal people alike, tend to treat “evangelicalism” as if it were the sole domain of white, conservative folks such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.  But religious historians are also interested in other forms of evangelicalism.  There have always been leftist evangelicals, for instance, as Raymond Haberski has recently noted.  And, of course, there has always been a strong evangelical tradition among African Americans.

Perhaps the most important notion to think about here is that we have more than one kind of educational traditionalism.  Bashing progressive education has long been the national pastime of educational conservatives.  For the last twenty-five years or so, such conservatives have been joined by an influential cadre of mainstream education scholars.

Further reading: Lisa Delpit, “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Harvard Educational Review 58 (Fall 1988): 280-199; Delpit, (1986). Skills and other dilemmas of a progressive black educator. Harvard Educational Review, 56(4), 379-386; Delpit, Lisa. (1995). Other People’s Children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: The New Press; Delpit, L & Perry, T. (1998). The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children (Eds.). Boston, MA: Beacon Press; Delpit, L. & Dowdy, J. K. (2002). The Skin That we Speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (Eds.). New York, NY: The New Press; Delpit, L. D. (2012). Multiplication is for White People: Raising expectations for other people’s children. New York:The New Press.

IN THE NEWS: Santorum on America’s Educational History

This just in from the Republican presidential campaign trail: Rick Santorum knows what conservatives want to hear.  Not much of a surprise there; Santorum’s knack for positioning himself as the true conservative has led him to a surprisingly strong showing lately.

Of interest to ILYBYGTH readers, Santorum recently described his views on the proper nature of American education.  In doing so, he zeroed in on issues that have long resonated deeply with conservatives.

According to stories in the New York Times  and Los Angeles Times (here and here), Santorum outlined his thinking about the nature of public education in a speech on Saturday to the Ohio Christian Alliance in Columbus.

Santorum has already attracted attention as a homeschooler and advocate of government vouchers.  As his official website articulates, Santorum believes parental choice is one way to “restor[e] America’s greatness through educational freedom and opportunity.”

In Saturday’s speech, Santorum blasted the current “factory model” of education.  Today’s public schools, Santorum insisted, represented an “anachronism,” a period in which “people came off the farms where they did home school or had a little neighborhood school, and into these big factories . . . called public schools.”

Proper schooling, Santorum declared, should begin—and often end—at home.  Santorum appealed to a historical vision that is near and dear to the hearts of many American conservatives.  For most of American history, Santorum argued, even the Presidents homeschooled in the White House itself.

Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America?  Santorum asked.  Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.

As I argue in an essay coming out this month in Teachers College Record,  this vision of the history of American education has been extremely influential among conservatives.  Since at least the 1950s, prominent conservative activists have based their prescriptions for healing American society on the notion that American education went wrong at a specific point in America’s past.  Of course, they also point out the corollary: conservative reforms can put it back on the right track.

Santorum appeals to a glorious educational past in which public schools had not yet tightened their stranglehold on educational opportunity.  This has been a common trope among conservative activists hoping to free traditionalists’ minds from the pernicious notion that education must look like today’s public education system.

Other common ideas that conservatives have insisted upon in their vision of American educational history:

  • schools started out as frankly religious institutions,
  • schools in the past did a better job of teaching more kids with less public money,
  • a set of notions known as “progressive education” ruined America’s strong tradition of real education, and
  • creeping state control led to ideological and theological totalitarianism in public schools.

On Saturday, Santorum indicated his agreement with these notions.  However, just as “progressive” educators have long fought over the proper meaning and function of schooling, so have conservatives.  In my TCR article I take a closer look at four leading activists since 1950:

  • Milton Friedman,
  • Max Rafferty,
  • Sam Blumenfeld, and
  • Henry Morris.

Each of these writers described a different vision of America’s educational past.  Like Santorum and generations of other conservatives, each agreed that the system had broken down.  However, also like Santorum’s unique insistence on the importance of Presidential homeschooling in the White House, each pundit laid out a unique educational past.

Anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America will be wise to listen to Rick Santorum this year.  He seems to have a knack for dishing out all the ideas Fundamentalists want to hear.



Traditionalist Education I: Discovery…of What?


Underlying the standard teaching that goes on in most American schools are some fundamental philosophical assumptions about what it means to be a person and the nature of right and wrong.    Beginning in the early twentieth century, progressive educators, led by John Dewey, voiced a vision of humanity that resonated across
American culture.  They recognized that the modern era demanded a new understanding of humanity.  This was a question with ramifications beyond the rarified air of academic philosophy.  Progressive educators took these modern notions of the nature of humans and spelled out their meanings for classroom education.  In brief, modern philosophy recognized that ancient understandings of humanity no longer made sense.  In the traditional view, humans were essentially different from the rest of the animal and vegetable world.  They had a soul, a connection to a transcendent plane of being.  The modern view saw people as one example of life on earth.  One that had evolved into some highly specialized forms, to be sure, but not essentially different from other animals.  There were no transcendent truths out there somewhere; there were no ideal forms casting shadows down upon humanity.
Rather, truths were generated by people, for people.  This did not mean that there were no values, no meaning to notions of right and wrong.  But it did introduce the modern intellectual dilemma: those values could no longer be left unquestioned; they could no longer simply be accepted as givens in a universe dedicated to unrelenting change.

Traditionalists invariably point to a document from 1933 to illustrate this pernicious philosophy.  Signed by John Dewey and an A list of other progressive personalities, the Humanist Manifesto  declared in stirring tones “The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world.  The time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes.”

What difference did these notions make to everyday classroom teaching?  At the most fundamental level, they suggested that learning should no longer be seen as the simple transmission of eternal truths from an older generation to a younger.  Young humans must not be seen as empty vessels to be filled with the wisdom of the ages.  Instead, the leading intellects of the progressive education idea argued that young humans, like humans of every age, construct their knowledge based on bits and pieces from their own lives.  In this understanding of humanity, education must not consist of mere lists of knowledge to be acquired, more or less successfully.  Rather, education must be built by each student, based on the experiences that student has already acquired.  In order to facilitate that construction of knowledge, schools and teachers must guide students in their educational process.  The role of the educator is no longer to simply dump knowledge into the young.  Rather, it must be to help those young people build their own knowledge.

For those who advocate traditionalist education, these changes meant a distressing shift in America’s assumptions about the proper role for its public schools.

FURTHER READING: Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (1995); Mel and Norma Gabler, What Are They Teaching Our Children? (1987); Tim LaHaye, The Battle for the Public School (1983); Sam Blumenfeld, Is Public Education Necessary? (1981)