We Need More Wax in America’s Ears

Jonathan Zimmerman says let her talk. When we defend academic speech we disagree with, we defend ALL academic speech. Jonathan Haidt says let her talk, because she’s right. Stable marriages and “bourgeois culture,” Haidt agrees, really do help people improve their economic conditions. We here at ILYBYGTH want Professor Wax to have her say for different reasons. We’ll make our case this morning and we’re going for bonus points by working in both creationism and the Green Bay Packers.

aaron rodgers jesus

I don’t think St. Aaron attended Penn Law…

If you haven’t been following the frouforole emanating out of Philadelphia, here it is in a nutshell: Professor Amy Wax of Penn Law and Professor Larry Alexander of UCLA penned a provocative piece at Philly.com. If we really want to ease the burdens of poverty, they reasoned, we should encourage more people to embrace “bourgeois culture.” Such ideas have gotten a bum rap, Wax and Alexander said, but the notions of deferred gratification, stable two-parent households, and patriotic clean living are of enormous economic value.

The outcry was loud and predictable. Penn students rallied to shut down such “white supremacist” notions. Wax’s colleagues denounced her ideas in more nuanced form.

Any progressive historians in the room surely share Professor Zimmerman’s concern. After all, when academic speech has been banned and persecuted in this country, it has been progressive and leftist scholars who have borne the brunt of such punishment.

There is a more important reason to allow and encourage a frank and open airing of Professor Wax’s arguments. As recent polls have reminded us, Americans in general are profoundly divided about the meaning of poverty. For argument’s sake, we might say there are two general sides. Lots of us think that the most important cause of poverty is a social system that defends its own built-in hierarchies. Rich people stay rich and poor people stay poor. Lots of other people disagree. Many Americans tend to blame individuals for their poverty, to assume that personal characteristics such as grit and gumption are enough to solve the problem of poverty.

Professor Wax’s argument tends to support the latter view. And if you disagree with her, you might be tempted to try to shut her down.

That’s a mistake.

Why? Because her arguments just don’t hold water. And because the more often we can get discussions of poverty on the front pages, the more chances we’ll have to make better arguments, to explain that America’s anxiously held Horatio-Alger notions don’t match reality.

In other words, when it comes to tackling the problem of poverty in America, the biggest challenge is that people simply don’t want to talk about it. They want to rest in their comfortable assumptions that the system is fundamentally fair even if some people don’t have what it takes to get ahead.

I’m convinced that the truth is different. Personal characteristics matter, of course. Far more important, however, is the whole picture—the social system that puts some kids on a smooth escalator to riches and others in a deep economic pit with a broken ladder.

Because I’m convinced that the best social-science evidence supports my position, I want to hear more from people like Professor Wax. I want to encourage people who disagree to make their cases in the front pages of every newspaper in the country.

Sound nutty? Consider a couple of examples from near and far.

Radical creationists like Ken Ham want to protect children from the idea of evolution. They fear, in short, that students who hear the evidence for evolution will find it convincing. With a few prominent exceptions, radical creationists want to cut evolution from textbooks and inoculate students against evolution’s powerful intellectual allure.

Those of us who want to help children learn more and better science should welcome every chance to put the evidence for mainstream evolutionary theory up against the evidence for radical young-earth creationism. Mainstream science should never try to shut down dissident creationist science. That’s counter-productive. Rather, mainstream science should encourage frank and open discussions, knowing that exposure to the arguments on both sides will convince more and more people of the power of mainstream thinking.

Or, for my Wisconsin friends, consider another example.

If a Bears fan wants to clamber up on the bar and insist that her team is better than the Packers, it would be the height of folly to try to stop her from speaking her piece. Those of us who know the true saving grace of St. Aaron will instead happily let her slur through her argument, smiling and waiting for Thursday night. The more games we play, the more often the Packers will win.

When the evidence is on our side, it is always better to encourage all the debate we can get.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

School reform and the kingdom of God…it’s been a lively week here at ILYBYGTH. Here are a few of the stories that might have slipped by us:

Don’t forget the public schools—Erika Christakis looks at the weird history of school-hating in The Atlantic.

Will it work? A student is suing Michigan State for refusing to let white-nationalist pundit Richard Spencer speak on campus, from The Hill.

Trump and his court evangelicals. Is he really the most faith-friendly president we’ve had?Bart reading bible

Teachers think it’s true, but it isn’t. Dan Willingham explores the durable mythology of learning styles.

American Apocalypse and 1920s creationism: Glenn Branch finds some goofs in Matthew Sutton’s history of American evangelicalism.

How resegregation works. A look at Jefferson County, Alabama, from the New York Times.

Why don’t state governments want teachers to get more money for books and supplies? Peter Greene offers an answer.

Why do people hate evolutionary theory? A new survey suggests it’s not necessarily because they hate evolutionary theory.

Think Confederate monuments should come down? I do. Turns out I’m an odd duck. You might be as surprised by the poll numbers as I was.

Time for another name change? Thomas Kidd asks if “evangelical” is still a meaningful label.

A defense of the offended: Penn’s Jonathan Klick explains why he signed the anti-Wax letter. He’s says it wasn’t about political correctness, but to a different sort of correctness.

Theocracy or social uplift? Ed Stetzer makes his case for dogma in the public square at Christianity Today.

Take the Terrible Schools Challenge

This week, I’m asking graduate students to consider a tough question: Are America’s public schools terrible? For our seminar, I asked them to read arguments from a bunch of smart people who say that it is, for different reasons. It leads us to our ILYBYGTH challenge of the week: Can you find a pundit these days who DOESN’T think schools are a mess?

For class, we read snippets from Paolo Freire, E.D. Hirsch Jr., and Terry Moe and John Chubb. They don’t agree on much, but they all started from the premise that most schools are horrible.

For Freire, the big problem was that schools tend to recreate the social hierarchies of an oppressive society. Even well-meaning teachers tend to see school as, at best, a way to help students get ahead in an inherently unfair society.

For Hirsch, the problem was Freire. Well-meaning progressives, Hirsch argues, think that teachers need to liberate students from learning. Balderdash, Hirsch argues. If we really want to make a more egalitarian society, we need schools to pour information into students more efficiently. We can’t afford to have teachers who try not to “bank” information into students.

For Moe & Chubb, the problems are rooted in stultifying tradition and self-seeking politics. Too many schools keep repeating mistakes of generations past, locked into inefficient and unfair structures because of the political power of entrenched organizations such as teachers’ unions.

Three very different visions of how to make schools better, but all with a strong agreement that schools today are terrible. We know that most Americans tend to have a skewed vision about school quality. According to Gallup, people think their kids’ schools are great, their local schools are fine, but the nation’s schools are abysmal.public view of public schools gallup

Why is that? Why do so many of us assume without thinking about it that public schools are terrible, when the local schools that we see every day are great?

Could it be because every pundit begins with the assumption that public schools are, at best, a cruel joke? Like Freire, Hirsch, Moe, and Chubb, writers about education tend to start with dire alarms. Whether you read the retreat-and-regroup plans of neo-Benedictine Rod Dreher, the subway fare of the “failure factory” headlines in the NY Daily Post, or the neo-progressive hand-wringing of Diane Ravitch, you could be excused for assuming that we must be in the midst of an alarming educational crisis.

Whatever their politics, most pundits start from the assumption that schools are terrible. So here’s our challenge: Can you find news headlines that disagree? Can you find stories out there about successful schools and wonderful teachers?

The Real Reason We Can’t Fix Our Schools

We all know public schools are not all equal. Rich kids get meticulous college-prep educations. Poor kids are often stuck in crumbling schools with shoddy expectations. Why haven’t we been able to fix this problem? We get a clue this week from an unlikely source. It underlines an unpopular argument I’ve been making for a while now: in spite of decades of “progressive” reform, our public education system is dominated by deeply conservative assumptions.

public school crappy

Do your local public schools look like this…

This week, our already-fractured academic world was thrown another culture-war bone to chew on by law professors Amy Wax (Penn) and Larry Alexander (UCLA). Writing at Philly.com, the two scholars articulated the unpopular idea that some cultures were better suited for modern American life than others. To help people in poverty, society should encourage them to live more stable personal lives, more in line with “bourgeois” culture.

Penn students and alumni condemned the essay as part of the culture of white supremacism. Some of Wax’s colleagues “categorically reject[ed] her claims.”

What does any of this have to do with school reform? A lot.

We don’t need to support or condemn Wax and Alexander in order to understand this. (Although, full disclosure, I personally put their argument in the same unfortunate category as James Damore’s Google goof. They twist social-science research to suit their own already-convinced positions. They play the provocateur merely to gain attention and they don’t mind articulating atrocious ideas in order to do so.)

public school fancy

….or more like this?

The point here is not whether or not Wax and Alexander are bold speakers of truth—as Jonathan Haidt has argued—or self-inflated stalking-horses for white supremacy.

The point, rather, is that this dust-up among elite academics shows the real reason why school reform is so difficult. It is not because we Americans are unwilling to invest in public education. As recent headlines from New York City have shown, we often have put bajillions of dollars into efforts to improve schools for students from low-income families.

As the case of the Wax/Alexander letter shows, the real reason we can’t fix public education is because we find it impossible to talk reasonably about poverty. Americans in general can’t even agree on the meaning of poverty. Some people think poverty is mainly due to personal failings. Others see the reason as structural inequality.

As a result, we talk instead about fixing schools so that poverty will be magically eliminated. Instead of talking about reforming society so that fewer students in public schools come from low-income families, we reverse the discussion. We talk about fixing schools so that more students from low-income families will get ahead in life.

In effect, our centuries-long strategy to avoid discussions of social reform by investing instead in school reform shows how deeply conservative our fundamental assumptions about schooling have always been. Instead of fixing society to eliminate poverty, we try to fix schools so that individual people might get a chance to escape poverty. Instead of directly addressing the third-rail topic of poverty in America, we sidestep the issue by making a few schools a little better.

The assumption is so deeply embedded in American culture that it is rarely noticed, let alone addressed. As long as kids from low-income families have access to a decent public school—the assumption goes—it is their own darn fault if they don’t improve their economic future. So money goes into shiny programs to make schools for low-income students a little better here and there, instead of going into programs that would change the fundamentally inequal structure of society itself.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I have to say it again. At the root of our endless failure to reform public schools is our endless failure to address the real problem. Schools can’t fix society, schools ARE society.

The 582-Million-Dollar Question

You’ve seen the headlines: One lucky person from Chicopee, Massachusetts won three-quarters of a billion dollars in this week’s powerball lottery. What can she do with her money? She could buy all the seats—ALL THE SEATS—at the next two Superbowls. She could buy an archipelago of private islands. But, apparently, even with all that money she couldn’t buy better schools for New York City students from low-income homes. Why not? We all know the answer, but we just don’t like to talk about it.

The New York Times reported today that New York’s 582-million dollar investment in its public schools has shown only meh results. Students at a couple of schools showed improvement on test scores, but overall the improvements don’t seem to match the size of the investment.

Why not?

The article concludes that the answer is mysterious. As the authors put it, “nobody knows precisely what works.”

That’s a cop out.

We all know what works: Schools that are part of enthusiastic, involved communities of families, teachers, administrators, and politicians. The problem comes when even the best-intentioned school reformers make the same error we’ve been making for centuries. If we want to improve educational outcomes, we can’t simply invest in academic interventions. And, to be fair, the program in NYC went beyond academics to provide health services for students.

Nevertheless, with apologies to SAGLRROILYBYGTH who are sick of hearing it, we need to repeat the mantra: Schools can’t fix society, schools ARE society. As long as students are living at the bottom of the economic ladder, they—as a whole, not as individuals—will continue to fare far worse on measures of educational achievement.

Why? Not because they lack talent or “grit,” but because they are carrying far heavier life burdens than students from more affluent families. Schools alone can’t level that playing field. No matter how much money we invest, we won’t be able to use academic interventions to solve the problems of poverty. Instead, we need to invest in schools as part of a broader investment in economic equality.

It’s not a mystery, but the sheer political impossibility of doing such a wide-ranging social and economic reform plan leads us always back to the same conundrum. We put the money into schools because we don’t want to confront the depressing truth that our problems are bigger than we like to think.

The Amazing Historio!

That’s right, folks, the Amazing Historio can tell the future. I can predict with shocking accuracy the path any new school-reform panacea will take. Actually, it’s not very amazing. Any teacher can do it. Anyone who has been paying attention can do it. The pattern is so depressingly predictable that the only real challenge is figuring out why journalists keep buying tickets for the same show. This time around, the story comes from San Antonio.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m working on a new book about America’s first urban school reformer, Joseph Lancaster. It’s not to Lancaster’s credit that his loud-mouthed ego-trip school-reform plan established this depressing pattern in the 1810s.

Here’s how it goes: A well-meaning, energetic young person pours his or her heart into building a great school. It works. Soon, the students are doing far better than anyone believed possible.

Buoyed by success, the reformer will build his or her ideas into a marketable plan, something that he or she promises will be able to fix urban schools without costing any more tax money.

It doesn’t work. Turns out, the thing that was really fueling the improvement was not any specific method of teaching or of organizing schools, but rather the energy and dedication that the community poured into its original reform effort. As soon as the “reform” becomes standard, it loses its pep and becomes merely business as usual.

Soon, jealous hacks notice that the reformers’ big promises didn’t pan out, and after explaining away the failure for a while, the reformer goes into some sort of awkward retirement.

For Joseph Lancaster in the early 1800s, his big reform was the “Lancastrian” system, which set up hundreds of kids from low-income urban families in big school warehouses, goaded by older student monitors. It worked great at first, at the Borough Road School in London. Lancaster ate lunch with kings and presidents and promised his system could save every city from hordes of illiterate urchins.

borough road school 1805

The solution, c. 1805. Never again would urban students from low-income families suffer from lower-quality education.

But guess what: Lancaster’s schools didn’t save every city. Students hated them. Parents hated them. Soon, Lancaster was in monstrous debt and his many detractors accused him of venality and obfuscation.

You’d think we’d learn the lesson, but we haven’t. The pattern has repeated itself with every new promise of a silver-bullet reform that will “save” urban education. Ask Colonel Parker. Ask Rod Paige.

And now we can ask Julian Castro in San Antonio. As a recent profile in Politico reports, the former mayor has built his meteoric career on a school-reform plan for the Texas city. The heart and soul of the plan is to enroll every San Antonian four-year-old in high-quality pre-kindergarten with a progressive pedagogy.

SA pre k

The solution, c. 2017. Never again will students from low-income families suffer from lower-quality education.

So far, so good. Getting every student into great schools really IS a great way to reform urban education. The problem is not in the idea itself. Rather, the problem comes when ambitious reformers think they have found a simple, transferable method for fixing schools. The problems begin to pile up when those same reformers hope to build their political careers by wildly overpromising.

In this case, the CEO of San Antonio’s program read her lines directly from Joseph Lancaster’s disastrous centuries-old script. As Politico reports,

Pre-K 4 SA has posted impressive results. Its kids start below the national average in cognition, math and literacy, and finish the year above average. Its founders have become evangelists for the idea that early-childhood education is key to giving poor kids an equal chance to succeed in school and life. The goal, says Sarah Baray, Pre-K 4 SA’s CEO, is nothing less than “to change the trajectory of San Antonio in one generation.”

Again, I’m all for progressive pre-K programs. I’m all for giving all students a great early education. Those are great things.

The problem comes when ambitious reformers suggest that changing the methods or structure of school will solve the problems of low-income families. The problems come when politicians promise that their plan will level the playing field and solve the challenges of poverty in a single generation.

They won’t, and it seems nearly criminal to build a career by making these obviously extravagant promises. When the politicians and CEOs have moved on to Washington DC and cushy corporate sinecures, local schools are always left tackling the same problems as ever.

The recipe for real reform is obvious, but it is never easy. Every kid should attend a school in which the entire community is engaged and enthusiastic. That’s not easy and it’s not cheap. But as we all know, it is the only school reform that really works.

Anything else is just hot air.

Why Are Teachers Mad at Billionaires?

It’s not just because of the cars they drive. For as long as there have been school systems, there have been outsiders who have promised radical reform. Today’s crop of tech billionaires is no different and good teachers can only shake their heads and wait for the billionaires to figure it out. If only some of the billionaires had read one book—or maybe two—they’d see the problem with their approach.

In today’s New York Times, Natasha Singer wisely warns of the lack of democratic oversight in today’s tech-based school reforms. There is another lesson billionaires should learn, though, even if they don’t care about democratic input. The history is clear: Sweeping tech-based revolutions in schooling have (almost) always ended up stashed in the hallway closets of schools across the country. There is one obvious and important exception, as historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out over twenty years ago.

Of course, we need to be fair: It’s a good thing that billionaires devote some of their loot to improving public education. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has repeatedly put his money where his mouth is. He pledged $100 million to Newark. His foundation is now promising to invest heavily in schools. Good for him.

The problem, though, is that such outsider attempts miss a vital part of real school reform. As Tyack and Cuban argued in 1995, school reform plans work when they allow teachers to do their jobs better. They flounder when they try to force schools to adopt tech-based answers to questions no one is really asking. It doesn’t matter how expensive the plan is or how good it looks on paper.

tyack cuban tinkering

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

Consider, for example, the 1950s attempt to bring better schooling to rural American kids. The Carnegie Foundation teamed up with the US Congress to pour tens of millions of dollars into a radical reform program. Believe it or not, they put planes in constant motion over the Great Plains states, beaming closed-circuit educational television programs to rural schools.

It seemed like a foolproof idea, a perfect solution to rural educational oblivion, made possible by the new technology of television.

It didn’t work, though. It seems too obvious even to mention, but rural schools found that the educational TV programs didn’t fit their classroom goals. Kids didn’t learn anything. The hokey programs went unwatched, and the expensive TVs were put into hallway closets to collect dust.

As I’m finding in my current research, this pattern of well-intentioned, expensive, and unproductive technology-based radical school reform has an even longer history.

Over two hundred years ago, English reformer Joseph Lancaster insisted he had solved the problems of urban education. His new-fangled modern factory model could educate the hordes of urchins that were cramming into modern American and European cities.

No surprise: It didn’t work either. Or, to be nerdily specific, it worked…but not in the ways Lancaster had over-promised.

Lancaster’s reform plan worked—as will any reform plan in any century—when it inspired teachers, parents, students, mayors, and taxpayers to pay a lot of eager attention to their local public schools. It didn’t work when it promised a tech-based anonymous reform plan that could instantly fix any school anywhere.

lancaster schools

Radical school tech reform, c. 1807

So why are teachers mad at billionaires? Because good teachers know this central truth about what Tyack and Cuban called “the grammar of schooling.” Like any other social institution, schools are impervious to silver-bullet tech reforms. Public schools will not be magically fixed because billionaires are suddenly and temporarily interested in them.

The recipe for improving schools is not new, nor is it secret. Every good teacher already knows it. Schools are made better when an entire community is excited and involved in them. Sometimes, that excitement and involvement can be boosted by eye-catching new technology. More often, though, involvement comes from long hours and years spent in classrooms, cafeterias, meeting rooms, and athletic fields.

Call Me, Mark Zuckerberg!

B-ding! There it is again, the silver-bullet school-reform alert. As long as there have been rich people and schools, we have seen well-meaning but misplaced attempts at reform. The latest round comes from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, our Facebook Overlords. In order to help people succeed in school and life, their foundation has established a “Manhattan Project” to bring equity to the standardized-testing game.

It won’t work. Historians don’t know much, but we do know one thing: No matter how much money we pour into silver-bullet schemes, they always prove disappointing. It’s not due (only) to mismanagement or incompetence, but rather to the nature of schooling itself. There’s a better way to go about it, but it doesn’t offer the same sort of headline-grabbing oomph.

Here’s the latest: Zuckerberg and Chan are donating a bazillion dollars to get SAT-prep courses to low-income students. The goal is to increase students’ test scores, even if the students can’t afford test-prep courses. So far, the SAT game has been skewed heavily in favor of students who take such courses. They have higher scores, not due to talent or even “grit,” but rather because they come from families with money and time to spare. So they get into college more easily. They get scholarships more easily. In other words, because they had more advantages to start with, they are given more advantages. The Facebook plan wants to offer similar bonuses to students who can’t afford to buy them.

It’s a good idea. And I’m glad Zuckerberg and Chan are looking for ways to give away their money, rather than just guzzling gold smoothies and target-shooting peasants.

But here’s the problem. Test wizard David Coleman of The College Board is over-promising. He is calling the Facebook plan a “Manhattan Project” that will radically improve educational equity. It won’t.

Just like Zuckerberg’s last ill-fated attempt to purchase social justice, this one needs to realize the scope of the problem it claims to address. Giving Cory Booker $100 million will not fix Newark. Making test-prep classes free will not give low-income students equal access to higher education.

The mantra is simple. It is not cynical. It is not depressing. But it does make it difficult for well-meaning reformers to fix things with a single stroke of their check-writing pen. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but here it is again: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.

In this case, allowing free access to test-prep materials is a good thing. But it does not address the real problems of social equity involved. It is not an accident that college success is based on things like family income and parents’ educational levels.

I’ll say it again: It is a good thing to help students from low-income families do better on high-stakes standardized tests. If the King of Facebook really wants to increase social equality, though, he should not focus on helping some students do better on those tests. He should recognize that fixing schools can only be part of fixing society.

As I argued in my book about educational conservatism, Zuckerberg’s naïve approach to social reform is not just a Facebook quirk. It has been universally accepted by all sorts of school reformers throughout history. No matter what they think society should look like, activists have always blithely assumed that changing schools would automatically make social change happen.

It’s just not that simple.

If Zuckerberg and Chan want to make society more fair, to make things less skewed in favor of the rich, there are still plenty of things they can do. They can even do it by investing in schools. They just need to think differently about the ways schools really work.

What would I do if I had Facebook money? I would invest in schools that don’t rely on SATs in the first place. I’d find schools and programs with proven track records of helping students from low-income families succeed. I’d ignore programs that focus on improving test scores, and donate instead to schools that focus on improving lives.

Priscilla and Mark, please give me a call. We can talk about the details.

War of the World Histories: Or, Is Bill Gates Smarter than H.G. Wells?

Tom Cruise might remember him best for his science fiction, including War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. But in the 1920s and 1930s, author H. G. Wells tried to save the world by saving the history classroom. Wells’ plan sounds eerily similar to a new revolutionary plan by gagillionaire Bill Gates. Why didn’t Wells’ scheme work, and what does that tell us about Gates’ chances?

Can Tom save this child from Bad History?

Can Tom save this child from Bad History?

Alert ILYBYGTH readers may remember our snarky critique of Bill Gates’ ingenuous entry into the evolution/creation controversies. Gates wants to revolutionize the teaching of history by replacing today’s tired curriculum with a breathless new “Big History.” Students would learn about everything ever, from the Big Bang to today’s Big Game.

As scholar Ken Osborne describes in the latest issue of the journal Historical Studies in Education, Gates is unknowingly following in the footsteps of H. G. Wells. As Osborne describes, Wells dedicated the latter half of his career to an ambitious but ultimately fruitless mission to reform history education. As Wells put it in 1921, “Upon this matter of the teaching of history, I am a fanatic.”

Just as Bill Gates did, Wells noticed that most school histories were dry and lifeless. As Wells argued in 1931,

If so many of us had not experienced it, few would believe it possible. . . . It is partly like heavy stale gossip about incredible individuals, partly like trying to get interested in the litigation of an unknown people in a remote country, and partly like watching a university don playing soldiers on his study floor.

To Wells, this was more than just a matter of wasted time. History as taught, Wells believed, had led directly to the cataclysm of World War I. Young people in each country had been drilled to believe in patriotic pablum instead of understanding themselves as part of the great unfolding of humanity. Wells was not alone in this belief. As British Prime Minister Lloyd George argued in the last year of the Great War,

The most formidable institutions we had to fight in Germany were not the arsenals of Krupp, or the yards in which they turned out submarines, but the schools of Germany. They were our most formidable competitors in business and our most terrible opponents in war.

In the years following the war, Wells published his sweeping Outline of History. As he described it,

Its background is unfathomable mystery, the riddle of the stars, the measurelessness of space and time. There appears life struggling toward consciousness . . . through millions of years . . . until it reaches the tragic confusions and perplexities of the world of to-day, so full of fear and yet so full of promise and opportunity.

Like Bill Gates, Wells wanted students to see themselves in cosmological time. Not only as citizens of a particular country, but as denizens of a universe of abiding mystery. And just as Gates wants to do with his Big History project, Wells hoped to do an end run around a hopelessly hidebound educational system. In Wells’ opinion, schools remained “a conservative force in the community . . . controlled by authority and bound officially as well as practically to respect current fears and prejudices.”

From dinosaurs to diplomacy...

From dinosaurs to diplomacy…

To overcome these prejudices, Wells devised a painstaking hour-by-hour plan to fix education. Just as Bill Gates is hoping to do, Wells hoped his ideas would take off with teachers first. Then, bit by bit, those teachers would use Wells’ grand healthy history to supplant the old musty stories.

It didn’t work. As Ken Osborne concluded, “when [Wells’ plans] were not simply ignored, dismissed as impractically utopian, or condemned as rigidly doctrinaire, they were domesticated and de-radicalized.”

It seems Bill Gates is traveling down this same road in all innocence. It seems ironic that Gates wants to revolutionize the teaching of history, but does not seem to have spent any time actually studying history. If he had, he might have learned from the doomed efforts of predecessors such as H. G. Wells. Or, even more simply, he might have learned from historians such as David Tyack and Larry Cuban. Twenty years ago, Tyack and Cuban offered a compelling argument about why the reform efforts of folks such as Gates and Wells end up so often in the dustbin of educational history.

The best-intended plans—and even the best-funded ones—never have much effect if they do not adapt themselves to the ubiquitous “grammar of schooling,” Tyack and Cuban argued. When a new reform helps teachers do what they already want to do, it is adopted with alacrity. Blackboards, for example, and now smartboards, offer good teachers a way to do a better job. On the other hand, when reforms ask teachers to change everything, those reforms end up collecting dust in a back closet in a school-district warehouse somewhere.

It’s always tricky to use the past to predict the future, but in this case the parallels between Bill Gates and H. G. Wells seem too blatant to ignore. Both men hoped to ride to the rescue of schools. Both men hoped to sidestep the people who could actually make their “Big Histories” happen.

As a result, both plans will end up the same way.

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.