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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


People go to school to learn.  And what we mean by that is that people should gain information and skills they did not previously possess.  For traditionalists, this basic argument about schooling is so breathtakingly obvious it shouldn’t need to be said out loud at all.  However, in traditionalists’ opinions, due to (possibly) well-meaning misunderstandings on the part of progressive educators, this simple fact about schooling is not adequately appreciated.

The core mistake of progressive education, in the eyes of traditionalists, is to think that education must be built on children’s experience.  This idea was articulated powerfully in 1902 by John Dewey and has found influential advocates ever since.  As Dewey argued, in most traditional schools,

Facts are torn away from their original place in experience and rearranged with reference to some general principle.  Classification is not a matter of child experience; things do not come to the individual pigeonholed.  The vital ties of affection, the connecting bonds of activity, hold together the variety of his personal experiences.    

In order to make education more effective, Dewey argued, classroom teaching must be connected more organically to the way children learn.  Not by sitting in rows and reciting, but by building up experiences, by building on their existing experience.

Dewey insisted that the “old education” had gone wrong by making “invidious comparisons between the immaturity of the child and the maturity of the adult, regarding the former as something to be got away from as soon as possible and as much as possible.”

By the time such progressive reforms had found a home in a few American schools, Dewey’s notion of building upon children’s experience often took some turns Dewey found unfortunate.  He had warned in 1902 that there was a “danger” in assuming that the experience of young people alone could be “finally significant in themselves.”  Unfortunately, most self-appointed progressive school reformers didn’t listen to this second warning.  By the late 1930s, though Dewey still insisted that “the cardinal principle of the newer school of education [is] that the beginning of instruction shall be made with the experience learners already have,” he pointed out that in too many progressive schools, “overemphasis upon activity as an end, instead of upon intelligent activity, leads to an identification of freedom with immediate execution of impulses and desires.”

Regardless of Dewey’s own opinion of progressive education in practice, generations of teachers have been enthralled with their own interpretations of what Dewey’s “schools of tomorrow” could look like.   However, as soon as new teachers get any actual experience in education, experience in real schools with real children, they realize that the breathless “progressive” notions they attributed to Dewey don’t have much to do with the work of teaching.

Traditionalist educators insist that progressive notions fall apart in real schools, the way dreams dissipate upon waking.  In the opinion of those traditionalists, this is not merely because—as generations of progressive educators have argued—the progressive ideas haven’t been implemented fully enough.  It is because one of the central intellectual presuppositions of progressive education represents a fundamental misunderstanding of both human nature and schooling.  As Dewey himself insisted, children are not small adults.  They are fundamentally different.  These differences are biological and developmental.  Most important in this traditionalist argument, the differences are also a matter of experience.  By definition, young people lack experience.  Attempting to build schooling on a foundation of children’s lived experience is a mistake.

This does not mean that children do not have experience, or that they do not learn by building on those experiences.  They do.  But those learning encounters will take place outside of institutional schooling, by playing sports, playing with dirt, talking with peers and family members, volunteering at their churches, and so on.  In each of those contexts, young people will build on their experiences to improve at various skills and abilities.  They will build on each of those experiences, hopefully, to become better people.

But schooling is different.  Schooling, by definition, should be the transmission of academic information and skills to young people.  Every day, students should walk out of school with more knowledge and better academic skills than they had when they started in the morning.

There is nothing mysterious about this.  This is not a foreign notion of schooling that has been imposed on people from some grasping social elites.  Rather, this notion of the function of schooling is so basic that it has been embraced by all groups in American society, except for a tiny slice of education “experts” who insist on a different vision of schooling.

For instance, in the years following the Civil War, African Americans in the former Confederacy struggled to build schools that would impart academic information to their children.  As historian James Anderson has demonstrated, many influential voices weighed in on the purpose and function of these schools.  The majority of white northern philanthropists, Anderson argued, insisted that their money go toward schools that built on African Americans’ lived experiences.  Schools for young people and freed slaves, these philanthropists insisted, must teach basic vocational skills that African Americans could really use in their lives, such as farming and house cleaning.  That would be, in the phrase that came to prominence during World War II, a truly progressive “life-adjustment” education.

African Americans themselves, however, rejected that notion.  Except for a few tokens, such as Booker T. Washington, whom Anderson dismisses as nothing more than a racist white philanthropist “in blackface,” most African Americans insisted that their schools and colleges must focus on transmitting academic information and skills to new generations.  Their children should be studying mathematics, Latin, and philosophy, not gardening, milking, and plowing.

Anderson’s depiction of Washington may have been too harsh.  Other scholars such as Louis Harlan have argued that Washington managed to support African American causes in a variety of ways.  The point here, however, is much simpler: traditional education is real education.  The purpose of schools, the way traditionalists see it, is to give information and skills to young people; information and skills they did not already have.  This is the transformation that schools can and should accomplish.  Schools can provide a safe and protected place for young people to gain experience they lack.  In schools, students can experience vicariously the sweep of history and literature.  They can learn mathematics and science.

Any other approach to the basic function of schooling will serve to cement children’s place in the existing social order.  Building schooling primarily around the lived experience of young people will only support a very non-progressive social hierarchy.  The lived experience of kids from affluent families, for example, will prepare them for roles as dominant members of society.  Similarly, building schooling around the lived experience of the poor will anaesthetize poor kids to the structural injustices of current society.

Instead, schooling must deliver new things to students.  This does not mean that the lived experience of students will be dismissed or looked down upon.  Teaching Shakespeare to both rich and poor does not somehow imply that the popular culture of rich and poor is not valuable.  It merely demonstrates that there is a culture beyond popular culture that schooling will transmit to each new generation, regardless of family finances or students’ ethnicities.

This is not a new theory of education.  It merely acknowledges and makes explicit one of the most basic truths of schooling.  It offers students a reason to go to school.

To do otherwise, to assume that schools will build upon the existing experience of students is a cruel and circular notion.  In fact, young people go to school precisely because they lack experience.  They go to school so that they can engage with a broad range of ideas that they would never experience on their own.  The reason Dewey’s notions—or, more exactly, the “progressive” fantasies people have attributed to Dewey—have never made many inroads in real schools is because they fundamentally mistake the function of schooling.  Schooling is about imparting information to young people.  Of course, it is not the only way young people learn.  But in school itself, they do not learn primarily by building on their own small share of lived experience.  Instead, they learn by sampling from the vast array of knowledge and culture left behind by the thousands of years of human experience that has gone before them.


Further Reading: John Dewey, Experience and Education (1938); Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum (1902); James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1930 (1987); Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 (1983).


If the moral scheme of multiculturalism can’t deliver on its promise for a moral agenda for America’s public schools, what can traditionalists offer in its stead?  This is where traditionalists’ arguments carry the most weight, in my opinion.  They can draw on deeply embedded notions about the purpose and function of schooling, what historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban have called the “grammar of schooling.”  They can rely on ideas of schooling lodged so solidly in America’s idea of itself that they rarely need to be articulated at all.

In the early 1990s, historian Arthur Zilversmit commented on the strength and durability of these traditional notions.  Zilversmit had studied the ways self-proclaimed progressive ideas of schooling had had limited success in the middle decades of the twentieth century.  One of the leading reasons for this lack of success, Zilversmit argued, was the surprising strength of Americans’ “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns.”

Of course, from the traditionalist point of view, there is nothing strange about this attachment.  Rather, traditionalists believe it reflects a sensible, rational commitment to time-tested ideas about schooling.  It only seems mysterious, strange, and emotional to those who assume that schools ought to be radically changing their approach to education.

What are these traditional values of America’s schools?  In future posts, I’ll explore each of the next three notions in more detail.  But in short, traditionalists can offer three clusters of values:  First, schools exist to teach young people things they did not know.  Young people go to school primarily to learn these things.  And that means that they should gain and retain information they did not previously have.

Related to this fundamental conception of schooling is another: Schools will help people improve their social and economic status.  If, that is, young people manage to gain skills and information at schools, they can use that knowledge to secure more lucrative, more prestigious employment. They can move up in society.

Finally, traditionalists can argue that the value scheme of America’s public schools does not need to be radically overhauled in order to include the rich pluralism of American society.  Such traditional values as honesty, bravery, kindness, tolerance, and hard work are common to many cultures, including traditional white European American culture.

These values are anything but strange and mysterious.  In fact, they are so commonly held that most people do not question them at all.  And in spite of decades, indeed, generations, of self-consciously “progressive” attempts to undermine these foundational values of schooling, Americans of all cultural backgrounds and economic classes have continued to cling to these ideas.


Further reading: Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930-1960 (Chicago, 1993); David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, 1995).

TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION, Part II, The Cult of Multiculturalism (cont.)

In the last few posts (here and here), we have imagined the arguments traditionalists might make that multicultural ideology contains an unacknowledged bias against those who maintain traditional beliefs.  Even if we take multiculturalism on its own terms, however, we run up against unacceptable results in practice.  As even its most earnest promoters recognize, “multiculturalism” has come to include a vast muddle of conflicting meanings.  James Banks, for instance, one of the most prominent advocates of multicultural ideology in schools, sums up the many meanings of multiculturalism into three tendencies.  Multiculturalism, Banks argues, can be an idea, an educational reform movement, and a process.

As an idea, at least in Banks’ exposition, multiculturalism refers to the notion that “all students—regardless of their gender, social class, and ethnic, racial, or cultural characteristics—should have an equal opportunity to learn in school.”  Embedded in this notion is the idea of reform.  Banks argues that in order to achieve this kind of equal opportunity, multiculturalism implies a sustained effort to change schooling.  This must be more than simply including a unit on different ethnic groups in a history class.  This must be more than reading stories about all kinds of ethnicities.  Rather, Banks argues that multiculturalism must include a thorough overhaul of the school as an institution.  Students, teachers, administrators, staff, and parents must all work to create a total environment in which every person feels welcomed and represented.  The totality of this scheme is part of what leads Banks to argue for multiculturalism as a process.  Too many schools and school districts, in Banks’ opinion, merely slap some multicultural window-dressing on traditional schools and call it a day.  Instead, multiculturalism must include a continuing effort to create a truly multicultural environment.

In essence, multiculturalism is the latest attempt to get schools to correct the fundamental injustices of American society.  The promise is appealing.  For most of American history, schools have promised to equalize opportunity.  Do well in school, the tradition assures us, and anyone can be President.  Yet the reality of American education has usually merely reproduced social, economic, and racial hierarchies.  For instance, poor kids went to worse schools.  They tended to be tracked into educational programs that would fit them only for the worst-paid, lowest-prestige jobs.

Multicultural ideology hoped to help remedy that problem.  By including all cultures in schools, multiculturalism promised to achieve many goals simultaneously.  First of all, it would erode the racial hierarchy that kept white people on top.  That hierarchy has often been reproduced intentionally in schools, especially up through the middle of the twentieth century.  After that point, however, many schools have tended to reproduce white privilege unintentionally.

One promise of multicultural ideology is that schools will teach each new generation of white kids that other cultures are equally valid, equally American.  This will have the double value of weakening the power of traditional white supremacy while also showing students of other ethnic backgrounds that their experiences are equally legitimate.  Such non-white students will come to feel welcome in school and able to succeed.  The implicit dominance of white culture that had ruled schools for so long will no longer force students to feel they must abandon their culture in order to do well in school.

This will not just be a racial or ethnic difference.  American schools have a long and ugly history of serving as “sorting machines,” to use Joel Spring’s term.  Multicultural ideology promised to smash that machine.  To allow students of every gender, every race, every economic class, every religion, every sexual identity, to feel equally welcomed by the institution of school.

Inclusive, multicultural schools would open up the benefits of education to everyone, not only those who come to school already skilled in the implicit culture of schooling.  Just as important, multicultural education would deliver better education to those who come from traditionally dominant groups—in other words, for the well-off white kids.  By incorporating and valuing the wealth of cultural experiences into schooling, students of every group would achieve a richer, more authentic education.

Multiculturalism, in short, promised to improve education for all, to eliminate any notion of a zero-sum game.  Multiculturalism would help kids from minority backgrounds while also improving education for those who had started out on top.  In this way, multiculturalism served as only the latest in a long series of panaceas in public education.  By fixing schools in a multicultural direction, the argument went, we could fix society.  We could finally achieve the sort of racial, class, and gender equality that we had been striving for for so long.  Again, a very tall order.

The vast ambition of multiculturalism is part of what led Banks to insist this must be at once an educational reform movement and an ongoing, continuous process.  If not, as Banks and other multicultural proponents recognized, multicultural ideology can easily become something far less promising.

And, in practice, multiculturalism has failed on its own terms.  The way schools and teachers have used it, multiculturalism has degraded into a mishmash of ideas that reify overly simplistic notions of identity among students.  In other words, the effort to include and celebrate the rich cultural mosaic of American life in public schools has instead had an unintentional dehumanizing effect.  Students are trained to see people as expressions of stylized cultural identity, instead of as fully realized persons.  For instance, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos are pigeonholed into exclusively ethnic stereotypes.  The fact that those stereotypes are now cast in a flattering light does not change the fact that non-whites tend to be reduced to mere racial identity.

In addition, multiculturalism in practice tends to promote an idea of ethnicity as something other people have.  Whiteness remains the norm, and other cultures become colorful exceptions to the rule.  So, for instance, multiculturalism in practice promotes the notion that culture means traditional cultures from other countries, perhaps the home countries of American immigrant society.  It tends to promote those cultures as quaint and archaic, not as authentic contemporary notions.

For example, one recent study of purportedly multiculturalist children’s literature found a much more conflicted ideological message.  The authors, Bogum Yoon, Anne Simpson, and Claudia Haag, found that many non-white, non-English-speaking characters in such literature are presented as outsiders.  In other words, in practice, multicultural ideology implied that other cultures were legitimate places to be from, but in order to achieve full personhood, protagonists needed to assimilate to traditional white English cultural norms.

Even uglier, multiculturalism in practice can degrade into a call for racist preferences for traditionally put-upon ethnic groups.  We see this most starkly in the call for Afrocentric curricula.  Led by many scholars based in universities such as Molefi Kete Asante, Maulana Karenga, and Asa Hilliard III, the push for Afrocentric school history began in the early 1980s.  Activists argued that traditional schools had miseducated students for generations, especially African American students.  Instead of forcing a biased and inaccurate European-based history down the throats of black kids, these theorists argued, schools ought to adopt a thoroughly Africanized curriculum.  At the very least, this should put Africa at the center of historical study.  It should teach students that they are not primarily Americans, but primarily Africans in America.  It should also teach students that they share essential racial characteristics.

This was not just ivory-tower theorizing.  Several large school districts adopted some form of Afrocentric curricula during the 1980s and 1990s.  In the Washington DC school district, for instance, one school had an Afrocentric program that started each day with an opening ritual patterned after purportedly African-derived practices.  Students were taught that they were part of a people that saw themselves as spirits that have a body, not bodies that have spirits.  Students were taught that Western culture derived from Africa, stolen, diluted, and bastardized by Greeks and Romans who learned at the feet of Black African teachers.

In the 1990s, superintendent Matthew Prophet encouraged teachers in Portland, Oregon to teach their students that Africa represented the source and inspiration of all culture, including literature, politics, mathematics, and science.  Students should be taught, according to the social-studies material available for Portland teachers, that Africans had colonized South America long before Asians or Europeans.  They should learn that Africa was the source of the Pythagorean theorem and of every significant scientific breakthrough of modern times.  Anything less, in the words of one author of this curriculum guide, would cause “great harm” to students.

These were not unfortunate misinterpretations of multiculturalism’s lofty goals.  Instead, they form a predictable result of an overambitious and overly vague cultural ideology.  The promise of racial and cultural equality that forms the core of multicultural ideology will predictably be used to promote a new version of racism, new visions of cultural hierarchies.  Multiculturalism promises to include all students in schools; it promises to open educational opportunity to all; it insists it can improve education for all.  But in practice, what schools are left with is simply a new racist ideology, one that inverts the traditional pyramid.  In the new multicultural order, however, racism is not eliminated but celebrated in a new way.

As historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. complained, multiculturalism waters down real learning.  It turns the study of history and literature into “therapies whose function it is to raise minority self-esteem.”  Left unchecked, such ideas about the proper values for schools will not only dumb down public schools.  By asserting racism in the guise of multiculturalism, by encouraging students and teachers to think of themselves not primarily as individuals but first and most importantly as members of an ethnic group, Schlesinger argues that multiculturalism will lead to the “fragmentation, resegregation, and tribalization of American life.”  Schlesinger was no right-wing crank.  He was one of the most prominent liberal historians of mid-twentieth century America, well known for his elegant prose and for his role as the Kennedys’ “court historian in Camelot.”  It was precisely his embrace of the liberal values of an open, egalitarian, individualistic, humanitarian society that led him to attack the race-driven vagaries of multiculturalist ideology near the end of his career.

Schlesinger was not concerned with protecting the rights of students from traditionalist or conservative Christian backgrounds.  He did not hope to reinstall a regime of prayer and Bible reading in American schools.  He worried that multiculturalism would “disunite” America.  He worried that multiculturalism made true learning impossible.  He worried that multiculturalism heralded a return to racial supremacy as an organizing idea for American schools and culture.


Further reading: James A. Banks & Cherry A. McGee Banks, eds., Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives, 7th Edition (New York: Wiley & Sons, 2010); Amy J. Binder, Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Joel Spring, The Sorting Machine: National Educational Policy Since 1945 (Longman, 1976); Bogum Yoon, Anne Simpson, Claudia Haag, “Assimilation Ideology: Critically Examining Underlying Messages in Multicultural Literature,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 54 (2) October 2010, pp. 109-119; Matthew W. Prophet, ed., African American Baseline Essays, revised edition (Portland, OR: Multnomah School District, 1990); Michael Olneck, “Terms of Inclusion: Has Multiculturalism Redefined Equality in American Education?” American Journal of Education 101 (1993): 234-60; Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, revised and enlarged edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).


Whenever an argument for the progressivist transformation of schools comes up, we can be sure the traditionalist rejoinder won’t be far behind: “Why should we transform our schools?  Traditional schools have worked fine for generations, they will work now.”  Behind these traditionalist arguments is a sentiment that America in the past had a certain moral backbone that it lacks today.  The sense—sometimes vague, sometimes explicit—is that today’s schools with their mollycoddling progressivism have created a generation of self-centered, lazy, even criminal youth.  Only traditional schools, in this oft-repeated line of thinking, can help put America back on course.

In fact, just the opposite is true.  It may be true that American society has some troubling fractures.  But those fractures will not be healed with sterner authoritarian classrooms.  Instead, the only way to bring America together—whether or not this returns anyone to any kind of golden age—will be to encourage schools and classrooms in which every student feels himself or herself to be an important member of American society, not merely an inmate in a social and educational processing regime.

Consider the depressing reality.  In America today, whenever there is the slightest crack in the regime of control, people go nuts.  The second there is a power outage in a major city, or a natural disaster, or even a major sporting event, Americans riot.  My hometown of Binghamton, New York, for example, recently experienced a major flood.  Whole neighborhoods were engulfed by the rising Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers.  Police and emergency crews couldn’t keep up with the situation.  To be fair, lots of people—I like to think most people—put aside their selfish interests and tried to help those folks who had been flooded out of their homes.  But there were the predictable number of people who took to looting.  They knew police could not patrol the downtown streets, so they helped themselves to anything left dry in downtown stores.

And sunny Binghamton is much friendlier in its rioting than bigger cities.  I remember back when the Chicago Bulls won their first of three national championships, back in the 1990s, we hurried downtown to see the predictable riots.  Drunk people spilled out of sports bars in the Rush/Division neighborhood to celebrate the victory.  Before you knew it, taxis had been flipped over and lit on fire, and horse-mounted police were doing their damnedest to clear the streets.  The crowd by then had expanded.  Not just the white-collar/loosened tie/after-work sports fans were yelling and pushing back against the cops. The crowd had been bolstered by no-collar/no tie/no-work enthusiasts from the vast public-housing complex just down the street, Cabrini Green.

It was obvious that the police couldn’t handle the situation.  That slight loosening of the regime was all it took.  Soon the riot script played out to its predictable end.  People smashed store windows, threw bottles and rocks at the line of police, and waited for the inevitable tear gas to chase them away from the area.

And why?  Because Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippin, and the rest had defeated another basketball team.  It doesn’t matter the reason.  As soon as people feel the slightest crack in the regime, as soon as it becomes clear that the government cannot enforce its will, people will riot.

What does all this have to do with progressive education?  Everything.  Traditionalist educators may point to riots and social upheaval as evidence that young people today are no longer being taught respect and obedience.  They may insist that schools need to return to traditional disciplinary schemes.  Maybe even get back to some good old-fashioned corporal punishment.  But just the opposite is true.

Riots like this are not the result of new-fangled progressive notions of including every young person as the most important decision-maker in schools and education.  Riots like this have appeared in every society, whenever authorities try and fail to maintain total domination of a population.

Consider an example from the roots of United States history.  In Boston, in 1770, tensions had been building up between the British regime and the young colonists.  (In this case, the youth of both sides played a crucial role.  The soldiers were mostly teenagers, and they were taunted and provoked by a crowd led by teenagers.)  In March, a group of soldiers found themselves surrounded by a crowd of angry colonists, taunted to fire their muskets, pelted with rocks and snowballs.  Finally they fired, killing five of the crowd and pushing the rest of the colonies further on the path to open revolution.

Here’s the question for traditionalists: were those angry colonists the product of touchy-feely, ‘progressive’ schools?  Or had they received whatever education they received in thoroughly traditional ways?

The point is that coercive regimes—as the British were perceived to be in Boston, in March, 1770—are only able to hold on to power by brute force.  And traditional schools in the United States are nothing if not coercive regimes.  When students and their families agree with the regime, the coercion is hidden.  But when they do not, the coercion emerges in its ugliest forms.  This is why schools in poor neighborhoods look and feel so much like prisons, with armed guards, metal detectors, and very limited student freedom.

There are two possible solutions.  First, and most common, we can bolster the effectiveness of traditional regimes by strengthening the coercive arm.  Schools can hire more truant officers to round up absentees.  They can implement stricter rules for student dress and behavior.  They can mandate “zero-tolerance” rules to crack down on student resistance.  These are traditional responses, and they can be effective in the short term.

However, the costs of this kind of stepped-up coercion are obvious.  In order to compel compliance with the school regime, school administrators must alienate each student.  When people—even young people—are forced to act in certain ways, it eliminates the likelihood that those people will embrace those actions.  When they are forced to go to school, forced to be in classrooms, and forced to submit to the authority of teachers and school administrators, they are unlikely to see those schools as places in which they can improve themselves.  They will not embrace the process of education in the ways they must if they are to actually learn something.  Some might.  But those few are the exception, rather than the rule.

And, predictably, whenever there is the smallest crack in the efficiency of the coercion, students will take advantage of it.  They may not flip over taxi cabs and battle with mounted police each time, but they will disrupt the function of the school in any way they can.

The second solution is the only sensible solution.  In order to have schools in which students learn, the primary goal must be to encourage students to embrace the process of schooling as something they want to do.  As argued in other posts, students must see schooling as more like working with a personal trainer, and less like breaking rocks.

The earliest roots of tax-funded public schooling included this notion of schooling as the best defense against anarchy.  Horace Mann, the nineteenth-century leader of the public school movement, warned that mobs were nothing more than “wild beasts, that prove their right to devour by showing their teeth.”  In order to tame those mobs, Mann argued, the public must fund schools to teach young people that they played an important role in American society as empowered citizens, not merely as subjects and ‘wild beasts.’  In 1877 the US Commissioner of Education warned of ‘the enormities possible in our communities if the systematic vagrancy of the ignorant, vicious, and criminal classes should continue to increase.” In his opinion, “Capital, therefore, should weigh the cost of the tomb and the tramp against the cost of universal and sufficient education.”

These days, the only schools that can effectively defeat the tendency of people to riot against their coercive regimes are schools that do not resort to the tactics of such regimes.  Students must see themselves as part of the schooling process.  They must be given authentic power within the school regime.  Otherwise, it will be seen as a coercive imposition and resisted accordingly.  Traditionalists may gripe that this kind of empowerment will lead to a breakdown in social order, as every person acts in his or her immediate self interest.

Not so.  The mentality of the looter does not come from a breakdown in traditional values in schools.  Instead, it comes from a consistent application of traditional schooling.  When schooling is a coercive experience, young people are trained to see school and society as a heavy hand, an imposition of external power.  When the pressure of that hand is relaxed in the slightest, as must happen occasionally, young people who have not embraced their role as a valuable part of that school and society will act aggressively.  They will take what they want.  They will loot, ignite, riot.

In contrast, a progressive educational system, not just in every individual classroom but in the schooling system as a whole, trains young people to be invested in both school and society.  They embrace their role as empowered members of that society.  When the power goes out, or if the Bulls win the playoffs, people—even young people—who are invested in their society will help hand out candles.  Young people who spent their youth incarcerated in traditional authoritarian schools seize upon the temporary weakness of the regime in order to lash out.


FURTHER READING: Horace Mann, Life and Works, IV; Report of the Honorable John Eaton, US Commissioner of Education, for the year 1877, on Crime and Education.


Formal education must include moral values.  In some subjects that fact is overwhelmingly obvious.  History and literature, for instance.  At the most basic level, the selection of literature reveals an entire worldview.  What counts as a good book?  Is it Holden Caulfield trying to pick his way through the field of phonies to discover an authentic life?  Or is it Abraham pulling Isaac up to the top of the mountain to fulfill God’s cruel command?

But such moral values are embedded in every subject, even those that seem to be mere delivery of information.  Some people might suggest that schools should simply teach students academic skills: reading, writing, arithmetic.  But what would such a value-free classroom look like?  Will women and girls be allowed to participate?  Will there be tuition?  Will there be an authoritative teacher at the front of the room dispensing knowledge, keeping order, and evaluating student work?  Or will it be a collective effort, each student responsible for his own learning?  Will students vote to decide policy?  The classroom and school structure dictate a comprehensive set of values, even when the subject matter is limited to such seemingly neutral subjects as geometry and plane mechanics.

Schooling these days is in a woefully chaotic moral condition.  Officially, most public schools are meant to be ruled by a value system of pluralism.  Not verging into the choppy waters of cultural relativism, in which all cultural values are deemed equal, pluralism hopes to insist on a moral code of tolerance and acceptance.  Every type of culture and belief will be celebrated.  Diversity will be embraced as the new path to moral relevance.

All well and good.  From the traditionalist perspective, however, pluralism has the crippling internal flaw of claiming to welcome all cultures, while in fact it often belittles or even criminalizes traditionalist beliefs.  Just recently, a spate of legal cases involving teachers’ religious views has illustrated this trend.  First, from the San Diego area, Bradley Johnson was ordered to remove large signs from his math classroom containing such slogans as “In God We Trust,” “One Nation Under God,” “God Bless America,” and “God Shed His Grace On Thee.”  The California Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Johnson did not have free-speech rights to keep such signs in his classroom.  The Court reasonably concluded that such slogans, though they came from well-known songs or foundational historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence, created an atmosphere that unacceptably breached the wall of separation between church and state.  They implied that the school endorsed Judeo-Christian belief.

It seems as if that was exactly Johnson’s intent.  Johnson was not merely a patriotic teacher with a yen for big banners.  He was also the faculty leader of the school’s Christian Club.  When the school offered to replace his banners with reproductions of documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Johnson refused.  When another teacher suggested that his signs could shock students from other religious backgrounds and make them feel unwelcome, Johnson allegedly replied, “Sometimes, that’s necessary.” 

Johnson wanted to make the point that although his traditional religious message was prohibited, the district allowed other teachers to display messages from a wide array of other religions and value systems.  He conducted visits to the four other high schools in the district and found a wide array of displays to confirm his charge, including a Tibetan prayer flag, a John Lennon poster with the lyrics from “Imagine,” a poster of Malcolm X, and posters of Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.

Johnson provoked this court case to make his point.  Schools, in his opinion, promoted every value system except that of traditional Christian patriotism.  Another recent teacher controversy came about more accidentally.  In Union Township, New Jersey, special education teacher Viki Knox came under fire for criticizing the school’s support of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History month.  The school had put up displays that celebrated prominent homosexuals.  Knox complained on her Facebook page that, although she loved those who were gay, her religious beliefs taught her that homosexuality was “against the nature and character of God.”  Furthermore, Knox argued that a public high school was “not the setting to promote, encourage, support and foster homosexuality.”

Now her job is on the line.  Not technically for her religious beliefs.  But she is accused of being unable to perform her duties—duties that include defending every student from bullying and harassment—because she does not agree with the moral values of the school.

Time will tell what lies in store for Ms. Knox.  But the story illustrates the cluster of values that public schools actively promote.  The large banner that offended Knox promoted the notion that all people have equal value.  It attacked the idea that homosexuals could or should be discriminated against.  For the record, I agree with those notions.  I think people have equal value and sexual orientation must not be used as grounds for discrimination.  The important point here, however, is that those values themselves discriminate against certain religious traditions.  They would make students from fundamentalist churches and families feel just as excluded as Bradley Johnson’s banners would make atheist students feel excluded.

Supporters of such pro-homosexuality values in public schools might argue that such students ought to feel excluded.  Students who do not embrace the equal rights and status of all fellow students, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation, must be forced to change their beliefs.  That is a tricky perspective.  Especially if, as did Knox and as do many other conservative Christians, religious students advocate love for homosexual students, but not for homosexual behavior.  Such religious folks do not suggest violence or even ostracism for homosexuals.  But they also do not recognize their sexual orientation as legitimate.  Can public schools force such traditionalists to change their religious beliefs?  Doesn’t that violate the wall of separation between church and state?

Finally, consider another recent court case that illustrates this bias of public schools and courts against traditional religion.  As I noted in a recent post,  we don’t have to merely imagine that anti-Christian statements by teachers might be treated with less severity than pro-Christian statements.  The California Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the same Court that ruled against Bradley Johnson, decided that James Corbett could not be held to account for statements that belittled traditional Christian belief.  In his Advanced Placement European History class, Corbett had created a hostile atmosphere for any student who might have believed in a young earth or in the special creation of humanity by God.  Corbett repeatedly ridiculed such belief.  Like the New Jersey posters supporting the notion that homosexuality must be celebrated, such an environment breaches the wall of separation of church and state, by attacking one set of beliefs.

Yet the Court let Corbett off the hook.  Corbett, they decided, could claim “qualified immunity” for offending religious students.

The wider picture is clear: Public schools do promote a certain set of moral values.  Most of those values are hard to argue with.  Who could deny the value of teaching young people that every person deserves equal respect, regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation?  Who could deny that students should learn to question their own belief systems; that schools must force students to learn to think deeply about such notions?  But we must also recognize that religious notions are embedded in those laudable values.  Students and teachers from traditionalist Christian backgrounds will feel excluded.  They will feel that public schools are hostile environments.

Public schools and school law have a very difficult time wrestling with these moral conundrums.  Their value system of pluralism and acceptance does not recognize itself as one system among others.  It claims, rather, to embrace and celebrate all cultures.  It is incapable, though, of embracing and celebrating any value system that insists on a set of immutable, transcendent values.  In America, that excludes a very large number of families.  It creates a hostile religious environment for all those who believe in the foundational truth of Biblical teachings.  Even worse, it does so while claiming to be opposed to the creation of a hostile religious environment for anyone.  Since it claims to be a neutral arbiter of moral values, it is incapable of easily recognizing its role as a moral agent.


To return to our imagined argument about the proper nature of schooling (to see the prequels to this argument, see here and here): Traditionalists can argue that not only does the traditionalist educational scheme make philosophical sense, but it makes a great deal of practical sense as well.  In the imaginary progressivist classroom described in the last post, a student left to “inquire” about the history of American chattel slavery “discovered” that slavery was not such a bad deal for the slaves involved.  A horrible and all-too-common result.  But in real classrooms, there is often a much more depressing result from progressivist pedagogy.  A student can only discover such alarming falsehoods if she actually does some inquiring.  Most students, when left to explore intellectual fields, will simply sit down in one comfortable corner and wait until they’re allowed to leave.  That is, without a classroom structure that pushes students toward learning, the vast majority of young people will not learn.  The good news is that they will not uncover any of the intellectual landmines that threaten those students engaged in progressivist “discovery”-oriented pedagogy.  But that is only because they will not uncover any ideas at all.

Consider one of the classroom staples of progressive-style education.  This teaching technique has become such a stereotypical signal of progressive teaching that principals, parents, and other teacher evaluators often give teachers credit for being creative and dynamic if only they use this technique.  At the same time, this method is the bane of every serious student everywhere.  It is the method every lazy student loves and every earnest nerd hates.  It is “group work.”

The philosophy of group work is compelling.  In the traditional classroom scheme, the teacher stood at the front of the class and delivered information.  The students sat in orderly rows and tried their hardest to absorb that information.  Periodically, the teacher would ask the students a series of questions about the information.  Students were graded on the amount of that information they could successfully regurgitate.

Progressivist educators asked themselves, what is the point of such rigid teaching?  Students don’t actually learn much; they only memorize and spit back dry facts.  Even worse, for progressives, is the social lesson that this kind of teaching ingrains.  Students don’t learn the material, but they do learn that their role in society is to passively accept the dictates of authority, without appeal.  This scheme trains subjects, not citizens.

Instead, progressives advocated group work, among other things.  One benefit would be that students would have more chance to really learn material by discussing it and working with it first hand.  Just as important, they would internalize the notion that they are important members of society.  Their voices deserve to be heard.

Sounds good.  But in practice, the method of group work means that the cruelties of the playground are brought into the classroom and passed off as modern teaching techniques.  Instead of having an educated caring adult leading a classroom discussion, that discussion is left in the hands of children.  It doesn’t take a belief in original sin to understand that children can be cruel.  They can show a finely developed sense of social combat.  And putting them into less supervised groups in order to work on classroom ideas simply abdicates the basic responsibility of teaching.

In those groups, no learning takes place.  At best, the students merely look sheepishly at one another, talking about things of more interest to them: sports, TV, music, social events.  If there is one student who is earnestly trying to complete the assignment the group has been given, she must usually work in vain to interest her fellow students.  That role should not be foisted off onto students.  It is the job of a teacher to compel students to get some learning done, not of one hapless and well-meaning student.

At worst, time in a group is time to fine tune the playground staples of ostracism and groupthink.  As progressivist educators argue, working in a group does allow students to practice their social skills.  But instead of the naïve progressivist assumption that students would work diligently together and learn the value of democratic citizenship, students hone their existing social skills into cutting weapons that are used against the least proficient members of the assigned group.

In other words, progressivists assume that young people need to learn social skills.  They don’t.  Young people have keen social skills.  They group together in packs and cliques with predictable precision.  What young people lack is the intellectual, moral, and spiritual maturity to stand up to those bullies who would pick on the weakest members of the group in order to get a quick boost to their own social status.  As a result, placing students in a group forces them instantly to renegotiate their social rank, their playground pecking order.  It forces the socially strongest to pick on the weakest in order to shore up their status.  And those in the middle usually watch the abuse unfold, unwilling to stand up to it in case it turns on them.  We do not see democracy in microcosm.  What we see is a tiny totalitarianism.

Of course, this kind of cruel ganging-up doesn’t happen in every classroom group.  But just as it is the intellectual role of a teacher to guide students along a very narrow path of truth, so it is the teacher’s role to ensure that every member of the classroom feels safe and encouraged to learn.  By assigning students to groups and assuming they are capable of the very adult task of learning together, teachers act irresponsibly.  At best, they waste students’ time by forcing them to chat together without any real learning going on.  At worst, teachers give up their role as shepherd and protector and abandon their less socially gifted students to the merciless rule of the adolescent social scene.




John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Free Press, 1997); Dewey, The School and Society & The Child and the Curriculum (, 2011); Arthur Bestor, Educational Wastelands (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1953); Max Rafferty, Classroom Countdown (Hawthorn Books, 1970); Jay E. Adams, Back to the Blackboard (Evangelical Press, 1982).

Traditionalist Education: Introduction


In 1953, Robert Hutchins, long-time president of the University of Chicago, argued that “an educational system without values is a contradiction in terms.”  Hutchins was a unique voice in Cold War education.  He was something of an intellectual child star, serving as the Dean of Yale’s Law School while still in his twenties and rising to the presidency of the University of Chicago at the age of thirty.  Like many child stars, Hutchins developed some unique ideas and pursued them with single-minded obstinacy throughout his career.  To Hutchins, the best education consisted of a thorough training in the Great Books, those classics that had withstood the test of time.  Hutchins loathed the notion that college should primarily train students for work; rather, Hutchins believed higher education should teach students in the arts of thinking and communicating.  The rest could come later.

Hutchins was an odd duck.
Unlike most traditionalist educators, he was not politically conservative.  But he still became
something of a hero to traditionalists with his insistence that students should spend their time with Aristotle instead of football.  Let me point out once again that in these arguments in favor of traditionalist education I will not necessarily be arguing for my own ideas.  I consider myself a fundamentally progressive educator, in that I think that the best education comes from inquiry and discovery rather than rote repetition and regurgitation.  I believe that schools ought to serve as society’s first line of defense against inequality and injustice.  But as with other topics, here I will be trying to imagine arguments that will make sense to people who don’t agree with them.  I will be trying to show that people can have good reasons for believing these things; they don’t have to be ignorant or wicked to do so.

Even though I don’t consider myself an educational traditionalist, I do agree that education must include moral values.  The real questions are: Which values?  And . . . Who decides?  For a lot of traditionalists, moral values are bundled into classroom practice.  School, in their opinion, should teach basic academic skills, the “three Rs.”  The process of teaching those basic academics should be tied up with proper moral upbringing.  For instance, students should be working hard, memorizing multiplication facts and diagramming sentences.  They should obey the teacher’s guidelines and accept her corrections humbly.  The morals are packed into that vision of classroom life: students ought to show respect for authority; they ought to work hard without asking why; they should learn that there is a right answer and a wrong answer—a transcendent good and a transcendent evil—and they should train themselves to choose the good, even when the evil seems more glamorous and enticing.

Traditionalists often package these recommendations in a vision of the past as a time when more people were brought up this way.  One of the stickiest problems for traditionalists is that such rosy visions of the past open them up to charges that they would also prefer other parts of the American past, such as race slavery and gender discrimination.  Do traditionalists notice, their challengers might say, that in their Mayberry vision of what America’s schools ought to be doing, it is only Opie getting an education?  That is, only the white boy is allowed full citizenship, while girls and black kids are only educated—trained—for a supporting role.  But babies should not be thrown out with the bathwater.  In
these posts, we can try to cull from tradition what we want and update it to remove what we do not.  We do not have to discard the entirety just to demonstrate our liberation from our pasts.

Once again, these might not be the arguments that traditionalist educators themselves prefer.  If you consider yourself traditionalist, weigh in.  What are more compelling reasons to promote traditionalist education?  How do you respond to charges that you want to return to a past of institutionalized white supremacy?  What values do you see in a “three Rs” approach that did not make it into these pages?



Robert Hutchins, The Conflict in Education (New York: Harper, 1953).