A Nation at Risk argued that had a foreign power inflicted our public school system upon us, it would have been regarded as an act of war. Today, our schools are even worse than they were then. It has just been announced in a study published this week that the public school systems of the biggest 50 cities in the nation graduate only half of their entering freshmen. Detroit -- the worst offender -- graduates only a quarter of those entering high school. Indianapolis is not far behind.
Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg documents in his book Liberal Fascism much of what has motivated the public school industry for the last century. Educators fell in love with John Dewey, for one thing, who turned out to be pure philosophical poison. But Goldberg misses the larger point, perhaps because he only begins his story of Progressivism and its links to European Fascism around the turn of the Twentieth Century. In fact, the roots of Progressivism -- at least, in the case of public schools -- goes much further back.
I had no time to squeeze History of Education into my coursework back in grad school, so I petitioned to take it as a readings course. Cagey as I was, I specifically asked the Dean of the School of Education -- a lover of history, and of educational history especially -- to be my professor of record. He was flattered, and my petition sailed through without question. I'm glad I did it that way. For what I read in my research and confirmed with the Dean absolutely shocked me.
The Great American Public School™ is largely the creation of one person: Horace Mann. Mann was appointed the Secretary of the newly-created Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837 -- a position of no particular consequence. But every year, Mann would issue a Report, which was republished widely throughout The United States. In these Reports, he would talk about what was good and bad in Massachusetts' public schools and what should be done to remedy deficiencies. Other States began to follow "The Massachusetts Model." Mann became the very first national guru of public schools. And gradually, schools all over the country began to look like, and act like, the schools in Massachusetts being shaped by the theories and recommendations of Horace Mann.
Mann was an early believer in parents-as-obstacles. The whole, long hostility between professional teachers and parents -- later strongly reflected in the works of Dewey and other Progressives -- flows from his influence. The reason kids don't turn out well is because parents are bigoted, stupid, etc. -- according to Mann and his followers. Public schools ever since -- and the governments that supervise them and expand their reach -- have tried to get around parents, do things with their children without their consent, form their children in ways their parents do not approve of, and so on.
I came away from my study with two Telling Examples of what has gone wrong ever since Mann.
Example One: The first Reform School was created in Massachusetts in those days. To it children with various problems were sent, including the problem of Truancy. Parents who did not send their children to school risked having them taken away, since not sending them to school was proof of the parents' incompetence to raise them.
BUT, the practice of sending truants to Reform School predates the first compulsory attendance law in Massachusetts. It wasn't illegal to not send your kids to the public schools -- nor was it supposed to be socially obligatory to send them; yet if you didn't, the nascent Omnicompetent State could remove your children from your home and give them into the care of "professionals," and you had little chance of getting them back. This was in around the 1840s, folks.
Shift focus a bit for the next Telling Example, away from schools vs. parents to schools vs. other community institutions.
Example Two: Before Mann's influence, New York State didn't have a public school system. There were schools, and the State Assembly gave them some funding. Which meant they were funding privately-run schools. And all funding was equal. Following "The Massachusetts Model," New York created its first Statewide public school system; hereafter, only public schools would be funded.
A dispute immediately arose about which version of the Bible to read in classes. This being the 1840s, nobody seriously doubted that the Bible ought not to be read -- for various reasons both spiritual and literary -- in the classroom. But whose Bible? The Roman Catholics suggested that in majority Catholic school districts, the Douay translation should be used, while in majority Protestant school districts, the KJV would be appropriate. The professional schoolmen objected: to be equal, all schools should use the same material. Which meant, in practice, that a powerful group of State bureaucrats and politicians -- predominantly Protestant in what was, after all, a predominantly Protestant country -- would make the choice for everybody. The KJV was in, Douay was out.
The result, in New York and Baltimore and all up and down the East Coast, was the creation of RC parochial schools in competition with State schools. Herein is a characteristic Goldberg talks about in Liberal Fascism which was in evidence far earlier than the Progressive Movement -- even before the Civil War. The Great American Public School™ will brook no rivals. They know better, and all others are ignorant backwoodsmen or cheesy cultists whose influence must be curtailed for the good of the State.
Nowadays, those who run the public schools are the new priesthood in every community. They dominate all public activity. No one can schedule a governmental business meeting on the night of a varsity basketball game, for instance. And other institutions are pushed aside as well. Churches and Little League and Boy Scouts who work with children and youth have their access to kids crimped by the (non-curricular!) demands placed upon children. School activities take place on Sundays now, even.
Time was, when the churches of a community set its calendar and gave permission for what could happen within its bounds. I'm not saying that a bunch of preachers did a necessarily better job of setting social boundaries than a bunch of teachers and coaches, but I am saying that there is no dispute who runs things in our communities now. Are they really doing a better job than the rest of us?
And did it have to be this way? An alternative model for public schools did exist. As every Hoosier schoolchild knows -- or used to know -- the Northwest Ordinance and Land Ordinance of 1787 were the sources of public schools in the new territory west of the Appalachians. One section in every township was to be set aside to fund schools.
Reading what was said in those (pre-Mann) days about schools, one comes across two criteria by which the schools of the new Republic were to be evaluated.
Criteria One: to impart knowledge, skills, and habits that would enable children to grow up and support themselves, so as to not be a burden upon the public. Schools were to prepare youth for work, not just more schooling.
Criteria Two: to teach the facts about, and inculcate affection for, our system of government in order to enable children to grow up and participate in our democracy. In other words, schools were to teach a lot of Civics, which included a healthy dose of patriotism.
How far we have come.
In the end, I don't think you can tear down the whole thing and start over, though I'd certainly like to. Public Schools are like a chronic infection. As long as you can keep it from crippling or killing you, you learn to live with it. But that's not much of a recommendation for The Great American Public School™, is it?