Education Opinion

Declines in education: a dangerous myth

By Deborah Meier — April 07, 2007 4 min read

Dear Diane,

Time to disagree!

First. Of course consistency is not always a virtue, still I am unclear about whether you think that the olden days were better or worse. In your 3rd paragraph you refer to being less nostalgic than I am about the “good old days.” In your last paragraph you refer to the hope that we will “once again have a public school system to be proud of.” Which? While I am older than you, it seems to me that for both of us “the old days” were the ‘30s through the ‘50s. A time before strong teacher’s unions and, in many a city (e.g. St Louis) where women were often not allowed to teach if they were married, and where parents may have respected teachers, but surely principals and school authorities did not. And the success of our youngsters was nothing to brag about. At the time of my birth most kids hadn’t yet “dropped into” high school, and it was only after World War II that a majority finally finished high school. And data for blacks vs. whites make today’s “achievement gap” seem like a distant dream; not to mention the gender gap, and the fact that many special ed kids weren’t even allowed to attend public schools, and on and on.

We expected a lot less of our schools and we got a lot less; so we probably were less dissatisfied. Thus the “romance.”

The authority of principals rested on arbitrary power and on disrespect for women (whether teachers or mothers) more than on serious respect for intellectual merit.

When I started subbing in Chicago 45 years ago I was appalled at the intellectual barrenness of its schools—except for the most elite. And for the disrespect still shown daily to teachers and parents (read: mothers). And yes, much of this has a history that’s very complex, and very “American"—a disdain for school smarts vs. practical smarts, for the Eastern elite vs. the “manly” west, our dumbing down the word “academic” (as in irrelevant, or as in “the 3 Rs”). A big subject—that I’ll drop—except to say that it was the reason I got into teaching, because I was intrigued at discovering that our schools provided such a poor preparation for a robust democracy—starting with 5-year-olds!

I think the romantic myth about our “declining” education has been a dangerous myth, that undergirds the privatizers’ success. It parallels an equally dangerous myth that I think you unintentionally support in this last piece: about the shortcomings of democracy.

Yes, the histories of school boards, like that of all forms of democratic control, are often a sad story. The people are not always wise. Thank goodness for those peculiar American institutions that have at times tempered their unwisdom—the constitution and the courts—and even states’ rights—when it comes to some of our uglier majoritarian inclinations (like racism). But over the long run democracy must and will mirror our beliefs—good and bad. The question then is, when we think the people wrong, do we replace them?

In my youth, Diane, I had friends that took the position that “faith” in democracy was a form of petty bourgeois naiveté; the people had been brainwashed by the ruling class, and until they were unbrainwashed by wiser heads we could not have a true democracy. Thus they argued for the kind of “socialist” state that would be—for a time—a dictatorship, until the people were wiser and the authoritarian state could wither away. You and I know how dangerous that belief was. But, on a smaller scale, that belief lives on among many liberals and conservatives, not just old-fashioned Communists. Why? Because there was always some common sense truth to it!

The answer to school boards that try to bully school people into abandoning teaching about the U.N. or the NAACP—except to demonize them—is not less democracy, but more. The answer is persuasion, political action on behalf of our beliefs, including kids raised hearing a variety of interpretations.

Side note: the Regents in NY State are not merely exams; they are a curriculum, backed by an exam precisely to control what is taught. They DO spell it out. The more specific such state curriculums are, the more likely they are to be controversial and/or trivial. This goes back to an older argument we had—maybe 30 years ago—about whether any serious subject can be thoroughly objective and neutral.

Interpretation—the judging of the relationship and meaning behind the facts as best we know them—is inevitable, healthy and at the heart of a lively intellectual culture. Every time I’ve seen a state try to “spell it out” I cringe in embarrassment.

Finally, our hope lies precisely in you and I gathering our forces to insist on publicly contesting the vultures that are surrounding our schools. We need the widest alliance, including those conservatives who really believe in conserving, not just privatizing. We can’t fight one elite on behalf of another; I think we’re stuck having to defend “the people.”

I read a piece lately about a new effort to privatize our highways! And our friend Klein in NYC is proposing, or maybe already has mandated, that principals be renamed CEOs. Ugh. And, did I mention, that in Boston they’ve fined the teachers union for “talking about” a strike? The fight for public education is a fight for democracy—with its warts. There will always be trade-offs, new fights over content, but as long as it’s public there’s a point to you and me fighting about it. Once “they” own it lock stock and barrel, we’re all disenfranchised. It’s all then “academic"—short for “boring”.


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