Education Opinion

Declines in education: a dangerous myth

By Deborah Meier — April 07, 2007 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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”.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Practices & the Construction of the Deep Reading Brain
Join Ryan Lee-James, Ph.D. CCC-SLP, director of the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, with Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD., Vital Village Community Engagement Network; Neena McConnico, Ph.D, LMHC, Child Witness to Violence Project; and Sondra
Content provided by Rollins Center

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Hundreds of Conn. Bus Drivers Threaten to Walk Off the Job Over Vaccine Mandate
More than 200 school bus drivers could walk off the job in response to a vaccination mandate that goes into effect Monday.
1 min read
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk.
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk. <br/>
Keith Srakocic/AP Photo
Education Briefly Stated: September 22, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)