Education Commentary

Nation-Building and Education

By L. Scott Miller — May 14, 1986 8 min read

The dramatic demographic changes reviewed in this issue of Education Week are a familiar subject for many educators, particularly those who work in urban schools. Nonetheless, few educators have been in a position to address more than the most pressing first-order aspects of these changes for their own schools or districts. Even fewer have had an opportunity to think about the changing student cohort from a national rather than a local or regional perspective.

The size and complexity of the demographic shift in the country’s population under age 18 are now such, however, that we must take the time to frame our situation as largely and completely as possible. By the year 2000, about 38 percent of the under-18 population will be black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian, and their portion of our children and youth is expected to continue to grow for many years thereafter. In contrast, youngsters from these groups constituted less than 15 percent of the under-18 population in 1950, and less than 27 percent in 1980.

From my vantage point, one of the most useful concepts for thinking about these changes is nation-building, by which I mean the efforts we make individually and collectively to include “all the people” within the central realms of our society, and in the process establish a national community in the civic sense of the term.

Nation-building is nothing new for the United States. We have been continually reinventing ourselves as a people since the early days of the Republic. During our first two centuries, there have been a number of major strands to the nation-building story, two of which are relevant to the current demographic changes. One of them has involved the millions of immigrants from all over Europe who voluntarily came to this country between 1830 and 1920. Prior to 1830, the majority of white Americans were descendents of British settlers; most were practicing Protestants; many enjoyed high levels of literacy for that time; and the majority lived a rural, agrarian life. The new “ethnic” white immigrants were heavily Catholic and Jewish; several of the groups, such as the Irish, were much less well educated than their Anglo-Saxon brethren; and a large share of the new immigrants settled in the rapidly growing cities that were at the center of the nation’s industrialization.

The other strand has involved mostly nonwhites. At the outset of the Republic, these were primarily Native Americans and blacks. Later, they were joined by Mexicans who were living in areas that became part of the nation through war or acquisition, by a small number of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and by Puerto Ricans, as a result of the Spanish-American War. These groups were culturally and/or racially much different from both the founding white group and the subsequent European immigrants. Each of these minority groups encountered deep-seated prejudices that made advancement extremely difficult. Blacks and Native Americans faced fundamental institutional obstacles to becoming citizens. Only the Asians could be considered to have been “volunteer” Americans.

The nation-building effort for ethnic whites appears to be coming to a successful (by the standards of history) completion. White ethnic groups often encountered substantial religious and other forms of prejudice, and usually began at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder; yet ever larger numbers of each successive generation were able to advance toward the mainstream. In many ways, the election of a Catholic, Irish-American President, John F. Kennedy, in 1960 signaled the culmination of this process. Since his election, ethnic whites have visibly reached the top of most sectors of society. Some ethnic groups now surpass white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in income and educational levels. Whites of most varieties have come to hold a remarkably similar distribution of views on social and economic issues. Although significant residual cultural differences remain, white Americans are now members of the same national civic community.

The other nation-building effort has moved in the same direction. But because those involved have generally faced more difficult obstacles to the mainstream, their progress has been slower and more uneven. (The Asians represent an exception to this pattern; their progress has been more similar to that of ethnic whites.)

In the case of blacks, citizenship was not achieved until after the Civil War; and it took another century for them to obtain the set of legal rights that are essential for full participation. Indeed, the recent push for full civil rights for blacks contributed to the development of greater rights for Native Americans and Hispanics, and assisted in the parallel efforts to achieve broader participation for women and the disabled (segments of the population that represent other strands of the nation-building story).

Much remains to be done. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, although the nation-building process for ethnic whites (and possibly the descendents of the original Asian immigrants) seems to have reached the beginning of the end, the one for most nonwhite minorities only recently passed the end of the beginning. Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics are still collectively much less well educated, and economically much less well off, than the white majority. As a result, many are still far from being able to participate robustly in national life on an individual basis or to achieve (in the context of a diverse society) some of the objectives they may have as groups.

If the proportion of the population represented by these minorities were still close to its 1950 level, their rate of advancement toward the mainstream might well have quickened, given the successes of the civil-rights movement, the energy and commitment of their communities, the considerable support for their progress among the white majority, and the extensive resources of the country. However, as their proportion of the total has grown, so has the size of the effort required to sustain rapid progress, particularly for the least advantaged among them. For example, despite the emergence of large numbers of middle-class, educated blacks and Hispanics, the proportion of minority children who are “at risk” has been growing. Moreover, these children are increasingly pluralistic, owing to recent large-scale immigration from the third world. Finally, they are heavily clustered in inner cities, which creates a formidable “density/scale” factor. (Several of our inner cities have effectively become the planet’s first truly international multicultural, multilingual developing “countries.”)

For these reasons, the nation-building agenda concerning nonwhites has been transformed in recent years into a much larger, more complex challenge. In the process, it has become a matter of even more pressing concern for the overall moral, political, and economic health of the nation.

It is possible, of course, that the rate of the demographic shift suggested by the available data will not continue. Middle- class birth rates (majority and/or minority) might rise substantially; immigration from the developing world might slow down; inner-city schools (and school systems) might soon become much more instructionally effective for pluralistic student populations with substantial numbers of at-risk youngsters. But none of these things seems likely at this point.

The fall of middle-class birth rates in the United States is similar to those experienced by most industrialized countries. None has yet solved the riddle of how to return to, much less maintain, replacement birth rates for this socioeconomic group. In contrast, the population of the developing countries is expected nearly to double in the next 50 years. Thus, the pressures on people in these countries to emigrate probably will grow rather than abate. Consequently, we might do well to regard our recent immigrants from the third world as the vanguard of those who will arrive during what might eventually be known as the Era of Great Migrations.

As for inner-city schools, despite the earnest efforts of many educators, parents, and students, there is little reason to expect that large numbers of urban minority youngsters will obtain a significantly better education in the near future. Part of this has to do with resource limitations that beset most large cities. Part of it also has to do with non-school-based factors that make it difficult for schools to be more effective with many of the students. But there is more: The schools that we have learned how to build and maintain in large numbers were never designed for student populations that are heavily weighted toward at-risk children with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Those who doubt this should carefully compare the educational capacities of the elementary and secondary institutions that John Goodlad describes in A Place Called School with the educational needs of typical inner-city students.

Fortunately, owing to the substantial increase over the past generation in our knowledge of the factors that make for instructionally more effective schools, there is reason to believe that we can come much closer to meeting the educational needs of minority students. The parallel growth in our understanding of how to be supportive through other means--such as early-childhood education--also is a cause for optimism. The challenge for us all is to begin building appropriately restructured schools, in combination with effective preschools and the like, in quantity.

We can all think of a score of reasons for not being able to move in that direction--for believing that the best we can do is to continue with the regulatory approach to school reform that has characterized the past three years. This will enable us to provide a “higher standards” version of existing schools, while at the same time possibly offering somewhat more in the way of compensatory education for the growing number of disadvantaged learners.

The alternative, however, is for the educational community to begin to offer a vision of school improvement that matches the need. Change would necessarily be incremental, but it would lead away from the current place called school to another that is structurally much more powerful. This is what the children deserve and the future of the nation requires. It is also consistent with the nation-building role that the school has played throughout our country’s history.

A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 1986 edition of Education Week