The Goals of Education Must Have a Fair Trial

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No such consensus exists now. The rising chorus against federal aid to education is being joined by voices opposing state aid or even local aid--and the proponents of more money for schools from any level of government are losing on every front. Pressure groups demanding specific moral or religious or patriotic content in curricula are countered by opponents who have their own notions of what constitutes "value-free" or "value-fair" material. Sociologist James Coleman's latest education study--that holds that private schools are superior to public schools--sets off a furious argument among "experts" over the relative quality of schools (and the validity of Coleman's data).

Anti-busing advocates want neighborhood schools. Textbook crusaders want the power to dictate content. Opponents of standardized testing want abolition of all such tests. New schemes to organize, conduct, and finance education are regularly advanced by all manner of critics and strategists arrayed across the ideological spectrum. Their proposals range from blatantly self-serving to blindly simplistic: tuition tax credits for private school patrons; government vouchers to finance "free market" schools; segregation by subject matter or test scores or sex or race or socio-economic class; home teaching; instruction through computer terminals and television; the abolition of compulsory education; the "deschooling" of society.

With so much turmoil and frustration abroad in and around the schools, the temptation is almost overpowering to long for bygone times when things supposedly were better. But were they? Those who think so argue that schools are now seized with violence and fear, immobilized by bureaucracy, fragmented by special interests, bankrupted by waste and inefficiency, split by philosophical and ideological differences, preoccupied with class and race divisions, filled with incompetence. And yet a persuasive counterargument exists: There has never been a time when a larger number or percentage of American young people completed the requirements of schooling, left with a greater and more diverse store of knowledge, and went on to advanced training in such a multitude of endeavors.

Whether for better or worse, the nation's schools have always been more nearly a reflection of the larger society than an expression of its ideals--and now they reflect the soul and substance of a nation gagging on its own divisive juices. Schools are essentially political institutions--they are, after all, the chief instrument for reproducing society--and it is unrealistic to expect them to be otherwise. They will not be agents for social change unless the larger society, through its political forces, is committed to social change. But they will be battlegrounds for competing factions whose interests range from a particular vision of the society of the future to a general determination to preserve and perpetuate educational institutions as they are.

Regardless of our greatly differentiated perceptions and expectations of schools, we are faced with questions we cannot easily answer: How will we pay for education's mission of reproducing society? Can a distinction be maintained between public and private schools? Is such a distinction vital to our democracy or merely an exercise in semantics? Do schools transmit values and indoctrinate the young? Should they? How? Whose values and what doctrines should they impart? Can schools become guarantors of equal opportunity? Can they nourish pluralism and diversity as well as equality? Should formal schooling for the young be focused only on the basic skills? Could other functions of schools, from the arts and sciences to sports, be better provided by other institutions? Is the advance in technology in schools a promise or a threat to the education of the nation's children?

There is not much evidence that we fully understand the questions, let alone the answers. As taxpayers and parents, we seem instead to be endlessly preoccupied with arguments over taxes and appropriations and budgets, over pupil-teacher ratios and racial percentages and test scores, over credit hours and credentials, over a maze of abstract numbers that obscures our vision and our purpose. Schools have always been a focus of debate and controversy in this country; what is unclear just now is whether the present crisis in education is simply a replay from the past or a new warning sign of impending collapse.

I have always assumed, without really knowing, that faith in public education was rooted in our history; that the rise of schools for "the masses" in the 19th century was a belated but genuine attempt to fulfill the egalitarian ideal of the Declaration of Independence.

But in recent years a number of revisionist historians and educational critics have gone beyond the missionary zeal from which so much educational history has sprung, and in the works of this new wave of writers can be found some starkly different perspectives.

It is perhaps oversimplifying, and misleading as well, to paint in one brush-stroke the broad surface of views held by such writers as Bernard Bailyn, Lawrence Cremin, Paul Goodman, Charles Silberman, John Holt, Johnathan Kozol, Michael Katz, Herbert Kohl, Ivan Illich, Peter Schrag, Colin Greer, Joel Spring, Samuel Bowles, and Herbert Gintis. Certainly they are not of one mind about how we got into the mess we're in or how we might best get out of it. But there is in their investigations and insights a wealth of informed opinion that sheds a light on both the past and the present. For example:

  • The start of public education in this country was not a self-conscious attempt by the state to guarantee equality in the larger society; it was rather an attempt to reinforce tradition and authority and to keep control of a rapidly growing and diversifying population.
  • The English principle of politics--that power (and thus education) should be preserved as an exclusive privilege of the rich and well-born--dominated the first 200 years of white settlement in this country, and not even the Revolution altered that fact. It was not until democracy was born on the frontier and swept back East that education, like the franchise, came to be considered the right of the many rather than a privilege of the few--and even so, "the many" were understood to include only white males.
  • Waves of immigrants from Europe in the decades preceding the Civil War led liberals and conservatives alike to see schools as a device to encourage assimilation and perpetuate control. Far from giving the native and immigrant masses equal educational opportunity with the upper classes, public schools gave them a general indoctrination in the political, religious, and economic rules of the game--and a little taste of the three R's for good measure.
  • The educational reform movements generally associated with Horace Mann in the antebellum decades and John Dewey in the early part of this century were not intended to raise the opportunities and the status of the poor, or even to broaden the middle class. Their more fundamental objectives were to Americanize foreigners, to train workers for an urban, industrial society, to develop cooperative and compliant attitudes as a means of maintaining social order, and to legitimize inequality by excluding or segregating blacks and others deemed inferior.

I find these views compelling, if not totally convincing. All of us who are old enough to remember the shameful years of legalized segregation must know that however much the public schools promised full freedom and equality for whites, they held no such realistic promises for blacks. We should have known, if we did not, that the economic and social divisions among whites were hardly lessened by the schools; they were, in fact, reinforced.

But even when I suspend belief in the questionable claims of the old missionary historians of education, I am still left with concerns that neither the revisionists nor the contemporary critics of schools have addressed. Two things in particular disturb me.

The first is this: Public education, for all its flaws and shortcomings, is the nearest thing we have to a publicly owned and operated institution devoted to the general welfare. (If our mines or our manufacturing plants were so owned and operated, we would properly call them socialist.) From Mann to Dewey to school officials of the present day, there has been and is at least the rhetoric of equal opportunity; surely the reality of it is closer to our grasp there than in alternative institutions yet to be formed--not to mention private alternatives that already exist.

Until recent years, the strongest attacks on public education came from authoritarian and undemocratic forces opposed to schooling for all at the expense of the state. It would be tragically ironic if the new critics and reformers of the Left gave reactionary opponents on the Right the ammunition that they need to blow public education away once and for all.

Yet opportunities for such destructive mischief already exist. A prime example can be found in current pursuit of tuition tax credits and educational vouchers. Tax credits would bolster private and parochial schools at the expense of the public systems--and that would include the alternative schools of many middle-class liberals as well as those of churches and segregationist groups. Vouchers, or government-issued checks to parents for free-market purchase of educational services for their children, would have essentially the same effect.

In compelling children to attend school, and in compelling the public schools to welcome and teach all who come to them, the state has assured universal exposure to education. The supply-and-demand forces of a so-called free economy do not apply to that process. But with vouchers or tax credits, there could be no more required attendance or required admission. The only compulsion affecting students, parents, and schools would be governed essential-y by money--the need for it and the lack of it. Vouchers would create a seller's market, with school administrator-entrepreneurs taking only those students who bring the most money and the least problems with them. Parents, on the other hand, would be limited to what they and their children could "qualify" for--financially, academically, socially. The voucher money from the government would never be enough to buy an equitable and effective school experience for the poor, the handicapped, the underprepared, the unmotivated, the "problem kids"; they would end up in the most marginal schools, while the affluent supplemented their dole from the public treasury with private funds to widen the gap.

The second thing that bothers me about attacks on public education from the Left is that the alternatives advocated by the critics are, to put it mildly, disappointing. Some of them are simply poor imitations of conventional schools; others have attractive features that offer no realistic promise of broad application; still others are riddled with ideological contradictions or based upon pure fantasy.

Ivan Illich led off the contemporary search for alternatives with his proposal in 1970 for the deschooling of society, by which he meant that "the state shall make no law with respect to the establishment of education." School, he said, "is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is." Others have followed with all sorts of alternative proposals to the present structure. The latest comes from John Holt, whose new book, Teach Your Own, advocates abandoning schools, which he calls "babysitting services," and teachers whom he describes as "no more professional than busdrivers," and leaving your kids at home with their books.

Such anarchism flavored the proposals of frustrated critics of education in the past, long before Illich and Holt. There was, for example, the Modern School in Shelton, N.J., more than a half century ago, and there have been others similarly devoted to radical re-creation of educational institutions. But now as then, while the alternatives may be interesting or even valuable, they cannot begin to meet the needs of millions of children. It is only the middle and upper classes who can afford to experiment with exotic new forms of schooling, whether their goal is the realization of equality or the enhancement of economic and social advantage.

The poor have less money, more needs and--most important--more children. As the costs of education rise, as the effectiveness of schools diminishes, as more and more unskilled jobs disappear from the nation's economy, and as the affluent, whatever their ideological bent, wander farther in search of educational alternatives for their children, the middle and upper classes are becoming as unmotivated to pay for public schools they'll never use as many of the wealthy are to pay for legal services for the indigent or public transportation or national health insurance or even Social Security.

We are dangerously near a time when public schools could become, like public housing or public jails, places where the poor are confined against their will. If we allow that to happen, it will not be the poor alone who lose; it will be all of us.

Saying the schools have failed and are hopeless is like saying racial integration has failed and can never be achieved. We have, in fact, never agreed upon the goals of education (or integration) or given them a fair trial. It is the society, the system, that has failed, not its ideals--and to give up now is to strengthen the hands of those who want the ideals to succumb.

To the extent that fighting for reform in public education requires or implies defense of it in its present condition, such a posture is at best uncomfortable and at worst indefensible. There is so much wrong with schools as they are, so much to be critical of, and not enough to inspire spirited defense. Schools that leave thousands of young people illiterate deserve condemnation, so do schools and teachers and administrators and boards of education that value order above freedom, control above creativity, and self-preservation above all.

But realism draws me back to the central question: Where is there an alternative to the present structure of public education that offers any promise at all of genuine equality and opportunity for almost 50-million school-age children in the United States? I can see none. We will realize a society equal to its ideals--and a school system worthy of it--or we will, quite literally, die trying.

Vol. 02, Issue 01, Page 24, 22

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