The View From 1776
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
The Corruption of Public Education: How It Happened
In the 19th and early 20th century period, American public schools were among the best in the world. Since 1960, public education has fallen apart. American students today rank near the bottom in tests of subject knowledge, when compared to the rest of the world. What went wrong?
Much has been written about the disintegration of American education. Among the many are three that you should make a point to read: Thomas Sowell’s “Inside American Education: The Decline, The Deception, The Dogmas;” Alan Charles Kors’s and Harvey A. Silverglate’s “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses;” and Diane Ravitch’s “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.”
They are in a sense chronological. Professor Ravitch catalogs the ideologies that began to take over American education around 1910. Professor Sowell describes the effects of those ideologies on present-day school curricula. And Professor Kors, collaborating with ACLU attorney Silverglate, describes the Big Brother enforcement methods of liberal-socialists to shut out any classroom or campus dissent against the radical socialism that is taught as the uniquely scientific truth.
In simplest terms, the history of education is one of changing ideas about who is to be taught, what is to be taught, and how it is to be taught.
We have had a complete reorientation from the colonial and founding periods of our nation. Alexis de Tocqueville, describing conditions he observed in 1831, wrote, “In New England every citizen receives the elementary notions of human knowledge; he is taught, moreover, the doctrines and the evidence of his religion, the history of his country, and the leading features of its Constitution.”
The effects of secular socialist doctrine in Tocqueville’s native France were to become apparent here over the succeeding seventy years. By 1900, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other colleges founded to train Protestant ministers had largely abandoned that as their primary mission. American universities were becoming seats of secular instruction. No one would quarrel with the introduction of larger doses of mathematics and the introduction of science courses in chemistry, physics, and biology. The trouble came from introducing the so-called social sciences which had been invented by French socialist intellectuals.
Charles Darwin’s 1859 speculative (and still unproved) theory of evolution was the tipping point, because it combined both socialist ideology and what passed for science. As Darwin wrote in his autobiography, he was motivated to theorize about evolution because of his antipathy towards “the damnable doctrine” of Christianity. The whole point of evolution was to discredit the Bible’s Book of Genesis and to demonstrate that all life forms had evolved, purely accidentally with no Divine intervention, through the mechanism of random, materialistic forces in nature. As his academic champion Thomas Huxley said, there is no such thing as morality or sin; there is only the struggle for survival.
The idea began to take hold that belief in spiritual religion and morality was ignorance, that every human activity was the product of the rational human mind alone. By the time of the First World War in 1914, the educated middle and upper classes were becoming converts to the religion of socialism. By the 1950s, as Wiliam F. Buckley, Jr. documented in “God and Man at Yale,” the faculty were predominantly atheists or agnostics, and believers in socialism, as were the writers of most of the standard text books. Thus was born the Eastern Liberal Establishment, whose members were both Republicans and Democrats.
Professor Ravitch is a leading historian and policy analyst of education. She has taught at Columbia University’s Teachers College and New York University, served as assistant secretary in the U. S. Department of Education, and is a self-described life-long liberal. Nonetheless, she writes that liberals have done terrible damage to public education.
At the beginning of the 20th century, education was envisioned as a ladder reaching from the gutter to the top of the social structure. Students were to be given the opportunity to climb as high as they could go. Few families had the money to send their children to college, and most children left school at an early age to join the work force and contribute to the support of their families. But for those students with the ambition, energy, and intelligence, a full college-preparatory curriculum was available.
The 1917 Russian Revolution profoundly changed this picture. Enthralled with socialism’s promise of earthly perfection, the general public was prepared to listen to socialist education theories. The cause was taken up, principally by Professor John Dewey and his colleagues at Columbia University Teachers College. Many of them had journeyed to the USSR to observe the Soviet education system and had returned with energetic determination to transform American education into the Soviet model.
Lenin, in his 1923 speech to the Commissars of Education in Moscow, proclaimed, “We must hate ? hatred is the basis of Communism. Children must be taught to hate their parents if they are not Communists.” Professor Dewey didn’t take it that far, but, in his many books, the phrase “education for democracy” in effect meant reorienting education methods to prepare students for communal living under socialism. It also mean de-emphasizing teaching the content of subject matter. Dewey, for example, wrote that “dead” history had no place in the school curriculum; stop teaching American history and Constitutional traditions; provide “experiences” of cooperative, communal work projects, and downplay individual excellence.
Dewey’s Progressive Education asserted that teaching specific subject matter harmed students, who should “learn by doing.” Presumably students were spontaneously to intuit algebra and calculus in the process of experiencing group work projects.
Underlying this doctrine was the idea that a planned, socialistic society required training students to fill specific jobs to which state-planners would later assign them. Thus was born the trade school and the junior high school. It was in the latter that students were tested and administrators decided what they were best suited for, assigning them to trade schools or to different study programs in academic high schools. This too, in Dewey’s terms, was “education for democracy.” Incredibly, Dewey and his Columbia Teachers College colleagues were able to sell the public on the idea that providing a full pre-college education in high school was elitist and anti-democratic.
By 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt imposed socialistic state-planning on the Federal government, graduates of Columbia Teachers College occupied influential positions across the nation, as heads of school boards, state educational authorities, and deans of teachers colleges. Progressive education had gone national.
Until after World War II, the effect was relatively limited, because very few people went to college. Most public school teachers took the common sense attitude that Progressive education was a bunch of malarky. They went right on teaching American history and Constitutional traditions. Their students still had to read and write reports about the best examples of Western literature and to absorb stories that illuminated examples of virtuous conduct.
The GI Bill after World War II for the first time made it possible for large numbers of young people to attend college. Enrollments doubled and quadrupled from 1945 into the 1960s. Bill Clinton’s Baby Boomer generation became the first in history of whom a very large percentage attended college. For the first time, a very large percentage of the population was taught the religious doctrines of socialism and instructed that the Christian religion and the morality of their forefathers was unscientific value judgment.
Many of them became the anarchist student radicals whose activities ranged from public demonstrations, to occupations of university buildings, to underground organizations that murdered, bombed, and robbed in the name of solidarity with the Viet Cong. Today those student activists are disproportionately represented in politics, the media and the arts, the legal profession and the judiciary, and especially in the teaching profession. Thus was born the virulent anti-Americanism that widely infects American colleges and universities today.
One of the most destructive events was President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act, in the mid-1960s, which for the first time put the Federal government into the business of directly funding local schools. Once paying any part of the local bills, the Feds demanded the right to set standards for text books and teaching methods. Columbia Teachers College socialists and their confreres across the land were now empowered to convert public education into a mandatory catechism in the socialist religion and its precepts of secular social justice.
Thomas Sowell’s book describes the results. An astonishingly high percentage of local tax money is spent on administrative jobs and and special education departments, all mandated by Federal funding programs. Meanwhile teaching basic subject matter languishes. Hence the very poor showing of American students compared to pupils from elsewhere in the world. As a consequence, American companies are forced to seek work visas for foreign nationals or to outsource jobs overseas, because there are no longer enough qualified American graduates.
Professor Sowell notes the prevalence of “affective” education courses. These are courses designed, not to teach specific bodies of knowledge, but to “give students an appreciation for” some social justice idea or another. Schools directly contradict the moral teachings of parents. Sex education programs, for example, teach high school students how to engage in pre-marital sex. Schools dispense condoms, which students understandably take as an official imprimatur for sexual promiscuity.
At the same time, as Professor Sowell records, performance standards are non-existent or drastically lowered. Grade inflation has become the norm, from elementary school to the Ivy League. Schools are steadily moving away from grading students or ranking them. Instead they emphasize “self-esteem,” which supposedly comes from hearing someone tell you that, contrary to all evidence, you really are a great guy. Or that your shortcomings are not your fault, but the result of an oppressive capitalistic society.
Finally, Professor Kors and his friend Harvey Silverglate document the kangaroo court tactics routinely employed at colleges and universities in every part of the country. To enforce their multicultural ideas of “diversity” and “tolerance,” college administrators routinely subject students to treatment that violates the Bill of Rights guarantees of freedom of speech and due process of law. In the few cases that have gone to Federal courts, the schools almost always lose. But few students are aware of the truth and fewer still have the money or time to pursue legal remedies.
The bottom line today is that far too many schools, from the elementary level to the colleges, are working assiduously to convert inexperienced youth to the religion of socialism and employing strong-arm tactics to silence students who question these practices. The moral fiber of the nation is being rapidly dissolved. If this continues, we can be assured that the United States will become a third-rate has-been like France or will fall victim to a foreign power.