YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 16, 2011

Questions for education reformers

Bernard Mandeville's most famous work

I have been corresponding with Eva Moskowitz,  a leader in NYC education reform. She is involved with the Charter School movement (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_schools), and has a well-researched critique of the “therapeutic” culture that has distorted our education system since the late 19th century, most recently in the emphasis on “self-esteem” in the multicultural curriculum. Her book illuminated for me some of the “progressive” precursors to New Age thinking, a psychology cult that is particularly strong in California, and which is both silly and dangerous.

What follows are some of my initial thoughts about obstacles to reforming our schools, with some special attention to the charter school movement, though that is not the focus of this blog. I have included links to earlier blogs on this website.

1. Fragmentation of the professions:  because of the way that college education evolved, the holistic “philosophic” approach of such thinkers as Bernard Mandeville (an influence on Adam Smith) or Locke or other enlightened thinkers has gone out the window. None of the greats would have looked at schools in a vacuum. See for instance my notes on Charles Sumner (http://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/) or my posting on Walter Lippmann (http://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/).
For instance, can we talk about schools without a consideration of the welfare state and its particular policies? Or the aim of many “liberals” who seek “stability” and “social cohesion” at the expense of learning how to master life skills? And what about those religions that teach submission to authority without ever distinguishing between legitimate authority and arbitrary authority? In a pluralistic society, are vouchers the only solution to the problem I have posed? Are some religious schools enemies to an intellectually vigorous polity?

2. Is teaching a profession, or are teachers workers? When I was in school (first round, mid-50s), the burning question was whether or not teachers were a profession. In medieval times, there were artisan guilds that strictly enforced the quality of their product and there were tight restrictions regulating entry into the guild. But teachers unions do not aim for a better product (do they?) but seem to be focused on protecting teachers from measurement. Are teachers like factory workers in the 19th century? I don’t think so. Charter schools are reforms within the public education system, and were the offspring of Albert Shanker of the AFT.  Should the teachers unions be broken, or can charter schools fire incompetents and reward energetic and effective teachers?

3. On overcoming multiculturalism. See http://clarespark.com/2011/02/11/undoing-multiculturalism/. But there is another one that lays out the precursors to today’s institutionalized MC: http://clarespark.com/2010/07/20/german-romantic-predecessors-to-multiculturalism/.  The remedy to MC, I believe, is the teaching of fact-based science, but also the history of “scientific racism.”That would uncover the racialist premises of MC. Moreover, it could clarify the difference between national identity based on a common set of laws (Gesellschaft), versus “national identity” based on group cultural character (Gemeinschaft and its exuded “Zeitgeist”). The latter is mystical and collectivist, the former is materialist and concrete. As I have shown in all my work, the German Romantics, from Herder to Hegel to Fichte, advocated a philosophy that led to state worship and ultimately laid the basis for the Nazi racial state. There was a big Herder revival in the Third Reich, while the new “race pedagogy” supposedly inspired by Franz Boas relied on Herder at the same time (1916) that Randolph Bourne was advocating hyphenated Americanism in opposition to the melting pot of the big cities.

4. On curriculum development and rigor. With the exception of some of America’s Founding Fathers, no elite has ever been unequivocally dedicated to an excellent popular education for all. The liberal foundations were organized to prevent revolution from below, even before the second world war. Redistributive justice (as opposed to commutative justice) was their mantra. They didn’t care about learning and uplifting the population to become responsible citizens in a democratic republic.  Enter social studies and the rejection of the 19th century as dominated by heartless laissez-faire capitalists who mowed down everything in their paths.

A high school graduate who does not understand markets, monetary policy, accounting (including cost-benefit analysis) and competing economic theories cannot vote with wisdom or even defend her or his own interests. They will be prey to demagogues practiced in promoting conspiracy theories (e.g., antisemitism/”the money power”, “white skin privilege”) and diverting the masses from understanding how wealth is created and how economies expand.

Are today’s “experts” in child development competent to instruct the reformer about what is possible to teach at different ages? According to my correspondent, the “experts” discourage strong content at early ages. Speaking personally, I was hugely bored throughout my public school education. From at least the French Revolution on, European and American elites have feared the effect of mass literacy and numeracy, and did not sit idly back while new classes and individuals threatened them with dispossession. I am not writing this with my old red hat on. It applies to everyone. Compare contemporary American education with that of the education of European aristocracies. From early childhood on, they were made aware of world affairs, learned foreign languages, music, art history, read great essayists, poetry, and learned the art of managing the lower orders (politics). They detested America as the land of savages (i.e., those who had escaped their control and were rising to challenge them from afar).

The point of this last paragraph is to suggest that we are systematically underestimating the capacity of “ordinary people” to learn. There were many dumb aristocrats (see Disraeli  novels for a good yuk), and yet they managed to reproduce their rule through clever co-opting of threats from below. American elites did the same with the civil rights movement, fusing the integrationists with the black power militant types. The result? Victimology and the dumbing down of American education, with a spicy dash of primitivism—the rejection of Puritanism a.k.a. middle class values enforced by women, and the fantasy that [orgiastic] tribal societies unleashed the repressed instincts. There are critics from the Far Right who are tirelessly attacking American education for its shallow content; Charlotte Iserbyt is one of them. Like Nesta Webster, a fascist and antisemite (see http://clarespark.com/2009/09/20/jungians-on-the-loose-part-two/), for Iserbyt the enemy is “materialism,” an epistemology that she believes erases “free will.” Within such a pseudo-critical framework, fundamentalist to the core, it is impossible to teach history or science, and Iserbyt, for one, is hotly opposed to the charter school movement. Such persons should not be shrugged off as fringe critics, for a large part of the American electorate shares similar anti-intellectualism–it is the legacy of populism.

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  1. This is overall an excellent essay, to which I wish I had the time to fully and thoughtfully reply. My own academic work lies in the far past – an ABD in intellectual history from the ’70s – but the issues you raise with respect to education, multiculturalism, feminism, the widespread misunderstanding of both the scientific revolution and the enlightements (can’t really talk about them without distinguishing between — at the very least — the Continent and the Anglo-Sphere), and, of course, postmodernism and Marxism. In those days, I used to worry a fair amount about anti-intellectualism in America, ala Hofstadter. A fascinating book that.

    It seems to me that historically, the Anglo-Sphere generally has tended to suspicion of over-intellectualizing – the old English epithet that someone or something ‘smells of the lamp’ comes to mind. There’s something deeply Burkean in this, of course.

    Overall, I think the traditional British, and American, suspicion of intellectuals is healthy, and is certainly justified by the performance of intellectuals over the past 500-odd years

    Comment by CatoRenasci — May 31, 2011 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

  2. I agree with both Clare and Tom here. The decline of education began around 1860? I don’t recall the year but know it was the mid to late 1800s. Those “in the know” went to Prussia to learn their system of (subservient) education and brought it back, these folks dominated our universities. Then the Progressive Era came and did have some positive additions to education, but with that came the “dumbing down” and “tracking”, unions, tenure…and simultaneous the testing craze began. I am attempting to uncover it all on my blog http://3rseduc.blogspot.com but I often become distracted and blog about other education related topics, c’est la vie. I get annoyed though- ed reform seems to be black and white, i.e. classics, rote learrning, college for all vs facilitation, socialization, feel-good lessons, tracking to dumb down the labeled dumbies. Can’t there be a sparkly, pretty gray version?

    Comment by G E D — May 25, 2011 @ 12:33 am | Reply

  3. Oops. Forgot to put my name on the post. Didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to zing teachers anonymously. They work their hands to the bone, but in the end, they’ve been betrayed in the classroom by their own leadership, and by the bureaucrats who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in years.

    Comment by Tom Nichols — May 18, 2011 @ 3:26 am | Reply

  4. Clare, a couple of thoughts on this. First and foremost, the one thing underlying all the obstacles to reform are the institutions meant to create teachers quickly in the wake of the Baby Boom. They were never a good idea, and they’re worse than useless now. Close the Schools of Education and stop insisting on teacher “certification,” which is just the halt leading the blind. To me, this is one of the huge roots that has to be pulled up. If you think about it, teachers no longer have expertise in subjects, they have expertise — supposedly — in something called “teaching.” I have been a highly rated teacher in a half dozen colleges (including Dartmouth, Georgetown, and Harvard), and yet if I wanted to teach in a high school in Massachusetts, I would lack proper “certification” because I haven’t taken the required psychobabble at the local community college.

    Another issue related to this is that the mass cranking out of “teachers” rather than people who “can teach” means that teaching is both a trade and a profession at the same time. Teachers want all the rights of a labor union, but all of the perks of a profession. They can’t have it both ways: Enjoying, for example, something called “tenure” — and why does that exist in a high school? — while having no requirement to do the kind of research that tenure protects. For the record, I never joined the AAUP at any point in my career out of exactly this sense that I am not a farm worker. I admire the AAUP, but professors need a Bar Association or similar organization, not a union. I am always amazed at the people who support unionizing graduate students — as the though the goal of a grad student’s life is to be a unionized wage slave and not a journeyman scholar. (I suppose tenured ’60s nostalgists want to relive the magic moments of labor activism that turned to nothing in later years.)

    Ban any further mention of “self-esteem” from teaching curricula. Any college professor today can tell you that kids arrive from high schools with *gobs* of self-esteem, most of it unearned. They are part of the generation that didn’t keep score at soccer games and everyone got a trophy anyway. The sense of entitlement begins in grade school, and by high school it’s in full flower. There are few shells that can protect a young person from any kind of education quite like the one constructed by schools who give kids an A “for trying hard” because otherwise it would damage their psyches. I am dedicated to my undergrads, but I am doing them no favors by letting them hand in late and and sloppy work — even though they expect to be able to because they have *always* been able to up to this point in their lives. The parents are a huge pressure in this, but I’m not quite sure what to do about that. In my college teaching, I’ve been mostly insulated from that (although I could tell stories, certainly).

    Anyway, the Baby Boom is over, and kids are stupider than ever. Close the Schools of Education. Dissolve the unions. End “tenure” for secondary schools. And don’t be shouted down by English teachers who don’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s”. :)”

    Comment by Tom — May 18, 2011 @ 3:24 am | Reply

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