I would like to make a couple of disclaimers about the argument I am about to put forward. First, I am not opposed to public education in principle, if by public education one means merely a taxpayer-funded and -supported curriculum and instruction available to all children between the ages of six and eighteen. In fact I wish American public education would be more expansive, and hold as sacrosanct instruction in a wider variety of subject matter conforming to a classical ideal of education: art, music, civics, philosophy and especially religious instruction. Second, I am by no means placing any additional burden upon that beleaguered in-between class of hard-working and caring individuals, public school teachers, who are always (and unfairly, in my opinion) somehow first in the firing line when it comes to blame for ‘low outcomes’. No, indeed, the main problem with American public schooling is located in the system itself and the ends to which it works. The teachers merely work in that system for a pittance – and in my experience open up much-needed spaces for resistance where they can.
It used to be the case in the Western world that education was the prime concern of the Catholic Church, for which the main motivation was the liberation of souls from bondage to sin. Indeed, in the classical reckoning, education (from the Latin educere, ‘to lead out’) was meant to be the liberation of the soul from bondage in the cave of ignorance; so the Church was never working at cross-purposes with the right aims of education when it tutored boys and girls in the seven liberal arts. The end goal was a person, a soul, able to confront as honestly as possible his own sins and shortcomings, and use his abilities for self-reflection to brighten his own corner of the world. The monastic schools and their guiding Scholastic principles, however, were not well-suited to the absolute monarchs who began to arise at the beginning of the 18th century; it was not until the French Revolution that the Church was discredited enough, however, so that the Kings of Prussia could truly begin to sponsor a thoroughgoing modernisation of education (as they did, under Wilhelm von Humboldt) along far different lines.
The desired outcome in the Prussian system was not a well-rounded individual, versed in such ‘impractical’ matters as art and music, but rather one who could focus on a narrow range of ‘practical’, technical problems – mathematic and scientific ones in particular – without thinking too much about their end purposes. The idea was to turn the student into a pliable tool of the limited-liability corporation or the technocratic state. A student would be versed in skills useful to a certain set of military and technological and ‘business’ disciplines, but not so much in matters of religion or philosophy, let alone art or music. Educational ‘reformers’ pounced upon this model and set to work replacing the monastic ideal with this newer, shinier and more autocrat-friendly one – including educational ‘reformers’ in this country, who utterly adored the efficiency and productivity of the newfangled Prussian model of education. But here, the system doing the educating began to be at cross-purposes with the proper ends of education. Reflective human beings were not what the state desired; the state wanted profitable businessmen, productive workers and disciplined, biddable soldiers.
The pathologies of the American system of education are very difficult to comprehend without knowing this historical background. But we have several specific factors which make those pathologies even worse.
The first of these factors is the way we undertake standardised testing. Standardised testing is handled by two large nominally non-profit corporations, ETS and the College Board, which are rightly considered rentiers because they take advantage of an institutional gulf between a compulsory, taxpayer-funded primary- and secondary-level education system, and a string of (mostly) privately-funded higher educational institutions and academies. As a year-long member of the National College Advising Corps at Brown University, I operated exclusively within this gulf at Rogers High School in Newport, and understand just how broad it can be, and how easy it becomes for these testing corporations to take advantage of it. Privately-funded academies are incredibly jealous of reputation, and reputation is built upon name-recognition and exclusivity. Enter the dread SAT. (A great proportion of my time with my students at Rogers was spent on SAT preparation.)
The SAT is in many ways a masterwork of technique-oriented training over education. It trains students in mathematical skills and formal logic, both of which are certainly to the good, but it also promotes unthinking regurgitation. It engages critical thinking only cursorily and only in the most rarefied possible way, in multiple-choice questioning and in essay prompts where form takes immediate precedence over the actual substance of the test-taker’s argument. It does not engage a student’s moral intuitions at all. But it does its job well: it assigns students numbers and ranks in percentile form, to give the façade of objective academic merit so highly desired by private and prestigious American institutions of higher learning and to inculcate the final lesson that what gets rewarded is not moral intuition or critical thinking, but the demonstration of technical skill in the deliberate absence of both, in addition to the tailoring of thought to the test designer’s will. What multinational CEO or executive agency could ask for better?
To their credit, many institutions of higher learning are beginning to drop the SAT as an admissions requirement. However, the test is firmly and lucratively entrenched in the pipeline between secondary and post-secondary education. And with the test come the special prep classes and study guides offered at outrageous prices. Following hard on the heels of these come the ‘advanced placement’ curriculum, meant to stand in for college-level courses. The hallmarks of all of these corporate intrusions into public schooling, however, are an emphasis on rote memorisation and an insistence on tailoring the students’ thought to the form of the test. It is incredibly easy to see how students can lose interest, tune out and become cynical at the entire procedure, which is not in any real sense oriented to their intellectual and spiritual needs… but when students begin to drop out, education experts cast about to blame anyone and everyone else (teachers first, of course), and the solution which comes up most often is, naturally, more standardised testing. With greater frequency. At younger and younger ages. To test the efficacy and productivity of teachers and institutions, not just students. This is essentially a rough sketch of the thinking of the corporatist education ‘reform’ movement, whose face was at one point Michelle Rhee of Washington DC public school infamy.
The second factor is the way our public school systems are funded in the first place – that is to say, by the property taxes of those who live in each district. On the face of it, this may look like a soundly distributist solution to the problem of educational funding. The problems come when one considers the costs associated with funding schools in this way. Where property values are not high – which corresponds almost exactly with lower-class neighbourhoods – schools have lower budgets and fewer resources. Because of the already-centralised way in which outcomes and academic achievements are measured, this leads to an uneven distribution of costs to the ‘underperforming’ schools, which must take on a disproportionate level of state intrusion in the curriculum without receiving any additional funds. Students in ‘underperforming’ schools, which happen to be in poorly-funded districts to begin with, get tested more, yet still learn far less.
The gentle reader may already have noticed the third factor underwriting both the first and second. And that factor is the great American myth of meritocracy: the notion that our state, our public sphere, our educational and business cultures are, uniquely in the world, infallibly oriented to each person getting exactly what he or she deserves, the best getting ahead and the rest getting what they can as they are able. This mythology produces an unhealthy interplay between education and business which works something like this. As education correlates with higher incomes in a culture where wages are stagnating, higher education comes to be seen as the sole marker of personal merit, the only way to ‘get ahead’ in life. More and more people enter institutions of higher learning and earn baccalaureate degrees in order to enter a higher-paying ‘job’ market. Faced with this glut of highly-educated applicants, businesses begin making more and more educational demands upon even their most basic and low-paying positions. This leads baccalaureates, in turn, to seek out ever higher degrees at ever greater cost.
The upshot of this unhealthy interplay is that children entering the job market with a high-school education no longer have a stable or secure economic future. Because of the already astronomical costs associated with higher education in America (now considered a necessity for economic success), working-class families might begin to see having children as a luxury, if not a liability on the meritocratic ladder up. It is all too easy to see how this mythology of meritocracy, combined with the way education interfaces with business, bolsters a Malthusian (or, one might even say Puritanical) logic which sees children as a punishment for poor families and an indication of moral defect. The only people who benefit from such a social set-up are the white middle-class interest groups which promote abortion and birth control.
Certainly children do not benefit. Before they enter school, or after.
Note here that I am not favouring private schools (or half-measures like ‘charter’ schools), which as much as the public education system (if not more so) feed into this mythology of meritocracy which poisons our society against its children. And I am not promoting anything like ‘school vouchers’ (the favoured silver bullet of a certain brand of liberal), which assume unlimited physical mobility on the part of working-class families and ignore completely the roles of propinquity and relationships in education at all levels.
But it would be a start to see some monastic disciplines return to primary and secondary public education. A Scholastic-influenced curriculum more oriented toward engaging the imagination, the creativity and the reflectiveness of the student, without sacrificing good old-fashioned pedagogy. An emphasis on teaching moral and religious values for the upbuilding of students’ characters. A system of funding schools which does not prejudice itself structurally against poor school districts. A much smaller institutional gap between secondary and higher education. An end to the myth that the ‘best’ graduates come from the most exclusive academies.
And more broadly, a freer job market wherein one’s level of formal education need not be the sole arbiter of whether or not one can have a decent living.