David Lentini, a reader in Maine, comments (in response, I promise to do some instruction on this blog about the history of school reform, which has been an American pastime for over a century):

I started reading about the history of education reform in America about 10 years ago, when our national insanity was becoming too extensive to ignore under the reign of “W”.  Wondering how a country could boast both the most widely and extensively educated population in history and also have the greatest disdain—if not outright loathing—for intellect, I found my way to Richard Hofstader’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”.  Hofstader’s book (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964) gives an excellent description of America’s historical distaste for intellectual discourse, instead favoring a volatile combination of fundamentalist religion and laissez-faire capitalism that emphasizes received wisdom over deliberative thought.  In discussing this history, Hofstader gives an excellent overview of the heavy influence that business had on the education reform movements that started about 1890 and their brutal treatment of those who wanted to center American schooling around a traditional liberal education model.  His comments on the NEA’s “The Committee of Ten” report in 1892, advising a rigorous liberal arts education for all American children and its drubbing by the elites at schools like Columbia’s Teachers College makes rather depressing reading.

Following Hofstader, I came across a copy of the first edition (1940) of Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book”.  Adler’s book, which I found to be an excellent tutorial for what we now seem to call “deep reading”, included a blunt discussion of the reformist forces that demanded the end of the traditional liberal arts curriculum and its replacement with electives which he and Robert Maynard Hutchins fought against at the University of Chicago in the ’30s and ’40s.  I’ve read both Adler’s and Hutchins’s later critiques of education as well, and, having attended several of the notable schools in this country (including Chicago) and watching the increasing barbarity of our culture the graduates of the schools seem so bent on imposing on us all, I can only say I consider much of what they wrote to have been prescient.  I’m a big fan of Adler’s Paideia approach to education.

I also highly recommend Diane’s book “Left Back”, which is a more focused history on reforms in public secondary education than Hofstader, Adler, and Hutchins.  Diane, I hope you will write about your book to share the history of our reformist “misery-go-round” in education in which the same tired and failed ideas are recirculated every generation or two, and the wild-eyed, take no prisoners reformers simply move from one fad to the next without any care of the history of reforms.  American education reform truly echos Santayana’s famous remark that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”  I’m currently reading “Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces That Have Shaped the Administration of the Public Schools”, by Raymond Callahan.  Callahan’s book take a very focused look at the influence that business leaders have had on reform, how they and the elite university Education schools drove a brutal “efficiency” agenda in the early decades of the 20th Century, and how so much of the criticisms we see today are nothing but rehashes of the same straw men, red herrings, and defamation that were common a century ago.  Callahan makes many references to the demands of business leaders that schools abandon traditional education in favor of what is essentially job training and the rebuttals from educators, including an excellent excerpt from a school superintendent who called out the reformer’s charade for what is really was (and still is): another public subsidy for big businesses.

From all of this, I have come to some tentative conclusions:

1. Americans won’t ever be happy with public education until they understand that education and job training are two different things, and that we can’t have a functional democracy and market economy—the two most intellectually demanding forms of society imaginable—without the sort of education that historically has done the most to produce sound thinking—a traditional liberal arts education that develops the whole intellect.

2. The reformers will continue their pernicious campaigns until we abandon the childish fantasy that education can be done cheaply, painlessly, and effortlessly by some technical fix.  Having earned two degrees in chemistry and a law degree, and having taught my own children as well as the children of others, I know that learning any subject is an intensely personal experience.  Good teachers are more like good coaches than sales persons or entertainers.  The idea that we can substitute pedagogical training for mastery of actual subject matter, or that filmstrips, radio, television, movies, or computers, or whatever whiz-bang technology comes next can substituted for actual intellectual engagement between a teacher-master and a student is nothing but charlatanism.  We—parents, school boards, and tax payers—have to start saying “no” to the self-proclaimed experts reformers who are nothing but shills for corporations that seek to insert they probosces into the tax revenue stream.

3. Our political and economic structures are founded on certain ideas that grew out of a region of the planet we call the “West”.  These political and economic structures thus reflect certain cultural ideas and practices that are different (not necessarily better, just different) from the cultural ideas and practices found in other parts of the world, and are expressed in a large body of history, philosophy, literature, and art that all who want to be citizens of our country should understand.  These ideas and practices are open to all people, not just to those who claim some vestigial cultural heritage (like northern European Protestant ancestry).  The best way to create a tolerant society is to teach everyone about that society’s cultural heritage, so that the members of that society have a sound foundation from which to study and understand other cultures.  (I have to agree with Allan Bloom on this point.)  The key however, is that we recognize there are differences among cultures, that we have to accept that our way is unique (but not necessarily better), and that we first must understand our culture and ourselves before we can understand other cultures and others.  Now, I fear, we start from the premise that all cultures are equally valued; therefore all are the “same”; therefore there is no need to learn about our history, philosophy, literature, and art; therefore we should just learn what we need to in order to get a job.  And we wonder why America is beset with bullies and war mongers.

Diane, I hope you will comment more on the history of reform movements in America, so that we all can better communicate the current reform charades we are plagued with.  And any comments on my thoughts are most welcome.  I expect some will find point 3. controversial, I can only say that I make my points without prejudice to anyone.