L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 215, March 17, 2003
IT'S DOWN TO ME
Public Schools: They Really Work!
Special to TLE
People that claim that public schools aren't doing a good job have made the error of assuming that the schools' stated goals (education, in short) are the real ones. When public schools were first proposed in the 1800s, the debate in many state and local legislatures centered on the need to inculcate the ideals of good American citizenship in the children of immigrants. The fear of being overwhelmed by a tide of foreigners, different from "us" in their language, customs, religion, etc., is as old as the Republic. The mission of education was being carried out by a variety of private schooling choices, from individual tutors to schools set up by churches. But the immigrants often could not afford these choices, and the self-proclaimed "protectors of the American ideal" felt that these children would grow up to be disruptive to the common good. They might even vote for someone other than the aforementioned gentlemen.
In the beginning, public schools were funded and directed locally. The local jurisdiction set the curriculum, hired (and fired) the teachers, built school buildings, etc. Administration was lean, partly due to low levels of funding by today's standards, and partly because people did not perceive a need for non-teaching educrats. This local control continued until the early 1900s. But as America entered the Progressive Era, control started to be centralized. Diversity was not a goal then; quite the opposite! John Dewey, who founded what has become known as Progressive Education, said, "The school is primarily a social institution," whose central purpose is not "science, nor literature, nor history nor geography . . . but the child's own social activities." Those in power decided that uniformity of educational results (and I don't mean good reading skills) was to be desired. Thus legislators and educators imposed from above a more regimented agenda on the local schools. The mission now was to make the schools serve the purpose of producing "good citizens." A minimum level of the Three R's was needed to provide a work force able to follow simple instructions, but the main thrust was to graduate young adults who could fit into the molds preferred by industry and government.
For a few decades, many schools managed to both give a good basic education and provide a complacent work force that would follow their leaders. American students were held to fair-to-high educational standards along with being taught how to contribute to the common good. But things started to deteriorate in the 1960s. Standards were diluted for a variety of reasons. Education colleges concentrated more on lesson planning than what was being taught. Many teachers as a result have minimal knowledge of the subjects they are teaching. The average SAT score of students majoring in education is below the average SAT score for all students. (See the many essays/columns of Thomas Sowell for more information on this topic.) Educational fads (remember "New Math"?) have often replaced traditional teaching methods. The controversy over teaching kids how to read (phonics vs. whole language) is a good example, with a huge free market developing to cure a problem created by the educrats. Everyone has read the laments about how poorly American students do on standardized tests compared to students in other countries. But as Mark Twain said, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education."
The real goal of public schools is to produce citizens that accept what is told to them by those in authority. The brightest students will usually manage to get a good education; the bulk of the students are not mentally energetic enough to explore on their own. They will accept being told all sorts of partial truths about history, government, and other "social science" topics. They will read enough to get by, but because reading is difficult for so many, they will not read more than the newspaper and checkout counter fiction. Schools have failed to require that children learn how to learn, to use basic math comfortably (as in, make change on their own), to know the basic history of Western Civilization and why it has created such prosperity and freedom as we have left, to read critically as well as for enjoyment, and many other necessary components of a good education. Today's public schools have, to a large extent, even failed to "socialize" their students. In fact, many school districts seem to deliberately come between students and their parents, requiring students to watch films, read books and answer questionnaires to which their parents have objections. Students have also been subjected to warrantless searches and violations of their First Amendment rights. So what is the success that the public schools have achieved?
The majority of public school graduates are complacent. They accept. I agree that The United States is the country I far prefer to live in. But there is a lot of room for improvement. Most people get upset when I make valid criticisms of American institutions that I have seen change for the worse over my 51-year lifetime. They accept what the government tells them without stopping to question or examine. "Because we say so" is not a valid reason to go to war, to give up freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights, or to accept the need to shoot people minding their own business. Getting most Americans to go along with things like these was a daunting task fifty years ago. But the public schools have been the major player in the erosion of the greater part of the liberties Americans fought to guarantee over 200 years ago.