Public Education in America Today

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series on reformed theology and education. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

Before we go too far to look briefly at public education in America today.  I am by no means an expert on any of this but I think it is useful as we begin to form our own philosophy of education to see what our culture does and how it got to be the way it is.  My goal is not to give a thorough analysis of all the issues; that could take volumes (and has), but there are few points I’d like to draw out.

I want to be clear from the start that though a lot of what I say is going to be negative, I am not making an argument that public schools are inherently evil; that we should all homeschool; that there is no place for public education; that the teachers and administrators are evil, godless, or misguided. I do think there is a place for public education and that there are a lot of truly caring and even godly people working in the schools. I am very glad they are there.

Having said which, we wouldn’t be having this discussion if the schools were all we wanted them to be. Our goal for today is to look at the history of public education in America and the ideas which lie behind it.  [I am relying primarily on four authors; see the bibliography with my notes on each at the end of this post.]

A Bit of History

Education as we know it today — which is to say universal compulsory education — has only been around in the United States for about the last hundred years. The idea of universal compulsory education began in Germany in the early 1800s as that country moved toward nationalism and away from feudalism (Dawson, p. 49; Gray, p. 61). The German/Prussian model of education was a democratic one in that it extended education to all levels of society. Education served the nationalistic goal and was a unifying force. Peter Gray and John Taylor Gatto both make the case that public education was never about academics as literacy rates were high in both Europe and the United States at the time (Gray, p. 60; Gatto, Weapons, p. 9). Indeed as public education grew, literacy rates only declined (Gatto, Weapons, p. 17). While some still valued education for its own sake, education was for many the tool of social change. As such it included not just intellectual instruction but moral training as well (Dawson, p. 50).

As the movement toward universal schooling expanded geographically, England and America were the lone hold-outs (Dawson, p. 52; Gray, p. 62).  It wasn’t until the mid to late 1800s that the German educational system began to make headway in the United States. Horace Mann is credited with introducing the idea in the 1850s in Massachusetts but even there it was slow to take hold. The various authors disagree on the exact details of when and why public schooling did take hold, but they all place it in the early 1900s, sometime around 1920-1930.

Why Universal Education?

Though there doesn’t seem to be a consensus, it is interesting to think about the ideas and trends that were present in American culture between, say, 1880-1930 that may have contributed to the acceptance of universal education:

  • Darwinian evolution presented the idea that people as well as animals have evolved and are evolving. This is the era of unapologetic eugenics. Wiker in particular draws the connection between Darwinian evolution and liberal politics (pp. 194-97).**
  • Following close on its heels is social engineering, that is, the remaking of society through political means (Wiker, p. 197). “Sociology,” Wiker tells us, “would take the place of theology as the queen if the sciences” (p. 276).
  • Christians were not exempt from this trend. Wiker shows how Christians with legitimate, godly concerns — caring for the poor, for instance — worked with and were ultimately used by non-Christian liberals (Wiker, pp. 284-86). This is the era of the social gospel.
  • Industrialization and a move to the cities brought a trend to mechanization and systemization. Gatto and Gray have a fair amount to say on this — the school as factory assembly line. Children, Gray says, are “passed along , from grade to grade, like products on an assembly line” (Gray, p. 64; cf. Gatto, Dumbing, p. 89). For some context, Ford’s first assembly line was in 1913.
  • Dawson ties the rise of universal schooling to the end of unlimited immigration in the early 1900s (pp. 60-61). America had always been a dynamic place — both filling its borders and absorbing so many peoples from so many places. Now this was on the decline. Americans began to find their own group identity. This is when the melting pot, with less new cheese being added every year, really began to melt (my analogy, not his; never blog hungry). As education in Germany went hand-in-hand with nationalization, so in the United States education was linked to a new sense of national identity.
  • It is odd to me that none of the writers I read on this topic mentioned World War I. My own observation from reading Charlotte Mason’s volumes is that in her sixth and final one, Towards a Philosophy of Education, which was written after the war, that there has been quite a change in focus and intensity. I see a desperation in her writing that was not there before. “The War to End All Wars” (if only it had been so) really threw people for a loop. Perhaps this was more true in Europe than America, but people wondered how, if we are so advanced and civilized, we can yet be so brutal. The answer for Charlotte was a renewed commitment to her own philosophy of education as the means of changing what is wrong in society and ultimately in the human heart.
  • Miss Mason was not alone in this. The early 1900s were a boom time for educational philosophies. Maria Montessori, of the Montessori method, and Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf education movement, were also active during the period.
  • On the political side, the exaltation of the secular schools and the corresponding downfall of the church were aided and abetted by a reinterpretation of the First Amendment creating a new wall between church and state (Wiker, pp. 251-52, 290ff; Dawson, p.84).
  • Trends in education often work from the top down — spreading from the university down to the elementary school. In the 1930s and again after WWII more and more students attended (liberal) colleges and therefore absorbed and perpetuated their ideologies (Wiker, pp. 272-73).

Expansion and Secularization

Sectarian differences among different Christian groups have led them to, at various times, support state control of education in an effort to limit the influence of other Christian groups (Dawson, pp. 83, 142; Wiker, pp. 295-96). This has often been a Protestant versus Catholic issue though Dawson, a die-hard Catholic, also faults “the fissiparous tendency of American Protestantism” (p. 142; your assignment: use fissaparous in conversation five times this week). In seeking to exclude the other’s version of religion, Christians have willingly opted for a “neutral” secular version of education. But education cannot remain morally and spiritually neutral (Dawson, pp. 79-82).

I am not sure education anywhere at any time has ever been about pure academics, but even if it had started that way, education has an expansive tendency. It takes more and more time — the school year in Massachusetts was originally only twelve weeks long (Gray, p. 64). It expands to new age groups “from the university to the nursery school” (Dawson, p. 53). It expands to all areas of life, absorbing not just the academic but the physical, emotional and spiritual (Dawson, pp. 53, 78).

This trend is inevitable but it is not inherently bad. In fact I would say it is as it should be. We are composite people — intellect, body, soul, emotions. We cannot separate out one part and educate that only. If one’s students are coming to school hungry, emotionally broken, or pregnant, they are not going to learn well. A caring teacher naturally wants to see all her students’ needs met, both so they can learn and for their own good. But the end result is that school is not just about the 3R’s but comes to absorb almost all facets of life.

I say “almost” because the spiritual is sadly lacking. As in the German model, education is seen as the cure for whatever ails us (Dawson, p. 48). When problems arise within education itself, the solution is not to reevaluate but to offer more and more education. To the extent that is the answer to societal problems, education becomes a kind of savior. But it is a limited savior, touching the emotional and psychological but denying the spiritual.

In offering a kind of salvation, the schools step into the realm of the church. Wiker argues that this liberalization, which he traces through both politics and education — is not unintentional; it is a deliberate liberating from religion (p. 15). Dawson argues that universal education and secularization feed on each other:

“And in fact there is no doubt that the progress of universal education has coincided with the secularization of modern culture and has been very largely responsible for it.” (p. 78)

The more the school absorbs, the less is left for the church. And as a man cannot serve two masters, one will win out:

” . . .the fact that secular education is universal and compulsory , while religious education is partial and voluntary, inevitably favors the former . . .” (Dawson, p. 79)

“If the Church were one of these compulsory organizations modern man would be religious, but since it is voluntary, and makes demands on his spare time, it is felt to be superfluous and unnecessary.” (Ibid., p. 132)***

As in Germany, education in America is a nationalizing force. It spreads  a common culture; in doing so it also creates a common culture:

“For modern culture is not pluralistic in character, as some social scientists have assumed; on the contrary, it is more unitary, more uniform and more highly centralized and organized than any culture that the world has known hitherto. And modern education has been one of the major factors in producing this, since it brings the whole of the younger generation under the same influences and ideas during the most impressionable period of their lives.” (Dawson, pp. 111-12)

For those without strong church ties, school often becomes the center of cultural life (Dawson, pp. 60-61, 68, 85).

The result —

” . . . the majority of the population are neither fully Christian nor consciously atheist, but non-practicing Catholics, half-Christians and well-meaning people who are devoid of any positive religious knowledge at all.” (Dawson, p. 85)

Dawson argues further that these “sub-religious” people are “also in some sense subhuman” (p. 132), deprived as they are of fully realizing one aspect of their natures.

Logistics and Fragmentation

Conformity to some degree is probably unavoidable in mass schooling. For the sake of convenience, children are divided by age. This is often characterized as a factory-like system as but I think we must also use some charity in our interpretation; it is not an easy thing to come up with a way to educate thousands of children at once. I think there are ways, and Charlotte Mason’s schools seem to have done so without turning children into numbers, but grouping children by age or level seems like a logical first step. What begins as a logical move generates unintended consequences, however. Children who spend six hours a day primarily with their peers and not interacting with adults or all ages and stripes as they once would have been. There is evidence as well that this is not psychologically advantageous; children are more compassionate when not placed with their immediate peers (Gray, pp. 35, 76). But beyond that, the normal bonds of human life are broken. Gatto speaks of networks versus communities and spends some time showing that what we have now are the former, not the latter (Dumbing, pp. 49, 65). The family in particular is down-graded to a lesser role (Dumbing, p. 56, 67; Weapons pp. 41, 100).

Nor can one teacher necessarily teach every subject to the full. So as children are divided, so are subjects; science occupies this hour, history that one. There is a general tendency to fragmentation. With subjects taught separately by different teachers at different times, it is hard to give or see the big picture. With no overarching theology or philosophy [though one could argue, as Wiker does, that liberalism has its own philosophy (Wiker, p. 11)], with subjects taught in isolation, there is no coherence, no unifying principle (Weapons, p. 16). This tendency is enhanced by what Dawson calls “scientific specialization” (p. 101). Wiker describes this trend:

“The rise and ever-increasing authority of the ‘expert,’ too came from the German model of university education, wherein academic study was divide up into ever smaller numbers of distinct disciplines, each focusing on a narrowly defined area.” (p. 275)

This fragmentation is furthered by the need for evaluation. Testing, and in particular standardized testing, contributes to the break down of knowledge into discrete, unconnected facts. “Memorizing the dots,” Gatto says, “is the gold standard of intellectual achievement. Not connecting those dots” (Weapons, p. 16).

Conclusions

What can we learn from all this? First, when we look at the origins of universal compulsory schooling, we should become very wary. The ideas behind this movement are suspect. We should not, perhaps, throw the baby out with the bath water, but at the same time we need to make sure that we are not unconsciously adopting ideas that are without a biblical, God-honoring basis. In another post, I’d like to look at some of the people behind compulsory education so you can see who they were and what their motivations were.

Second, there are some interesting trends here that we can keep in mind as we begin to form our own philosophy of education:

  1. Moral and religious neutrality is impossible. Christians have at times supported “neutral” public education arguing that no religion is better than a religion that is not my brand. But it is impossible to be truly neutral. There is always a worldview behind what is being taught.
  2. #1 is due, at least in part, to the fact that education does not stay purely academic. Man is made of many aspects and one cannot educate the mind without bringing in the body and the emotions and the spirit.
  3. Yet at the same time, education has become fragmented in many ways. Even while it encompasses more and more of life the disciplines are fragmented. Science, history, math, language seemingly have nothing to do with one another. We need a unifying principle that extends through them, explains them and how they relate to one another.
  4. Education as it is usually practiced in the United States today shatters other social institutions, especially the church and the family. It is not inherently bad to have someone other than mom and dad do the educating but we need to keep in the forefront that social units which God Himself has instituted and be wary of undermining them. Jesus tells us that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. I am going to paraphrase that — what your time is spent on, there will your heart be. Apart from any other concerns, when schooling takes so much of one’s time, when it is compulsory (and church is not), it threatens to seem more and more important and to consume more and more of one’s life to the detriment of those other, God-ordained institutions.

Nebby

**Wiker also has a book on Darwin which I highly recommend: The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Washington, D.C. Regnery Press, 2009).

***Side note: This seems like a pretty good argument for Sabbath keeping to me. If we view the first day of the week as our own, we come to resent any intrusion into it, even that of the Church.

Bibliography

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1961. Dawson is ardently Catholic and comes off at times as anti-Protestant. I have some issues with his depiction of education before modern times which I may discuss in another post, but he also makes a lot of insightful observations which really made me think. It is amusing to read his depiction of education in medieval times alongside Gray’s.

Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2002 (10th anniversary edition).

______________ . Weapons of Mass Instruction. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2010. The title of this book probably says all you need to know about Gatto’s take on things. He is a favorite of the unschooling movement and was himself a public school teacher in New York City. Dumbing Us Down is a series of lectures and as such is a bit more disjointed. In Weapons he has worked out his argument a bit more. 

Gray, Peter. Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books, 2013. Gray’s main purpose is to argue for how children should learn (through play). In the process he gives a brief history of education. He is an unschooler, arguing against hierarchical control of children. His approach is essentially the paleo diet of education; i.e. what worked for primitive societies is clearly best.

Wiker, Benjamin. Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2013. Wiker is one of my current favorite authors. If you are going to read any book on this list, make it this one. His primary subject is politics but in the course of it he touches on education as well and makes an argument for Christian education. I believe he is Catholic but you could easily read his book without realizing that.

 

 

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] this post and this one) and why isn’t what we already have good enough (see these posts on public schooling, the Charlotte Mason method, and Christian classical education)? We have also discussed the how, […]

    Reply

  2. […] to where I am theologically, but they are both concerned with education at the university level. Wiker, though Catholic, makes some great arguments but again seems to focus mostly on the renewal of the […]

    Reply

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