Sweatshops of the Mind, Part II: The Schooling We Have Lost

To understand how we got to where we are today, it is important to remember what American education was like in the years immediately preceding and following the great national bloodletting of the 1860's.  Schools in those days were generally either private enterprises owned and operated by the school master or else local community affairs, democratically controlled by the property-owners to whom the schoolmaster contracted out his services.  Put in more businesslike terms, schoomasters were either entrepreneurs marketing their services to the public or else skilled craftsmen--like bridge builders, carpenters, or road menders--under contract to a group of local citizens.  

In those days, most Americans lived either in the country or in small towns, and in many parts of the country (especially the South), education was in the hands of private tutors and the proprietors of the log cabin academies.  A famous example of the entrepreneurial schoolmaster is the South Carolinian Moses Waddell, a man of enormous learning who offered his services to the various backwoods communities in which he established his school.  His most famous pupil was his young brother-in-law, John C. Calhoun, the most original political mind ever to sit in the Senate.  Waddell ended up as president of the newly established University of Georgia, which instituted a very demanding classics requirement.  I cite his career, partly to show that the backwoods schools were not always staffed by uneducated teenage girls, but in this and othere cases by the most learned men in the states. 

But the teenage girls did not do badly by their charges, either.  A typical example of a middle American school marm was young Laura Ingalls, who took over a one room school even before she had graduated from high school, and her memoir (Those Happy Golden Years) remains the best description of American schooling in that period.  The local board hired the teacher and told her what they expected of her and then left her pretty much to her own devices.  If the local community was to raw and new to provide a teacher, one could always be imported from back East, and the Yankee schoolmarm became a staple of Western fiction.  Hundreds of such young women were sent West by the National Board of Popular Education.

There were, no doubt, abuses and failures in such a system.  Teachers might be capricious or sadistic, and the students themselves--if we can trust the account of Edward Eggleston the "Hoosier Schoolmaster--could be terrifying.  Nonetheless,  the children, even at the worst, were provided with reading materials and math books well above the average today.  While a bad teacher might be free to be lax and lazy--until the parents got fed up and fired her--good teachers were also free to do the best job they knew how.

Contrast this situation with Laura Ingalls' modern counterpart.  Provided with every luxury, from flashcards and workbooks to computers and audiovisuals, the contemporary teacher is a prisoner in a system over which she has almost no control.  In most cases the books she uses are selected for her by a principal from a short list of options provided by the district board of education.  These, in turn, are derived from a list drawn up by the state board, which confines its selections to books and companies that are widely approved in the community of "professional" educators.  

If the teacher has little freedom in the choice of texts, she exercises scarcely more control over curriculum planning.  Her goals, outlines, and lesson plans all must be approved by the principal, who sees to it that the district's general policies are being carried out.  However, the district itself is not free to implement any policy that the superintendant or school board might like.  There are federal and state laws that govern such matters as education for the learning disabled, placement of minorities, and the treatment of boys and girls in athletic programs.  

In many American cities, 'desegregation' served as a pretext for a federal take-over of the school system.   During the 1990's, in Rockford, Illinois, an appointed federal magistrate usurped the authority to  decide what schools should be opened or closed or built, how much tax money should be spent on which programs in which schools, and how many white children could be admitted to the gifted programs.  I was among those who condemned the magistrate's power-grab as both unconstitutional and immoral, and, although the local powers-that-be--including the newspaper and big business interests--condemned the magistrate's critics as racists, a federal judge ruled in our favor.  

Imagine, for a moment, that you were on the school board in those days.  What could you have done under the circumstances?  Since money was a very pressing problem for Rockford schools, the school board might have  considered cutting out time-wasting programs, such as driver education--a very expensive course that has never been shown to reduce the accident rate of young drivers, except of course when it is taught privately.  Unfortunately, drivers education courses are mandated by the state.  This is just a small example of the stranglehold that state and federal governments have on local schools. 

These complaints are not new.  Teachers and principals make them all the time, and it is one of the cliches of the so-called "effective schools literature" that teachers and "building heads" should be reempowered.  I only wish the solution were so simple.  The fact is, the teachers and principals themselves constitute a large part of the problem of American education.  It is a common observation, backed by statistical studies, that only the worst college students typically major in education.  There are, of course,  exceptions.  But even if an average or fairly bright student decides to go into teaching, her brain is washed, bleached, hung out to dry, folded neatly and put away by an education establishment that subjects her to hours and hours of required courses. 

I shall never forget the conversation of two students I overheard at Miami of Ohio, a school famous for its school of education.  "So I asked the professor, how can we spend a whole semester on household implements," said one young lady to another.  "You know what Dr. Winzigkopf said?   She said, "I did my masters thesis on the blender."  Both girls were giggling, but in a few years time, after several more semesters' worth of initiation into the higher mysteries, they would be thinking about their own masters theses on the overhead projector. 

Education today is a closed system.  More successfully even than doctors and lawyers, educationists have created professional associations to serve as government. The NEA assists in setting policies, and in many closed-shop districts the union determines teaching assignments.   Schools of education are usually the largest departments of state universities, and it is the education professors and their students who write up the elaborate certification requirements for teachers, principals, and superintendents, requirements that insure that none of them can speak standard English or know anything of literature, history, or any of the other branches of humane learning that used to mark the educated man. 

It will not be long before there is national certification for teachers.  An initially voluntary plan will be in operation in 1993 under the supervision of the Carnegie Corporation that has already done a great deal to nationalize educational standards, and the people at Carnegie are already talking about the federal money they'll need and about the clout they will have in forcing schools of education to knuckle under.   And, lest anyone make the mistake of looking for leadership from conservative Republicans, please recall that it was George W. Bush, who made the great leap forward into a national educational system by imposing a set of requirements entitled  "No Child Left Behind."   The explanation for the utopian title is simple:  If no child is permitted to go forward, no child will be left behind,

But what about the local school boards?  Aren't they democratically elected and can't they be used to override the arrogance and incompetence of the professionals?  The simple answer is no, they can't.  In the first place, their most important duty is the selection of a superintendent, and the qualifications for that position are such that no person of competence, intelligence, or education is allowed to apply.  Once the superintendant has been hired, most school boards regard their job as the simple process of rubber stamping his decisions.  

The title of an article in the Phi Delta Kappan (a publication for professional educationists) tells the story: "School Boards: the Forgotten Players on the Education Team."   Surveying a vast array of evidence collected from major urban school systems, the authors concluded that school board members felt that their states were continuing to deprive them of decision-making power.  In addition "Boards are perceived (and perceive themselves) to operate mainly in response to administrative or individual members' agendas and to react rather than take deliberate action." 

It is superintendents and their staffs and not the school boards who chart the course.  How effective are those superintendents in improving a school system?  One recent study suggests that the quality of the superintendent can only account for small variations in achievement test scores: 8-9% for sixth grade students amd 2-3% in twelfth grade.  This  "may indicate," conclude the authors, "the superintendents' inattention to academic performance."

The whole system of democratically elected school boards rests upon the fundamental assumption that the people know their own mind, when it comes to education.  In a society that knows what it wants out of schooling, knows in particular the kind of men and women it wants to turn out, education cannot be a matter of science or theory.  We've been rearing men and women for quite some time now and after millions of years of trial and error, we ought not to need a handbook, any more than we ought to need books to tell us how to take care of a baby, bake bread, or handle our love life.  All aspects of child-rearing are natural and traditional skills that derive from the nature of children and the methods we have refined, century after century, for forming their character and training their minds.  Teachers, in such a society, have spent ten or fifteen years learning how to teach, simply by being in classrooms as students.  All any person would require is, at most, a year or two of practice under the guidance of an older teacher.   

Instead, the educationists reject the lessons of experience and embrace pure theory.

To be continued

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. James D. says:

    In our area, in the 1980’s, judges forced several school districts to combine. Generally, it involved a wealthier area with a good school district being forced to merge with several poorer school districts, thus creating one, massive, terrible, dangerous, and unusable school district. The other effect was that the property values in the better neighborhoods were cut in half over night. A co-workers parents had a very nice home in one of the wealthier areas where this occurred and are still stuck with the house today. The neighborhood is now a dump and they couldn’t give the house away.

  2. Clyde Wilson says:

    One slight amendment, Dr. Fleming. The worst students are not now in Education but in “Journalism,” now called “Media Arts” or some such label. They doubtless see themselves as future anchorpersons. For evidence I offer today’s news reporters.

    For a long time it has been evident that there is only one remedy for American education—the judicious application of napalm.

  3. Robert Reavis says:

    Small is often beautiful, less is often more while more security and quick reaction forces grow to protect the bigger is better and more the merrier bureaucracies. Some of these High Schools are so large their varsity sports look more like college and semi pro teams on any given Friday than healthy amateur programs for enhancing school spirit and healthy entertainment for the local districts.

  4. Harry Colin says:

    I concur with Prof. Wilson. In my misspent youth, I graduated with a journalism degree in ’78. I will say that back then in addition to writing courses (there were no “video” courses as there are now), we were required to have a considerable amount of coursework in English and History, as well as both a foreign language, and perhaps the most useful of them all, one course each in Latin and Greek Etymology.

    As one can imagine, the etymology requirements have long disappeared, no doubt because they required actual study. Now the requirements are largely puff. A quick glance at today’s papers affirms Prof. Wilson’s point – errors of spelling and syntax seem like requirements anymore, not occasional mistakes. Worse, editors are either absent or may as well be; basic facts are missing in even the simplest “reportage” and this includes the national rags as well as the locals. The big papers have the added flavor of puerile politics mixed in with their hideous prose.