Education in America: 1. What Has Happened?
OCTOBER 01, 1968 by GEORGE CHARLES ROCHE III
Dr. Roche is Director of Seminars for the Foundation for Economic Education. He has taught history and philosophy in college and maintains a special interest in American education.
In what must surely be his most quoted remark, the nineteenth century novelist, Thomas Peacock, commented that anyone talking about education was the bore of all bores since his subject lacked a beginning, a middle, or an end. Anyone attempting to write on the subject would seem, therefore, to undertake a difficult assignment. Yet, what other topic has had so much written about it, so little of which is read? With his usual blunt Yankee insight, Emerson summed up the current attitude on such treatises:
It is ominous, a presumption of crime, that this word Education has so cold, so hopeless a sound. A treatise on education, a convention for education, a lecture, a system, affects us with slight paralysis and a certain yawning of the jaws.
I know what Emerson meant, yet must risk that slight paralysis and yawning of the jaws in my reader. Why? Because it seems painfully clear that our society is breaking down rather than maturing and because this trend seems likely to continue until we face and correct certain fundamental misconceptions in our educational framework.
In the last century, men of good will seemed naively confident that the mere communication of knowledge could change the world. All problems, all social difficulties, could be corrected if only ignorance could be conquered. Unfortunately, knowledge and ignorance are at best highly relative terms. The problem is further aggravated when we ask the question, "Knowledge and ignorance of what?" Sadly enough, that issue was all too seldom faced when we were constructing the philosophy and institutions of modern American education.
The Mixed Blessings of Universal Education
Following the lead of the nineteenth century, modern America and most other nations of the Western World have established universal institutionalized education. However, there are some signs that ignorance has not yet been vanquished. There also are signs that such knowledge as has been imparted has brought little progress toward "the good society." Worst of all, there are signs that teaching everyone to read may be less than an unmixed blessing:
… teaching everyone to read opens minds to propaganda and indoctrination at least as much as to truths; and on political and social matters it is propaganda and indoctrination rather than truth that universal education has most conspicuously nurtured.’
Modern dictators have made very effective use of universal institutionalized education.
As universal education has failed to provide the utopia expected of it, the Western World in general, and the United States in particular, has begun to suspect that even our advanced, literate, "modern" civilization on which we so pride ourselves may prove to be mortal after all. We are beginning to suspect that civilizations can die as well as grow. Moreover, we are becoming restive as we see some of the signs of decay around us. We are beginning to suspect that there are other obstacles blocking our path to an ideal society, obstacles derived from the human condition, obstacles not easily overcome by merely providing larger and larger schools, more and more books, and more and more of all the other trappings of universal institutionalized education. The differences we note between an "educated man" and a "good man" should cause us to re-examine what we mean when we use the word "education."
Surely, education should be helpful rather than harmful. Surely, education should be encouraged to the utmost. At least this is the way we all talk about the subject. Do we really mean it? More important, should we really mean it? The answer to these questions depends on what sort of "education" we have in mind.
Perhaps the most "educated" people of antiquity were the Greeks, yet they destroyed themselves. The Germans have been among the most literate and most completely "educated" people of modern times, yet succumbed to the siren song of an Adolf Hitler. Despite the fact that much of what passes for "education" produces undesirable results in whole nations, despite the results it has been producing lately among many well-endowed young people within our own society, we still find in the minds of most people that "more education" is the answer to all problems.
An alarming percentage of our citizens, it is to be feared, stop with the word "education" itself. It is for them a kind of conjuror’s word, which is expected to work miracles by the very utterance. If politics becomes selfish and shortsighted, the cure that comes to mind is "education." If juvenile delinquency is rampant, "education" is expected to provide the remedy. If the cultural level of popular entertainment declines, "education" is thought of hopefully as the means of arresting the downward trend. People expect to be saved by a word when they cannot even give content to the word.²
Shortchanging the Students
Twentieth century America is a society in which all children go to school. Yet, today our cities are populated by children worse behaved and more socially dangerous than the less "educated" youngsters of former times. Let me hasten to insist that I am not against children learning to read. In fact, one of the complaints which can be leveled against modern education is that large numbers of high school graduates are scarcely able to read and quite unable to write a coherent paragraph.
It- is not that our young people have been underexposed to "education," but rather that they have been badly shortchanged in what they have received. Meanwhile, many of our high school and college graduates who have learned to read have then been condemned to spend their time with books and lectures calculated to undercut those human values that make for the good society. The resultant generations of young people with little or no knowledge of the nature of man, and a scarcely better understanding of the economics, politics, and social concepts that have been produced by the great thinkers of the Western World, continue to pour from our "educational" system. Surely, these young people cannot be blamed for the direction of our society. Surely, a system which produces young people, some of whom cannot read, many of whom cannot think, and most of whom lack knowledge of their own heritage and the moral values which underlie it, is a system which needs serious attention. We have been pouring unlimited amounts of money into the mechanics of the education of our young. Perhaps it is time we began to devote a little thought to the subject as well.
Meanwhile, we Americans seem to have almost no idea what to do with our children. School, in many cases, seems to be a convenient place to file our young people until the draft boards or the labor unions absorb them. As parents and future employers, it appears that at least a part of our concern for more and more years of "education" is to get the youngsters off our minds. This seems to be evidenced by more preschool education, by the extension of the high school years through the thirteenth and fourteenth grades at junior colleges, by our assumption that nearly all young people should now attend at least four years of college, and more and more of these same people attend graduate school as well. In the process we have cheapened the bachelor’s degree to a level inferior to what an eighth grade diploma once constituted and we have made the Ph.D. degree a mere license to teach. "What price education?"
Surely, American education suffers from an almost unbelievable amount of aimlessness and confusion. We spend more on our educational institutions than have most societies past or present. Yet, as our buildings grow larger and larger, the graduates from them seem to be less and less prepared, in either mind or character, for carrying on our civilization. It is widely assumed, and correctly so, that our prospects as a nation and as a civilization rest upon our ability to inculcate skills and civilized values in our young people. Such a task is so important that our society cannot any longer afford to let it drift as it has been drifting. As one critic has suggested, "Is it possible that ‘education’ is too important to be left to the educators?"
Jeremiahs Seldom Popular
Of course, it’s possible to lightly dismiss such questions. Criers of doom are always warning that the end of civilization is in sight, but the sun usually seems to rise the next morning. Isn’t it true that in our developing technology and in our scientific achievements we have been advancing steadily? Isn’t it true that we have more material possessions than any other civilization, past or present? Yes, but it also is true that history is filled with the records of dead and dying civilizations; civilizations which in most cases achieved the greatest bloom of prosperity and self-satisfaction at the very time when they had so lost their way, and so departed from the very values which gave them direction, that their own decline and decay had already begun, unnoticed by most people.
There are usually on the scene some people able to sense the turn of events; but Jeremiahs seldom get a good press in their own society. People don’t like to be told such things. One of the warnings concerning our own failing as a civilization comes to us, however, from a man well publicized throughout the Western World. In 1923, Albert Schweitzer commented in his Civilization and Ethics:
My subject is the tragedy of the Western world-view… Our civilization is going through a severe crisis…. Most people think that the crisis is due to the war but they are wrong. The war, with everything connected with it, is only a phenomenon of the condition of uncivilization in which we find ourselves.
Our "uncivilization" was attributed by Schweitzer to the great gap which has opened up between our material and spiritual understanding. He sensed that modern man was becoming dependent upon larger and larger economic, social, and political aggregations of power. He warned that, in the process, the individual man was finding it increasingly difficult to identify and establish his own personality. American education serves as a prime example of modern man’s emphasis upon the material rather than the spiritual, an emphasis upon larger and larger aggregations of collective authority and organization within which individual personality finds a smaller and smaller place. Let anyone who doubts this attend the massive public high school or gigantic state university campus of his choice. What we teach and how we teach it makes it harder and harder for the individual to find and defend his place in the sun.
Progress and Regress
This peculiar composite of material progress and spiritual regress leads us directly to one of the dichotomies of our age. While technicians and scientists radiate optimism in their prediction of a glorious future, most of the popular writers of our time, concerned with the human condition, view the present as an absurd joke and see the future as hopeless. All too many modern writers see the universe and human life as essentially meaningless. If anyone might doubt such a sweeping statement, let him consider the literature which our young people read today in the high schools and colleges of America. The same overwhelming impression of the meaninglessness of human life can be detected in conversation with many young people, or in even a casual perusal of the press and theater of our time.
A Dead End?
It may be that in our pursuit of "education" we have been pursuing the wrong ideas. Our American educational system might be compared to the glorious promise of the nineteenth century frontier roads leading to the West. They offered a majestic appearance as they left the East, with planted rows of trees on either side to tempt the traveler. But, as Emerson remarked, they soon became narrower and narrower and ended in a squirrel track running up a tree. There are some signs that, for all of our grand hopes and great expenditure, our institutional educational framework may likewise be leading us up a tree.
Over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle stated the question most succinctly: "Consideration must be given to the question, what constitutes education and what is the proper way to be educated." The answer appears to be one for which Western man is still searching. Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves of historian Herbert Butterfield’s injunction:
Amongst historians, as in other fields, the blindest of all the blind are those who are unable to examine their own pre-suppositions, and blithely imagine therefore that they do not possess any…. It must be emphasized that we create tragedy after tragedy for ourselves by a lazy unexamined doctrine of man which is current amongst us and which the study of history does not support.
Professor Butterfield would get little hearing for his remarks throughout much of the academic community today. Still, he may be right. We may have become so busy discussing "education" with the current clichés and shallow value judgments which we have come to accept, that we are overlooking some philosophic and institutional flaws of grave magnitude. Perhaps the time has come for a serious and sustained effort in thinking through the goals and means of American education. It is past time for all of us to become interested in the subject, especially since educators in many cases respond to criticism "by redoubling their efforts and forgetting their aims," as Robert Hutchins has said. Surely, we can do better.
Actually, this soul searching and re-examination of American education has been under way in this country ever since World War II. Many people are deeply concerned about various practical or philosophic aspects of one level or another of American education. But no single level of education can be considered in a vacuum. The students of colleges are, after all, the graduates of American high schools. The teachers of high schools are the graduates of American colleges and universities. Not only are various levels of American education interrelated, but the practical and philosophic aspects of the problem feed back upon one another to produce a complex of relationships which deserves a careful treatment within the compass of a single study.
Aspects of the Problem
Some of the problems we will be examining in an effort to achieve an improved understanding of American higher education will include:
(1) What should we be trying to teach? What is the nature of the underlying moral framework which society must pass from one generation to another for its own self-preservation?
(2) How does education fail when it departs from such an underlying moral framework? What have been the results of such a departure in our own society?
(3) What of the problems of size and the problems of population which confront our schools with overcrowding, lowering of standards, and many related difficulties?
(4) Why is it that child-centered education, education essentially without discipline, is a disaster, both for the child and for the society in which he is to assume a role?
(5) What of the role played by the educationists and the largely dominant philosophy currently pursued in American education?
(6) What of the failures in higher education, stemming from institutional inertia, excessive specialization, the committee mentality, the "publish or perish" syndrome, and the other shortcomings of the college and university community?
(7) What of the college revolts of our age? Who is responsible: student, faculty, or society? More important, where do we go from here?
(8) What of the problem of public versus private financing and philosophy for all levels of American education?
This listing of vital questions concerning American education could be extended. What of the public and private roles in research and technology? What of the problem of vocational training? What involvement should private industry have in this question? What are the wellsprings of that human creativity which has allowed society to advance as far as it has and how can those sources best be safeguarded within our educational system? What of the many good jobs being done by good people on various levels of American education and how can they best be preserved in a revamped system? And finally, what sort of a philosophy of education could best provide for America the trained, disciplined, truly human, young people so desperately needed if our nation and the Western World are to survive?
An attempt to answer all of these questions is, of course, ambitious. But such a task is made far easier by all the modern critiques of education on its various levels which have been undertaken by so many highly qualified people. Even more important, the whole rationale for a proper philosophy of education derives from a large number of distinguished thinkers, past and present, who have perceived the basic truth that how a civilization deals with its young and creative minds is the final key to the future of that civilization.
With a tip of our hat toward all those better men who have gone before, let us examine some of the problems of American education.
The next article of this series will discuss "Freedom, Morality, and Education."
Education for Privacy
I suggest that over the door of every academic cubicle there should hang the sign which Thoreau had over the door of his hut: "My destiny mended here, not yours." In short, I propose to make a plea for education for privacy.
MARTEN TEN HOOR