Christopher Lasch on “what ails the schools.”

There are those who, come what may in the way of school drop-out, and school graduate and school failure numbers, would protect the public schools, and especially the image, or idea of the schools as being that which most binds us together, no matter our different ethnic and racial origins, into one truly exceptional people. Altogether something we should hold on to and cherish.

And the defenders of the schools continue to believe in spite of the total lack of evidence that the schools have ever done that, have ever bound us together as one people representing the well informed and responsible citizenry so desired by Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

You may reasonably ask, what’s wrong with that, with people defending the schools against those who would bring them down? Furthermore, you might ask what could possibly take their place? Other than other schools?

And there’s the rub. We do seem to be stuck with our schools the way they are. And we do have the record of a seemingly endless series of reforms that have done little to change them, let alone do away with them entirely.

What’s that expression, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? That activity has to be the story of school reform.

On the Titanic, of course, what should have been done was to abandon the ship entirely before it sank. But in regard to our abandoning the schools we’re no closer to doing that than were the residents on board ship before being struck by an iceberg.

My analogy, of course, breaks down because the Titanic was up until the very end a great ship. Absolutely nothing wrong with it and we can excuse the confidence of those on board. But the schools? They have never run smoothly.

Given their obvious failure to educate, to create that informed citizenry that Jefferson would have, why is it that that they are still doing now what they were doing at the start and have been doing for some 160 years? And why is it that during all that time so little has been done to improve the schools?

Christopher Lasch, in a chapter of his 1995 book, the Revolt of the Elites, tells us that the fault lies still in our belief that “schooling is a cure-all for everything that ails us.”

“Still” because this was the belief of Horace Mann, the founder of our public schools, who established the first “common” or public schools in Massachusetts in the 1840s.

Mann laid it all out, all that the schools should accomplish, and ever since the schools have been laboring under the burden he imposed upon them. Now it wasn’t that his vision was anything other than what we would want for our children.

It was just not possible. The reality was something else and as long as the vision, Mann’s vision or the visions of most of our professional educators since, didn’t square with reality the idealistically conceived common school was going to continually struggle if not collapse when up against that reality.

It is not as if the schools’ defenders do not know this. Just recently, one of the defenders, Diane Ravitch, speaks of three steps that would have to be taken to assure “that every child in the United States has reasonable and realistic access to a truly world class educational opportunity.” In other words, what needed to be done to realize Mann’s vision for the schools.

The first step, she says, would be to find a magic wand and make sure that every child is born into a two-parent family with income sufficient to provide a good, middle-class life.

The second step would be to have a popular culture that supports and reinforces the value of learning and the character traits necessary for success in school.

The third step would be to have a national education policy, one that included national academic standards, a national curriculum, and national testing, etc.

Now Ravitch understands perfectly that the first two steps would never be taken, their needing unobtainable magic wands in both instances. The third step is still one more in that series of reforms, actually one that has been often talked about if never fully enacted.

It doesn’t occur to defenders such as Ravitch that the ship of school is sinking, or rather that it was never fully afloat, that it was wrongly conceived at the start or launch.

Christopher Lasch points out that there is a good deal to be learned from the debates that took place in the formative period of the school system, the 1830s and 1840s:

“…[one cannot] miss the moral fervor and democratic idealism that informed Mann’s program. …  important arguments for education, in Mann’s view, were the “diffusion of useful knowledge,” the promotion of tolerance, the equalization of opportunity, the “augmentation of national resources,” the eradication of poverty, the overcoming of “mental imbecility and torpor,” the encouragement of light and learning in place of “superstition and ignorance,” and the substitution of peaceful methods of governance for coercion and warfare…”

This is what Lasch means by, “schooling is a cure-all for everything that ails us.” And we still hold onto that vision for our schools. We still expect the schools to save us. We still don’t let go in spite of the evidence that the schools have never during the 160 years or more of their existence been anything like a “cure-all for everything that ails us.”

Here is Christopher Lasch’s own conclusion:

“Mann and his contemporaries held that good schools could eradicate crime and juvenile delinquency, do away with poverty, make useful citizens out of “abandoned and outcast children,” and serve as the “great equalizer” between rich and poor.”

“They would have done better to start out with a more modest set of expectations. If there is one lesson we might have been expected to learn in the 150 years since Horace Mann took charge of the schools of Massachusetts, it is that the schools can’t save society. Crime and poverty are still with us, and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.”

“Meanwhile, our children, even as young adults, don’t know how to read and write. Maybe the time has come if it hasn’t already passed to start all over again.”  

But we don’t know, of course, what it would mean “to start all over again.” And we go on arranging the deck chairs. And the schools are now no less than before assailed by their critics and reformers, and protected by their no less numerous defenders.

The reality of how, and what, and if the kids are learning, doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind.

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