Define education as a consumer good, and the customer is always right.

The writer here is  Lewis Lapham, not me.  Although in most of what he says he speaks for me. And what I don’t have in large supply is that which he is well supplied with, confidence and arrogance.

See: NOTEBOOK Study hall By Lewis H. Lapham, from Harper’s Magazine, 2001



“A woful putrefaction threatens the Rising Generation; Barbarous Ignorance,  and the unavoidable consequence of it,  Outrageous Wickedness wi! make the  Rising Generation Loathsome, if it  have not Schools to preserve it.”
Cotton Mather,  An address, Ad Fratres in Eremo,  1699 

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the  mediocre educational performance that  exists today, we might well have viewed  it as an act of war …. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
A Nation (:It Risk, The National  Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983


Two hundred and eighty-four  years between the two storm warnings, and the American idea of education remains as it was in the beginning, —better understood as a  profession of faith than as a course of  instruction.

The Reverend Mather  addressed his remarks to a Puritan  congregation in the  Massachusetts  Bay Colony, further observing that  Satan, a.k.a. “the old deluder,”  could strike no “greater Blow to the  Reformation among us than by causing schools to Languish under Discouragements.”

Let the schools rot,  said the preacher, and “thou hast destroyed thyself, 0 New England.”  The authors of A Nation at Risk were  worried about the Russians. In 1957  the old deluder had shown the Russians how to launch a spacecraft into  the heavens, and twenty-six years  later it was still being seen from  Washington as a baleful portent fore-telling an end to America’s “once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation.”

Neil Armstrong  had been to the moon and back, but  the Siberian steppe in the meantime  had been seeded with a forest of in-  tercontinental ballistic missiles, and  President Reagan assembled the  Commission to assess the strength of  the Blow of which the evil Soviet  empire was then thought capable. 

After foraging for eighteen months  in the wilderness of academic study  groups, the committee returned with  bad news. Our schools were drowning in “a rising tide of mediocrity,”  and unless we strengthened the sand-bags of the curricula and raised the  height of the test scores, we could say  goodbye to our “prosperity, security,  and civility.”

Fearful of the same result, Mather had suggested that “particular Towns Employ their Wits” or  suffer the “Rebuke of God”; President Reagan’s Commission recommended massive  infusions of cash.

Being American and therefore by  definition a self-improving people always on the road to the milk-white  cities of perfection, we assign to education the powers that other societies  award to religion, the word itself invested with so many meanings that it  can be confused with Aladdin’s lamp,  made to serve as synonym for the  way out and the ticket home, offered  as an answer to every mother’s  prayer.

The high hopes and great expectations follow the flag. Ralph  Waldo Emerson in the l840s beheld  the golden door of “intellectual en-  largement” through which “a man  stupid becomes a man inspired,” passing out of “the torpid into the perceiving state,” shrugging off “the din  of trifles” to take his “manworthy”  place as “a new Adam in the garden,  [who] is to name all the beasts in the  field, all the gods in the sky.” John  Dewey in 1897 put it more plainly-  “the teacher always is the prophet of  the true God and the usherer in of  the true kingdom of God.”

Our modern faith in the miracles  of technological application corre-  sponds to the seventeenth-century  trust in angels, and in keeping with  the corporate temper of the times  the rapidly proliferating forms of al-  ternate education-charter schools,  educational management organizations, school vouchers, distance  learning, horne-schooling, diplomas  awarded on the Internet, etc. copy  the syllabus of the successful business  enterprise.

The new generation of  prophets borrows the vocabulary of  the marketing director and the systems engineer. Touting education as  a consumer product, they speak of  brand value and pricing strategies,  distribute infomercials on videocassette, design their arks of safety and  deliverance in the manner of user-friendly theme parks, deploy out-sources, sponsor intellectual property  ventures, inflate the grades.

Once again as it was in the beginning, we show ourselves more devoted to the theory than to the practice  of education. The facts bring with  them too much Languishing under  Discouragements, bored students,  dull textbooks, cluttered classrooms,  know-nothing politicians, intransigent teachers’ unions, quarrelsome  school boards, etc. —and so we concentrate our energies on the composition of redeeming doctrine. We  might as well be pouring holy water  or sacrificing goats, bur we choose to  believe that when accompanied by large offerings of money the rituals  bring intelligence and rain.

The fanciful projections seldom admit of tangible proof, but as is customary elsewhere in the consumer  economy, it is the promise of salvation that makes the sale and moves  the merchandise.

A charter school undertakes to enhance the performance  of its students, but although we now  have 2,150 such schools in thirty-two  states, we have yet to devise a test that  sifts the truth from the advertising. 

More students now attend college than  at any other time in the nation’s history, but one in three enters freshman  year needing remedial courses in reading and mathematics.

The market for  plagiarism on the Internet is as steady  as the demand for pornography; the  fourth-grade reading scores continue to  deteriorate, and a high-school education these days usually means that the  students have passed the tenth-grade  examinations, which in turn reflect an  eighth-grade level of comprehension. 

Despite the evil omens, nobody pays  too much attention to the sketchily  measured results because we assume  that American students do not go to  school to acquire wisdom, or to engage in what the ancient Greeks admired as “the glittering play of wind-  swift thought.” They go to school to  improve their lot, to learn the trick of  getting ahead in the world, to acquire  the keys to the commercial kingdoms  stocked with the material blessings  that constitute our society’s highest  and most heavenly rewards.

The objectives conform to the  popular understanding of democracy.  As Americans, we make the heroic  attempt to educate all our citizens, to  provide as many people as possible  with as many opportunities as possible, to do for our children what we  couldn’t do for ourselves. The sentiment is as generous as it is romantic,  and as long ago as 1937, Albert J.  Nock, an otherwise skeptical critic of  the American ‘pretension to higher  learning, was moved to a feeling of  awe. He described the country’s  schools as “an expression … an organization of a truly noble, selfless  and affectionate desire.”

The  desire entails-unhappily but of necessity-a corollary lowering of standards. Because the schools serve a spiritual and political purpose instead  of an intellectual idea, they cannot  afford to make invidious comparisons  between the smart kids and the dumb  kids, between the kids who read  Shakespeare’s plays and those who  watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Under the rules of democratic procedure, the schools must teach everything to everybody (grammar,  hygiene, Plato’s dialogues, the forward pass, macrame, the curve ball,  Keynesian economics, cheerleading,  table manners, and calculus). Even  more wonderful, they must insist on  the official fiction not only that  everybody deserves to be educated  but also, mirabile dictu, that everybody can be taught the same syllabus.

The education bill currently on its  way through Congress teaches the  familiar lesson about the difference  between the words and the music,  the tacit approval of an intellectually inferior result masked by the declarations of a morally superior intent. 

To the extent that George Bush’s  presidential campaign was about  anything other than an upper-class  distaste for Bill Clinton’s saxophone  music, it was about reforming the  nation’s schools, “leaving no child  behind,” and once again rescuing the  Rising Generation from woful putrefaction and Outrageous Wickedness. 

The legislative measures passed in  early June by both houses of Congress embody the attempt to make  good on the campaign promise,  holding teachers accountable to  higher degrees of competence and  requiring public-school students in  grades three through eight to submit,  every year, to a set of state and federal tests; if the scores fail to match  the desired rate of improvement, the  punishment falls on the schools harboring the unimproved students-  the principal cashiered, the faculty  decimated, the curriculum jettisoned  or translated into pictograms.

As a profession of faith the bill  deserves favorable comparison with  Mather’s letter to his brothers in  seclusion; as an act of instruction, it  already has been erased from the  blackboard. Within an hour of voting for the prohibition of ignorance,  the politicians remembered that  they represent constituents disinclined to welcome reports of failure. 

Maybe in Europe the parents of  school-age children can accept the  notion that not all the candidates  pass, that some students learn more  easily than others, that not everybody gets to go to college. American  parents do not tolerate so foul a  heresy. Of course everybody passes.  Why else do we pay the taxes or the  tuition fees? Define education as a  consumer good, and the customer is  always right.

During last year’s election campaign the president also promised to  protect the schools from “the soft  bigotry of low expectations,” but by  the first week in July the congressional conference committee had  softened the provisions for the yearly  test to the level of expectation established by Howard Stem and Sally  Jesse Raphael, and George Miller  (D., California), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on  Education and the Workforce, was  saying to a writer from The New  Yorker: “It’s already starting to slide  away … nobody really wants to be  accountable. It’s select-a-test. Kabosh, kaboo, kabee —it’s like talking to the fucking Marx  I  brothers!”

It’s hard to know how it could be  otherwise. We burden the schools  with so many extracurricular agendas —social, political, and commercial —that we imagine them as  utopian contraptions spinning straw  into gold, making poetry from mud.  Let something go wrong with society  at large —too many dead policemen  in the streets, not enough respect being shown to Alan Greenspan or the  Girl Scouts, too much sadomasochism floating around in the  weightless capsules of cyberspace  —and the fault is to be found in the  school. Were it not for the failure of  the schools, stock-market prices  would never fall, Eminem would be  in prison, and President Bush would  know how to say the Gettysburg Address in Latin.

By asking too much of the schools  we make the mistake of thinking  that we can construct a system guaranteed to manufacture (in large  quantity, under all circumstances, in every kind of weather) a standard  product (scientifically certified and  government inspected) to which we  can affix the label “educated citizen.” 

To the best of my knowledge I never  met such a person, and I assume that  the phrase refers to an imaginary being similar to the polo player on a  golf shirt or the griffin in a medieval  bestiary. I can conceive of a “self-educating citizen,” and I have had the  good fortune to meet a number of  people who can be so described, but  none have had the temerity to proclaim themselves educated.

Without  exception they possess the valor of  their ignorance, conceiving of an edcation neither as a blessed state of  grace (comparable to membership in  the Corinthian Yacht Club) nor as a  precious object sold in the store  (even at Harvard’s rate of $32,000  per annum) but rather as a ceaseless  process of learning and relearning. If  in sixteen years they have spent  18,000 hours in school (roughly the  equivalent of twenty-four months),  they expect to spend another fifty  years amending and revising what  they thought they had learned there.

The possibility assumes the presence of an active mind, which is what  concerns the four people taking part in  the conversation that appears in this is-  sue of Harper’s Magazine on pages 49  through 63. Practitioners instead of  theorists, they talk about teaching as  an art rather than a science, and al-  though I didn’t ask the question, I ex-  pect they would say that no single  school, and certainly no nationwide  consortium or conglomerate, can sustain the claim to unqualified excellence. Some schools are better than  others, but no school exists in the  world out of time, unflooded by the  tide of mediocrity that flows into the  classrooms from the ocean of a society  that doesn’t expect its statesmen or its  movie stars to know how to diagram an  English sentence or point to Thermopylae on a map.

Even the best of  schools cannot reform the nation’s politics, cannot elevate the nation’s  morals or correct errors in the blue  books of popular taste. But a good  teacher can influence even the most  unpromising of students to the unique  strength of his or her own mind.

The participants in the Forum argue for the modest proposition that  few pleasures rival the joy of the intellect being put to constructive or  imaginative use, that it is more fun  to know something than to own  something. All idealists, they take  their cue from Emerson, who believed that the “great object of Education should  be commensurate with  the object of life … to teach self-trust, to inspire the youthful man  with an interest in himself … to acquaint him with the resources of his  mind, and to teach him that there is  all his strength. “

I know of no  more hopeful prospect anywhere on  the American horizon. Although I  can wish that we paid our teachers  better salaries, or that the $1.5 million spent on a thirty-second beer  commercial might be spent on books  and school libraries, wishing won’t  make it so, and until the old deluder allows the society to rearrange its  order of priorities, I suspect that  most of the federal money voted to  the cause of education will do little  else except enrich the publishers of  fraudulent achievement tests. The  children meanwhile will learn as  they have always learmed, against the  usual long odds and fortunate in  their pursuit of happiness if they  come across tour guides as dedicated  as tutors Sizer, Jordan, Stewart, and  Gatto.

Idealism rescues cynicism and can  be parsed, at least in democratic societies, as another word for freedom.  Democracy proceeds on the assumption that nobody knows enough, that  nothing is final, that the old order  (whether of men or institutions) will  be carried offstage every twenty  years.

The multiplicity of its voices  and forms assumes a ceaseless making  and remaking of laws and customs as, well as of equations and matinee  idols. If democracy can be understood as a field of temporary coalitions among people of different interests, skills, and generations, then  everybody has need of everybody  else. To the extent that a democratic  government gives its citizens a  chance to chase their own dreams, it  gives itself the chance not only of  discovering its multiple glories and  triumphs but also of surviving its  multiple follies and crimes.


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