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.