Posted: July 15, 2014
A review of The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980 and The Schools We Deserve: Reflections on the Educational Crises of Our Time, by Diane Ravitch and Challenge to American Schools: The Case for Standards and Values, edited by John H. Bunzel
t is strange how a nation as firmly rooted in fundamental ideas of ethics, political theory, and liberal education as America could have banished those fundamental values from its public schools only a century and a quarter after the Founding. Yet that is what happened, according to educator Diane Ravitch.
Ravitch, a professor of history and education at Columbia University, is the author of nearly 150 articles and reviews, as well as two previous books. In The Troubled Crusadeand The Schools We Deserve, she provides compelling discussions of the failings of public education in America-and how those failings came about.
Quite simply, Ravitch blames the progressive movement for undercutting genuine liberal education, asserting that the zealous social reformers of the 1900s viewed schools "as laboratories of social experimentation."
"The concept of social efficiency, which was popular among progressive reformers, put education into a new context," she writes. No longer were teachers to simply teach their students about certain classical subjects; instead, they were to direct the destiny of society by shaping the vocational futures of their students. Thus, the "traditional curriculum" was derided as "inefficient," for
under its sway, children were taught history, literature, mathematics, and foreign languages even though they were not going to college; it was not only wasteful of the children's time but also served no useful social purpose. It became conventional in educational meetings to assert that the traditional curriculum, everything associated with a liberal education, was designed for an aristocratic class and was therefore unsuited to schools in a democracy. (Emphasis added)
A key instigator in this shift away from genuine liberal education was John Dewey. Dewey's "notion of the school as a lever of social reform," writes Ravitch, became converted into "the school as a mechanism to adjust the individual to society." Purely utilitarian education became paramount; vocational education reigned as king of the mountain.
The irony here is unbearable for any student of the American Founding. In the name of democracy, the "progressives" set about to wreck the very kind of education our Founders had sought to guarantee for future generations. It is unfortunate that they did not ponder the eloquent words John Adams penned to his wife from Paris:
I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.
It is also regrettable that the progressive educators apparently chose to ignore the view of George Washington. Washington thought it "essential that public opinion be enlightened" in any society with a popular government. In fact, he said that the more "the structure of a government gives force to public opinion," the more "essential" an enlightened public becomes. So according to Washington's line of thinking, the types of democratic reforms spearheaded by progressive education would have made genuine liberal education more imperative, not less.
Clearly the Founders had a vastly different conception of the link between liberal education and democracy than did the progressives. John Adams viewed a liberal education as a desired result of democracy; George Washington saw it as a necessary prerequisite. Neither statesman deemed liberal education an obstacle to democracy-as did the misguided progressives.
Unfortunately, it was the misguided vision of the progressive educators and not the wise vision of the Forefathers that prevailed in American schools during the early part of the twentieth century. The only happy note is that the triumph of "progressive education" was not permanent. In The Troubled Crusade, Ravitch tells about the intellectual critics who finally tore down this narrow and stultified view of education in the 1950s-but only temporarily. In the ensuing years, there has been a bitter philosophical tug of war between the heirs of the progressives and the traditionalists. As Ravitch says in an essay in The Schools We Deserve: "With striking regularity, educational policy has swung from domination by the 'progressives' to domination by 'traditionalists' in roughly ten-year periods." What has saved the public schools from utter chaos as the pendulum swings back and forth is
. . . the good sense of classroom teachers who are themselves well educated. Their commitment, both to knowledge and to their students, has moderated and finally blunted pedagogical fashions that were not solidly grounded in good educational practice. We should have learned by now, to save us from short-lived crusades, that panaceas are a mirage, and that the only educational improvement of lasting significance is the result of good teaching.
Ravitch's criticisms and insights are certainly thought-provoking-as far as they go. Progressive education, as Ravitch rightly points out, proved to be far more pernicious than beneficial. It was one of those trendy costly crusades-like prohibition and Freudian psychiatry-into which partly educated Americans are too readily drawn. Yet saying this, one wishes that Ravitch could have gone further, for she skims over an entire area of debate: schools and the decline of morality. She shows that progressive education is one of the chief sources of our de-emphasis on academic excellence. But she does not even try to find out whether progressive education also contributed to the banishment of ethics from our schools-an equally disturbing development, which George Benson and Thomas Engeman treated a decade ago in Amoral America.
This decline of "moral excellence" in the schools has been just as drastic as the decline in "academic excellence." And its wide-ranging implications for society must not be ignored. As George Washington wrote in his magnificent Farewell Address: "Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government. . . . Promote then . . . Institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge." (Emphasis added).
Certainly the "knowledge" Washington was writing about included moral knowledge; and certainly the "Institutions" he referred to included schools. Public schools have a fundamental responsibility to propagate society's moral standards. When the schools abdicate this responsibility-and they have-it can only bode ill for the community.
One cannot but hope that in the future Ravitch will delve deeper and apply her wisdom to this problem of education as well, for obtaining academic excellence without also achieving some measure of moral excellence would be a hollow victory-indeed, if it would be a victory at all.
Diane Ravitch's two books neglect the role of morals in education; John Bunzel's Challenge to American Schools at least takes it seriously.
To be sure, most of the book concentrates on the types of items Ravitch talks about (in fact, she is a contributor here)-merit pay and the unions, the precipitous decline in SAT scores, better education for minorities. But there is also a refreshing discussion of moral education in Gerald Grant's essay, "Schools That Make an Imprint: Creating a Strong Positive Ethos."
Grant explains how Catholic schools in poor urban areas actually come closer to the nineteenth-century conception of an American public school than do our big urban public schools today, fenced in as they are by bureaucratic and legal barbed wire. More importantly, he shows how these and other private schools instill moral character into their students. In these schools, says Grant,
[I]ntellectual and moral virtue are seen as inseparable. The aim is harmony. A good school is not one that is merely effective in raising test scores. Although intellect is important, one does not assume that the maximization of test scores is the highest aim; rather one wants a harmonious development of character. There is a concern for rigorous academic education but also for the qualities of endurance, resilience, responsibility, resourcefulness, and social concern.
And unlike many public schools, the average students are not ignored as a faceless mass-for "If one's aim . . . is to save a soul or imprint a character ideal, then every soul is equally worth saving and each imprint deserves close inspection."
Grant argues that the nation's public schools must now follow the lead of its private schools; they must recapture a character ideal that they can pass on to their students. Grant cites the moral vision of Horace Mann and McGuffey's readers as past examples of the character ideal used in American public schools, writing that ". . . we must have the courage to reinvent a modern equivalent of McGuffey's readers, a moral basis for the common beliefs of a democratic pluralist society, or what R. S. Peters has called a provisional morality." (Emphasis added.)
Here lies the crucial problem with Grant's essay. How do we "re-invent a modern equivalent of McGuffey's readers"? Grant says that we ought to focus on:
some salient or core beliefs to which we nil subscribe. Pluralism is in fact not possible without agreement on some kinds of values, decency, the minimal order required for dialogue, the willingness to listen to one another, the rejection of racism (or openness to participation in the dialogue), honesty and respect for truth, recognition of merit and excellence, as well as those transcendent values that shore up the whole society-a sense of altruism and service to others and respect for personal effort and hard work. Without such agreement one has not a public but a kind of a radical relativism-not pluralism but mere coexistence.
But why are these the values that should be taught? Why is honesty "good"? Why is racism "bad"? And who defines "decency"? Grant's implicit answer appears to be that values are good or bad depending upon whether or not they are accepted by society. But clearly this is inadequate. The support of the social majority is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for determining the truth of a moral principle. A majority of citizens in the South before the Civil War may well have thought of slavery as decent and just. Yet that hardly made slavery ethically right. If we choose arbitrarily any "moral majority" as our criterion for moral truth, then the schools may easily teach wrong principles-or may not teach certain moral principles at all.
Clearly, a much firmer base is needed for morality. If true moral education is to return once again to our public schools, a reasoned case must be made for the existence of an objective morality, one transcending place and time. But can the case be made? The Catholic schools and Protestant reformers lauded by Grant based their ideas of objective morality values largely on the veracity and trustworthiness of Christian revelation; such a theoretical foundation was fine for the public, schools of the nineteenth century-but it would unfortunately be unacceptable to many Americans today. Barring revelation as a base (at least temporarily), we must turn to "pure reason." But can a case for objective morality be made by reason alone?
Almost four decades ago, C. S. Lewis attempted to do just that in his book The Abolition of Man, where he argued that all moral judgments are ultimately deduced from one source ("the Tao"). Wrote Lewis:
This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory.
Certainly Lewis's argument (including his use of the self-defeating term "value judgment") is open to attack, but at least he grappled with the relevant question.
Those concerned with returning moral education to the public schools must grapple with the foundation on which to base such education. In America's current moral confusion, it is not enough to simply demand the return of "moral education." There is such a lack of agreement on what morality is today (or why it is) that its very underpinnings must be rediscovered. That process of rediscovery involves reason; in the future, it may involve the use of revelation (for sola reason has its own theoretical problems). At any rate, we ought to begin now.