Prospects for American Education

An address discussing the findings of the Report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. “There will come about a marked decline of prosperity and of national strength—with no one knowing why, or at least no one daring to explain why.”

By Russell Kirk

For more than three decades, American schooling at every level has been mordantly criticized by highly intelligent people. The spate of books commenced with Mortimer Smith’s And Madly Teach (1949) and Canon Bernard Iddings Bell’s Crisis in Education (1950). Important books in favor of a thoroughgoing reform of American education have been appearing ever since. Organizations for reform, first of them the Council for Basic Education, have sprung up. But little in the way of the restoration of learning has been accomplished. Indeed, while we have talked loudly of the need for educational renewal and innovation, the performance of our educational institutions, at all levels, clearly has been declining. That is why a National Commission on Excellence in Education was created.

Permit me to touch succinctly upon seven principal causes of the decline. Some of these are treated briefly in the Commission’s much-publicized Report; others are not mentioned in that document.

First, the smug complacency of the general public. Until our schools began to slide toward chaos, and performance in basic disciplines decayed conspicuously, most citizens assumed that schooling was “good enough,” or perhaps almost altogether praiseworthy. When, two decades ago, the superintendent of schools in our Michigan community polled parents and school-board members as to what they believed to be the school’s most important activity, the most popular answer was “basketball—the night games.” They approved that condition. Nowadays many citizens are vaguely discontented with the schools’ condition, in every state and district, but they have very little notion of what should be clone about the trouble. A vociferous minority of citizens demand reform; yet they remain a minority.

Second, what we may call “democratism in education” has afflicted educational standards. The majority of the public seems to have assumed that formal schooling is mostly a matter of mere certification: young people obtain jobs by presenting high-school diplomas or college degrees to employers. What the rising generation actually learns is regarded as incidental. Every young person ought to “attend the college of your choice” and obtain a white-collar job with no exacting duties. The mere fact of having been enrolled in schools is, or was, regarded as sufficient. Robert Hutchins once suggested that the best way to cope with degree-snobbery might be to confer at birth, upon every infant, the degree of doctor of philosophy. I improved his recommendation by adding that it might be well to deprive a young person of the doctorate if he should insist upon studying in graduate school; to take away his master’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and high-school diploma (all conferred at birth), successively, as he progressed upward in his studies; so that the really educated person, stripped of outward academic trappings, would enter upon the workaday world naked but wise—and those unwilling to learn could rejoice in their meaningless distinctions.

Third, what I have called “educationist imperialism” has been a cause of our present discontents. Building an empire for Holy Educationism, with vast costly “plants” and grossly swollen enrollments, became an object in itself. Schooling was damaged by its inhumane scale. Standards were forgotten in this pursuit: bigger was taken to be better. (James Conant worked mischief of this sort.) The demand for more money was unending; but few bothered to examine the results. I have visited some four hundred college campuses, over the past thirty years. I find that if one inquires into the end or aim of nearly all of these institutions, it becomes unpleasantly clear that in the minds of most administrators and professors, the real reason for the existence of institutions of higher learning is to supply salaries for administrators and professors. If this art of growthmanship seems to require the steady lowering of standards, as more and more young people must be recruited—why, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

Fourth, the incompetence of many self-proclaimed “educators,” all the way up to graduate schools, has been a sorry affliction. The dull domination of the certification of teachers by anti-intellectual departments and schools of education; the requirement of endless courses in pedagogy, which repel a great part of the aspiring young men and women who might otherwise become able teachers; the excessive specialization in college and university, turning out not imaginative scholars but candidates for the “tenure track”—these influences have lowered the general level of instruction.

Fifth, meddling in schools, colleges, and universities by the political power has produced confusion worse confounded. ln pursuit of an indefinable and unattainable perfect “racial mix,” a self-righteous judiciary has torn school districts apart, usurped the functions of school boards, and kept public instruction in nearly all urban regions in a bewildering state of flux. At the same time, the heavy hand of various departments of the federal government, imposing a mass of regulations which please this or that pressure-group, has vastly increased the administrative costs of educational institutions—on pain of the withdrawal of federal subsidies—and has insisted upon emphasizing peripheral concerns, at the expense of genuine intellectual disciplines.

Sixth, the unionizing of the teaching profession, occurring chiefly during the past two decades, has tended to transfer power from lawfully constituted school authorities to local, state, and national union leaders. Here, nevertheless, one must distinguish between the influence of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. The former union, whatever one may think about certain of its demands, is genuinely interested in educational improvement, and distributes valuable publications. The National Education Association, bent upon money and power, sets its face against any healthy reform. The NEA, indeed, is the chief obstacle to excellence in education.

Seventh, our schools, colleges, and universities reflect the moral confusion of our era—not surprisingly. The crazy radical movements of the Sixties and early Seventies still are taking their toll, if less conspicuously than once; the present generation of teachers and professors was reared in that wild congeries of secular cults. All the violent discontents of yesteryear linger in the Grove of Academe. Many teachers proclaim themselves “change agents,” marching to Zion; they scarcely are impelled to confer an understanding of the permanent things. And need I mention the penetration of narcotics even into grade schools; the crowds of unruly children—from ADA households or from permissive suburbia; the trickling away of any attempt in most schools to undertake ethical teaching, in part because of a dread of the courts and the American Civil Liberties Union?

Now and again I marvel that our schools still contrive to teach anything to anybody, what with the handicaps imposed upon them. Were it not for the survival of some sincere and talented teachers, the schools would be custodial institutions merely.

Into this Serbonian bog of educationism, the National Commission on Excellence in Education bravely marched. Its members had to contend with schools in which the very concept of excellence was derided, on the ground of Mark Twain’s witticism that “One man is as good as another, or maybe a little better.” So if the Commission did not address itself to all the causes of our plight, and did not provide remedies for all the ills to which school and college are heirs—why, they had not world enough nor time.

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When the members of this National Commission were appointed, I entertained no high hopes for the Commission’s success. You may recall the aphorism of H. L. Mencken concerning committees. The best proof of God’s existence is the human body, Mencken said; most of the body’s parts function so beautifully that the body must be the work of a single divine mind. But when God came to the teeth, he appointed a committee.

Earlier commissions of this sort, governmental or private, had produced more nonsense than sense. There was appointed to the Commission on Excellence no person widely known as a critic of the present educational establishment in these United States—at least, nobody who had written a book on the subject. I assumed that the Commission’s report would be written by the staff supplied by the National Institute of Education, would be inordinately dull, and would be forgotten very promptly.

I was mistaken. The Commission’s members, with the single exception of Bartlett Giamatti, actively participated in the Commission’s hearings and deliberations. The Report substantially is their work, in their words, with only here or there an unfortunate exception.

The purpose of the Commission’s work was to rouse some public attention to our educational failings, and to suggest to the public some means for reform. ln that end, the Commission has succeeded so far. The Report has obtained far more attention than ever I had thought possible: attention generally favorable. It enables advocates of restoration and renewal in education to point to a serious consensus by an official body as to what should be done. ln particular, the findings of the Commission make the complacency of entrenched educationists seem fatuous. No longer can the dullards of Academe content themselves with such defensive saws as “We don’t teach subjects; we teach children.” Even the mediocre minds of the National Education Association will not find it possible to defend mediocrity against excellence.

I cannot embark here upon a detailed examination of the Commission’s recommendations. The Report’s insistence upon old and new basics should have a salutary effect. Its stern, if brief, criticism of the education of teachers may result in some statutory revision of state school codes, as well as internal improvements in some of the more intelligent or more apprehensive schools and colleges of education. Some districts or even states may move toward rewards for superior teachers, as contrasted with the present arrangements that ensure equal pay for equal incapacity. The Commission’s exhortation to colleges and universities should hearten some of the more conscientious professors, administrators, and trustees in resistance to more lowering of standards.

Much discussion of these questions will result from the Commission’s findings. After that, all too possibly, the charlatans of the Holy Educationist Empire may resume their sway, little challenged—until some disaster unseats them. For to bring real enduring improvement to our arid realm of education, we must dig deeper than did the Commission on Excellence. ln part because they lacked time, in part because of prudential hesitation, in part because they could not attain consensus in certain grave matters, the members of the Commission abstained from comment upon various “controversial” proposals and possibilities that eventually must be dealt with.

When President Reagan addressed the new Commission in October 1981, he urged that its members concern themselves with four fundamental principles. These were the primacy of the family in the educational process; educational competition; diversity in schooling, with emphasis upon independent schools; and the teaching of morality. Except for a few words about the family as educational instrument, and a passage about patriotism, the Report neglects the President’s interests. But the nation dare not long neglect these concerns. Permit me to touch upon some possible measures of the sort that President Reagan presumably had in mind.

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Consider diversity. “There ought to be many different kinds of education for many different kinds of people,” T. S. Eliot said once. Instead, in this land we suffer under a quasi-monopoly of public instruction by the masters of the Holy Educationist Empire—who even now are endeavoring, through process at law, to extirpate the Christian fundamentalist schools in several states.

We labor under such uniformity of schooling, indeed, that at least half the students compulsorily enrolled appear bored to death; and the bored tend always toward violence. The rate of truancy in our cities is one aspect of schooling in which American schooling is excelled by no other system. The typical American curriculum bores both the abler pupils and the less apt pupils; it is acceptable only to the mediocre. O for some alternative!

One alternative is to let out of school classrooms, and let into some form of education more satisfying to a great many young people, those pupils who yearn for emancipation from endless lectures and dreary textbooks. What an illusion, the notion that education can occur only at a schoolroom desk! Some states already have made it possible for young men and women in the last two years of high school to leave school for gainful employment, under a variety of conditions. Of course release into idleness would be undesirable; but release into apprenticeship, on-the-job training, internship, or any tolerably permanent form of useful employment is far better for a good many boys and girls than drowsing through lectures. To achieve such a reform on any considerable scale, it would be necessary to secure the cooperation of employers, unions, specialized-training institutes, and the like. But why has no real start been made toward all this? Such emancipation would greatly diminish the difficulty of maintaining tolerable order in high-school classrooms.

Most young people, nevertheless, will remain within classrooms. Diversity for them must mean a wider choice of the schools they might attend. A church-related school, a private technical school, a school for people talented in the arts, an innovating school on some promising plan—all these diverse methods of education could be made available to all young people qualified to take advantage of them. How could this variety of choice be achieved?

Why, through one or another of the various tax-credit and voucher plans for granting freedom of choice to parents and students; or perhaps merely through making the costs of school tuition deductible from income tax. President Reagan tenaciously resists attempts to bully him out of such plans; and adoption of such measures, even on a federal level, is conceivable in the present climate of opinion. Minnesota’s statute permitting tax deductions for expenses in connection with sending children to public or independent schools was found constitutional in 1983 by the United States Supreme Court—a strong suggestion of how the Court will regard its “entanglement” doctrine with respect to vouchers, tax credits, and tax deductions to assist independent schools.

The principal opposition to such measures for educational diversity comes from the oligarchs of the Holy Educationist Empire, who wail that if boys and girls should be able to attend independent schools, the public schools would wither on the vine. What a revealing confession! If few would attend a public school short of compulsion or financial necessity, what a dismal institution a public school must be—Dotheboys Hall transported to America! Incompetence always dreads competition—even the most modest form of competition, on a minute scale.

Here I have suggested only a few of the possibilities of greater diversity in schooling; but I must pass on to questions of the ethical character of a good education.

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From the beginnings of formal education, a primary aim of schooling has been the development of sound character. The end of true education is ethical; that end is to be attained through an intellectual means. It is a mark of the decadence of our society that even the Commission on Excellence in Education, made up of earnest and intelligent men and women, dared not venture even to discuss the possibility of restoring some measure of moral instruction in schools. The Report does contain, let it be said, some brief reference to the influence of humane letters upon the imagination and the ethical understanding. That is all, except for some brief remarks on patriotism, as connected with financial support of public instruction.

Yet we see all about us a decline of public and private morality far more ominous for the future of this nation than the industrial and technological rivalries which so alarmed the scientists on the Commission. Can nothing be done in schools to resist the corruption of character?

Of course much can be done, given some resolution and imagination. Courses in history, in literature, and in politics can be improved to impart those “values” (norms, really) so disapproved by doctrinaire cultural relativists. And if public schools ignore religious insights (which, incidentally, is not what the Supreme Court has told the schools they must do), at least ultimate questions still can be answered in independent schools—which is another powerful reason for adopting voucher plans, tax credits, and tax deductions that would enable the church-related schools to survive and increase.

ln short, President Reagan perceived more lucidly than did the Commission on Excellence the fundamental difficulties and opportunities in twentieth-century schooling. Or at least he was bolder than they in belling the cat.

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Unless during this present decade some sweeping improvement of public instruction is undertaken, the American nation may come to consist principally of passive vessels—sluggish viewers of television, nearly deprived of individuality, unaccustomed to reason, devoid of imagination. With such a populace, public spirit and performance of public duties will atrophy. There will come about a marked decline of prosperity and of national strength—with no one knowing why, or at least no one daring to explain why. Some grim domination presumably will supplant the American power. Such are the considerations that worked upon the minds of the members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. As Demosthenes told the people of Athens, “I beg of you to think!”