Education in America: 7. Why Institutionalize Our Errors?
APRIL 01, 1969 by GEORGE CHARLES ROCHE III
Dr. Roche is Director of Seminars for the Foundation for Economic Education. He has taught history and philosophy in college and maintains a special interest in American education.
Whatever shortcomings may be said to exist in American elementary and secondary education are largely traceable to the philosophic errors discussed earlier in these pages.
For example, the unfortunate emphasis upon how to teach, rather than what to teach, stems directly from two pernicious ideas: 1. There can be no fixed truth, no ultimate standard, thus making impossible all "knowledge" in the traditional sense. 2. The search for the latest version of truth (i.e., the method of that search) is thought to be not merely a means, but the new end itself.
Our prospective elementary and secondary teachers are often given large quantities of professional "Education" courses and courses offering only a smattering of different disciplines, leaving little time for genuine education in any discipline. The result? Much of a prospective teacher’s first twelve years in school reflects the lack of intellectual standards and discipline described earlier. When he goes to college to prepare himself to be a teacher, he finds that "teacher certification" requirements largely interfere with his receiving a genuine education. Should our teacher go on to graduate school, he again often finds himself surrounded by professors of education. Thus the prospective teacher finds himself submerged in the educationist bureaucracy and cut off from much of what constitutes education in any discipline. In this way the educationist mentality becomes the force which often actually controls public education. This force generally demonstrates itself to be almost totally unfamiliar with standards of genuine education, totally preoccupied with the development and maintenance of largely meaningless technical requirements and course work.
Similar pressures generated by our wrong-headed modern philosophy have undercut discipline and standards in many of our schools. Worse yet, these errors have become institutionalized through the centralization and bigness pressing so heavily upon student and teacher alike throughout much of our educational structure.
The Enlargement of Educational Responsibility
The parent can and should look beyond himself for specialized help in a proper education of his child, but neither parent nor teacher should be confused about the parent’s ultimate responsibility or the proper role of the school in the upbringing of the young. Unfortunately, such distinctions have blurred in our society. The growth of the public school system has been more than matched by a bureaucracy to regulate its workings. As the system has grown, elected officials have felt compelled to place its administration in "expert" hands, a control generally centered in state departments of education. Public school teachers through the high school level are now expected to take certain "Education" courses serving as indoctrination in the "new" philosophy and methodology of the dominant bureaucracy. Our population expansion further enlarges the role of the educationists in our society until they dominate our gigantic and expensive educational structure and assume the functions of family and church as well. We find ourselves well advanced toward a new educational structure, and a new social structure.
It is quite natural that there should be some blurring of function between the home and the school, since both should properly require discipline and both play an important role in any educational process. But tremendous new problems develop when both functions are undertaken by the school. For the educationist bureaucracy, education is no longer a result to be achieved, but instead has become a subject to be institutionalized. Is it desirable for the school to so expand its responsibility? Even if it were desirable, can the school hope to discharge such responsibility?
The answer to both questions appears to be "no." The reason we have been able to muddle along with no more disastrous results than we have suffered from this usurpation of authority rests with the magnificent teachers in our schools whose personality and skill allow them to function in an atmosphere increasingly alien to true education. These fortunately numerous teachers have been willing to fight the battle despite the bureaucracy in which they are entombed, and the public apathy which so commonly greets them.
The Push Toward Centralization
Another result of the growing educationist bureaucracy has been that our schools have become progressively less oriented to the education of individuals and more oriented to the education of the "masses." We now seem to turn out a "socialized" product, certified as socially acceptable by the appropriate diploma. The bureaucracy has succumbed to its own propaganda to the point of encouraging centralization and consolidation according to a master plan. Since the Second World War, a process of consolidation has taken place; small, locally-oriented school districts have been absorbed into larger and larger school systems, the better to facilitate "planning." What has actually taken place is a process whereby schools have been removed further from community and parental control, while larger "plants," larger staffs, and larger educationist blueprints have been imposed on the long-suffering taxpayer and the much-abused students. In the process, the small schools being closed were often superior to the new and larger schools taking their place.
When centralization is carried to its logical conclusion, when the educationist bureaucracy has had the fullest possible play for its ideas, what results have we experienced? New York City, a city which has given its educational bureaucracy vast authority and vast amounts of money, today offers an educational product which is frequently so inferior that people seek out private schools for their children or flee from the negative city environment altogether. Things have reached the point in which school often is not even convened, while various groups contend for bureaucratic control. The central question now seems to have become not "How can we best educate our children?" but "Who shall rule?"
Judging from some reports coming from around the United States, the time may come when we will suffer professors’ strikes in our institutions of higher learning just as today we are suffering teachers’ strikes in more and more of our public elementary and secondary schools. It seems that once we allow bigness to progress beyond a certain point, the reactions stemming from such monolithic power will crop up throughout society.
Even when we manage to keep school in session, the problem of bigness haunts us. In James B. Conant’s widely accepted study of the American high school, he described high schools with graduating classes of less than 100 students as "too small to allow a diversified curriculum except at exorbitant expense." Thus, these small schools were, in Conant’s opinion, "one of the serious obstacles to good secondary education throughout most of the United States." Mr. Conant’s solution? More bigness, more centralization.
It is true that a larger school provides more specialized teaching and more staff specialists. Each student finds himself more counseled and tested. But it is also true that in the process the individual teacher steadily loses his personal contact with the students as more and more of his functions are taken over by outside "specialists." Students and teachers alike are involved in more and more activities outside the classroom while less of what has been traditionally called "teaching," the close pupil-teacher relationship, seems possible in our super-enlarged modern educational structure.
In the Hands of Revolutionaries
As teacher and student alike have suffered in the new educational environment, the bureaucracy has prospered. Federal aid to education has further accelerated the whole process, helping to produce an increasingly dangerous situation:
It is not too much to say that in the past fifty years public education in the United States has been in the hands of revolutionaries. To grasp the nature of their attempted revolution, we need only realize that in the past every educational system has reflected to a great extent the social and political constitution of the society which supported it. This was assumed to be a natural and proper thing, since the young were to be trained to take places in the world that existed around them. They were "indoctrinated" with this world because its laws and relations were those by which they were expected to order their lives. In the period just mentioned, however, we have witnessed something never before seen in the form of a systematic attempt to undermine a society’s traditions and beliefs through the educational establishment which is usually employed to maintain them. There has been an extraordinary occurrence, a virtual educational coup d’etat carried out by a specially inclined minority. This minority has been in essence a cabal, with objectives radically different from those of the state which employed them. An amazing feature of the situation has been how little they have cared to conceal these objectives. On more than one occasion they have issued a virtual call to arms to use publicly created facilities for the purpose of actualizing a concept of society not espoused by the people. The result has been an educational system not only intrinsically bad but increasingly at war with the aims of the community which authorizes it…1
The School as an Agency of Social Reform
The revolutionary impact of the educationist philosophy described by Richard Weaver centers on the attempt to junk the traditional standards and substitute totally new goals in their place. The process of that philosophic departure from standards has already been described at some length. Innumerable examples surround us on virtually every hand. The principal effect of this departure from standards has been an assault upon individual personality.
In place of teaching the young to form their own opinions, today we offer social indoctrination, enthusing endlessly about "enrichment" and "freedom" and yet in many cases offering our young people only the dullest possible conformity. The present philosophic assumptions common within higher education often deny the idea of inner personality. Listen to the new method stated most frankly by John Dewey himself, writing in Democracy and Education:
The idea of perfecting an "inner" personality is a sure sign of social divisions. What is called inner is simply that which does not connect with others—which is not capable of free and full communication. What is termed spiritual culture has usually been futile, with something rotten about it, just because it has been conceived as a thing which a man might have internally—and therefore exclusively. What one is as a person is what one is as associated with others, in a free give and take of intercourse.
What’s wrong with society? The old and negative ideas stressing individual personality! Give us enough money and let us adjust the child. Then all will be well. To what must the child adjust? To "social democracy," to finding his values within society. In fact, the replacement of all norms and the replacement of all individual personality is to be achieved within the system because the new means of arriving at norms and standards, at truth, is through the new methodology. Society will vote, society will establish a "consensus," and from that consensus will come the new standards, the new definitions of truth, the new social man as replacement for the individual. Such a system violates both of the canons necessary for genuine education. It violates the individual’s freedom to choose and the framework of standards and values within which meaningful individual choice may take place.
Action Rather than Thought
A society pursuing such educational goals is likely to become a society oriented toward action rather than thought. Such a society places a premium upon masses of humanity, upon sheer body weight rather than intellectual weight. In place of moral and intellectual standards, numbers and crowd psychology are to determine our future course. We are beginning to live through the first painful results of such a disastrous philosophy, as evidenced by the violence and mob psychology which today is commonplace both inside and outside our academic community. Thus, violence has become our means for making decisions and solving "problems."
Emerson once remarked, "Men ride on a thought, as if each bestrode an invisible horse, which, if it became visible, all their seemingly mad plunging motions would be explained." Surely this observation could be applied to our present society. In our traditional system of higher learning, education was conceived as passing along the cardinal principles and values of civilization, but our modern assumption today is that we have no values worth passing on. If this is the idea we give our young people to ride on, can we be surprised when they act as if there were no values? If the intellectual community will no longer regard itself as primarily devoted to the pursuit of truth, can we be surprised when our young are no longer willing to listen to the members of the academic community?
When we take freedom to mean nothing more than the absence of external control, we are paving the way for the most dangerous anarchy imaginable. Meaningful freedom involves the presence of internal restraint and sound judgment. Without these restraints and that capacity for judgment, we open the door to mass action in virtually every area of our society. This is not the achievement of freedom, it is a return to barbarism.
The extended criticisms laid at the door of American education prompt this question: "If things are so bad, why is the system still yielding so many first-rate students, so many fine young men and women?" The answer is easy: The saving grace of our educational structure is the stubborn virtue and determined excellence of many teachers who continue to function well under admittedly adverse circumstances. Students are quick to identify a good teacher when they meet one. A real teacher never stops, but continues in school and out, by precept and example, to set high standards of discipline and character. The old teacher-pupil relationship of one-to-one, the teacher and the taught, implying standards and discipline and the meeting of two distinctly individual personalities, remains the only real answer to the problem.
The Numbers Problem in Higher Education
The philosophic shortcomings of American mass education form a core of problems for higher education as well. Often the most severe criticism of American secondary education comes from the liberal arts faculties of our colleges and universities. They decry the intellectual material being sent them by the secondary schools and are openly contemptuous of the Education departments on their own campuses. Yet many of these critics of educationism are themselves empire builders of a sort. They are often the first to suggest that more and more young people should go to college whether qualified or not. This is to be achieved by sufficiently lowering standards so that no one need be rejected and no one need fail to measure up. The result in practice tends to be a steadily lowering rate of standards, a steady decline in the educational system’s capacity to treat its students as individuals. When such college teachers criticize the anti-intellectualism of the "educationist" and complain of the spotty quality of all too many students, they may actually be criticizing the final result of the same relativist, materialist, collectivist philosophy which higher education itself often espouses.
Whatever the causes, some college classrooms seem filled with students who cannot handle solid college material, students who feel they have a "right" to be in college whether or not they are qualified or motivated. The problem is made more pressing because the total number of students, qualified or unqualified, grows steadily greater. In 1956 there were less than 3 million students in college; ten years later the number had doubled. Some estimates suggest that the next ten years will see the number doubled again.
America has long been committed to the idea of universal education. The question today: Is having everyone in school synonymous with giving everyone an education? In actual fact, a part of our increased college enrollment has less to do with education than with the painful fact that no socially acceptable alternative to college attendance exists for an intelligent secondary school graduate. Consider the social standing of the alternatives for an 18-year-old high school grad—the army? A job?
Today America has apparently undertaken a commitment to send everyone to college, just as 40 years ago it promised a universal high school education and 40 years before that aspired to offer an eighth grade diploma to all youngsters. New colleges and universities are coming into existence at the rate of one a week. This may well be regarded as a worthwhile ambition in an era of "rising expectations," if the quality of the education thus offered has real value. But if we make a college education available to all only by lowering standards and making that education meaningless, we are only deceiving ourselves.
Such "mass" oriented institutions run the risk of becoming merely custodial rather than educational. In such an environment, teaching an individual to think for himself may easily be lost in the shuffle of massive enrollments, watered-down survey courses, and the rest of the techniques which deny primacy to the individual.
If America should demand that everyone attend college and true standards be damned, and if America builds more and larger institutions of higher learning of a sort to accommodate such a process, we shall be taking the next disastrous step in the further institutionalization of our philosophic errors. Surely we do not need more institutional giantism for its own sake. We have great need to bring our existing educational structure back within the scope of the individual student.
The next article of this series will discuss "The Multiversity."
A people plagued by assassinations, rioting, and war do well to reconsider that "peace is the business of society." "Peace or Politics" is extracted from an article, "One Worldism," by the late Frank Chodorov in the December 1950 issue of his small monthly journal, Analysis.
1 Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order, pp. 260-261.