All Commentary
Wednesday, June 1, 1994

Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas

Education Reform Requires Radical Change

One searches in vain for euphemistic comments about his subject in Thomas Sowell’s scathing new criticism of our nation’s educational systems. “I have long been appalled by the low quality and continuing deterioration of American education,” Sowell bluntly asserts. From my vantage point as a longtime true insider in the educational establishment, I have grown increasingly aware of how much I share his feeling.

Since Sowell is bold, forthright, and relentless in his negative evaluation, there is no mistaking his doleful opinions about our public schools: their teachers and unions, their bureaucrats, teacher credentialing and training, the lack of accountability, “classroom brainwashing,” and the implementation of assorted dogmas such as psycho-therapeutic, sex, multicultural, and bilingual education. Sowell’s palpable outrage at the widespread adoption among educators of “miscellaneous psycho-babble,” such as “relevance, the whole person, role models, and self-esteem,” springs off the pages of his text.

Sowell is no less harsh in his indictment of university education: of its professors, tenure, the massive federal spending for, and the overcharging and waste in research, the lack of accountability (again), the displacement of teaching by useless research, ethnic studies departments, racial and ideological double standards on campuses, unfair admissions practices, and the exploitation of athletes.

The impressive thing about Sowell’s intense yet highly readable denunciations of these educational evils is that he makes the case against them so irresistibly compelling. Few reasonable readers of Inside American Education are likely to leave his volume not convinced that our education systems have “taken our money, betrayed our trust, failed our children, and then lied about the failure with inflated grades and pretty words.” It will be the obstinate reader, indeed, who is not persuaded by Sowell that education in America has exploited our children in foolish experiments, in schemes for propagandizing them, and for purposes of racial balancing and bilingual programs. What reader will be able to disclaim Sowell’s exposé of universities supposedly dedicated to the freedom of ideas, which actually turn out to be “the most intolerant institution in American society”? After reading Sowell’s book, parents will no longer be sure that the high university tuition they spend will ensure that their children are instructed by bona fide professors, rather than by graduate students.

But while Sowell is long on revealing the numerous disgraceful shortcomings, machinations, and duplicities in American education, he comes up short with detailed solutions for them. The dramatic rhetoric that fills Sowell’s book suddenly becomes muted at this point. The two pieces of advice he offers education reformers are uncharacteristically conventional, hardly the radical, spirited, and extraordinary calls to action that his book leads his readers to expect.

To achieve the “institutionalized changes” that Sowell says are needed, reform agents should (1) “mobilize enough political muscle to win decisive votes in state legislatures,” and (2) should “mobilize their superior fire-power for decisive assaults on strategic objectives.” Sowell leaves us in the dark, unfortunately, as to the dynamics of how such mobilization of public opinion and its follow-through can be activated, nor why it has not been triggered so far.

Sowell’s book makes clear, therefore, that it is far easier to identify our present educational woes than it is to propose realistic, easy-to-implement resolutions of them. His book carries with it, then, a somber yet hidden implication: our tax-supported educational systems basically are so structurally flawed that they now are probably beyond redemption. We likely must scrap them and start over with a system that provides built-in protections against the educational evils that Sowell describes. Sowell’s insight into this matter regrettably appears to stop short of this discernment.

It is not that radical start-over plans are unavailable. For this purpose Sowell could have consulted Lewis J. Perelman’s School’s Out: Hyperlearning the New Technology, and the End of Education (New York: William Morrow, 1992). To rid ourselves of the educational monster that Sowell depicts, we must outlaw academic credentials in favor of demonstrations of workplace competency, and bypass the educational establishment by privatizing schools, diverting the money saved in both cases into educational technology development and implementation, Perelman explains. []

Patrick Groff is professor of education emeritus at San Diego State University.