Alan Dent

 How The Americans Destroyed Our Education System


In 1848, year of  European revolution and  an American Presidential election, Horace Mann’s  twelfth report to the Massachusetts Board of Education contained the following: 

                        According to the European theory, men are divided into classes – some to toil and earn, others to seize and enjoy. According to the Massachusetts theory, all are to have an equal chance for earning, and equal security in the enjoyment of what they earn. The latter tends to equality of condition; the former to the grossest inequalities….can one hesitate, for a moment, in declaring which….will produce the greater amount of human welfare…The European theory is blind to what contributes the highest glory as well as the highest duty of a State…  

Mann, widely thought of as the father of American public education, was born in 1796 in Franklin, Massachusetts and died in 1859. He believed a public education system should rest on six principles: 

  • The elimination of public ignorance
  • Education to be paid for, controlled and sustained by an interested public
  • Schools should embrace children of all diversities
  • Education must be non-sectarian
  • Teaching must adhere to the spirit, methods and discipline of a free society
  • Teachers should be well-trained professionals

Mann was a liberal humanist, a republican, a Christian whose high-minded ideal imposed on the education system the task of ridding American society of poverty, inequality, ignorance, violence, exploitation and war-mongering. If this looks attractive, we should remind ourselves of the endemic failure of America’s education system, the rank injustice of its economic arrangements, its alarming levels of violence and its enduring belief in war as means of solving the world’s problems. In 1995 in his book, The Revolt of The Elites, Christopher Lasch included an essay entitled The Common Schools, Horace Mann and the Assault on Imagination. According to Lasch, the failure of the American education system was incipient in its foundation. Mann, the essential architect of the system believed that education took place only in schools; he failed to understand how much children learn from adults and from their ambient culture without it being formally taught; he mistrusted imagination and in trying to eliminate it from schools drove towards what Lasch calls “an infantilised version of sociology” according to which children are offered only what is local and familiar and spared whatever may test their imaginative capacities. Mann’s mistake, Lasch suggests, was the very thing which made him so attractive and revered: his high-minded contention that education in the common schools could solve society’s problems holus-bolus. A more modest set of expectations might have set the American education system aims it could achieve. To be burdened, from the outset, with a more or less messianic project, condemned the system to failure before it had got on its feet.

                        Mann launched the common schools in America but was dead long before a system of mass education came into being in the twentieth century. As soon as it did, the hopelessness of his prescriptions became obvious, for the herded and processed masses responded to the system with recalcitrance. Prior to the elaboration of a mass compulsory system, most pupils had attended school voluntarily and their choosing  radically influenced their response. They accepted discipline and intellectual rigour. They expected to have to master content. They understood they were addressing objective knowledge and rules. Yet they didn’t think they were part of a project to solve all their society’s problems. The more modest aims Lasch suggests, were implicit in the voluntary, piecemeal system. The mass, compulsory system, however, couldn’t avoid taking on Mann’s salvationist tone. If everyone were to be forced to educated, and if the cost were to be borne collectively, education must be a great, liberating enterprise. To suggest it might do little more than offer the majority a smattering of skills and knowledge to complement what they assimilated by osmosis from the general culture, would have been politically reckless. Specifically, to extract taxes from the rich to educate the poor, the former had to be persuaded they were contributing to an overarching scheme that would raise the nation economically, politically, morally, culturally. In short, a fancy excuse had to be provided to the rich for taking their money to teach the poor to add up, subtract and recite the alphabet. The utopianism of American capitalism would accept nothing less.  

                        If Mann’s original, exorbitant expectations condemned the American education system to failure, the intervention of Charles Prosser once the problems of mass, compulsory schooling had become clear ensured the wreckage which provoked Lasch’s essay. Very quickly, the public education system of the early twentieth century taught the American’s that, apparently, an academic education suits very few. Latin grammar, the history of ancient Carthage, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Horace Mann’s brother-in-law) and advanced calculus seemed to appeal to the minds of a small minority. How then does education adjust to democracy ? How should a school embrace children of all diversities and teach them according to the doctrines of a free society if the majority are incapable of mastering the traditional curriculum ? In Europe, of course, a strict division was enforced: academic learning for the few, vocational training for the many. Even the highly-thought-of Prussian system, some of whose elements Mann tried to emulate, didn’t go so far as to suggest identical study was appropriate for all pupils. For the Americans, however, the principle of commonality was sacrosanct. All children should be educated in the same schools in essentially the same way, even if not strictly following the same curriculum. This was the great task of the system. American democracy demanded it. The European system was class-based and must be rejected (although the facts of poverty and racial prejudice in American life effectively enforced the class divisions the system claimed to disdain). Thus, if the pupils couldn’t adjust to the curriculum, the curriculum should be adjusted to the children.  

                        On the face of it, this looks like common sense, but if the response to the majority being unable to master Latin grammar is to eliminate Latin altogether from the curriculum, couldn’t it be argued that this is mere dog-in-the-mangerism ? After all, very few people ever master the clarinet to a high level. Should we therefore abolish clarinet tuition ? Though such an idea is plainly suspect, it comes close to Dr Prosser’s prescription. 

                        The ground was laid for Prosser’s Life Adjustment Movement by the National Education Association’s Committee of Nine of 1911 ( the original Committee of Ten had met in 1893 and recommended an essentially academic education available to all) which decided that the goal of a high-school education was to: “lay the foundations of good citizenship and to help in the wise choice of a vocation.” Once begun, this flight from a demanding curriculum which required mastery of content and imposed discipline, towards an education designed to appeal to immediate interests and provide instant utility, gathered unstoppable pace. By 1918 when the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education issued its Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, all semblance of intellectual growth had disappeared to be replaced by seven objectives: health, command of fundamental processes, worthy home membership, vocation, citizenship, worthy use of leisure and ethical character. The education system must “aim at nothing less than complete and worthy living for all youth.” This is just the kind of exalted ambition for the system which Lasch identified as its Achilles heel. What’s wrong with limiting the aims of education to enhancing the powers of the mind ? But the Americans believed they’d discovered that such an objective was impossible, at least for sixty percent of pupils. So in awe were they of the predictive power of testing,  they concluded most of their young people were effectively congenitally incapable of being educated.  

                        The Alpha Army tests, used during the First World War, were presumed to be an accurate measure of fixed, inherited intelligence and they revealed that most Americans had a mental age of fourteen. This supposedly scientific evidence combined with an over-zealous definition of democracy and the fervent moral atmosphere of Progressivism drove the educational messiahs to decimate the secondary curriculum. In 1910, 49% of high school pupils studied Latin, by 1949 it was 7.8 %. Over the same period, the numbers studying foreign languages fell from 84.1% to 22% and in science from 81.7% to 33.3%. In 1893 the basic curriculum consisted of twenty-seven subjects, by 1941 it embraced 274. What exactly is democratic about thinning out and watering down the curriculum in this way ? How is it democratic to conclude that most pupils are too stupid to master anything difficult ? These contradictory tendencies, exaggerations and misapplications of dubious measurements meant an inevitable drive to separate education from life, to assert that an educated mind made no difference as far as life’s essential problems were concerned; in short, that any idiot could get along fine so long as they were “adjusted”. 

                        What exactly were American youngsters supposed to be adjusted to ? Prosser set out his ideas in his Inglis Lecture at Harvard in 1939. Central to them was this highly contentious notion: “Nothing could be more certain than that science has proven false the doctrine of general education and its fundamental theory that memory or imagination or the reason or the will can be trained as a power.” Nothing, in fact, could be less certain. Due intellectual caution, however, was not one of Prosser’s preponderant traits. His conviction that education can’t lead to a general improvement in mental functioning meant, of necessity, that it must be reduced to specifics.  Naturally, therefore: “..business arithmetic is superior to plane or solid geometry; learning ways of keeping fit to the study of French; learning the technique of selecting an occupation to the study of algebra.” What can we say about an education system which sets up a choice between physical fitness or mastery of a foreign language ? That such a system has lost its way is a feeble understatement. Yet through the 1940s and 1950s, these ideas dominated American secondary education. Their purpose was to turn American youngsters into dutiful consumers and compliant citizens. One life-adjustment author wrote that their aim was “a blueprint for a Utopian Secondary School” which would require teachers “of rare genius”. The exaggerated expectations of the common schools implicit in Mann’s prescriptions had transmogrified into a grotesque fantasy in which schools would abandon the humdrum business of teaching children maths, physics and French, and would instead employ an army of geniuses to mould them into perfect citizens. It didn’t seem to occur to the architects of this educational paradise that if sixty percent of Americans had a mental age of fourteen, several hundred thousand geniuses were going to be hard to find.  

                        Like all visions of perfection, this was bound to turn into its opposite. Far from the American secondary school system having produced perfectly well-adjusted young people, it has engendered reluctance, unwillingness, opposition, boredom, disruption, violence, drug abuse and disdain for intellectual values. Nevertheless, we continue to import its failed policies. Most recently Mr Balls returned from a fact-finding trip with the remarkable fact that Americans grade their schools according to pupil behaviour, a practice he enthusiastically proposes for our system. Why ? Because they do it in America ? Do they do it in Finland which boasts, by common consent, one of the best education systems in the world ? Our slavish imitation of all things American has led us to destroy our education system. Like them we have elevated the educationally uninterested or recalcitrant pupil into a cultural icon. We too now organize our curriculum around the assumption that mastery of content is too hard for the majority. Everything must meet their immediate interests. They must be entertained. If they aren’t, they might get bored and if they are bored it is only to be expected they will misbehave. Isn’t it a very strange destination for an education system that nothing must be undertaken which involves even a modicum of boredom ? Surely the capacity to deal with a degree of boredom in order to achieve an end is one of the disciplines education should inculcate. Did anyone ever master a musical instrument without the boredom of playing scales and arpeggios ? Of course, if you believe in a culture where people are passive consumers of musical entertainment, why should they bother with the hard task of learning to play ? Yet the damage hasn’t been done in the name of debased consumerism, but in that of democracy and high-minded utopianism. As Richard Hofstadter put it in Anti-Intellectualism In American Life: “There is an element of moral overstrain and a curious lack of humor among American educationists which will perhaps always remain a mystery to those more worldly minds locked out of their mental universe….When they see a chance to introduce a new course in family living or home economics, they begin to tune the fiddles of their idealism….And when they are trying to assure that the location of the school toilets will be so clearly marked that the dullest child can find them, they grow dizzy with exaltation and launch into wild cadenzas about democracy and self-realization.”  

                        The American high school system is beset by endemic failure not because of poor expectations, but because it has been asked to do too much. It isn’t the business of schools to remake society. They can succeed only if their objectives are realistic. Like the Americans we expect our schools and teachers to do the impossible. Using dubious measures with spurious claims to scientific validity we attribute failure to poor teaching when much reliable evidence points to other causes. The impact of inequality on success or failure in the system or for individual pupils is supported by much hard evidence, yet is barely mentioned or even blankly denied by the decision makers. Prosser felt it was undemocratic to allow a minority of pupils to master content which the majority struggled with. Thus, life-adjustment must be extended to all pupils, even those who could command Latin grammar with ease. His misuse of data allowed him to conclude that sixty per cent of pupils were constitutionally unable to address an academic curriculum. He never bothered to wonder whether the economic and social conditions in which those children lived influenced their ability to cope with school. In other words, the Americans ditched academic education on false grounds and embraced a hopelessly optimistic view of what education could attain. We have done the same. As the content of the curriculum becomes ever thinner and more inane, we make ever greater claims for the transforming power of education. As restless and over-tested children kick against the pricks and become more and more truculent and difficult to handle, we witch hunt teachers and claim quality of teaching can make silk purses of sows’ ears. Pupils and parents are told they are consumers, as if the subtle and complex relations of a publicly provided education can be reduced to a mere cash nexus. Low level disruption is endemic. Teachers struggle for the most fundamental order. Stories abound of verbal and physical abuse. When, in the midst of this chaos, our politicians declare their belief in “education, education, education” we know they are out of touch. These dithyrambic flights are unnecessary. Rather we must elaborate, as Christopher Lasch advised, a more modest set of aims for our schools. Transforming society is the business of politics. As Lasch perceived, when educationalists think schools can do it, they drive out imagination and install dogma. This is what has happened in our schools and it will continue unless we stop importing American failure just because it’s American. Our schools are asked to serve a hollow meritocratic doctrine according to which society is an efficient sorting mechanism which allots everyone their rightful place according to merit, which itself is taken to be the sum of ability and effort. Such a jejune and vapid view cannot embrace the subversive power of imagination. Crucially, we are asking our schools to conform to a flimsy dogma, imposed all the more rigorously because of its weakness, and to devote their time, not to improving the intellectual and mental capacities of the young, but to producing statistics which will make the proponents of the dogma look wise.   Hofstadter, in discussing the decline of the life-adjustment movement in the 1960s, pointed out that one of the things America had to take into account was that the Soviet education system put an academic curriculum in front of the majority with, seemingly, fairly positive results. How ironic that a totalitarian State had greater faith in the intellectual possibilities of its people than the world’s greatest democracy. And how tragic that it was in the name of democracy that such atrocious damage was done, and continues to be done, to so many.                        

                                                                               Alan Dent.