I have been musing a lot about the implications of our current elections upon the state of education in our nation. I am more convinced than ever that some serious battles were lost about 100 years ago that are showing their results to us more and more as we move farther away from those battles.
Diane Ravitch, in her great history of American education, “Left Back” delineates the battles fought at the turn of the 20th century over public education’s future. There were clearly two camps: the Classicists and the Progressivists. Both went into full publishing mode trying to win the argument over whether we should continue to provide a liberal education to our children (the Classicist position) or if we should change to offering various forms of education for the differing types of children in our schools (the Progressivist position).
The Classicist wanted to continue to raise up generations of young people who had the tools and abilities that allowed them to think as “free” men. Rather than training them for a place in life, they wanted young adults who could find their own place in life and do so with manners, tact, imagination, and a strong sense of how their lives fit into the line of people coming before them. What a liberal education has always sought to do is grow up a thoughtful and tasteful person.
To read the Progressivists, the Classicist was outdated. They rejected the notion of their being one education appropriate for all. Instead each child should be brought up to find a productive place in society. The cash value of this type of education seemed obvious. Kids brought up to fill specific needs in society made for a better and more efficient society, thus ensuring the happiness of all in that society.
The Classicist lost. Historically, liberal education died well before World War II.
So where are we now? Our kids are learning how to fit into a society that demands certain things of them: a consumerist mentality that keeps the market place moving, a strong sense of party allegiance that keeps the pendulum swinging between our two venerable political parties, and all the requisite abilities needed to pass through an education system designed to place them in a good job in life.
We tend to judge educational outcomes based upon performance. Did he pass the test? What was his score? Can he write a decent paper? What books has he read? Where did he go to school? Etc. But as I watch this election cycle, with all its money spent on TV ads and other forms of propaganda, I am struck that most people today are very susceptible to the emotional appeal. Most in fact are turned off by actual content oriented discourse; so much so that we have not had any that I have seen in this current election. So what will determine the vote soon? Emotions?
Have you seen this illustration of what I am talking about? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwlW4lx6TTo&feature=g-hist
Stripped of all discourse, this kind of rhetorical “show” is scary. And don’t think for a minute that only one side has been using this type of rhetoric. We don’t know any other form of rhetoric today. We must seek to realign our goals for a our students to approach them at the “appetite” level. The Abolition of Man, by CS Lewis should be required reading for all of us. We will not change these things with a new president. It requires a re-formed heart that wants something different than what is popular in our present yearnings.