There are several major obstacles to overcome if there is to be any hope of saving civilization from the grip of the authoritarian pre-education camps we call “public schools.”
The most stubborn obstacle of all, however, is perhaps the one embedded in our own hearts, namely the all too human instinct to comfort ourselves with the thought that the soul-deforming corruptions of public education began in earnest only after our own school days, and hence that we ourselves escaped the harm we so easily recognize in others.
This instinct forms the rationale for the complete abolition of public schooling from people who claim that if the schools just got back to the methods of the good old days, all would be well.
In other words, these people are unwilling to see the problem as anything deeper than the superimposition of some bad textbooks or teaching methods on an essentially noble system, because to admit that the problem is more fundamental than this is to admit that one’s own education was harmful, which is to concede that one was indeed harmed–that you are less than you might have been.
A few years ago, preparing a class of undergraduates for a reading of Plato’s Apology, I asked them to think back over all their years of schooling, and to tell me what percentage of their teachers did not deserve their pay.
At first, the students just smiled—our heritage demands unreflective respect for all teachers. Finally, one young woman bravely volunteered that perhaps thirty percent of her teachers had not deserved their pay—a much higher number than I had expected from the students.
This opened the floodgates: almost all the students in the room subsequently condemned a significant portion of their educators—one as high as sixty percent—as unworthy of being paid given what they had actually provided for their students.
Next, I asked them whether their own education had been worth all the money that had been spent on it over the years.
With only one exception, everyone said unequivocally that his or her own schooling had been worth every penny (or won, in this case).
When I noted that this question was, in a sense, just a variation on my previous question about the teachers, a few students grinned sheepishly, and then a few more, as they gradually got the point: they were perfectly willing to declare that much of their education had been ineffectual or counterproductive—but unwilling to accept the logical result of this, namely that their own development had been slowed or stunted.
These were students currently in school, which is why the contradiction in their answers was so apparent, and pitiable.
For those of us who have long since finished our formal education, this natural tendency to self-protection is greatly exacerbated.
We easily see the damage done to today’s young people, but draw the line at admitting that we too are damaged goods.
To defend our egos, we must deny that our own education was compromised.
And this is the major obstacle of which I spoke, for this denial implicitly detaches the current evils of public education from the institution itself.
We hesitate to condemn the institution outright, because this would mean questioning the conditions and success of our own intellectual and moral development. We thereby vindicate the most powerful means to permanent tyranny, in order to protect our tender pride.
Were public schools better twenty, forty, or sixty years ago?
Of course, they were.
But it no more follows from this that public education is not such a bad idea than it follows from the fact that the welfare state of sixty years ago had not yet incorporated socialized medicine that socialism is not such a bad idea.
Today’s extensions of progressive control over an ever-increasing range of our lives did not arise from nowhere; they were made possible by earlier, gradual insinuations of the concepts and moral perspectives of tyranny into the modern West’s soul.
Likewise with education. John Dewey did not get the progressive, individualism-crushing system he wanted all at once.
But the slow encroachment of his theories into the educational establishments of the world, beginning more than a century ago, has allowed his intellectual heirs to achieve a level of socialist indoctrination and anti-West moral degradation that, in many ways, have surpassed Dewey’s most depraved hopes.
So, while it may have been easier in the distant past for people to come out of public school with some of their reasoning and moral character intact, it is invalid to conclude that this relative superiority indicates anything other than that an old cancer has worsened.
Public schools from the supposed good old days were the precondition for public schools of today.
Once the premise was established that modern society’s interest in a broadly educated population could best be satisfied by direct government provision and oversight of schooling, it was a very short step to the conclusion that such schooling ought to be compulsory.
And from here, it was an even shorter step to the argument that everyone ought to be provided the same education, in the same way, in the name of universality and fairness.
Thus, increasing centralization and standardization are natural (even if unintended) developments of the initial impulse to use the coercive power of government to provide something called “education” for all children.
Such a metastasizing government beneficence is all too susceptible to internal corruption by “big thinkers,” central planners, and bureaucratic mother hens.
The result, all but inevitable given the initial premises, is what you see: an entire civilization undone, intellectually, spiritually, and morally, in the name of “making sure every child gets a good education,” or “preparing our children for today’s economy.”
Some, comparing their own pasts to mankind’s present impasse, are tempted to object here that public schools in the old style were, after all, responsible for the most prosperous and powerful society in history.
Top o’ the morning!