It’s a long-running motif in American intellectual history. Critics of public schools are said to be misinformed, vicious people who want only to destroy education.
In short, reformers are not trying to help. Rather, they “oppose” public education. We are told this by our Education Establishment, that is, the powerful ideologues who actually make the schools what they are.
There could hardly be a more self-serving sophistry. The people creating inferior schools walk away from blame and responsibility.
An early prototype of this sophistry is a book written in 1944 by V. T. Thayer, at one time the Chairman of the Commission on the Secondary School Curriculum of the Progressive Education Association. His book was titled “American Education Under Fire.” Note that criticism of the status quo equals an artillery barrage.
The book starts with an endorsement by William H. Kilpatrick, the godfather at Teachers College. Kilpatrick says: “A strong attack upon the attackers, clearly reasoned, soundly argued — a definite and (I myself believe) unassailable answer to the widespread defeatism as regards human reason and modern education.”
So, reformers are “attackers” and defeatists. They have given up on “reason” and placed American education “under fire.”
But American education is not under fire. Thayer, Kilpatrick and their collectivist schemes are under fire.
Here, from 2011, is a recent formulation: “MNEA defends public education against extremist attacks. Legislative leaders push extreme agenda and fail to act on real needs of students and educators.”
As you see, reformers are the extremists. The teachers union, which lovingly supports the destructive policies in the school, is exempted from criticism. These self-appointed experts are said to care about the “real needs of students and educators.”
Last year, a discussion of charter schools contained this quote: “The ‘parent trigger’ must be understood within the current context of vilifying public education.” I submit that no one is vilifying public education. Critics are vilifying the dumb policies and tragic results that are all too common in public education. That’s a very different thing.
Here’s our problem. For almost a century, American education has had problems and failure galore as it pursued John Dewey’s demand for social engineering, constructivist practices, and a left-wing warping of what education should be. In all that time, no criticism was accepted as legitimate. Progressive education was a holy cause. Critics were infidels.
Over several decades, I’ve seen this argument myself in many articles. It had the intended effect. I remember thinking: well, I don’t want to be an enemy of public education. I think most people go through psychological gymnastics to make sure they don’t appear to be among the evil people plotting to destroy the classrooms of America.
We need to be smarter.
It’s not just that the sophistry is lazy and false. Something else is going on that is even more dishonest. There is a presumption that the people in charge of public schools are sincere and serious people. We ourselves are sincere and we grant them this as a display of good manners. It rarely occurs to anyone to guess, at the outset, that the people in charge might be ideological extremists and relentless conspirators.
If we were talking about Russia or Kenya, we might have more cynical or suspicious thoughts. But we are Americans talking about other Americans. Naturally we want to give them every benefit of the doubt.
That’s the mistake.
If you investigate the theories and methods used in our public schools, you find yourself reacting over and over in the same way: Look what they’re doing! This is nuts!
That was precisely the experience that led Albert Lynd to write an excellent book in 1953 titled “Quackery in the Public Schools.” Lynd was a Harvard-educated businessman with several children, and he ended up on the local school board. Everything he saw shocked him. His contemptuous verdict was: quackery! That was 60 years ago. What has improved? The same sort of people still push the same sort of policies.
Most complaints we hear about our public school system make little sense if you assume the people at the top are honest, sincere people.
But let’s conduct a thought experiment. Assume that the people in charge are scoundrels and quacks, then everything makes beautiful sense.
I suspect that we cannot improve our public schools until citizens become more cynical. It’s very much like the situation where a neighbor dies of food poisoning. You feel sorry for the widow. Later you hear that a second husband died of food poisoning. Uh-oh. How many husbands have to die before you think: the witch is killing these guys for the insurance. In the case of public schools, we are on the tenth or eleventh husband.
There is no space to deconstruct all the phony ideas except to note on the fly that Whole Word renders children illiterate, Reform Math prevents children from understanding and enjoying math, and Constructivism is a slow, inefficient way to teach anything, Most of the other gimmicks used in the public schools have, it’s easy to argue, the result of ensuring that children learn little.
Ruminate on these things and you may be reminded of the Monty Python skit where a man buys a parrot but returns to insist that the parrot is dead. The shopkeeper claims, in many ingenious ways, that the parrot is merely sleeping. (Please view this if you have not.) Our public schools are like that dead bird. The scammy experts keep telling us, in many ingenious ways, that the parrot is about to wake up and sing. Not while these people are in charge.
The point is, every American who cares about public education should be “opposed” to public education if by that we mean scorning the counterproductive methods that now abuse the country’s children.
A clever sophistry has kept us quiet when we need to make more noise. That’s the only way we can hope to eliminate the subversive practices that now confound us.
Here’s the comedy punchline. If I, Bruce Price, say, “Public schools are mediocre because of fraudulent theories and methods. The schools are run by quasi-socialists who want to dumb down the country,” you can be sure some professor will complain: “Bruce Price opposes public education.”
CODA: Common Core continues to spread its tentacles. President Obama just announced his intention to “redesign” the public schools. This is not new stuff. This is the same disingenuous stuff that Kilpatrick was pushing 70 years ago. The same stuff that Albert Lynd called “quackery.” Just say no, loudly.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains educational theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.