Most of those worrying about America's educational problems focus on the effect of bad schooling on individuals (the children who are left behind) or the economy (businesses struggling with semi-literate workers). But there is a much more important issue: What kind of society will bad schools give us? What kind of government will we have if current educational trends have their way?
The Founding Fathers did not think that a free, democratic republic would be possible without well-educated citizens. John Adams made education a priority when he wrote in the Massachusetts constitution of "Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties." Thomas Jefferson said of education, "No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness."
Certainly, if people are going to take the burden of government onto themselves-voting for their own rulers and setting policies through their elected representatives-they need to be well-informed, able to think for themselves, and willing to exercise good judgment. The citizen of a republic must be able to read newspapers and keep up with the issues of the day. He must be a good thinker, able to approach policy decisions with logic and insight. He must recognize demagoguery and propaganda, so that he is not easily manipulated. Otherwise, he will be swept away by his passions and controlled by someone else. As Adams recognized, a democracy can be just as tyrannical as a monarchy.
A major purpose of America's schools used to be training in citizenship. The schoolhouse was a means of assimilating immigrants and teaching them the ideals of their new country. As late as a few decades ago, schools unabashedly taught "Americanism," held patriotic essay contests, and began the day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.
Though the flag salute continues in many schools, the overt nationalism of the old schools strikes many people today as quaint or embarrassing. To be sure, these practices often amounted to little more than "civil religion" and appropriate anti-communist indoctrination during the Cold War, rather than the intentional equipping of students for the skills and duties of citizenship.
But today we are at the other extreme. Many educators teach "multiculturalism" as if America had no culture of its own. Schools often teach students nothing of their American heritage-the heroes, ideals, and principles that really have made our nation great-and instead rub their noses into the unsavory parts of American history.
Part of this is due to the still left-wing intellectual establishment, whose anti-Americanism trickles down from the universities to the grade schools. Another part is due to the curriculum. Instead of teaching history as a saga of great men, great ideas, and great actions, history has often been reduced to "social studies," how ordinary men and women of the time had to live. Instead of learning about the Battle of Yorktown, children are taught about clothing styles and social customs of the lower classes, including how women and minorities were oppressed.
The deeper lesson, taught in so many words on college campuses, is that cultures and governments and laws are nothing more than a cynical façade for certain people to exercise power over others. This is a worldview for dictatorship. If it is correct, then the only legitimate political activity is to seize power and then forcibly oppress the people who disagree with you.
The attention to process over content-enshrined in educational theory through the socialist John Dewey and his disciples-also leaves students unprepared for effective citizenship. Many students have minds that are quick and well-functioning but empty. Since they were never taught the substance of their cultural heritage, they cannot build on that heritage. Instead, they are left with the entertain-me aesthetic of pop culture, which becomes the only culture they have. As the Roman emperors came to realize, keeping the masses entertained-preferably with violent spectacles and decadent sex-is the best way to keep them under control.
The basic skills crisis also has political ramifications. It isn't just that graduates who cannot read and write make bad employees. They also make bad citizens. Those who have the privilege of voting have an obligation to study issues, analyze them, and make judgments that are good for the nation. Those who cannot-or, more commonly, will not-inform themselves are prime targets for demagogic manipulation.
And, indeed, a look at political advertising from both parties shows that this is exactly the way to win a contemporary campaign: Project a good image of your candidate and a negative of your opponent. This can be done not by policy analysis (which is "BORING," to use the mantra of the ignorant pop culture addict). Rather image enhancement comes from clothing styles, body language, and emoting the correct platitudes. Opponents' images are degraded to the level of B-grade movie villains ("He wants to poison your water").
Any educated person, anyone trained in objective thinking even if he never went beyond grade school, should be able to see through this kind of manipulation. But even college grads-maybe especially college grads, who have absorbed more of contemporary thought than the less educationally advantaged-behave just like the focus groups predict.
Ancient Greece and Rome provided two kinds of education: Slaves received a practical, minimal education that equipped them to contribute to the economy through their good work, but not to think for themselves. Free citizens, though, gained a "liberal" education-from the Latin word libera, meaning "free"-that would equip them to take an active role in the Athenian democracy or the Roman republic.
The education for freedom was not just patriotic indoctrination; rather, it comprised certain intellectual skills, as embodied in the so-called "liberal arts" of grammar, logic, rhetoric; music, arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry. Christianity put these arts to use in mastering certain content areas: natural science, moral science, and theological science (the queen of them all). This was the kind of education put into effect by the Reformation and the Founding Fathers. It can be found today among Classical Christian schools and many homeschoolers. In the meantime, most of our schools are goose-stepping in the opposite direction.
The problem, however, is not just the curriculum but the culture of our schools. Part of this culture comes from the institution, with its insistence on herding young people into segregated age groups, and part comes from the students themselves who have been so segregated away from adult influence.
Cliques, fads, and the imperative to be cool turn typical high schools into mutually hostile camps. And pity the poor adolescent who does not fit into any group at all. The cruel put-downs, the abusive ridicule, the Machiavellian politics of the school social scene now appear even on the grade-school level. School culture is typically every bit as hierarchical as a medieval aristocracy-a strange way to raise members of a democratic republic.
Thus, from the grade schools to the universities, our young people are learning conformity, group behavior, and the necessity of following fashions.
Students learn to be obedient consumers. They learn to feel, not to think. They are bombarded with emotion-laden images, indoctrination-camp-style "sensitivity training," and rhetorical manipulation. This is not the kind of formation needed for free citizens. Instead, it is a formula for producing both slaves and tyrants.