As American Education Collapses, Democracy’s Foundation Shakes
“They know nothing about art. They know nothing about history. They know nothing about philosophy.”
And we are here as on a darkling plainSwept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Deeply depressed by the rise of Donald Trump and fearful for our nation’s future, I recently found myself reciting the last lines of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach,’ first published in 1861. Arnold was somewhat premature in imagining the world’s descent into chaos and strife. But the poem’s chilling metaphors return to us now as an augury of America’s political crack-up.
What makes the poem even more illuminating for these dreadful times is that Arnold was convinced that the clash of “ignorant armies” would be brought about (at least in part) by bad education. In addition to his standing as one of Victorian Britain’s greatest poets and cultural critics, Arnold was also a serious education reformer. For 35 years he held a day job as an inspector of schools, eventually rising to the position of Chief Inspector of Schools for all of Britain. He went on extended visits to several European countries to study their education systems. In his influential education reports and in some of his critical essays he scorned the individualistic, child centered, and haphazard pedagogy prevalent in British schools at the time (championed by, among others, John Stuart Mill.) Instead, Arnold proposed that government schools be required to teach a core curriculum of liberal, humanistic studies similar to the French schools he had come to admire.
The primary aim of education in an industrial democracy, Arnold believed, was to introduce all children—rich and poor alike —to the achievements of western civilization and culture, which he famously defined as “the best which has been said and thought.” Yet there was nothing elitist about Arnold’s approach to learning. With the rising demands for equality and full civic participation of the working classes, Arnold was confident that the masses were capable of mastering Britain’s rich cultural heritage. He feared that without this shared national spirit the English people would be unable to overcome narrow sectional and economic interests and support the common good. Modern democracy might then degenerate into violence, confusion and the clash of “ignorant armies.”
The political problem that Arnold wrestled with all his life now haunts America. Truth is the first casualty of this year’s presidential election from hell; loss of respect for the nation’s republican heritage is the second. Here’s one example among many:
At a raucous campaign rally in South Carolina last February Donald Trump was riffing on one of his favorite themes—how he would defeat Islamic terrorism overnight if elected president. In that context he brought up General Jack Pershing’s success in suppressing the 1903 Moro rebellion in the Philippines. But Trump falsely claimed that Pershing ordered the execution of dozens of Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, thereby slandering a great American soldier as a war criminal. Trump’s story was subsequently proven to be a big fat lie by fact checkers and historians of the period.
Never mind, forget facts, this is morning in America circa 2016. At a campaign rally in California two months later Trump repeated—almost verbatim—his narrative about General Pershing’s execution of Muslim prisoners. Trump’s supporters erupted with wild cheers and bellowing.
“Ignorant armies,” indeed.
If he were with us now, Matthew Arnold would have minced no words about this spectacle. And he might have asked what had gone wrong with American education, which he admired in his own day. Here’s the answer to Arnold’s hypothetical question:
A half century ago there began a pedagogical upheaval in the nation’s schools, a revolution from the top carried out by self-described “progressives,” that eventually succeeded in stripping away any semblance of a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum. Professional educators (most of them at least) reclaimed romantic theories of child development dating all the way back to Rousseau and powerfully reinforced in the 1930s by the American philosopher John Dewey.
Henceforth the nation’s Ed schools instructed prospective K-12 teachers that children were capable of “constructing their own knowledge.” The classroom teacher should be a “guide on the side,” instead of a “sage on the stage.” In many American public schools it was now deemed more important for children to “learn how to learn” rather than to accumulate “mere facts” and useless knowledge.
The resurrection of the “child-centered” pedagogy that Mathew Arnold railed against in his own lifetime turned classroom instruction upside down, disrupting the transmission of civic values and traditions from one generation to the next. Noting the old adage about the inmates taking over the asylum, the writer David Solway recently mused that in the era of progressive education it is “the children [who] have taken over the crèche.”
Three decades worth of test surveys conducted by the National Assessment of Education Progress, considered the gold standard of student assessments, and other testing agencies have amply demonstrated one of the consequences of the progressive education revolution—the astonishing ignorance of history and civics by younger and older Americans alike. By the end of the 1990s, two thirds of high school seniors were unable to identify the 50-year period in which the Civil War was fought; half didn’t know in which half century World War I took place. More than half could not name the three branches of government. A majority had no idea what the Gettysburg address was all about. Fifty two percent chose Germany, Japan or Italy as “U.S. allies” in World War II.
Several years ago Newsweek asked a sample of 1000 voters to take the same test that new immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship must pass. One third of the respondents couldn’t name the vice president and half didn’t know that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. Only one third knew that the Constitution is considered the nation’s highest law.
We can’t say we weren’t warned about this looming debacle for the political process. Indeed, the first alarm bells sounded even before the ink was dry on the signatures attached to the first copy of the U.S. Constitution. The story has it that as Benjamin Franklin came out of Convention Hall in Philadelphia he was approached by a woman well known in local society circles. “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” the lady asked. “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.
The founders feared that a struggle among the former colonies’ competing economic and regional interest groups might undermine the delicate constitutional framework they had just created. To counter the threat of “factionalism,” they established a system of checks and balances. But they also advocated for a national curriculum that would teach future generations the historical knowledge needed to “keep” the new republic. Such a system of schooling was necessary, said Thomas Jefferson, so that “children’s memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, European, Roman, European and American history.” (For Jefferson there was no such thing as “mere facts.”) Constitutional delegate Benjamin Rush from Pennsylvania penned an essay proposing a curriculum for all elementary schools in order to create “republican machines” and maintain the common good.
A half century later, with the union under threat of being torn apart by sectional rivalries, Abraham Lincoln called for the nation’s schools to renew their commitment to a common republican curriculum. In his Lyceum speech, the future president assigned schools the task of teaching children the American credo of “solidarity, freedom, and civic peace above all other principles.” Let these values, Lincoln said, “be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges—let it be written in Primmers [sic], spelling books and almanacs.”
In 1987 the scholar E.D. Hirsch Jr. issued an eloquent prophesy about the consequences of allowing the curriculum to go off the rails. Like Matthew Arnold, Hirsch was a literary critic turned education reformer. His first education book, Cultural Literacy, warned that the abandonment of teaching essential knowledge in the schools would be disastrous for America’s well-being and cultural cohesion. Cultural Literacy became a surprise best-seller that year, appearing on the New York Times list for 26 weeks. One reason for the book’s instant popularity was that it arrived at a perfectly opportune moment. Four years earlier, the Reagan administration had released A Nation at Risk, a widely publicized report documenting the mediocre education that most American children were receiving. The report set off shock waves among parents. Many now saw Hirsch’s call for restoring a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum as a possible answer.
Hirsch put the blame for the meltdown of the schools squarely on the education progressives, including John Dewey. The great philosopher’s mistake, according to Hirsch, was to assume “that early education need not be tied to specific content” and “too hastily reject[ing] the ‘piling up of information.’” This error was particularly tragic for poor and minority children. “By encouraging an early education that is free of `unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of `inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort,” Hirsch wrote, progressive education “virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.”
Amazingly, 1987 produced yet another prophetic and best-selling education book, The Closing of the American Mind by Alan Bloom, a previously unknown University of Chicago professor. Bloom’s book, subtitled “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students,” exposed the unraveling of academic standards at American universities. Eventually it sold more than a million copies, an astonishing number for a text full of references to philosophers such as Plato and Rousseau.
A million customers didn’t buy The Closing of the American Mind for its insights into Plato. Bloom’s opus went viral on the literary lists because it constituted a passionate J’accuse from inside the academy about the betrayal of the ideals of the American university by cowardly professors and administrators. As Hirsch did for K-12 education, Bloom spotlighted the evisceration of the core curriculum and the subsequent crisis in the humanities. Survey courses in philosophy, literature and American history were disappearing from course catalogues, which meant that young people were now graduating from prestigious universities without any familiarity with, say, the works of Shakespeare, Rousseau or the Founding Fathers. Even the most select students, Bloom wrote, “know so much less, are so much more cut off from the tradition, are so much slacker intellectually that they make their predecessors look like prodigies of culture.”
The appearance of these two widely popular books at the same time led to some hope that the dumbing down of American education might finally be stanched. One promising sign was that Hirsch was able to create the Core Knowledge Foundation, located in Charlottesville Virginia, home of the University of Virginia, where Hirsch was an English professor. The foundation created a knowledge based curriculum that was soon adopted by over one thousand schools (public and charter) around the country. Parents also purchased a series of the foundation’s guides outlining what children should have learned by the end of each grade.
Nevertheless, Hirsch could not have anticipated the level of vitriol directed at him when he crossed the border separating the universities and their ed-school affiliates and dared to criticize the education professors for the wrongheaded training they were providing to K-12 teachers. The ed-school establishment turned on Hirsch as an interloper, branding him a reactionary, an elitist, and a defender of white privilege. (Actually Hirsch was—and still is—a liberal Democrat.)
The official journal of the American Educational Research Association, the professional organization representing the nation’s education professoriate, published an unprecedented 8,000 word diatribe attacking Hirsch’s work, which included this remarkable accusation: “Hirsch minimizes a history of racial and gender bias as factors in differential educational and economic achievement. He dismisses complex theories of social class reproduction, and he demotes the importance of pedagogies that encourage the construction and negotiation of meaning across communities of difference. He insists that teachers and the texts are the proper bearers and students the proper recipients of meaning and refuses to understand the importance of meaning as a negotiated product in a multicultural society.”
Assuming this passage could be translated into standard English, it would actually prove that everything Hirsch had written about the disgrace of the Ed schools was correct.
Bloom’s book on higher education also stimulated some informed debate for a while, including a pushback by alumni shocked by his revelations about the lowering of academic standards. A few brave faculty members fought a rear guard action to preserve universalism, western civilization and high academic standards, but they were soon marginalized and denounced as “racists” and “fascists” by their colleagues, many of whom were veterans of the destructive 1960s radicalism. Bloom too was viciously attacked by an army of offended liberal and leftist professors for his alleged “elitist” and “anti-democratic” ideas. In Harpers the political theorist Benjamin Barber called Bloom a “philosopher despot.”
Through these attacks, the mandarins of progressive education were able to maintain control of the academic content (that is, no academic content) in both the K-12 schools and the universities.
Those of us who thought that American education had finally reached its nadir by the end of the 1990s hadn’t seen anything yet. We had focused our critical attention almost exclusively on the unforced errors committed by teachers, school administrators, and ed-school professors. We weren’t prepared for the coming of the millennials, a generation like no other. We weren’t paying enough attention to the lifestyle changes young people were now experiencing because of the new world of social media and the internet. The baleful effects of this digital-age revolution on young minds was entirely independent of the quality of the formal schooling they were receiving.
The Dumbest Generation, by Emory University English professor Mark Bauerline, brought us up to date with reams of depressing data. Along with the works of Hirsch and Bloom, Bauerline’s 2008 book is essential for understanding the stupid election of 2016. The book’s title is no mere epithet. The Dumbest Generation is a thoroughly researched examination of the intellectual habits and tastes of the millennials, revealing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the country’s education collapse has reached a new and even more dangerous level. According to a host of objective national surveys, these young people have not only been shortchanged of essential cultural literacy in the schools, like previous generations, but they now disdain intellectual curiosity and the culture of books altogether. For this generation there’s no need to read any serious historical and cultural texts, since anything worth knowing can always be Googled. Bauerline makes us see that when the distractions of digital age social media were added to the breakdown of the curriculum in the schools the results— for our society and our democracy—become doubly toxic.
“No cohort in human history has opened such a fissure between its material conditions and its intellectual attainments. None has experienced so many technological enhancements and yielded so little progress,” Bauerline writes. “This is the paradox of the dumbest generation. For the young American, life has never been so yielding, goods so plentiful, schooling so accessible and liberties so copious. The material gains are clear… But it’s a shallow advent. As the survey research shows, knowledge and skills haven’t kept pace, and the intellectual habits that complement them are slipping… The mental equipment of the young falls short of their media, money, e-gadgets, and career plans.”
Even the objective surveys cited by Bauerline can’t quite capture the everyday reality of this fracture. Something more personal and up close with the millennials is needed. So consider this observation by David Gelernter, a prominent professor of computer sciences at Yale University:
“I’m lucky to be at one of the best colleges in the world. Our students are as smart as any in the world. They work very hard to get here… My students today are much less obnoxious, much more likable than I and my friends used to be, but they are so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are. You tell yourself stories; it’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the 20th century—just sees a fog, a blank. Has the vaguest idea of who Winston Churchill was or why he mattered. And maybe has no image of Teddy Roosevelt… . They know nothing about art. They know nothing about history. They know nothing about philosophy.”
Is it any wonder that the millennials described by Professors Bauerline and Gelernter overwhelmingly supported a 74-year-old self-proclaimed socialist who got them to believe that making a new American revolution with goodies for all would be as easy as pie?
The chickens have now come home to roost from the progressives’ half—century assault on teaching knowledge and academic content in the classroom. The obliteration of the past, the rejection of the hallowed American idea that there exist “self-evident truths,” has inevitably left us with a presidential election as a fact-free zone and a voting public less knowledgeable than ever. This is a tragedy for the country. It will soon turn out to be particularly concerning for America’s conservative movement—what’s left of it after this horrific campaign.
I have admired the “NeverTrump” conservatives and neoconservatives bravely calling out Donald Trump and his minions for their lies, cynicism and betrayal of American values. In a very dark time, I have found some consolation in being able to praise writers such as John Podhoretz, William Kristol, Kevin Williamson, George Will, Bret Stephens and many others—plus the conservative magazines Commentary, the Weekly Standard and National Review—for continuing to tell the brutal truth about the Trump campaign’s underlying barbarism and anti-Americanism.
Nevertheless, I would fault the NeverTrump conservatives in one area. It is that they haven’t yet fully explored how much this year’s political debacle has been influenced by the meltdown of American schooling. They must know that a true American conservatism can only be sustained with citizens and voters who understand our past and appreciate the historic traditions of the republic. And those habits of mind can only be taught in the schools through a planned curriculum.
It’s understandable that these conservatives would have qualms about suggesting that those voting for the wrong candidate are dumb—which can then be seen as intellectual snobbery. There has also been an unpleasant tradition in western thought, exemplified by Nietzche and his American epigone H.L. Mencken, which has used the alleged stupidity of the masses as an excuse for abandoning democracy altogether.
While being aware of that danger, there is still no escaping the connection between lowering a democratic society’s intellectual standards and lowering the expectations for those vying for its leadership. Our founding fathers understood this connection. Matthew Arnold understood it all too well. He knew that without immersing future generations in “the best that has been said and thought” many will be tempted to choose leaders who represent the worst that has been said and thought.