A LITTLE HISTORY
What bothers me most about the current war against public education is that it is a-historical. It is as if schools suddenly went bad a few months ago or coincidentally with Jeb Bush needing something to keep himself busy when his term of office in Florida expired. Without any education credentials whatsoever Jeb is now on the leading edge of the assault on public education and teachers. Foundations and acolytes scattered across the country are feeding the frenzy along with a little help from friends and buddies such as Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, the Koch boys and so forth. Without intending cynicism this to me resembles class warfare more than a little.
As the saying goes, those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it so I thought perhaps a small dose of history would render a bit of perspective to the snake-oil presently being offered by the newly ordained “experts” and their minions. This is also the first time teachers are being cast as villains so I will add here parenthetically, that anyone who thinks teachers control the curriculum in public schools is dangerously misinformed. Control of pubic education is and has long been in the hands of administrators, school boards and state and federal agencies. Teachers hold the lowest spot on the policy totem pole but they carry the greatest liability and the most intimate consequences.
Teachers are the public face of educational policy and so have become targets of opportunity. One television advertising campaign being used to promote mechanized education even goes so far as to demonize teachers as inferred child molesters. This malicious campaign was created by a national consultant who when speaking to wealthy education industry investors advised them that rather than “intellectualize ourselves into the [education reform] debate…is there a way that we can get into it at an emotional level? … Emotions will stay with people longer than concepts… We need to hit on fear and anger. Because fear and anger stays with people longer. And how you get the fear and anger is by reframing the problem.”
Reframing the problem is quite easy so long as no one engages the public narrative from a factual historical perspective. Even a well meaning public or a well intentioned state legislature can be easily manipulated with expertly applied misinformation and distortions doled out by unscrupulous public opinion manipulators and well placed operatives within governmental agencies. Government programs with simplistic innocuous sounding names like No Child Left Behind or ABCD-F – reflect professional advertising and propaganda to reframe the problem. After all, who would openly admit to wanting to leave a child behind. The unscrupulous lust for profit seems to have no moral, social or ethical boundaries. The running narrative placing blame on teachers and public schools has no rational justification. This distortion however is a time-honored technique of despots used throughout history to isolate and demonize minorities. The programs cited above are intended to create failure and thus frame the public dialog. In truth while schools and teachers are certainly not perfect I regard such propaganda campaigns as sociopathic. They are about money, not about children.
The short history of public education from the early 1800s to the present is a record of relentlessly evolving ideas about content and methodology, that is, curriculum and instruction. Generally speaking, public education seems to have absorbed in one way or another all the reforms initiated from the early 1800s to the present. In the 1820s there were Mental Disciplinarians, then Developmentalists and the Social Meliorists who were followed by the Social Efficiency movement of the early 20th century. There were others but these were the most influential and they provided the foundational ideas on which modern American curriculum and instruction were built. Over time the ideas embodied in these movements wove themselves into the fabric of American schooling so completely that they have become indistinguishable. I think it most important to point out here that not one of these influential movements spanning two centuries was ever motivated by profit.
In the early part of the 19th century and into the next the United States was primarily an agrarian society and what public schooling there was reflected that. Starting in the early 20th century the country began its transition to an industrial society. The industrial period ran through two world wars and America became the undisputed industrial giant of the entire planet. Public education was geared to the needs of an industrial society. Now, in the early 21st century we are becoming a post-industrial society and public education will again evolve to accommodate the needs of the new reality. There have been a multitude of other forces and influences on public education of course but those above are the broad strokes.
It is important also to note that at no time in the span of this history has any one educational movement held complete sway. In fact it seems that as they emerged each went to work with the others. Eventually parts of each became woven into the fabric of the educational experience. Today the US is a diverse society with a large but not dominant agricultural economic sector and, though somewhat diminished, a nevertheless vigorous industrial sector continues as well. Like all of history nothing is all the same everywhere all of the time but the parts and the influences of everything are wherever we look. In the future as in the past public education will reflect the times and the people. America needs people who can think critically, learn readily and reflect the values of the community. Public education’s mission is to encourage learning as a value and as a commitment to the society at large; this requires educating children not training them as if they are destined to become robots.
n.b. An excellent study of the history of American curriculum is:
The Struggle For The American Curriculum 1893-1958, 2nd ed., Herbert M. Kliebard, Routledge,1995
this essay first appeared at: http://nmpolitics.net/index/