Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Four kinds of heretics attacking the gospel of education

Education is as close to a secular religion as we have in the United States. In a time when Americans have lost faith in their government and economic institutions, millions of us still believe in its saving grace. National leaders, from Benjamin Rush on, oversaw plans for extending its benefits more broadly. In the 19th century, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie famously conceived of schools as ladders on which the industrious poor would ascend to a better life, and he spent a good bit of his fortune laying the foundations for such an education society. After World War II, policy makers who believed in the education gospel grew numerous enough to fill stadiums. One by one, the G.I. Bill, the Truman Commission report, and the War on Poverty singled out education as the way of national and personal advance. “The answer to all of our national problems,” as Lyndon Johnson put it in 1965, “comes down to one single word: education.”

The American education gospel is built around four core beliefs.
  • First, it teaches that access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or previous academic performance. Every educational sinner should have a path to redemption. (Most of these paths now run through community colleges.)
  • Second, the gospel teaches that opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary — and perhaps the only — road to opportunity.
  • Third, it teaches that the country can solve its social problems — drugs, crime, poverty, and the rest — by providing more education to the poor. Education instills the knowledge, discipline, and the habits of life that lead to personal renewal and social mobility.
  • And, finally, it teaches that higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities, as they will put everyone on a more equal footing. No wonder President Obama and Bill Gates want the country to double its college graduation rate over the next 10 years.

The advance of the education gospel has been shadowed from the beginning by critics who claim that education, despite our best efforts, remains a bastion of privilege. For these critics, it is not that the educational gospel is wrong (a truly democratic, meritocratic school system would, if it existed, be a good thing); it is that the benefits of education have not yet spread evenly to every corner of American society, and that the trend toward educational equality may be heading in the wrong direction. They decry the fact that schools in poor communities have become dropout factories and that only the wealthy can afford the private preparatory schools that are the primary feeders to prestigious private colleges. The higher education Establishment recognizes critics like these as family. They accept the core beliefs of the education gospel and are impatient only with its slow and incomplete adoption...


Other heresies are more radical, and thus more disturbing to settled beliefs about the power of education. One currently growing in popularity we might call “the new restrictionism.” According to the new restrictionists, such as the economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, co-authors of the 2008 paper “Leisure College USA: The Decline in Student Study Time,” access to higher education may have gone too far. Our colleges and universities are full to the brim with students who do not really belong there, who are unprepared for college and uninterested in breaking a mental sweat. Instead of studying, they spend time talking on the phone, planning social events, chitchatting about personal trivia and popular culture, and facebooking. Faculty members demand less of these students, according to Babcock and Marks, both because they are incapable of doing more and because they will punish faculty members with bad evaluations if they are pushed to try harder. The students often consider courses that require concentration “boring” and “irrelevant.” They argue and wheedle their way into grades they do not deserve. The colleges, out of craven financial motives, do not squarely face the fact that not all of their students are “college material.” Worse, they cater to ill-prepared and under-motivated students, dumbing down the curriculum to the point where a college degree is worth less, in terms of educational quality, than a degree from one of the better high schools. Institutions at the tail end of academic procession are, as David Riesman once put it, “colleges only by the grace of semantic generosity.”

In previous generations, critics of access for all were found mainly among the upper classes, who found the working classes unsuitable companions in learning. Hard-driving working-class kids were not the sort of people with whom one wanted to associate, and they lacked the cultivation to appreciate what the best education had to offer. This is the world of William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. Today’s restrictionists are not snobs but staunch meritocrats: people who made their way through the schooling system, and who believe in it. They are dismayed by what the system has become in an age they see as one of near-universal access.

Furthermore, where the old restrictionists merely wanted to keep the working classes out, new restrictionists argue that colleges are not providing what poorly prepared students need to succeed...

Another heresy, and a very old one, is the idea that schooling provides education for servitude rather than freedom. It crushes the spirit, rather than expanding it. It is easy to see the elements of truth in this critique: Schools do line students up in rows, make them raise their hands, set them on task after evaluated task, insist on discipline in the classroom, and reward the motivated conformists. The “free the students” heresy goes back at least to Rousseau; though popular among Romantics of all eras, it had a major resurgence in the 1960s, when Paul Goodman, John Holt, and Ivan Illich carried the “free the students” flag. For them, children are born creative and curious, only to have the schools drum out these natural dispositions in order to create good soldiers for “the system.”...

John Marsh is a proponent of another old heretical sect: the “fool’s gold” group. These heretics specialize in debunking the social progress beliefs of the educational gospel. Although education does indeed lead to social mobility for some, Marsh argues, it cannot do so for most. For the working classes, a much better approach, he believes, would be to attack the proximate sources of inequality: tax laws that privilege the rich and labor laws that restrict the rights of unions and set the minimum wage below a decent living standard. “Given the political will,” he writes, “whether through redistributive tax rates, massive public works projects, a living wage law, or a renaissance of labor unions, we could decrease poverty and inequality tomorrow regardless of … the number of educated and uneducated workers.” Left to its own devices, he argues, expansion of the educational system will produce not social equality but credential inflation: the condition in which higher levels of education (or distinctive brands of education) are necessary to “buy” standards of living previously associated with lower levels (or generic brands) of education. As workers attain the bachelor’s degree, middle-class incomes become associated with the attainment of master’s or first professional degrees, and access to truly powerful opportunities requires attendance at an elite institution...

Finally, there is the “true educators” sect, to which University of Chicago professor of education Philip W. Jackson belongs. This group takes the standpoint of the Platonic form of education to inspire deeper appreciation of craft and, at least indirectly, to hold up a mirror to the deficiencies of our current system of schooling. For these heretics, upward mobility is beside the point; to dwell on such sociological factors is to neglect the true nature of education. What does “true education” look like? Drawing on Hegel, Kant, and Dewey, Jackson has an answer.

Jackson distinguishes between mimetic and transformative education. Mimetic education “gives a central place to the transmission of factual and procedural knowledge from one person to another, through an essentially imitative process.” By contrast, transformative education seeks to accomplish a “qualitative change … a metamorphosis” and particularly addresses “all those traits of character and of personality most highly prized by the society at large.” Mimetic education, in other words, imparts knowledge; transformative education does so as well but, more importantly, it changes people. Transformative education is an enterprise in which the spirit of wanting to know is also cultivated...

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