Education in America: History, Critique, and Solution
Education in American society needs a complete overhaul. This article will first lay out a history of how education was conducted in post-Revolution America. Next we will show how the government first got its hands in providing education in the 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the Federal Department of Education we see in the late 20th century and today. Finally, a prescription will be drawn out for how revising the US approach to education will be beneficial to parents, teachers, and students alike. Policy initiatives of decentralization must be undertaken in order to promote any notion of how true education, found in both classical and pre modern understandings, can be brought to fruition.
The problem with the current system is that many of the mishaps that we are witnessing today are byproducts of its structure and are in essence “baked” into the system. Both political as well as societal variances have found a way in influencing educational criteria and curriculum. In addition to this, incorrect and biased programs have influenced the youth by fortuitously shaping political perceptions and dumbing down the youth by misallocating focus to inconsequential areas. Insignificant debates are being had and the large-scale question of the future of America’s education system are often being ignored.
With the advent of a fully public education system in which children are coerced into situations of learning in which they may not consent to, warrant, or be ready for, the state has lunged its tentacles around the minds of the youth both past and present. This was done by the mediocre services and lack of incentives for quality service that a market based, competitive, and freely-chosen education service would apply.
First we must look at early America. Wealthy families were obviously at an advantage to provide quality education. Literacy rates were highest in the New England colonies, but were only a bit lower in the middle and southern colonies. Parents were the primary instructors and mainly taught out of the Bible. Accompanying the Bible was a hornbook, which was a piece of wood made with a handle that would often have the ABC’s attached to it. They would be instructed on how to read, write, and were readied for either entering into a career or allowed to go to college to continue their studies.
However, because of the paradigms of thought at the time, girls were seldom afforded the same opportunities as men. They did however receive an education in becoming a proper housewife mostly from their mothers. “It wasn’t even expected for girls to spend any of their time reading! Instead their mothers taught them how to cook, sew, preserve food, direct servants and serve an elegant meal. Some girls were sent to teachers to learn how to sing, play a musical instrument, sew fancy stitchery, to serve tea properly by learning manners and how to carry on a polite conversation. “ We see here how an emphasis was put on the perceived role of a woman in the early American tradition. Useful skills were taught and the advancement of the individual in their respective field was promoted.
Boys conversely were instructed in a specific intended career path. The goal was to produce more communally liable persons, and the elevation of character was given precedent. “When boys grew older, they could become apprentices to learning to become shopkeepers or craftsmen by working with and watching an adult. Education was becoming more secular in order to produce socially responsible citizens.”
Middle class and poorer children were now seen to require education for the good of the American society. What good would it be in a constitutional republic if only the rich were educated and ruled most unobstructed by the people in society? English Grammar Schools were set up throughout the colonies in the 1700s in order to promote a standard of education throughout the economic ranks. This elementary instruction gave a solid foundation for many of the colonies children, both wealthy and middle class. These English Grammar Schools were also revolutionary themselves because they became the first to accept women. The curriculum was even altered to accommodate women. Commercial subjects such as the 3 R’s, Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic came to the forefront as the most important skills to have.
Poorer individuals, which included many African Americans and Native Americans, were sought out by missionaries, who were pained by the lack of education that was being provided. Quaker and Christian leaders made it main focal point to promote the education of the deprived, while simultaneously instilling Christian morals and beliefs into their students. A very similar curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic was used in the education of less advantaged in early American society.
These systems of educations continued until the early to mid-19th century. It was in the 1830s that American education experienced a significant fundamental change in both production and application. The Jackson administration made it a point to provide education for all of the nation’s children citizens. The argument was that state-wide education would vastly produce better citizens, stabilize crime rates, combat poverty, and promote the general welfare. The growing diversity of the population was also a main issue. It was seen that these schools could provide a common point of intertwining the different cultures that were being assimilated. “Common-school advocates worked to establish a free elementary education accessible to everyone and financed by public funds. As such, they advocated public schools should be accountable to local school boards and state governments.” Laws were put into place to force children to attend schooling. These laws were accepted nation-wide by 1918.
At this same time however, Catholics were attempting to combat the Protestant influence on their education, specifically on matters of their faith and its institutions. “An important goal was to pair rote learning with Protestant ideology, including the notion that Americans were God’s chosen people” Horace Mann was a huge proponent of education becoming nationalized and publicly funded. He first pushed for the reform of education to be public provided in his home state of Massachusetts. This was followed suit by other states and then brought to the Congress floor by Mann himself. Mann promoted the idea that equal opportunity was at the forefront of the American experience. This idea was posited by the different backgrounds of the children sitting neatly in rows in classrooms all over the country. Mann wrote in 1850, “Education…beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men –the balance wheel of the social machinery…It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility toward the rich; it prevents being poor.”
This education system expanded rapidly but also with a Protestant bias. The public schools were founded by the likes of Puritans and Calvinists, all who were haters of the Catholic Church. This is where we first see a public education system that promoted a biased agenda in its lessons. The curriculum that was endorsed criticized the Catholic Church and selectively taught certain Catholic-damaging ideas.
In order to counter these Protestant efforts, Catholics felt it necessary to bring the education system back into the private sector and start their own educational institutions. These schools would teach Catholic children the incorrect nature of what public schools were teaching, but also advance the ideals of the Church and its traditions. Pope Pius IX in his papal encyclical, Syllabus of Errors, directly attacked the public education system in the US by exclaiming, “Catholics cannot approve a system of education for youth apart from the Catholic faith, and disjointed from the authority of the Church.”
In the spring of 1853, Catholic bishops in the US took the ideas of the Pope a step further. They called for the establishment of schools in each parish, in each state. The Catholic overhaul of what education was supposed to be was beginning to take concrete form. To combat the government provided education that was saturated in the Protestant tradition of Catholic misinformation, “The First Plenary Council in Baltimore dictated that all bishops establish parish schools. This action was taken during the height of Nativist attitudes and the popularity of the Know-Nothing Party.” The goals of the educational system changed drastically during the 19th century. What started off as a philanthropic idea of free education, was seen to alter its course into a huge endeavor that became riddled with problems and a reactionary call to alternative sources of education.
As the centuries went by, the idea of progressivism in the realm of education expanded. The common perception became that education was a right, not a privilege. The 20th century was a tidal wave of a push for the growth and expansion of public school power and influence. No longer was education something to be left to the private sector to figure out through incentives and business like models. Rather the state was entirely in control of taxpayer-funded education. The state now had its hand in enforcing the law, which made school attendance mandatory.
Everyone was given the exact same opportunity for education regardless of social class, race, religion, and gender, which on its face, was a good thing. Funding however was vastly misappropriated, especially after the Civil War. “In 1912, the Southern States made of 34% of the United States’ population but received only 3% of the education funding.” Schools in the south were segregated with whites lawfully having a much greater opportunity for education than blacks. In 1919, the Progressive Education Association was founded to attempt to change the education system from its core. Also in this year, laws were passed which forced states to provide transportation for children to and from school. The ideas of a strong, national education system was posited by Eleanor Roosevelt,
“Gradually from this study certain facts emerge. A nation must have leaders, men who have the power to see a little farther, to imagine a little better life than the present. But if this vision is to be fulfilled, it must also have a vast army of men and women capable of understanding and following these leaders intelligently. These citizens must understand their government from the smallest election district to the highest administrative office. It must be no closed book to them, and each one must carry his own particular responsibility or the whole army will lag.”
The call for action to further the consolidation of education was growing louder. Between 1908 and 1975, 140 bills were passed in Congress to make up the newly formed Department of education. The first secretary of the Department of Education was Ms. Shirley Hufstedler, who had an even more progressive idea about how American education should be run at both the federal and state levels. “Overall, Hufstedler envisioned a Department that was no longer reactive but instead proactive—as she concluded at one point, ‘The education institutions of the U.S. must change in response to the changing needs of the country’ and in many ways this decision set the tone for the continued growth and development of the Department.”
At the conclusion of the Carter administration, many thought the Department of Education had seen its last days. Many Republicans and small government thinkers agreed the department was outside of the scope of the constitutionally-limited government. Ronald Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter to the Presidency and ran on a platform of ending the Department of Education. Many believed the Department of Education was a complete intrusion into the decentralization and locally run school systems which had worked much more efficiently prior to the birth of the Department. Reagan agreed with this assertion.
However, the subsequent Reagan administration saw the usefulness of the Department of Education in expanding their own influence and in fact attempted to preserve it. The Reagan administration expounded upon the rhetoric of moving towards a more classical education approach and limiting the scope of government influence. However, the Reagan White House expanded the Department for programs such as “Elementary and Secondary Education Act, “Title I program”, and “Title III of the Higher Education Act”. In order to keep his base of limited government supporters happy, the president did induce a series of budget cuts that pertained to federal programs.
One of the most influential documents pertaining to the life of the Department of Education was Secretary Terrel H. Bell’s “A Nation at Risk”. This document ripped into federal education system that was responsible for the mediocrity of American students on a global scale. Several states took note and began reform initiatives. However the presidency of Bill Clinton once again reverted the understanding of federalized education. “Participants in the 1994 Republican Revolution attempted once again to dismantle the Department, and although their effort was ultimately unsuccessful, the Federal role in education and the security of the Department itself remained uncertain until President Clinton’s 1997 State of the Union Address, which reinstated the Federal role in education once again. In his discourse, the President charted 10 goals for the expansion of the Department of Education. We can see presently as well, that the Department is up and running.
Throughout the history of the United States, we see a progression of government intervention in the education market, culminating with the federal bureaucracy, the Department of Education. Historically this could be foretold of anything the government gets its hand on. The idea that government would limit itself in such a lucrative business such as education is naïve. We are seeing the greatest abuses of government education since the birth of the Department in 1978 up to present day.
The Department of Education is one of the most bloated, unnecessary, and unconstitutional entities in our nation today. The argument that the federal government will improve the quality of anything, from agriculture to transportation to education, is both historically ignorant and dangerous, to say the least. The public education system in this country is getting worse and worse. Americans are finding it harder to compete on a global scale. It seems that even though the federal funding provided to the Department of Education has kept increasing, the quality has not progressed at all, and even in some cases has done more damage than good.
Instead of an honest dialogue about inherent problems in our education system, the solution that has been rendered is to throw more money at government programs. Many schools have received vast amounts of federal funding and have not seen an increase in test scores at all. A Cato Institute study backs up this idea about the uselessness of government spending on schooling. Their study on the success rate of students from 1970 to 2006 maintains that while Federal spending on education increased 190%, test scores have either remained flat or declined over the past 40 years.
Through all of this, standards have been lowered, and a one-size fits all approach has been applied. This directly correlates to the need for higher graduation rates. The graduation rate for many of the southern states is below 70%, despite the fact that the standards for graduating are already set low. The students go to government schools, read government textbooks, and end up voting for pro-government policies. It’s a never ending cycle that leads to a dumbed down population and weakening of American society. Government schools also have an incentive to discourage critical thinking. Former Congressman Ron Paul, who has been a staunch opponent to government schooling, explained in an interview with the NY Times,
“First, the Constitution does not authorize the Department of Education, and the founders never envisioned the federal government dictating those education policies. Second, it is a huge bureaucracy that squanders our money. We send billions of dollars to Washington and get back less than we sent. The money would be much better off left in states and local communities rather than being squandered in Washington. Finally, I think that the smallest level of government possible best performs education. Teachers, parents, and local community leaders should be making decisions about exactly how our children should be taught, not Washington bureaucrats.”
In addition to showing no results, the Department of Education is unconstitutional. Found in the constitution are only two types of powers, enumerated, which are federal, and reserved, which apply to the states. The Department of Education is a complete excess of the use of these powers.
The call for the abolition of the Department of Education begins now. Decentralization of education will create better quality, market incentives, and make education less expensive. The common argument is that private schools are too costly. However, public school ends up costing the taxpayer three times as much as private schools would cost. In essence, increased competition drives prices down. Charitable organizations and Philanthropic groups would also have a chance to spend the tax money that would then be returned to them on projects which they support in education (i.e. Catholic Schools, Charter Schools, etc.). Capitalism must be given a chance to flourish in this area of the market, as it has been given a chance in many other areas, and subsequently made America one of the greatest nations on this planet.
This push for the ending of government funded schools cannot be left to the politicians in Washington, DC. We as a nation must come together to realize the adverse effects this system is having on the survival of our society. Wealthy politicians (not just in the USA) have historically shown an incentive to indoctrinate their population and keep them reliant upon government handouts. We must let the message be heard in resounding harmony. For example, the 1996 GOP platform read, “The Federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the market place. This is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end federal meddling in our schools, and promote family choice at all levels of learning.” Almost 20 years later and nothing has been done. Education MUST be returned to the free market, or our nation of the free and the brave will forever be in jeopardy.
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 . Jonathan Messerli, Horace Mann: a Biography (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1972)
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