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Americans and Literacy

by Christopher Chantrill
January 01, 2006 at 2:10 pm


THE FEDERAL government just released its decennial literacy survey, “A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century,” (pdf) and the results are not good. About 13 percent of adult Americans are “below basic” in literacy and the results for 2003 haven’t changed much since the previous comprehensive survey taken in 1992.

But perhaps the most startling result is that only about 15 percent of Americans are rated “proficient,” that is to say possess the skill of “comparing viewpoints in two editorials” or “computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items.” Is that all, after 150 years of public education?

Imagine you were a crusty conservative back in 1840 on a platform in Boston with Horace Mann, father of the “common school,” and you stood up to reply to his prophecy that “if the Common School be expanded to its capabilities... then nine tenths of the penal code would become obsolete.” Suppose you retorted that by the turn of the 21st century violence in the schools would be commonplace and that less than a fifth of Americans would ever become truly proficient in reading and writing, even if if the nation spent five percent of the national income on childhood education. You can imagine the scorn that would be poured on you from the assembled Boston Brahmins. The very idea!

Yet that is what has happened. Over the past century and a half we have made it as easy as possible to acquire literacy. We have made education “free.” We have made it compulsory. We have extended childhood into young adulthood. We have built schools: one room schools, big schools, open-plan schools, factory schools. Yet today, after all that effort and expense, Americans considered in their mass are not that interested in literacy beyond a basic ability to read, write, and figure. Maybe Americans are telling us something. Maybe they are telling us that our current education system doesn’t really deliver much in the way of economic benefits to the average person.

So how did we get the vast education system that we don’t seem to value very much?

There have been five eras in modern American education. The story starts in the era of happier times at the turn of the nineteenth century, when the United States had a population with 90 percent literacy and a hodge-podge system of education. It included “old-field” community-run schools in rural areas, city academies for the towns and charity schools for the poor. American parents controlled the education of their children.

But the Unitarians at Harvard College saw that this disorganized system was insufficient and ushered in the second era of education. With front-man Horace Mann they promoted and established a “common school” system organized and directed at the state level and funded with tax monies. By the Civil War this system was widespread in the North.

The third era was a build-out period in which the period of compulsory schooling was slowly extended, including the expansion of the American high school to enable all students “under the leadership of friendly and large-spirited men and women... to become socially and serviceably efficient,” as Arthur Call put it in 1909.

Then came the fourth, progressive era, in which the elite consciously sought to mold the system to meet the needs of its own children rather than other peoples’ children with John Dewey’s system that emphasized problem solving and critical thinking skills over training and drilling in basic and necessary skills.

Lastly, we come to the present NEA era in which the schooling of children has become hostage to the interests of the education producers—teachers, managers, administrators, and support staff.

We can see in these five stages a life trajectory from childhood innocence, youthful exuberance, mature institution building, to a slow collapse of idealism into self-centered rent seeking that has slowly hardened into the truculence of the rich, aging patriarch.

It is hardly surprising that this rigid, top-down system has failed to deliver results. Rigid, top-down very seldom does. As it begins to break up we self-governing Americans need to think about what should replace it. We could build a modern, flexible system that responds to the needs of education consumers rather than education producers. We could sweep away compulsory attendance. Then we could kick out the troublemakers. We could relax child-labor laws so that teenagers could combine work and education. We could encourage the business sector to increase internships and take direct responsibility for the education of their future employees. We could celebrate diversity not just in race but in types of schools: big-box schools, boutique schools, factory-outlet schools, organic schools.

Chances are that it would all work pretty well, and liberals would hate it.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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