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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 Americas 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 havent 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 doesnt really deliver much in the way of economic benefits to the average person.
So how did we get the vast education system that we dont 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 Deweys 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 producersteachers, 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.
Buy his Road to the Middle Class.
The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness...
But to make a man act [he must have]
the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove
or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie
that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing
[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
Civil Societya complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churchesbuilds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust
In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, The Scientist as Rebel
Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says we should....
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity
What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph
When we received Christ, Phil added, all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh
I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all.
In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
There was nothing new about the Frankish drive to the east... [let] us recall that the continuance of their rule depended upon regular, successful, predatory warfare.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion
We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
E. G. West, Education and the State