Monday, January 30, 2012

The Idealistic (and Elitist) Roots of Public Education—Jefferson and Emerson

The Idealistic (and Elitist) Roots of Public Education—Jefferson and Emerson
[draft excerpt from Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. (IAP, 2012)]

As I noted above, Secretary of Education Duncan speaks about education in soaring rhetoric that buries assumptions about the purposes for schools, the nature of teaching, and the reality of learning in crisis discourse and Utopian expectations. Look at these paragraphs from Duncan's speech given to National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE):
In today's knowledge economy, it is no secret that education is the new game-changer. The days when students could drop out of school and land a good job are over. As all of you know, even high school graduates are finding that the number of good jobs open to them is severely restricted, unless they have some college or post-secondary training.
The global economy magnified many times over the importance of education, so that dramatically-accelerated achievement and attainment are now the key to preparing young people to be successful.
Education is the new engine of economic growth and American prosperity. And more than ever, education must be the great equalizer, the one global force that can consistently overcome differences in background, culture, and privilege.
As the Blue Ribbon panel notes, teachers are the biggest in-school influence on academic achievement and growth. And we know that when it comes to teaching, talent matters tremendously. A recent McKinsey & Company study pointed out a truism that bears repeating: "The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers." Or, as Linda Darling-Hammond puts it: "Every aspect of school reform depends on highly skilled teachers for its success."
In nations that are out-educating us today, the caliber of new teachers is a critical national priority.
By contrast, the United States needs to urgently elevate the teaching profession. And that is why we have launched a national teacher recruitment campaign. (Duncan, 2010, November 16)
The diction offered by Duncan is intended to elicit alarm, crisis—"dramatically-accelerated," "critical national priority," "urgently elevate." But that crisis is coupled with claims that education "is the new game-changer" because "[e]ducation is the new engine of economic growth and American prosperity."
But how much of Duncan's claim is true, and how much is elevated political discourse? And how true are Duncan's words and ideologies to the founding principles upon which universal public education was built? Let's keep Duncan's speech in mind as we consider Thomas Jefferson's and Ralph Waldo Emerson's comments about education from the 18th and 19th centuries, noting specifically the role of poverty and power in all three contexts.
Throughout 2010, Secretary Duncan offered several patterns regarding U.S. public education, including the following (see numerous speeches in references):
• Characterizing public education as a failure, based on graduation rates, test scores, and international comparisons. This claim is regularly expressed in crisis discourse.
• Identifying teachers as the most important element in student achievement (which was qualified on some rare occasions as the most important in-school factor). This claim has always been expressed without context or reference to the overwhelming impact of poverty on achievement—80-90% of achievement correlated to out-of-school factors (Berliner, 2009; Hirsch, 2007; Rothstein, 2010).
Stressing the need for improving education as a central element of international competitiveness and creating a world-class workforce. Corporate and competitive needs are highlighted, but the role of universal public education in the health of democracy is absent.
• Characterizing education as the avenue to eradicating poverty, restoring U.S. international dominance, and refueling the sputtering U.S. economy. These Utopian claims are never weighed against the contrasting crisis discourse, and Duncan never acknowledges ample research showing no direct or singular connection between any country's test scores and economy (Bracey, 2004, 2008).
• Criticizing the failures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the high accountability/testing era while simultaneously calling for national standards, national tests, and teacher evaluations tied to test scores. The discourse in Duncan's speeches is often progressive discourse masking policies that perpetuate increased bureaucratic and mechanistic approaches to education, students, and teachers (Race to the Top, for example).
Popular discourse tends to suffer from presentism—seeing today in a state of crisis and yesterday nostalgically. But Thomas Jefferson in 1807 fretted over the lack of support for education that seems valid today: "People generally have more feeling for canals and roads than education. However, I hope we can advance them with equal pace" (1900, p. 277). In his roles as public intellectual and political leader, Jefferson rarely strayed too far from arguing for the value of education and universal public education. Looking closely at the patterns of Jefferson's beliefs about education—placed against the patterns above from Duncan's 2010 speeches—helps place the current arguments from the new reformers in a historical context that challenges the credibility of their claims—if we truly value the foundations of our public schools system.
Writing to John Tyler in 1810, Thomas Jefferson (1900) made these claims:
I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it. (p. 278)
Jefferson connected an education with what we would label today empowerment, and he believed that public schools must offer easy access to all children. I believe we should note that Jefferson here and throughout never mentions the role of education in building a workforce or supporting the international competitiveness of a country.
In fact, Jefferson remains steadfast in the role of education in empowering all people, including those living in poverty:
The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. ([1817], pp. 275-276)
The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)
Jefferson addresses poverty, without marginalizing people living in poverty or demonizing poverty itself, but he also suggest that education will contribute to the benefit of the entire country—although not our economic power, but "the mass of mind." Intellect and knowledge are valued for their inherent values, and Jefferson argues a social commitment to public education does not violating anyone's right (which contrasts significantly with the repeated refrain today that taxing for public schools is coercion, government overstepping its bounds).
Consider the following passages from Jefferson's (1900) repeated and impassioned support of universal public education supported by taxation and created specifically to empower people living in poverty to protect themselves from the wealthy and powerful:
I... [proposed] three distinct grades of education, reaching all classes. 1. Elementary schools for all children generally, rich and poor. 2. Colleges for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common purposes of life and such as should be desirable for all who were in easy circumstances. And 3d. an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally and in their highest degree... The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor. (p. 791)

To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university.  (p. 275)

By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Door, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)

The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)

I think ward elections better for many reasons, one of which is sufficient, that it will keep elementary education out of the hands of fanaticizing preachers, who, in county elections, would be universally chosen, and the predominant sect of the county would possess itself of all its schools. (p. 791)

Science is more important in a republican than in any other government. (p. 103)

Preach... a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [of monarchial government]. (p. 274)
While Duncan's leadership is ripe for parody because of his predictable patterns that does less than inspire (Farmer, 2011), Jefferson offers refrains that provides the critical foundation upon which we should judge and reform our current pubic schools:
• Universal public education is essential for a democracy and must be accessible to all, regardless of station in life.
• Taxation is necessary to insure the right of public education, and those taxes are not infringing on individual rights, but contributing to the collective knowledge base of the country.
• Education is essential for individual empowerment, insuring each person's ability to protect her/his own liberty.
• Education leads to individual empowerment for the preservation of liberty, but Jefferson also clarifies that power and wealth threaten liberty as much as the possibility of oppressive government.
• Schools should be kept separate from religious influence.
• Knowledge, specifically science, is essential for a democratic republic.
While Jefferson's impact on the genesis of public education and the U.S. university system and libraries, Ralph Waldo Emerson tends to remain solely in the American literature classrooms of high school and college—reduced to the merely academic. But Emerson's detailed and powerful consideration of the nature of being an educated American—as distinct from Europe—is valuable as we consider the purposes of education in a free society. Consider the following passages from "The American Scholar" by Emerson (2009/1837):
In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking.
Nature, then:
The next great influence into the spirit of the scholar, is, the mind of the Past, — in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of the influence of the past, and perhaps we shall get at the truth, — learn the amount of this influence more conveniently, — by considering their value alone. . . . As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book, or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to cotemporaries, or rather to the second age. Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this. . . . Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm.

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates. In this action, it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence, it is progressive.

Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office, — to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns, and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.

Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day. This is the way to learn grammar. Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made.
Emerson's focus moves away from Jefferson's social justice focus, but establishes a clear belief in the power of learning to create new knowledge, challenging the value of becoming a slave to tradition. The motifs found in Emerson speak solidly against the conservative nature of many calls for education as a way to instill traditional values and basic knowledge:
To be educated is to be an original thinker, not, as Emerson warns, a parrot.
• Nature and books provide people suitable environments for learning; for Emerson, nature is the best source above all.
• Books are valuable, but just as Emerson warms about parroting other's thoughts, he also warns about being merely a bookworm.
• Thus, the study of books is an avenue to new learning, new books.
• Students should not be subjected to drill, but offered opportunities to create.
• Learning, then, is best in authentic situations.
The purposes of education and the nature of learning, as expressed by Jefferson and Emerson as essential for individual empowerment and a thriving democracy, are quite distinct from the claims made by the new reformers who have emerged in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Our commitments to consumerism, corporate America, and competition have clearly dwarfed our founding principals based on freedom, equity, and originality of thought.
In the mid-1800s and into the twentieth century, the rise of public education against the dominance of private schools (such as those run by the Catholic church) proved to exacerbate the contradictory purposes identified by Rich (2001) and revealed in the contrast between Jefferson/Emerson and twenty-first century education reformers.

No comments: