The culture of public schools

I used to argue that the curriculum of a school should form a unity with its policies and its administrative and board decisions–that what we knew of reason and evidence from science and philosophy, and of truth and judgment from history and literature should inform our student handbooks, our discipline code and our deliberations at faculty and board meetings.

Increasingly I see that we have achieved something of unity, but rather than our schools acting in the light of the best of our cultural and intellectual heritage, the schools themselves have been transformed into purveyers of pop culture. Pop psychology, cable news journalism, politically correct posturing, junk science and low-grade social activism provide much of the basis of discourse in the hallways, the classrooms, and the board room.

In significant ways, public education has become part of pop culture. For years I imagined something of a hierarchy based on the scale of information various institutions were charged with handling. Small-scale and fast-moving information could be handled by markets–as people moved from VHS tape rental to Netflix DVDs, the business community would monitor and respond to changing opportunities and tastes.

More intermediate information could be handled by government agencies, which were (supposedly) more slow-moving and deliberative, paying more attention to the rules of the game than the game itself, concerned with keeping the game reasonable honest and reasonably fair, while making compensations for market failures. The government should not try to replace the market but it must consider solutions to problems such as the inability of poor people to create demand no matter how great their need, since need without money does constitute a market demand.

The foundation, though, was education–dealing with the most slow-moving and large-scale information–judging fads and emergent possibilities against the great standards of the past and evaluating adjustments and changes in terms of the long-range effects on community and character. Of course, the largest-scale and slowest-moving information was eternity–a reality that educators should be nearest to understanding.

It would be nice to work in a school whose culture grew out of the best understandings drawn from history, science and literature–that is, a place led by the liberally educated. We never fully realized such an educational culture except at a few private schools led by humanely educated masters, but we did once aspire to it more than we do now.

Among the reasons for the shift, from looking to the great intellectual accomplishments of the past to looking at what’s “hot” in pop culture for inspiration and guidance, is, I believe, a shift in the basis of education from philosophy and literature to the social sciences. Teacher training programs have followed Dewey and his ilk, away from the idea of enduring things and stewardship of the best that has been thought and said into a “scientific” emphasis on endless innovation and change. We cannot simply teach what has been known for centuries using methods that have worked for a thousand years. Every teaching movement must be an experiment.

The incoherence of advocating “change” without a clear standard against which to measure it would be comic if the resulting mess were not so dispiriting. With little sense of a goal or purpose–beyond more “democracy”–and with a bias toward innovation rather than knowledge or standards, the scholar’s authority is replaced by the bureaucrat’s power, which derives from catering to the lowest common denominator. So our schools are dominated by test scores even when it is not clear what the scores are actually measuring or what they mean, and the purpose of schooling is widely, almost universally, held to be to serve “the economy” with “serve” defined by the lords of that economy–the corporate interests behind the push for 21st Century Skills, for example.

Test scores, dollars–everyone has to give some heed to credentials and income, so these lowest-common denominator concerns dominate in a culture in rebellion against cultural authority. And without cultural authority, who’s to say Hamlet has greater value than the last episode of Glee? The latter is easier to peddle to a distracted and self-absorbed audience, and the most attention from the most people is the standard that trumps all others.

The star intellectuals in the humanities have abdicated any claim that one text might be more important than another. The linguistic manifestation of nihilism–deconstruction–has denied that texts can actually contain truth or can actually be said to say anything definite at all. Having dissolved faith in the connection between word and world, truth is no longer interesting. Instead, we are left with desire–with the “choice” of radical individualism, with the understanding that values are simply preferences.

This leaves us somewhat where we are–that we cannot really distinguish between the latest YA novel cashing in on an interest in the latest perversion and the Aeneid.

And so our “evidence-based” schooling–a positivist bias in favor of materialism, judging as real only those things that can be measured– is dominated by social science research–which in practice means little more than that policies need to be blessed and sanctified with footnotes to this or that article written by an “expert” with an Ed. D. in something, but who likely knows little or nothing about the enduring things.  What we read and discuss in class drifts toward what is most popular–which usually means easiest and most novel or shocking.

Those who have control of the apparatus of cultural change are not going to turn any of this around. They have deconstructed the shared culture and shared domain of discourse we would need to talk together about what might be better.

Website Pin Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati Digg Google StumbleUpon Premium Responsive