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.

The moral confusion of young people

Vico. I haven’t thought about him since I was an undergraduate. One of my philosophy profs in a “great books” program was writing a book on Vico, who he believed was hugely underappreciated, and so Vico seemed to creep into everything we read, from Homer to James Joyce, though I would be exaggerating if I suggested I understood the prof well enough to agree or disagree.

Now here comes Mark Signorelli at the invaluable Front Page web site talking about Vico’s argument about “the inescapably probable nature of our knowledge concerning human affairs, and the importance of educating youth in a way that prepares them to accept verisimilitude as a proper standard for political and ethical debate.” Maybe now I’m ready to understand what he was talking about.


We have allowed the success of science to forget older understandings of truth and knowledge that are more fitting the needs of our lives as persons among other persons. Over time, this has made life in relationships, including in civil communities, difficult for us: “Our young men, because of their training, which is focused on these studies, are unable to engage in the life of the community, to conduct themselves with sufficient wisdom and prudence; nor can they infuse into their speech a familiarity with human psychology of permeate their utterances with passion.”

Signorelli says that “by exalting the Cartesian standard of truthfulness into a universal standard, teachers were effectively undermining their students’ ability to reason on matters of an ethical or political nature, where the neatness and conclusiveness of science can never be reproduced.” He sees our current “imbecility” about political and moral matters as a consequence of applying the wrong standard of truth to such matters:

Exactly as Vico feared, we take the scientific standard of truth to be the sole and universal standard of truth; whatever is not scientifically verified, we assume, is not really true.  One symptom of this intellectual disease is that the modern mind indulges in the recurrent fantasy – played out every day in Psychology and Sociology Departments across the land – that an application of scientific methodology to human experience will somehow provide us with conclusive and substantive knowledge about ourselves.  And when this delusion falls apart, as it inevitably does, we swing just as wildly to the opposite extreme and declare that nothing true can be asserted regarding ethical or political topics.  Thus we oscillate endlessly between positivism and relativism – between sociobiology on the one hand, and post-modernism on the other – without ever discovering the grounds on which to establish some form of civil agreement.

The moral confusion that results has been incorporated into our teaching. Schools, governed more by fashion and politics than by philosophy, have responded to the age’s lack of moral clarity by abdicating moral education, except for slogans amenable to the diversity regime or those aimed at eliciting compliance with various school rules. “Respect” at school means complying with rules about wearing hats, and “responsibility” mean turning in homework on time.

This doesn’t seem to be working very well. Lost in Transition : The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Hilary Davidson, Kari Christoffersen, Christian Smith, Patricia Snell Herzog explores in some detail the moral confusion of young Americans. This sociological study from Oxford University Press is based on “in-depth interviews with a broad cross-section of emerging adults (ages 18-23) to investigate the difficulties young people face today, the underlying causes of those difficulties, and the consequences both for individuals and for American society as a whole.”

The findings that have gotten most attention are the author’s claims about the vacuity of moral reasoning among today’s young people:

We asked emerging adults to tell us about any experiences they have had facing moral dilemmas recently and how they went about resolving them. In the context of a larger discussion about moral rights and wrongs, goods and bads, we asked this question: “Can you tell me about a specific situation you’ve been in recently where you were unsure of what was right and wrong?” Their answers were revealing. First, one-third of the emerging adults who we interviewed (33 percent) simply could not think of any moral dilemmas or difficult situations that they had personally confronted in recent years. . . .Two-thirds of the emerging adults we interviewed (about 66 percent) proved simply unable to engage our questions about moral dilemmas in their lives. . . .The rest either think they do not face any moral conflicts or uncertainties, think that they do when in fact they really do not, or do not understand what “moral” means.

. . . the adult world that has socialized these youth for 18 to 23 years has done an awful job when it comes to moral education and formation. Moral individualism and relativism are simply intellectually impossible and socially unsustainable positions. Any college sophomore philosophy major should be able to handily deconstruct them both. Yet the majority of American youth have entered emerging adulthood committed to moral individualism. And a substantial minority of them have done the same with moral relativism. On these two elementary points, these emerging adults are simply lost. They are morally at sea in boats that leak water badly. That is not an acceptable situation. . . .

Schools are one of the most powerful socializing institutions of youth in American society today, along with families and the mass media. Public schools are the dominant institution among all school types. Before we interviewed our respondents as emerging adults, we had previously interviewed them twice, when they were still teenagers, some of them when they were as young as 13 years old. So we know a great deal about their lives before they entered emerging adulthood. One big theme that stuck out in our previous interviews was the fact that the schools, especially public schools, that our younger respondents attended studiously avoided talking about potentially controversial moral issues. Over and over again, these teenagers we interviewed reported that their teachers always sidestepped and evaded questions and problems that might generate disagreement or conflict in the classroom. “No, my teachers avoid controversies like that like the plague,” they would typically say. “Anytime anything that might make trouble or hurt someone’s feelings come up, they say we aren’t going there,” others confirmed. “Nope, we can’t talk about religion or them hot-button moral issues in school, ’cause they don’t want to open up that can of worms” was a typical report. In short, it appears that most schools, especially public schools, are not teaching students how to constructively engage moral issues about which people disagree. Quite the contrary, schools are teaching students that the best way to deal with difficult moral problems and questions is to ignore them. The moral pedagogy of most middle and high schools clearly seems to be: avoid, ignore, and pretend the issues will go away. Needless to say, that is naive and impossible. It actually resembles highly dysfunctional families that have sets of issues that nobody is allowed to bring up or discuss and that are instead carefully tiptoed around.

So, should we do something? According to Signorelli, we need to regain the standards of truth that are embodied in the great works of our own tradition. “Our task,” he says, “is simply the revival of humanist scholarship, in the schools especially, but in the broader culture also.  We must become regular readers again of Sophocles, Thucydides, Petrarch, Cervantes, Racine, Johnson, and Tolstoy, because a mind that is acquainted with their works will find it absolutely ridiculous to suppose that such authors do not state truth.”

My own reading has tended heavily toward such old authors in recent years, and the claims that Signorelli makes for such reading ring true for me. However, I don’t imagine any of this will have the slightest effect on public schools, if things are left to them.

Toward a New Story for Schooling

Saul O. Sidore Distinguished Lecture
University of New Hampshire

My topic is “Toward a New Story for Schooling,” but I’m really telling an old story: we can’t separate education from community and we can’t understand communities without understanding them as a web of stories. To improve our schools, we need to pay attention to the stories our communities tell themselves about what they face, what is worth wanting, and where to go next. A new story can suddenly change us–as individuals, communities, or nations.

In 1849 Kit Carson set off in pursuit of a band of Apaches who had captured a white woman. The anecdote, related by Carson himself, sounds like the beginning of a movie. However, Carson had to ride his sweating horse not through the West of some scriptwriter’s imagination, but through a world more like the one we experience every day. A world where we lose the trail, move too slowly, lose our nerve, take the wrong turn, arrive too late or in the wrong place. By the time Carson caught up with the Indians, the woman was dead.

In the abandoned Apache camp he found something else though. A book about a largely fictional character named “Kit Carson” who was a great Indian-slaying hero. It was a shock to him. According to historian Richard White, “Carson’s reaction to finding the book . . . was to lament his failure to live up to his fictional reputation.” The actual Kit Carson was something less than god-like. He couldn’t tuck his pants into a pair of colorful boots, swoop into the scene amid a glittering whirl of rhinestones and leather fringe to perform six-gun magic against the doomed forces of evil. Compared to pulp fiction, real life seemed a bit dismal. And so “the fictional Carson became the standard for the real Carson.”

His life began trying to imitate the story. And who can blame him? We all have within us the heroic impulse. We want lives of meaning, of purpose, of significance and so do our students. If our schools don’t allow young people to feel themselves heroically engaged in something that matters, if we don’t organize them into stories that capture their imagination, filling them with visions of how they want to be, they will fall easy prey to other storytellers, which are all around us.

It has always been that way. There are stories and images loose in the world that capture us and drive our destiny. Such stories rival geography and economics as forces that shape the history both of individuals and nations.

The trouble in schools today can best be understood as a crisis in the narrative environment.

Full Text PDF: “A New Story for Schooling”

Robert E. Lee on honesty: a companion text to Machiavelli

When my rhetoric and composition class held a Socratic dialogue on an excerpt from Machiavelli’s The Prince [Machiavellei: The Morals of the Prince], a consensus formed quite quickly that one had to do what one had to do–that is, lie.

I injected a counter argument into the conversation, suggesting that it is possible to approach public life in the spirit of Socrates, using language only to discover and communicate truth–having goals that one is willing to advocate for explicitly and honesty so that one can also adopt truth telling as one’s method.

A stronger approach would have been to be sure that students had read counter arguments by other writers before the dialogue, so that the discussion could focus on understanding and analyzing various points of view, rather than agreeing or disagreeing with what they guess is the teacher’s opinion.

So I’ve been looking for a text that could serve as one of the companion texts for Machiavelli. A letter by Robert E. Lee to his oldest son might serve. Here he argues for being frank in every situation:

You must study to be frank with the world; frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right. If a friend ask a favor, you should grant it, if it is reasonable; if not, tell him plainly why you cannot. You will wrong him and wrong yourself by equivocation of any kind. Never do wrong to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly but firmly with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not. If you have any fault to find with any one, tell him, not others, of what you complain; there is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man’s face and another behind his back. We should live, act, and say nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but it is the path to peace and honor.

In regard to duty, let me, in conclusion of this hasty letter, inform you that nearly a hundred years ago there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness—still known as ‘the dark day,’—a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished as if by an eclipse. The Legislature of Connecticut was in session, and its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on. They shared in the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day had come. Some one, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Davenport, of Stamford, and said that if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and therefore moved that candles be brought in, so that the House could proceed with its duty. There was quietness in that man’s mind, the quietness of heavenly wisdom and inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things, like the old Puritan, You cannot do more; you should never do less. Never let me and your mother wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part.

“Human virtue should be equal to human calamity.” That’s rhetoric worth pondering.