Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Catastrophe of Public Education

What H.G. Wells says in his famous statement above is quite true. History is a race between education and catastrophe. Unfortunately, the manner in which education is delivered in the United States, and in other countries of the Western World, through public institutitions, now is itself the catastrophe. Rather than preventing a larger historical catastrophe, public education is now promoting and contributing to just such a thing.

This is not exactly news. It was already realized early in the 1980's (the federal report, "A Nation at Risk," 1983) that students were graduating from high school, and often from college, without knowing much of anything. Sometimes they were functionally illiterate, especially from inner city schools. Alarms were continually sounded through the 1990's, such as with Thomas Sowell's splendid Inside American Education, The Decline, The Deception, the Dogmas [The Free Press, 1993]. But now, after a good thirty years, and with some marginal improvements in some places, the general problem is just as bad, if not in certain respects worse. With some regularity, polls seem to show that graduates know little about history, government, literature, science, economics, geography, etc.

In the 80's, it was easily recognized that one problem with the schools was just the "dumbing down" of the curriculum. Less and less was expected of students, often deliberately, so as not to damage their self-esteem; and, indeed, international surveys showed that American students felt better about themselves, even when their performance was dismal in international comparisons. Students from say, Korea, felt worse about themselves but accomplished much more. This was a trend that should have been reversed just as easily as it was recognized. But it wasn't. In 1988, E.D. Hirsch published a book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, talking about the essential general knowledge that education should be conveying; but the educational Establishment ignored this.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon. Theodore Dalrymple, a British psychiatrist practicing at a public hospital and a prison, in his marvelous Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass [Ivan R. Dee, 2003], remarks that he didn't know what disturbed him more, that the young toughs of his experience were tatooing themselves with swastikas, or that they actually didn't know, thanks to British education, who had actually used the swastika (the Nazis) and what they had done (dictatorship, war, mass murder). His regular experience with the young patients he saw was that they knew little about anything.

Why this has all happened is not all that mysterious, nor why it has proven so difficult to reverse the trend. There has just not been the political will, or perhaps even the political means, to accomplish reform -- with a smokescreen of lies and deceptions confusing the matter. Indeed, I believe that the system is simply unreformable, and the only solution is to allow students and parents to escape it.

The root of the problem can be summarized in three terms: (1) teachers' unions, (2) education schools, and (3) the federal government. Each of these has become its own rent-seeking and bureaucratic institution, following a dynamic, well described by Public Choice Economics, that serves themselves as institutions but bears little relation to what most people would think of as the purposes of education, let alone public education. The most disturbing feature of this dynamic is the extent to which ignorance promotes the control and purposes of the educational establishment better than the successful dissemination of knowledge would. . .
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