The Magazine

A World Without Public Schools

If the consensus underlying American public education has disappeared, why shouldn't the institution?

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Should America have public schools, or would we do better without them? Nothing is more important to this country than the transformation of children into educated American citizens. That's what public schools are for, and no institutions are better suited to the role--in principle. They used to fill it with distinction.

But there's no reason we must have public schools. Granted, the public has a strong interest in educating America's children, at a cost that's divided equitably among all taxpayers and not borne by the parents of school-age children alone. But these requirements don't imply any need for public schools. We need an Air Force, and the Air Force needs planes. Taxpayers pay for the force and the planes. But the pilots are supplied directly by the government, the airplanes by private companies (with government oversight and assistance). Schooling might be furnished on either model: mainly by public or mainly by private organizations. We know that private schools are perfectly capable of supplying first-class educations. So the question stands: Why have public schools? How should we decide whether to have them or not?

Vouchers have been a popular and promising (and controversial) idea for years. Under voucher plans, the public pays part or all of the bill when a child attends private school. But here I am talking about the whole hog, not just the tail and a couple of trotters. If sending some children to private school at public expense is worth discussing, why not sending all children to private school?

Why not liberate all the vast resources we spend on public schools to be re-channeled to private schools chosen by the nation's parents? Any public school offering an education that parents will actually pay for (of their own free will) would presumably be replaced by a private school offering essentially the same thing. But a vast array of new private schools would germinate also. And a vast number of failed public schools would disappear.

In the system I am picturing, education would continue to be free and accessible to every child, and all taxpayers would continue to pay for it. Parents would be guaranteed access to "reasonable" schools that cost them nothing beyond what they pay in taxes. It would all be just like today--except that public schools would have vanished.

Would private organizations be capable of providing enough new schools to replace our gigantic public schools establishment? Private enterprise is alleged to be smarter and more resourceful in America than anywhere else in the world. So let's suppose that private schools can indeed meet the needs of nearly all parents. Do we actually need and want our public schools, or do we keep them around out of fear of the teachers' unions--and habit, like a broken child's toy we are too sentimental to throw away?

The basic law of public schools

Many sources agree that, on the whole, American public schools are rotten. In 2000, a whopping 12 percent of graduating seniors were rated "proficient" in science, and international surveys rank our graduating seniors 19th overall out of 21 nations. In 2002, the Washington Post summarized a different survey: "Nearly six in 10 of the nation's high school seniors lack even a basic knowledge of U.S. history." And so on. Our public schools are widely agreed to be in bad shape. But these are only problems of incompetence. Others cut deeper.

The basic law of public schools is this: Public schools are first and foremost agents of the public. They exist to transform children into "educated citizens" as the public understands this term--in other words, as a public consensus defines it. Of course the United States is a large country; standards have always differed from state to state. So each state has its own public schools, charged with satisfying the consensus definition of "educated citizen" in that state.

In 1898, Nicholas Murray Butler (soon to be president of Columbia University) described universities in terms that make explicit this connection, one that is almost forgotten today. "In order to become great--indeed, in order to exist at all," he wrote,

a university [or public school!] must represent the national life and minister to it. When the universities of any country cease to be in close touch with the social life and institutions of the people, and fail to yield to the efforts of those who would readjust them, their days of influence are numbered. The same is true of any system of educational organization.

Public schools even more than universities must "represent the national life and minister to it." They must "minister to" the consensus definition of an educated citizen. And what is a "consensus"? "Unanimity or general agreement on matters of opinion," according to Webster's; solid agreement by a large majority.

And in states where there is no public consensus or general agreement on the meaning of "educated citizen," public schools are in an impossible position. They can't act for the public if the public can't decide how they should act. This is true without regard to whether the schools are working well or badly.

Today there are few states or none where a public consensus or general agreement exists on what "educated citizen" means. Schools exist not only to teach skills but to mold character. (Although many object to this old-fashioned language, few Americans disagree that schools must teach an approach to life, a worldview, a moral framework.) The culture war that has been underway since the late '60s is precisely a war over approaches to life and worldviews and moral frameworks. Our politics mirror that divide. In the 2004 presidential election, Kerry and Bush differed on politics, but stood also for two different worldviews in the larger sense--Kerry the globalizing man-of-the-world with his European experience versus the plainspoken, ranch-living, Bible-quoting Bush. In simplest terms, Kerry stood for "globalism," Bush for "Americanism." As between these divergent visions, the country split down the middle.

It's pretty clear that no consensus or general agreement on the nature of education is likely to exist in a country that's so divided. Which suggests in turn that, for now, the age of the American public school is over. Obviously we shouldn't make such judgments on the basis of short-term disagreements or divisions. But America's culture war has been underway for a generation at least.

You might argue that the solution is to have two varieties of public school, roughly "moderate left" and "moderate right," each with its own curriculum, textbooks, and standards, and its own version of a worldview or moral framework to teach children. Every neighborhood or local region would vote on left versus right local schools. In many areas such elections would be extraordinarily hard-fought and bitter--yet the solution might work, except that the school establishment's bias is so consistently left (and not moderate left either) that it seems unlikely we could trust it to operate "moderate right" schools--or even "neutral" schools, if there were such a thing. (The public schools' bias often shows itself in exactly the form of "neutrality," as I'll discuss. If you declare yourself neutral as between America and her enemies, or normal sexuality and homosexuality, your neutrality in itself is bias.)

Of course this whole analysis might be wrong. Maybe I misunderstand the point of public schools. Was there ever a consensus in this country on what an educated citizen should be? Maybe we always have been content for the schools to speak for just one section of American society, never the whole.

But this view is wrong. Once upon a time there was indeed an Age of Consensus on public education, and it is worth remembering.

Age of consensus

The American public school enjoyed consensus for roughly a century and a half, from its beginnings in the 1820s through the 1970s. Obviously the existence of segregated schools meant that this Age of Consensus agreed only on some things. But the evidence suggests that black parents wanted basically the same things for their children as white parents did for theirs. Segregation (after all) was condemned not for neglecting black culture but for failing the test of equality, failing to supply black students with the same quality of education that white students got. Nor did newly arrived Jewish parents from Eastern Europe, for example, want their children studying Yiddish in public school; they wanted them to learn English and grab hold of American culture with both hands.

During these years there was broad agreement on skills-teaching and character-building (or the teaching of worldviews and moral frameworks). The two areas were intertwined. Since the 1970s, consensus in both departments has fallen apart. Both areas are important, but not equally. Disputes about the teaching of skills can be patched up or compromised. Disputes about morality, worldviews, and character-building make public schools untenable.

Samuel Johnson (the great essayist and lexicographer) said virtually the same thing in a different way. "Knowledge of external nature," he wrote (in his Life of Milton, 1781), "and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great requirement or the frequent business of the human mind." He continues:

Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requirement is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind. . . . Prudence and justice are virtues and excellences of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance.

Which is still true in the 21st century. We remain perpetual moralists, and geometricians only by chance. First our children must learn right from wrong, and how to approach life; then they must learn history (assuming they have already learned how to read and write). If the public can't agree on how to teach these things, it has no business maintaining public schools. And nowadays it can't.

The eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910) is a good guide to American attitudes of roughly a century ago, in the age of consensus. "The great mass of the American people," it reported, "are in entire agreement as to the principles which should control public education; and the points in which the policies of the several states are in agreement are greater, both in number and in importance, than those in which they differ. An American educational system exists, therefore, in spirit and in substance, even though not in form." Once, it was possible to argue that all America agreed on the educational basics.

It's fair to object that the Britannica spoke for Middle America, and no doubt overstated the actual degree of consensus. But there must have been some sort of consensus; the public was not bitterly divided, was not split in half as it is today. The Encyclopedia continues: "Formal instruction in manners and morals is not often found, but the discipline of the school offers the best possible training in the habits of truthfulness, honesty, obedience, regularity, punctuality and conformity to order." And by the way, "religious teaching is not permitted, although the exercises of the day are often opened with reading from the Bible, the repetition of the Lord's Prayer and the singing of a hymn."

In the Age of Consensus, public schools taught skills and built character in ways the public endorsed. In the 19th century, there was general agreement that "no teaching is worthy of the name if it does not have a moral and ethical end" (according to the eminent progressive educator Francis Parker, 1898). And there was broad agreement on which moral standards to uphold, and their rootedness in the nation's religious traditions. Butler quotes the president of Bowdoin College on the purpose of a liberal education--which again applies to schools and colleges. Such an education is "for combining sound scholarship with solid character; for making men both intellectually and spiritually free; for uniting the pursuit of truth with reverence for duty." (And by the way, a college faculty should consist of "professors who are men first and scholars afterward.")

One of the best ways to hear the Age of Consensus over the intervening gap of many years is to listen to the "readers" that were so important to public elementary schools (or "common schools" as they were called) during most of the 19th century and into the 20th. They were graded collections of stories, poems, and maxims; McGuffey's beat all others in popularity and became an American legend. Readers came into use in the 1820s. Mark Sullivan discusses them in his classic multivolume cultural history, Our Times (1935). There are still thousands of copies circulating through the nation's old-book dealers. Modern public school teachers should take a look. They might learn something.

The Readers taught children the national consensus on ethics and morals as well as reading, writing, and literature. An 1879 version of McGuffey's Fifth and Sixth Readers gives a statement of purpose:

To obtain as wide a range of leading authors as possible, to present the best specimens of style, to insure interest in the subjects, to impart valuable information, and to exert a decided and healthful moral influence.

They were designed first and foremost to instill the community's ethical principles. "Much as you may have studied the languages or the sciences," one pupil remembers, "that which most affected you was the moral lessons in the series of McGuffey." Sullivan believes that "McGuffey's was the source of that stock of points of view and tastes held in common, which constituted much of America's culture, its codes of morals and conduct, its standards of propriety, its homely aphorisms, its 'horse-sense' axioms. . . . At all times and in every respect, McGuffey's Readers had a strong flavor of religion."

"Great indeed were the old McGuffey's Readers," said one pupil. "This whole country is literally full of their ardent admirers. Nothing like them ever existed in any age, anywhere in the world." "I received more inspiration from McGuffey's Readers than from any other books in my experience," said another. Try eliciting admiration from your kids (or mine) about any textbook series in use today.

Public schools in the Age of Consensus were far from perfect. Often they taught science badly--as schools usually do. On the whole they weren't much interested in classical and foreign languages, or the arts. They taught American history in a mildly distorted way--patriotism is good, but the schools of that era tended to resolve disputes between patriotic impulses and the truth in favor of patriotism. (Today's schools tend to resolve such disagreements by rejecting patriotic impulses and the truth as well.)

And American education in that era was often served with a twist of anti-intellectualism, for flavor. The celebrated author Elbert Hubbard believed that "it is not book learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of their vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies"--so he says in his immensely popular essay in sort-of journalism, "A Message to Garcia," 1899. (Not a bad thought, if you disregard the anti-book slur.)

Many urban schools were overcrowded, especially as more and more immigrants piled in. Segregated schools for blacks were often miserable. Yet throughout America--rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural--schools in general and teachers in particular were regarded with respect. And America's various creeds and colors agreed on the fundamental skills and principles with which a child should be equipped.

You can see what it all looked like in Winslow Homer's remarkable paintings of teachers, pupils, and schoolhouses in the late 19th century, full of sunshine and grave, reticent dignity. A teacher (for example) reads to a scattering of casually attentive, remarkably comfortable-looking pupils in the quiet sunlight of a country school (1872). Several generations later, America's rural schools still seemed like pleasant but formidable institutions, and teachers were heroines. E.B. White, 1939: "I have an increasing admiration for the teacher in the country school where we have a third-grade scholar in attendance. She not only undertakes to instruct her charges in all the subjects of the first three grades, but she manages to function quietly and effectively as a guardian of their health, their clothes, their habits, their mothers, and their snowball engagements. . . . My boy already regards his teacher as his great friend, and I think tells her a great deal more than he tells us."

Where the schools stand today

There's reason to believe that when it comes to the all-important issue of teaching worldviews and moral frameworks, American public schools are so sharply and consistently biased, they disqualify themselves for the core task of educating citizens. There are many ways to see the school establishment's bias. One is to look at the SATs--the standard tests that virtually all college-bound high school students take, that deeply influence high school teaching. Reading The Official SAT Study Guide ("#1 Best Seller," "The only book with SAT practice tests created by the maker") is one way to get some idea of the state of mind in the education world.

Here's a sentence from a passage that students are quizzed on. "The First World War is a classic case of the dissonance between official, male-centered history and unofficial female history." You might object that the idea of "official history" is a sham and a crock, unless you refer specifically to accounts commissioned by the combatant governments themselves. But this silly assertion is presented as if it were fact.

Or: "The reluctance in accepting this obvious fact comes from the Eurocentric conviction that the West holds a monopoly on science, logic, and clear thinking. To admit that other, culturally divergent viewpoints are equally plausible is to cast doubt on the monolithic center of Judeo-Christian belief: that there is but one of everything--God, right way, truth--and Europeans alone knew what it was." Breathtakingly absurd, breathtakingly offensive. "Europeans alone" were sufficiently interested in foreign cultures to find out what they were about. Europeans have been subject to periodic bouts of obsession with non-European cultures, from medieval fascination with Muslim philosophy and architecture through Picasso and his colleagues' 20th-century fixation on African art and onward to the present. Does Christianity hold that there is one Testament, one virtue, one sin, one Gospel, one martyr, one saint, one great man, one art, one science, one planet? Are Rousseau and Shelley part of "European culture," and all the aggressive radicals who came after? And what will Jewish, Christian, and Muslim parents think of an exam that describes monotheism as a "Eurocentric" conceit? What kind of imbecile could write such a passage?--and offer it to unwitting high school students as fact?

Naturally there are countless passages about downtrodden women and minorities, and famous women and members of minorities. One set of questions mentions these names: Duke Ellington, Margaret Atwood, one "Lois" (a student), Maya Angelou, and Rilke (who doesn't rate having his first name mentioned). It often seems as if white men just barely exist. Psychoanalysis, for example, is apparently mentioned once in this big book, in this question: "Anna Freud's impact on psychoanalysis was------, coming not from one brilliant discovery but from a lifetime of first-rate work." Her father might have had some "impact" on psychoanalysis too, but evidently it isn't worth speaking of.

Manifestations of this aggressive left tilt aren't restricted to SAT preparation books. In a memorable article in these pages, Pamela Winnick described the bizarre distortions wrought by political correctness in science textbooks. A Houghton Mifflin fifth-grade text devotes half a page to the Navajo physicist Fred Begay but doesn't mention Albert Einstein. Kay Hymowitz (also in these pages) has described the depredations of the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS), which wants students to see themselves as citizens of the world, not of any such old-fashioned, irrelevant entity as the United States of America. A keynote speaker at an NCSS conference "warned against patriotic displays like the singing of 'God Bless America.' 'The Swedes,' he noted, 'the Kenyans don't think God blesses America over all other countries.'"

And this isn't mere irrelevant theorizing. "Many states," Hymowitz reports, "have embraced the NCSS's idea that you don't need to know any American history to be an effective citizen. . . . Those in our schools who are shaping the civic imagination of the next generation discourage not just a love of America and its guiding principles, but any interest in the fortunes of our nation in particular."

Thus the irrelevance of suggesting that the schools ought to be ideologically "neutral." They can't produce American citizens who love and care for and plan to protect this country if they teach "neutrality" instead of patriotism.

A notorious 2005 dispute in the schools of Lexington, Mass., is highly revealing. The participants behaved and spoke with memorable directness; a student's father went to jail to make a point. It suggests that our disagreements over education go right down to the ground.

David Parker and his wife Tonia had a 5-year-old son in kindergarten. They got wind of the topics on the kindergarten agenda--and asked to be notified and allowed to remove their son from class when same-sex marriage and similar topics were on the day's syllabus. Mr. Parker went to school to insist. He refused to leave until administrators granted his request. They did not grant it. Instead, after two hours of arguing, they called the police and had him arrested. He spent the night in jail.

Few parents have the courage and persistence of the Parkers. But many are deeply angry at the schools for teaching ideas that specifically contradict their child's moral and religious upbringing. The Boston Globe quoted Mrs. Parker: "We're not giving unfettered access to the psyche of our son when he enters the school." Orthodox Jews and many Christians believe that homosexuality is a sin. (Which doesn't mean they are "homophobes" or "hate homosexuals," any more than they hate sinners in general. This ridiculous, mean-spirited libel turns religious doctrine upside down. Both religions teach that the sin is hateful, not the sinner. They also teach that male and female are equally essential in the rearing of children. If Jews or Christians who call homosexuality a sin are "homophobes," supporters of same-sex marriage are misogynists or misanthropes, as the case may be. But none of these ad hominem accusations is helpful.)

For the schools to take it on themselves to contradict and "correct" the religious and moral instruction parents give their children represents (for many Americans) the height of statist arrogance; and exactly what they have come to expect from today's public schools.

Of course you might reply that if the public is deeply divided, public schools ought to step forward and offer a compromise. Ought to help lead the nation to common ground; help close the wound and stop the bleeding. Maybe the schism in public thinking means that we need our public schools now more than ever.

But the schools are not acting as if they want to bridge the great divide. Once more the Parker case is illuminating. Lexington School Committee chairman Thomas Griffiths said: "We don't view telling a child that there is a family out there with two mommies as teaching about homosexuality, heterosexuality, or any kind of sexuality. We are teaching about the realities of where different children come from."

A profoundly ideological statement masquerading as sweet reason. The syllogism "if a thing exists 'out there,' the nation's 5-year-olds must be notified at once" will strike many Americans as cracked. But of course others will applaud Griffiths's statement. We are a divided nation. In America today, there is no consensus for our public schools to embody.

(A related dispute arises when schools insist on teaching young children about the Holocaust in all its revolting evil. Sensitive children get nightmares, are scared of going to bed--I've seen this happen in my own family. Yes, American children must be taught about the Holocaust--but intelligently, dammit, with some regard for the child's own well-being. Children are not mere adults in miniature. We are supposed to have outgrown that primitive idiocy sometime in the 19th century. But it has returned to plague us in America's dim-witted schools establishment. Evidently common sense is another divisive issue in modern America.)

What happened?

Wow on earth did we reach this pass? It's an oft-told tale, but worth repeating. Two simultaneous processes combined (like drugs and booze) to create America's culture war.

In the generation following World War II, intellectuals took over America's universities. The transformation was dramatic. Before World War II, elite schools like Princeton or Yale were social institutions first and foremost. They harbored some intellectuals on their faculties and among their students, like raisins in a sparsely populated oatmeal cookie. But on the whole, they were run by the social elite for the social elite.

When Woodrow Wilson became president of Princeton in 1902, he denounced it for (social, not intellectual) exclusiveness--"The American college must become saturated in the same sympathies as the common people," he demanded. "The colleges of this country must be reconstructed from the top to the bottom. The American people will tolerate nothing that savors of exclusiveness." His demands went unsatisfied. Scott Fitzgerald summed things up in his 1920 Bildungsroman, This Side of Paradise: "Amory [the hero] had definitely decided on Princeton. Yale had a romance and glamour . . . but Princeton drew him most, with its atmosphere of bright colors and its alluring reputation as the pleasantest country club in America."

In the decades after World War II, things changed: student admissions, faculty hiring, standards for tenure; eventually even university presidents were chosen from among the academic intelligentsia. Today America's elite universities are run by intellectuals, for intellectuals.

Another related transformation was underway during these same years (although it had begun earlier): the professionalization of American life, and consequent huge increase in the university's influence. Business, journalism, and education schools became immensely more important than ever before. The importance and prestige of law and medical schools continued to expand.

Combined, these two processes made a revolution.

Once, intellectuals had been peripheral to American life. Now the American university had been placed in their hands--and American culture in the university's hands. The university was the power chord, and henceforth the electric buzz of U.S. intellectual life would drive American culture--which was plugged right into it. So intellectuals inherited the kingdom--and came to control American culture, which (naturally) veered sharply left as soon as they took charge.

American public schools were especially susceptible to the leftward swing. Public school teachers were educated at education schools, which turned even harder left than many other graduate and professional schools. (The less substance to a school or degree program, the more lightweight its courses, the more apt it is to be affected by the ideological climate. A magnet is more apt to cause lightweight objects than heavy ones to skitter towards it.) Moreover, the public schools had always admired and imitated the prestige universities.

As for private schools, they felt the leftward pull too--but were less likely than public schools to require their teachers to hold ed school degrees; and in some cases had enough religious, spiritual, or intellectual heft to resist the seductive attraction of the leftwing magnet.

The religion of the Left

Today's left-liberal faith despises the Bible, Judaism and Christianity, family life, and "the patriarchy." It believes in a "globalism" that holds divisions within nations (race and class divisions) to be terribly important and divisions among nations to be trivial. It believes in multinational government and (naturally) hates patriotism on principle, just as it does Christianity, with all the fervent hatred that new faiths reserve for older ones. Its fundamental principle is that men and women are not just equal but interchangeable.

This left-liberalism is no mere political ideology. It is beyond doubt a religion, and has been since the 1930s. (There is no God in the left-liberal religion, but the same holds for other accepted and acknowledged religions.) Religious beliefs are ones that you take on faith, that you cannot be talked out of, that show you a broad, comprehensive, high-level picture of the world. They are doctrines you believe for internal spiritual reasons, not external factual ones.

Listen to the eminent critic Alfred Kazin on the 1930s: "I was a socialist as so many Americans were Christians." "The condemned Communists in [André Malraux's] Man's Fate--Russian, German, Chinese--embodied the fundamental element of a new religion."

Listen to Mary McCarthy, whose stories (according to the author herself) are thinly disguised nonfictions: Most '30s converts to socialism "resembled the original twelve apostles in the New Testament. . . . But Jim was like the Roman centurion or Saint Paul."

To these and dozens of other writers, it came naturally to speak of left-liberalism in religious terms. Jonah Goldberg wrote that "modern liberalism has taken on the trappings of a religion" a few years ago (2005, in National Review). He's certainly correct, and his thesis is important; but the development is not new.

So we reach another disqualifying problem with America's public schools. They are teaching our children religion. The apostles and propagandists of American left-liberalism speak of their new faith as blatantly and aggressively as public schools of bygone ages ever spoke about biblical religion or Americanism. And thus our public schools blatantly, aggressively violate the Constitution.

Americanism (to be fair) can be a religion too--a biblical religion; the application of Judeo-Christian principles to the problem of the modern state. In general terms modern Americanism is the exact inverse of left-liberal globalism. It holds that divisions within the nation (race and class divisions) are unimportant as compared with divisions among nations. It distrusts multinational government and (naturally) believes in patriotism on principle. Good left-liberals are apt to ask themselves, What do France and Germany think of us? Americanists are more apt to ask themselves, What would my ancestors and the nation's founders think of us?

Americanism and its creed (liberty, equality, and democracy for all mankind), and its devout belief in the United States as the shining city on the hill, and its faith in the teachings of its greatest prophet ("with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right") was once the consensus religion of the United States. The revolution of the intellectuals during the post-World War II generation created a successful secession movement. Today a substantial minority of this country has renounced Americanism in favor of left-liberalism, or "globalism," or (as Milton Himmelfarb memorably put it) "soft-boiled paganism."

The future

What would the nation look like without public schools? Nearly all existing public school buildings would be leased to private schools. All the private schools in any town or district would discuss programs and fees among themselves (which would not count as illegal price-fixing), and with the public too, via local government or town meetings. Any public school whose staff believes in it would be allowed to keep its building and reorganize on a new basis. Some large public schools, especially high schools, would reorganize as confederacies of separate schools sharing one building: a science and math school, humanities school, arts school, sports school. Many students could attend more than one simultaneously. The Internet's most important role might be to help coordinate such complicated arrangements. (Though it's also true that a well-designed Internet school might attract students from all over the country.)

One final question: Is there any chance that Abolition will be acted on, or even discussed? Don't hold your breath. Yet it would take just one prominent (even medium-prominent) politician or public figure to get America talking. We desperately need this national discussion. And what could be healthier for America's public schools than to learn that they might not be immortal after all?

David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale and a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and author of the forthcoming Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. The author would like to thank Joshua Gelernter for research assistance.