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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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: