26 September 2010

Designed to Fail - Education in America: Part Two

part one     part three    part four    part five

How did the United States go from this:

"One error still prevails to a ruinous extent, namely: the neglect of cultivating and developing the powers of the mind, while every thing is attempted to be done by taxing memory with the weight of names and abstractions, allowing no play for thought, and exciting no interest whatever in the child's mind. It seems as if many of our teachers and book makers, from the highest to the lowest depart, ments, forget that children have minds, and suppose that the only powers they will ever possess, are to be imparted by teachers, whereas the teacher ought to know that he cannot impart a single iota of power. The most he can do, is, to develop powers already in existence, and because the attempt has been made rather to create than to cultivate, the mind of man has, in many cases, been actually cramped and weakened rather than strengthened at school." - Report of Mr. Lewis, Superintendent of Common Schools of Ohio (1839)

to this: 

"Schools should be factories in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products. . . manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry." - Ellwood Cubberley's dissertation 1905, Teachers College, Columbia University 

and this: 

"People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning. [pause] I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job." - Michelle Rhee Time Magazine

In large part, they made this transition through this:

"From the point of view of American educational history the most important developments in connection with the Reformation were those arising from Calvinism. While the Calvinistic faith was rather grim and forbidding, viewed from the modern standpoint, the Calvinists everywhere had a program for political, economic, and social progress which has left a deep impress on the history of mankind. This program demanded the education of all, and in the countries where Calvinism became dominant the leaders included general education in their scheme of religious, political, and social reform...In his plan for the schools of Geneva, published in 1538, he outlined a system of elementary education in the vernacular for all. which involved instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, religion, careful grammatical drill, and training for civil as well as for ecclesiastical leadership." - Ellwood Cubberley

and this:

Miss Columbia's School (1894 cartoon based on 1869 book)
"One of the most remarkable features of the American free school is its almost infinite power of assimilation, and this is one of the greatest works which the school does. It draws children from all nations together, and marks them with the impress of nationality. Mr. Pawson says: " The school has more to do than to educate the children: it is the mill, so to speak, into which go children of English, Scotch, Irish, German, Russian, Italian, and Scandinavian parents, and come out Americans. Africa contributes its negroes, and now Asia is sending its Chinese. All must learn English, and the result will soon be that the population of the United States will be the most homogeneous of nations." - Francis Adams.

The Horatio Alger Myth was a vital part of
the conversion of capitalist purpose to
Christian National Belief
It was one thing for Henry Barnard to design an education system which would divide American  children up in the most effective way for capitalist industrialism. It was one thing to import a system from authoritarian Prussia designed to foster compliant nationalism and train imperial soldiers [1]. But we would not be living with that system today if not for a system of religious and national mythology embracing that system and making it seem the inevitable result of a progressive, God-inspired nation.

Politics can shift, and does, but the essential myths which define a nation create institutions which endure. And this is a vital concept for the United States which has the second oldest extant government system on the planet (after the Most Serene Republic of San Marino).

The United States, lacking a defining specific religion or a native identity, has seen a civil religion created and embraced. It is not the typical founding of a nation through "Romantic Nationalism," because in the case of the U.S. the nation came first (more traditional Romantic Nationalism is represented by the Irish liberation movement with its literature (see Declan Kiberd's Inventing Ireland), sport, and re-embrace of Gaeilge, or the Zionist movement with the Maccabiah myths and re-establishment of the ancient Hebrew language). Not typical, but very powerful.

The power of this civil religion is that, in education as in economics, it converts arguments for change from political disagreement into heresy.

On part one of this series Lisa Parisi commented, "Seems like we teachers have two choices....work within the system to help students succeed or fight the system and lose our jobs. Not a good choice, either way. And having our government choose people to revamp the system and not choose any educators, is a clear message that the goal is to maintain the system, not help the children." And Lisa sums up the predicament the system creates for teachers. It also answers William Chamberlain's question from the same post, "Do you think when teachers are confronted with the reason school is the way it is they will accept it or rebel? Do we simply need to educate teachers about why they teach how they teach?" They may rebel, but the odds against that rebellion winning are long. In the past 300 years only the French Revolution permanently altered a nation's relationship to its religion.

The "American Civil Religion" did not arise with the Revolutionary generation, it began to be developed when the nascent second industrial revolution joined the uniquely American "Second Great Awakening." And this, historically, coincided with the the "invention" of the U.S. public education system, with schools becoming the missions of the new theology.

Throughout the 19th Century, as Henry Barnard's system was being "authored," the religion grew alongside it. America was "the last great hope of earth," as Lincoln said, with a divine mission. America was "a light unto the world,"and the furthest advance of western civilization. And this religion had specific components which were embedded both in the educational system and in the public's attitude toward that system:

First, the religion required a uniformity of belief and worship - as most Protestantism sects do. This required the "melting pot" concept of American immigration, in which those seeking to join the society would be converted into "Americans."

"The fusing process goes on as in a blast-furnace; one generation, a single year even-- transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American. Uniform institutions, ideas, language, the influence of the majority, bring us soon to a similar complexion; the individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion, fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot." - Titus Munson Coan (1875)

Schools, of course, would lead this charge, they would be the smelter, replacing the disappearing frontier which Turner had called "the crucible." "The population of New York City is by no means homogenous," New York Governor - and Lincoln Secretary of State - William Seward said in 1842, "on the contrary, it is the object of education to make it so."

Second, the religion required a moral code which would support the nation's economic system. In this literature played a vital part, and the literature was transmitted through reading instruction in the schoolhouse, exactly as the Christian Bible was transmitted through the catechisms of the Protestant churches.

The McGuffey Readers, the Horatio Alger stories, the frontier tales of Daniel Boone et al, formed the mythic American individual, so different from the communitarian Catholicism and Socialism of late 19th Century continental Europe. In this "America" any joining together of any non-wealthy subgroup was discouraged (whether labor unions or The Grange) because "real Americans" worked their way up through individual hard work and moral rightness. This required education to be a competitive environment, where the old peer teaching of the one room schoolhouse vanished.

"The Horatio Alger myth conveys three basic messages: (1) each of us is judged solely on her or his own merits; (2) we each have a fair opportunity to develop those merits; and (3) ultimately, merit will out. Each of them is, to be charitable, problematic. The first message is a variant on the rugged individualism ethos . . . . In this form, it suggests that success in life has nothing to do with pedigree, race, class background, gender, national origin, sexual orientation—in short, with anything beyond our individual control. Those variables may exist, but they play no appreciable role in how our actions are appraised." - Harlon Dalton.

American schools thus "attempt" to treat all "equally" as opposed to "equitably." We pretend that all are born with the same opportunities, and that "effort" and "proper behavior" is what matters, what will determine success or failure. This is a vitally important educational effort designed to block the kind of revolutionary impulses the 19th Century power structure saw threatening the economic and social structure in Europe, where even a Kaiser like Wilhelm II ruled an essentially socialist nation.

And it is what leads us directly to KIPP Schools, and the basic idea that failure in America's economic system is an individual moral, and not a systemic, problem.

Which brings us, belatedly - I apologize (four part series? perhaps) - to Ellwood Cubberley and the permanence of our system. Cubberley, the Teachers College trained teacher educator, stood astride American education in the first half of the 20th Century like a colossus, from his chair at Stanford University.

It was Cubberley who wrote the civil religion narrative permanently into the American education system, through both his books, and his deep impact on teacher training. When the history of American education began to be re-investigated after the Second World War, Cubberley's influence was obvious, Teachers College professor Lawrence Cremin devoted an entire book to him (The Wonderful World of Ellwood Patterson Cubberley).

Yet, as we debate education today, Cubberley, despite the cafe named for him beneath the College of Education in Palo Alto, has disappeared - and with him our understanding of the "how" and "why" in our current arguments. Cubberley is only mentioned twice in Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia, though we may assume the authors lunch, at times, in the eponymous cafe. In Cuban's massive How Teachers Taught, Cubberley is similarly absent (four mentions in 293 pages).

In Richard Altenbaugh's The American People and Their Education, Cubberley is simply not mentioned at all.

And this is deeply problematic, for it is Cubberley's "victory" over Montessori and Dewey which permanized the system, which created the canonical text under which almost all of our school's operate. Gatto: "Immediate action was called for. Cubberley’s celebratory history doesn’t examine motives, but does uneasily record forceful steps taken just inside the new century to nip the career of intellectual schooling for the masses in the bud, replacing it with a different goal: the forging of "well-adjusted" citizens."

Gatto quoting Cubberley: "Since 1900, and due more to the activity of persons concerned with social legislation and those interested in improving the moral welfare of children than to educators themselves, there has been a general revision of the compulsory education laws of our States and the enactment of much new child-welfare...and anti-child-labor legislation....These laws have brought into the schools not only the truant and the incorrigible, who under former conditions either left early or were expelled, but also many children...who have no aptitude for book learning and many children of inferior mental qualities who do not profit by ordinary classroom procedures....Our schools have come to contain many children who...become a nuisance in the school and tend to demoralize school procedure."

"The school reorganized its teaching along lines dictated by the new psychology of instruction which had come to us from abroad.... Beginning about 1880 to 1885 our schools began to experience a new but steady change in purpose [though] it is only since about 1900 that any marked and rapid changes have set in."

What exactly did Ellwood Cubberley do? And why did he do it? That is...

Next: Cubberley, Permanence, Social Reproduction, and those left behind...

- Ira Socol

[1] Sheldon Richman. Separating School & State: How To Liberate American Families. "Gatto emphasizes how the Prussian model set the standard for educational systems right up to the present. "The whole system was built on the premise that isolation from first-hand information and fragmentation of the abstract information presented by teachers would result in obedient and subordinate graduates, properly respectful of arbitrary orders," he writes. He says the American educationists imported three major ideas from Prussia. The first was that the purpose of state schooling was not intellectual training but the conditioning of children "to obedience, subordination, and collective life." Thus, memorization outranked thinking. Second, whole ideas were broken into fragmented "subjects" and school days were divided into fixed periods "so that self-motivation to learn would be muted by ceaseless interruptions." Third, the state was posited as the true parent of children. All of this was done in the name of a scientific approach to education, although, Gatto says, "no body of theory exists to accurately define the way children learn, or what learning is of most worth."


Anonymous said...

"inferior mental qualities"

Just wonderful.


Chad@Classroots.org said...

Thanks so much for this series, Ira. I hadn't realized how Harrison Bergeron we've been for so long.


3rseduc / handsinthesoil said...

I blogged about Cubberley (3rseduc.blogspot.com) and I'm starting to read his History of Education book. He among others (Lewis Terman, Horace Mann, etc) combined Prussian education models with eugenic ideas to create the very education you describe, one that I say marginalizes people, disallows them their ability to reach full potential. It is all quite sad and scary.