Originally published in educational HorizonsWinter 1995, 57 - 59
Back in the late sixties when I taught high school German, I was sent a sampling of foreign language readers from a publisher under the series title, "Reading for Meaning." To my chagrin I found them to be quite ordinary readers: each had a short expository section, a vocabulary list and grammar notes with exercises. I could not figure out what it was that was supposed to make them special. Then, where I least expected it, I found the explanation. Inside the first page -- one that preceded the title page -- was the following paragraph:
Hocus pocus. Abracadabra.
I went through the public school as a student in the days when "Education for Democracy" was the operative slogan. What was this education like? Well, I learned about George Washington's cherry tree, and celebrated the Alamo and the Boston Tea Party as well as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and General Custer.
I never heard a word about Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver or W.E.B. DuBois. We were taught to wax indignant about the Boston Massacre. We learned nothing about Wounded Knee. We remembered the Maine, but not Los Niños Heroes. We learned about foreign wars, but not about domestic labor-versus-management struggles.
We learned to duck and cover and even at age 9 we realized that such action, if it ever became necessary, would probably be our last. We were horrified to hear how, in Russia, people informed on their friends, even children on their parents. We were invited to be glad that Senator McCarthy was forcing people to inform on their friends in order to protect us against Communism.
We were taught not to question, to listen and to do as we were told. We saluted the flag religiously, even though, in those days, the phrase "under God" had not yet been made part of the compulsory salute.
The "democracy" we learned was a democracy of that petty pulpit that was every teacher's and principal's prerogative. We weren't fooled. Nobody with a shred of self-respect or half a brain ran for student government. Kids can be annoyingly recalcitrant when it comes to swallowing hypocrisy.
Many years later, about 1984, I talked with some colleagues who had extensively visited Soviet schools. They were shaken. They had left the U.S. with vague hopes for the best, being generally convinced that what the Soviets called "Socialism" offered some hope of redeeming the human race from the crass commercialism they saw as the corruption of American society. They came back with a common conviction: Soviet society was doomed to fail. The kids in Soviet schools, at all but the youngest levels, were thoroughly, deeply cynical. All the preachments, all the ceremonies of the Young Pioneers groups, all the government propaganda was dismissed as lies and hypocrisy by those students, sons and daughters of loyal Party members. It seems that the brainwashing that we in America had long fantasized as a fail-safe corrupter of the critical spirit, had failed to convince these kids that War was Peace, that Love was Hate and that Ignorance was Strength.
Has the brainwashing -- pardon me -- has the inculcation of democratic values by the public schools succeeded in our own country? If so, what is the nature of this "democracy" that we educators want to take responsibility for shaping?
If by "education for democracy" we mean "developing the capacities in each individual for self-government and collective decision-making" we can judge the result of our efforts in light of the following considerations.
Those things it seems abundantly clear that individuals in a democratic society need to know are just not taught in the public schools, for example, the basics of law, techniques of organizing groups, or basic modern economics -- not just the propaganda of free-market-wishful-thinkers who worship rather than study Adam Smith. History, which used to be selectively and biasedly taught, is now a multicultural mishmash that emphasizes victimization rather than the overcoming of difficulties. And what negotiation skills kids get are picked up under duress as "conflict resolution." In any case the best of intentions is satisfied by lip service, since any attempt to develop behavioral indicators of such learning have been undercut by increasing suspicions among the public that OBE is basically Progressive (read "child-centered, anti-family, un-American").
What about the results? That we have a public that resists change in the content and form of public education clearly demonstrates its satisfaction with the status quo by that resistance. And what are they satisfied with? Check their reading matter: tabloid newspapers that tell us that gorillas have mated with humans, that President Bush met with extraterrestrials and that space aliens control higher education (on that last point I am tempted to concede some credibility).
We have communities with a concept of public morality which brings them to pass laws increasing punishments for prostitutes -- no doubt, a major social threat -- while licensing gambling establishments in which they can fritter away their own and their children's sustenance. (A typical casino in Atlantic City takes in more money per week than the yearly budget of all but the biggest school districts.)
In this land of the enlightened, these products of Education for Democracy in their collective wisdom have decreed that Sex is X but scythe-fingered Freddy Krueger is entertainment for toddlers. Our is a "democracy" in which professional wresting is Sport, O.J.'s trial is Law and Wayne Bobbit is Home Improvement.
It is instructive to consider some of the people who were never "educated for democracy." Among them are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and myriad others who played an important role in the structuring of our governmental system to protect against totalitarianism.
Perhaps it is time to reduce the rhetoric that deludes educators into imagining they can normally expect to be surreptitious transformers of society, revolutionaries with salaries. We can preach and support the ideals of a democratic society, but we are not "change agents" of any significantly discernible effect. Those teachers whose visions (or ego) lead them into playing prophet, invariably visit the costs of their mission on their own students.
In fact, in a democratic society, the public school is the last place we should expect to find a unitary vision informing the curriculum and practice, so long as local control of the schools is a desideratum. Our democracy is essentially a flux of conflict and negotiation, and commonly agreed on goals can seldom be implemented in any way but the most pedestrian. That is why "Back to Basics" is a recurrent outcry in our educational debate. As Bertholt Brecht, no democrat, put it, "Bread first, philosophy later."