For each of the past twenty-one years the Gallup Organization has conducted a nationwide poll on attitudes of the American public toward education. The latest results, like others in recent years, show an apparent contradiction between strong support for more parent choice among schools, and equally strong support for some measure of uniformity among schools.
When asked whether they favored or opposed “allowing students and their parents to choose which public schools” the students would attend, 60 percent were in favor with 31 percent opposed; minority respondents favored choice by 67 percent to 22 percent, and respondents under thirty were clearly more favorable than those over fifty. On the other hand, respondents favored “requiring the public schools in this community to use a standardized national curriculum.”
Support for parent choice implies acceptance that the educational goals of parents and of schools can legitimately differ, while support for a national curriculum implies a desire for even more uniformity than now exists. Perhaps the positions can be reconciled, however; indeed it may be that the push for expanded choice of schools requires that we become more clear about what all schools—if in varied ways—should seek to accomplish.
Several years ago, in the course of a discussion subsequently published as Democracy and the Renewal of Public Education (Eerdmans 1987), I made a prediction about the sequence of reforms that renewal would follow.
First, a growing demand on the part of parents would force school staff to abandon the myth of value-neutrality and become more purposeful about the formation of character. As schools developed the moral coherence essential to this mission, they would have to do so in varied ways because of the lack of a single perspective on moral issues among the American people.
This would in turn require more choice for both teachers and parents, since the pretense that “one size fits all” would lose its remaining rags of credibility; individuals should not be forced to teach in or to entrust children to a school with a strong and distinctive mission unless they share that vision.
As choice of schools became more universal, however, it would be essential that the society become more clear about the non-negotiable elements in education. Regulation in great detail of how and when and by whom instruction should be provided would no longer be possible, and would be replaced by broad consensus upon a core of skills and knowledge and virtues, leaving room for real diversity in how these qualities are to be developed.
Whether to allow parents to choose the schools their children will attend has since then become the hottest topic in education. Many business and political leaders have called for more choice, while education leaders (with the notable exception of Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers) remain strongly opposed.
Those who call for parent choice—and I should declare at once that I am one of the more active proponents among educators—believe that it will create the conditions for more effective education, as teachers are allowed and encouraged to create distinctive schools that express a clear pedagogical vision. Schools will become accountable to parents rather than to distant bureaucracies, and parents will be challenged to take more responsibility for the education of their children.
Opponents fear that expanded parent choice will lead to a splintering of society along ideological lines because of an abandonment of the “common school.” Now, of course, middle-class parents have always found ways to make decisions about the education of their children, either by where they decide to live or by choosing to pay for private schooling. Middle-class parents living in cities find many ways to avoid enrolling their children in schools with a high proportion of poor and minority children. But these individual decisions have somehow not called into question the belief that the unity of our society is guaranteed by educating children of the most varied backgrounds together—and that in fact we are doing so, all evidence of racial and class segregation to the contrary.
The real issue in today’s debates over parent choice of schools is whether the structure of schooling should be changed to permit and encourage all parents to make decisions, either among public schools or among all available schools, public and private. In Massachusetts, for example, we have strongly encouraged urban school systems to make parent choice the basis for enrolling students in all schools, as a means of increasing race and class integration and of stimulating improvements in schools.
The rapid expansion nationwide of programs to permit parent choice among schools has run ahead of our thinking about what all schools should teach. It will not be too difficult to reach agreement about the skills or the hard knowledge that all students should possess (although delivering results may well be more than our present structure of education can accomplish), but how do we decide about how civic virtue”some common sense of the obligations of a free society”should be developed, given our profound differences as a people and the desire to avoid imposition of a State pedagogy?
Discussion was advanced significantly by the publication in 1987 of a booklet entitled Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles (Washington, D.C: American Federation of Teachers), signed by a broad spectrum of leaders and opinion-makers. “Are the ideas and institutions—and above all the worth—of democracy adequately conveyed in American schools?” asked the authors, who noted that any number of popular curriculum materials deprecate the open preference for liberal democratic values as “ethnocentric.” One widely distributed teaching guide on human rights accords equal significance to freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the guarantee of due process on the one hand, with the “right” to take vacations on the other.
The statement concluded that the study of history is the key element in education for democracy, provided that it is taught with “active learning on the part of students—ample time for class discussions, for coaching, for frequent seminars to explore ideas, and for regular writing assignments.”
What this brief statement could not fully present has now been admirably developed by historian Paul Gagnon in Democracy’s Half-told Story: What American History Textbooks Should Add. Gagnon reviews how five textbooks used by many schools in the eleventh grade present the main themes of our history, and how they could better come to grips with the real purpose of learning history. As he comments of one. “In this long march of earnest, mind-numbing prose there is no hint of hard and costly choices, real sacrifices that underlie success, or possible failures to solve particular problems.”
The authors and publishers of history textbooks must seek to satisfy state and local adoption procedures which stress the number of themes that are covered, however superficially, and the inclusion of any group that is able to make a case for its previous under-representation. The fear of offending any group with certified victim status makes such texts resemble mail-order catalogues rather than critical reflections on the meaning and uses of the past.
Just as world history texts take a pious, uncritical approach to things non-Western, so these United States history texts treat women, minorities, and “ordinary people” much as Parson Weems treated George Washington. They can do no wrong. As ordinary people themselves, students know better.
Even for those with no particular interest in reform of the high school curriculum, Gagnon’s comments on the lessons that may be drawn from each phase of American history will stimulate new reflection. Of the Puritans, so often abused in popular historical writing, he notes
their yearning for a just and holy community, and their vigilance against forces that would undermine it, including their own weaknesses . . . . By failing to clarify their faith and aspirations, the texts leave the impression that they were hypocrites—or more hypocrites than we are—for wanting “freedom” for themselves but banishing those who questioned their theology and church authority. The texts do not explain why they believed they had compelling reason to abhor unorthodox religious doctrine as we, say, abhor unorthodox economic and political doctrines.
Thus “students are left with the impression that toleration is the only “religious” idea worth remembering . . . . Modern readers, always ready to mistake their own indifference to religion for the virtue of toleration, could profit from better perspective.”
Gagnon returns again and again to the importance of seeing American history in relation to events in other nations, to similar problems solved in different ways, and to the particular advantages that America has enjoyed. In current texts “the impression is left that we have achieved all [that we have] because we have ideals that most others do not have, that our success is unconnected to historical or geographical conditions, or to hard work and sacrifice.” The complacency encouraged by such a sense of American exceptionalism ill-prepares us for the challenges that lie ahead.
The most damaging weakness of the current teaching of American history, Gagnon and other critics have suggested, is its failure to come to grips with the ideas that have shaped political life. This is understandable: American political debate has almost always sought to conceal the fact of underlying differences between competing groups as to philosophy and goals; these must be inferred from the actual policies advanced. Explicit political ideology has been an uneasily tolerated foreign import, in contrast with a dominant native tradition of political pragmatism.
This refusal to entertain ideas has protected us from the worst effects of ideological hatred, but it has also left our public life defenseless against the simple conflict of material interests and the politics of personality. Attempts to articulate European-style Christian principles of political decision-making within a pluralistic system—for example, those of Jim Skillen and the Center for Public Justice—develop little resonance in the thin air of American political life. Paul Gagnon insists that “without preaching or indoctrination, texts need to demonstrate . . . that ideals and values are important.”
Is this too much to ask? One hopes not; certainly, as our political campaigns take on a triviality not seen since the 1840s, it is worth the effort to stress that fundamental decisions about national life require reflection and moral choice.
Why, after all, should high school students study history at all? Gagnon reminds us that as Tocqueville insisted, “citizens must exercise both morality and intelligence.” It is history’s virtue that it can teach us both these things by example. Democracy relies on the good sense of the people and Gagnon understands that, properly taught, “history provides the nuance and complexity necessary for sensible judgments.” On education thus understood depends the health of our democracy.
Charles L. Glenn is Executive Director, Office of Educational Equity, Massachusetts Department of Education. He is the author of The Myth of the Common School and Choice of Schools in Six Nations.
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