The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Myth of Public Education

Through a Google alert, I came across this blog entry about liberating education. The first sentence stopped me:

"Since the creation of the Idea of Public Education, or Education for all, that education has slowly been moving away from the way Plato and Socrates would have envisioned it."

I'm not sure if the author is referring to public education in the U.S. or in general. However, here's what Richard Hofstadter, most definitely NOT a conservative or libertarian, says about public education in America in his 1962 book, Anti-Intellectualism in America, Chapter XII "The School and the Teacher":

"The criticism made by Horace Mann about one of the nation's best school systems [Massachussetts]...after 1837 are illuminating. Schoolhouses, he said were too small, and portion of the community was so apathetic about education that it would do nothing for the school system, but the wealthier portion had given up on the common schools and were sending their children to private institutions...'the schools have retrograded with the last generation or half generation...' 'more than eleven-twelfths of all the children in the reading-classes in our schools do not understand the meaning of the words they read.'"

Apathy of some parents, wealthy children going to private schools, complaints of decreasing standards, poor reading skills - sound familiar???? Mann was saying this in 1837.

Hofstadter continues "The complaints continued, and the plaintive note spread from New England to the country at large. In 1870, when the country was on the eve of a great forward surge in secondary education, William Franklin Phelps, then head of a normal school in Winona, Minnesota, and later a president of the National Education Association, declared:

' [In the elementary schools] children are fed upon the mere husks of knowledge. They leave school for the broad theater of life without discipline; without mental power or moral stamina...Poor schools and poor teachers are in a majority througout the country...They afford the sad spectacle of ignorance engaged in the stupendous fraud of self-perpetuation at the public expense...Hundreds of our American schools are little less than undisciplined juvenile mobs.'"

Except for the comments about the poverty of the schools, he could be talking about today!

Hofstadter goes on for another page and a half with even more quotes from other experts, at later times in our history, with the same kinds of complaints. 

I had to ask myself: why the same kinds of complaints since the beginning of public education? Since we have poured billions in recent years into public education, poverty of the system is obviously not the problem.

No - the root cause  is at the very heart of a government-run service-system:  a disjunction between the interests of the customer (parents and children) and the interests of the provider (the government, whether of a village or the whole country), embodied in the government bureaucracies.

The government employees running public school systems do not have the discipline of the market brought to bear on them - of satisfying their customers or failing - exercised on free-market businesses. Hence, they've been a problem - and had very much the same problems from day one until today.
Fortunately, the public is catching on to the problem - at least about education.

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