Responding to Criticism: The State of Education in America
These past decades have seen relentless attacks on US educational institutions. Too many of them have been aimed at one thing: the transfer of control over our schools and universities from the institutions themselves into the hands of politicians. School vouchers, No Child Left Behind, David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, and even Intelligent Design: Each of these moves education decision-making from the local school’s teacher and administrator to the legislative hall. Such changes are altering our educational structures, making them more like the systems of centralized economies, where control from the top means schools more responsive to the politics of the day (dictated from the tip of the pyramid) than to the learning needs of students (who reside at the bottom).
Educators have not responded well to these attacks. Many have bowed to what they see as the inevitable and have gone along with the changes, even though these are often mandated by outsiders, many times political figures with very little real education experience. Others have taken extremely defensive postures, refusing to admit that any criticisms of our educational structures are, in fact, valid. A third group ignores the whole thing altogether, believing that their jobs extend no further than the schoolhouse and university doors, believing that the attacks will dissipate if they just concentrate on doing the best jobs they can.
"Most schools have retreated from innovation toward curricula that won’t alarm — curricula that remind parents and the general public of the “traditional” schools of days gone by."
If people involved with education were more clearly engaged in renovating their own structures, there would be less chance that criticism from outside would have such great effect. But this is not happening, and the unrelenting criticism has taken its toll: Hardly an “experimental” college is left in the United States, and most schools have retreated from innovation toward curricula that won’t alarm — curricula that remind parents and the general public of the “traditional” schools of days gone by.
There’s an additional aspect to our troubled schools and universities that those inside don’t wish to face, any more than the general population does: the question of race. The biggest victory for our public education, integration, was also the grounding for its undoing. Because of the economic inequity between black and white in America, it was possible for white parents to move their children from the newly integrated schools to costlier private academies without ever having to admit that they were doing so because of race. They could say that they could simply afford the “better” schools and that it would be a disservice to their children not to provide that level of education. However, these white parents soon began to resent having to pay for two systems of education, and they began to cast around for ways of lowering their commitment to the public schools — thereby repeating many of the inequalities of “separate but equal.”
At the same time, affirmative action was changing our universities. Over the years, however, the concept became codified into a Byzantine semi-quota system that some still claim doesn’t exist at all. Instead of redressing the inequalities sparked by slavery and racism, it became a broader attempt to expand the range of student and faculty populations. While the goals of affirmative action do serve the entire population, its implementation has left many individuals feeling resentment, feeling that it gives others special treatment at their expense. It was never made convincing that affirmative action, making representation in all areas of our schools as broad as possible, serves us all — a point that, oddly enough, is now being used against the universities by those who claim that faculties are not, in ways other than race, inclusive.
Over the next few months, ePluribus Media will present an occasional series of articles on these and other various aspects of the education controversies in the United States today and, we hope, from a variety of points of view. These articles will be attempts to bring into clearer light debates over education that tend to be as elusive in their language as in their ideas.
This article, the first of the series, focuses on the point that our universities are now being criticized for not having the very sort of diversity they claim to promote — and on what brought this on and what it means.