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Education Reporter

The End of Education
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By T. Robinson Ahlstrom

Once upon a time in a far-away place, a small band of deeply religious idealists set out to re-invent the world. Amazingly, they succeeded.

Leaving comfortable cottages and thriving businesses, they sold off their cows and most of their clothes. They cashed in family heirlooms, bartering pewter and silk for passage over "a vast and furious ocean." They sacrificed everything, including the lives of half their number -- but they carried with them every book they owned.

Upon ascending the thicketed coast and carving out a few primitive settlements, they established a college modeled after Cambridge. The body politic they fashioned included The Massachusetts School Laws -- the first universal literacy legislation in recorded history. Between 1640 and 1700, they maintained a society with literacy rates fixed at about 95%.1 No precinct in either England or Europe could compare. Samuel Eliot Morrison referred to them as "a generation wholly committed to the life of the mind and the soul."²

By the dawn of the 18th century, the success of their venture paved the way for two seismic convulsions -- the first, moral and spiritual; the second, political and economic. The Great Awakening and the American Revolution significantly widened access to learning and heightened the sense of urgency to maintain both a learned ministry and a literate citizenry.

John Adams of Massachusetts insisted on "education for every class and rank of people down to the lowest and the poorest." Thomas Jefferson created a complete system of education for Virginia, asserting that "the education of the common people is the surest security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty." Throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, the system of public schools that emerged helped make America a beacon of hope and opportunity for peoples from every culture and corner. Unlike the tribal and traditional societies from which they fled, the United States was an egalitarian engine and a material meritocracy. It was the one place on earth where aspiration and perspiration counted for more than ancestry and pedigree. And education was the key. That was then.

A National Nightmare 
Today, the land of idealists and immigrants gets a failing grade! On the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly 40% of 4th graders and 26% of 8th graders could not demonstrate basic reading skills for their grade-level. In many urban schools, 70% of the students fail to read at the "Basic" readng level.

The 2002 NAEP report on writing skills tells a similar story. The proportion of high-school seniors who simply cannot write a cogent paragraph rose from 22% in 1998 to 26% in 2002. The New York Times reported that "more than two-thirds of the students in each grade could not organize their writing well enough to achieve the proficient level." Currently, one quarter of the entire adult population of the United States is unable to perform the basic literacy-related tasks required by a typical job.3

If members of the American Medical Association delivered health care the way that members of the National Education Association deliver education, half of us would have already met our Maker, leaving the other half with grounds for a class-action lawsuit. What we now face -- if we choose to face it -- is nothing short of national malpractice.

The problem is not that most teachers are not dedicated professionals. They are. It is not that we dont spend enough money. (We spend approximately twice that of any other industrialized nation -- and more, in adjusted dollars, than at any time in our nations history.) The problem is systemic.

Public education in these United States has become rather like agriculture in the old Soviet Union -- our flirtation with socialism. It has been unionized, bureaucratized, nationalized and politicized, and every year there is a new excuse for the crop failure.

Since the middle of the last century, a militant menagerie of psychologists, social engineers, lawyers, union organizers, judges and educrats have effectively retooled Americas schools. The top-down labyrinth they constructed is artificially disconnected from the literary heritage of our civilization, hostile to both organized religion and simple expressions of personal piety, and slavishly wed to the latest socio-political fashion.

Still in charge, these high priests of hokum are possessed of a distaste for traditional literature-based learning that is matched only by their zeal to "socialize" the next generation. Their aversion to the strenuous rituals of reading, riting and rithmetic is matched only by their unswerving loyalty to a failed Freudian scheme called The Child Centered School. The system they created is a luxury the nation can no longer afford. It is not merely an educational problem to which we must tend. It is a national nightmare from which we must awaken.

Our massive, monopolistic grid of public schools has become the Achilles heel of our democratic society. It doesnt work and it wont listen. While the folks at the Department of Education rehearse their cant of "no child left behind," the cinderblock and linoleum gulag they administer is leaving whole classes of society to asphyxiate on the toxic fumes of spent ideas.

We are becoming "a house divided against itself" -- two Americas, separate and unequal. Educational dysfunction, social disintegration and a growing digital divide are creating a two-track society without a common culture, shared sense of citizenship or vital moral center. Jeffersons apprehension concerning a nation insufficiently literate to sustain "a due degree of liberty" is now a real and present danger.

Unfortunately, Americas new illiteracy is not only verbal and cultural -- it is ethical. In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote Why Johnny Cant Read. In 1992, William Kirkpatrick wrote Why Johnny Cant Tell Right From Wrong. Disturbing as they are, both books are truer today than when they were written.

When there are more than 700,000 attacks, shakedowns and robberies in our public schools each month and 18,000 serious crimes committed on school property every day, its time for a change. When one in every five public-school students carries a weapon to school and 150,000 carry a gun and 22% are afraid to use the restroom at their school, its time for a change.4 When 78% of our students admit to cheating on tests -- and only 16% believe that its wrong -- its time for a change.5

Forty years of "values clarification" and myriad other forms of do-it-yourself ethics haveleft us with 72% of our school children believing that "there is not [a] single ethical code that is right for everyone."6 Its time for a change.

Why are we surprised when each day brings a new revelation of corporate greed and high corruption? Why are we shocked by the avarice and fraud on display at Enron, Global Crossing, Tyco, Arthur Andersen, ImClone, Merrill Lynch, WorldCom -- ad infinitum, ad nauseam? When Harvey Pitt, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, observed that "far too many corporate officials have lost their moral compass," he was wrong. They didnt lose their compass. They were using it -- the one they were given in school! Ideas have consequences, and somewhere along the road to utopia, we forgot the end of education.

Like Plato, Plutarch and the Greeks before him, Kant placed ethics alongside physics and logic, expressing the confidence that there were laws governing the human will and what ought to happen, just as there were laws governing the material world and the formal rules of reason.

An Immodest Proposal 
With an eye to history, best practice and emerging research, the new School of Arts & Education at The Kings College will redefine teacher training in the United States. Resisting both the Rousseau-Dewey legacy and the current addiction to novelty, A&E will create curriculum, train teachers and shape policy for the 21st century.

John Dewey believed that a school was "primarily a social institution."7 He was wrong. The school is primarily an educational institution. He taught that "we violate the childs nature . . . by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography, etc. . . ."8 He was wrong again. We violate a childs future when we do not teach phonics, spelling lists, formal grammar, geography and memorization for automaticity in mathematical computations.

Along with pedagogical training that takes us back to the future, Kings will pioneer a national movement in content-driven teacher training. Our graduates will not only be prepared to teach. They will be prepared to teach something.

It is time to bring Latin, logic and rhetoric back into the American classroom. It is time to re-introduce the Bible as literature in both public and private settings. It is time for English teachers who can quote Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton and Keats. It is time for math teachers who know a little Virgil and the outlines of Western Civilization.

It is time for teachers who are not only trained, but also educated.

In reclaiming these classical and Christian traditions, we must not only reform Americas schools. We must also reshape Americas schools of education. The whole inbred system -- including the process of credentialing -- has been compromised.

Therefore, The Kings College is convening a new National Committee for Educational Standards that will henceforth certify teachers who are truly excellent. To be sure, there are other agencies that certify teachers, but its time to raise the bar.

The challenge is daunting. Without Gods blessing, we will not succeed. But with heavens aid we cannot fail. Armed with that faith, and with the memory of that other band of idealists, we will re-invent the world.

T. Robinson Ahlstrom, B.A., M.A., Th.M., is dean of the School of Arts & Education of The Kings College, New York, NY. Reprinted with permission fro Fall 2003 Vision magazine, © The Kings College.

  1. Samuel Eliot Morrison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England (Ithaca, NY: Great Seal Books), 1963, p. 112.
  2. Ibid., p. vi.
  3. U.S. Department of Technology Assessment, 1997.
  4. U.S. Department of Education Report on Violence, 1999.
  5. The Columbia Conference on Universal Literacy, Annual Report, 2000, p. 9.
  6. Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character (New York, NY: Bantam Books) 1992, p.13.
  7. John Dewey, Dewey on Education: Selections (New York, NY: Teachers College Press), 1959, p. 22.
  8. Ibid., p. 25.

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