Even a brief glance at the 1908 7th and 8th grade reading lists or the 1895 Salina, Kansas 8th grade exit exam graphically illustrates the profound decline in public education produced as a consequence of the progressives who dominate our academic institutions and federal government. Less obvious is the threat this presents to the future of the American Republic.
The purpose of public education in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was the development of scholarship, critical analysis and citizenship. Students needed to be schooled in the Three R’s (plus geography, science, history and biology), comportment and citizenship. They needed to develop the solid foundation needed to become informed, responsible, self-sustaining citizens.
Teachers were tasked with a singular mission: the development of intellect and character. Politics and social indoctrination had no place in that mission. They were, in fact, anathema to and destructive of it.
Teaching in that era was viewed as a noble profession, not unlike medicine. The workload for pupil and professor alike was considerable. Class size was large, often thirty or forty students packed into a one-room schoolhouse. Complaints about hate speech, safe spaces, test scores or discrimination were not even contemplated, much less tolerated. Education was serious business.
In the early days, the tools for reading in the primary grades were very limited: the Holy Bible, McGuffey Readers, issues of the Farmer’s Almanac, maps and globes, newspapers and magazines, and whatever Latin and Greek texts teachers and local folk made available. That barebones framework provided a solid education for generations of Americans. It produced thousands of physicians and scientists, and scores of Presidents.
Eight years of school in 1850 sufficed to produce literacy and numeracy for the majority of the citizenry. America enjoyed one of the highest rates of literacy in the world. Eight years was often all the time many parents could afford to spare before their children had to find work to help support the family.
Students crammed the equivalent of twelve years of schooling into eight. Their exit exam, required to gain admission to high school, was far more difficult than today’s high school exit exam (eliminated by Governor Brown last year) and many college level achievement tests.
How can we explain the erosion of the curriculum and declining SAT scores? They are inter-related. Today’s curriculum has been dumbed down and diluted. Under the new Common Core requirements reading lists will be even more abbreviated as will curriculum content. This will adversely impact the intellectual development of the country’s students even further.
A second factor is teacher qualifications. America’s educators are no longer chosen from the top quartile of their graduating class. They are now culled from the lowest third, unlike teachers in Singapore, South Korea or Finland.
They also are no longer required to have graduated with a major in the subject they teach. In fact, half of the math and physics teachers have only a minor in the subject. Little wonder students don’t excel.
There is a pervasive attitude of anti-intellectualism today as evidenced by the plethora of light-weight subjects now being offered in colleges and universities. Academic excellence is discounted and mocked, even as it is envied.
Huge sums in federal and state education budgets are siphoned off for the disadvantaged (emotionally handicapped, disabled, non-English speaker or slow learner). These programs are well-intentioned, but often are funded at the expense of programs for the gifted or highest IQ (advantaged). Should there not be equal expenditure to assist our most gifted students, even as we endeavor to train those who are disadvantaged?
There are countless programs for the gifted in athletics and the fine arts. There are no federal programs for the highly intellectually gifted. They are already considered “privileged.” Those students are compelled to sit idly for hours with little to challenge their minds.
This represents a tragic waste of the country’s most valuable human capital. Progressives consider wealth and genius unfair to those with less. With all too few exceptions, the gifted get the same books as their grade-level peers. That is today’s reality in America.
This neglect is compounded by the consequences of another well-intentioned policy: The greater the gap between ethnic or racial differences in achievement, the greater the sums siphoned away from “advantaged” students. As a consequence of these policies, the average as well as the bright do not acquire needed skills and knowledge. Their intellectual growth remains stunted.
This is in contrast to the early 20th century when graduates of Dunbar High School, the first all-Black high school in America, performed as well as their White peers and included the first Black graduate of West Point, the first Black general, first Black admiral, the first Black cabinet secretary and the first Black female physician.
As it is, this egalitarian system punishes excellence everywhere, at all levels of intellect and across all categories of ethnicity and gender. America’s public schools fail all students. Affirmative action, multiculturalism, political correctness, social indoctrination and unionization, all part of the progressive prescription for public education outlined by John Dewey 100 years ago, have dumbed down, homogenized and weakened the country and culture.
Power has been wrested from the hands of the public and now rests in those of politicians and academic and union prelates. This paradigm needs to be upended to have power restored to the citizenry.
Despite benevolent intentions, it is vital to understand the malevolent effect of these policies and the urgent need to change them. Time is running out. Nothing less than the country’s future is at stake. Reform public education and restore academic excellence and, with it, opportunity for all.
About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.