Where Do We Start? Reforming American Education

Peter Wood

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These are a few of the policy ideas that I am going to write about in the next several weeks. They are preliminary sketches for a policy agenda—one which I intend to offer to any and all politicians who are open to advice about how to improve American education. 

This is a departure for the National Association of Scholars, and before proceeding, I want to emphasize the tentative nature of the undertaking. The proposals I will set forth do not represent the official view of NAS. They have not been vetted with our board or our membership. In putting them forth in this forum, I am indeed asking for thoughtful responses—though with no expectation that the final result will reflect organizational consensus. 

The goal is simply to hone a proposal that I hope will become part of the national debate on education reform.    This is a venture I’ve been considering for some time, as regular readers of this space may have noticed. But I’ve been moved to act now by an inquiry from a Republican political activist who wondered if NAS had anything that might assist a political party that seems to be wandering in search of a positive agenda. In truth, I have nothing to offer Republicans that I wouldn’t as freely offer to Democrats or any other political party.   And while I do have some positive advice, I would stipulate it is my advice, not the platform of NAS. 

The National Association of Scholars itself isn’t really suited to giving such advice. NAS is perhaps best known for what it opposes than for what it supports. It opposes illiberal campuses ideologies; racial preferences; indoctrination in the classrooms; dumbed-down curricula; and authoritarian administrators.  NAS typically presents its positive agenda in broad terms: it favors intellectual and academic freedom, rational scholarship in a free society, and scholarly inquiry founded on reason and civil debate.  NAS upholds a positive view of Western civilization and the legacy of the American founding.   And NAS has long held that America is best served by the great variety of colleges and universities in the nation—a variety that speaks to many needs and interests and fosters experimentation and competition.

We get asked from time to time to be more specific. Is there a particular curriculum we favor? Do we have proposals to improve college teaching?   Where do we stand on grade inflation? College sports?  State subsidies?  Do we have ideas about accreditation?  Is there a model of college administration that we advocate?

The answer to all these questions has been a guarded “no.”  NAS has never set itself up as favoring a one-size-fits-all approach. Our reluctance to do so reflects NAS’s basic mission. NAS was founded not to offer the world a new vision of the university, but to sustain the principles of free inquiry at a time when they had come under ferocious assault. The members of NAS are united by a shared commitment to those principles. NAS says yes to disciplined intellectual inquiry as the center of higher education and no to the attempt to turn higher education into a tool for recruiting students to various political and social causes.   As an organization we have rarely strayed beyond this strict path—although our members, as individuals, can and do robustly advocate their views on lots of academic issues. 

 Rejecting America

The National Association of Scholars may not need an overall agenda for education reform, but the United States does.  Our educational institutions are on a course that is extremely harmful to the American people and the American economy.  They are eroding our culture, harming other institutions, and in some ways jeopardizing the long-term prospects of our civilization.  These aren’t hidden dangers that can be seen only by those wearing special goggles. Many in the education establishment pride themselves on helping to bring about fundamental change in America. They deeply dislike who we were as a nation and who we are now, and they hope to make America into something else.  They see themselves as liberating us from the past and transforming America. For shorthand, let’s call them transformationists.  

The most important transformationists are leaders of the educational establishment—college presidents, association heads, top bureaucrats—and they surely have good grounds to think that education has the capacity to drive the transformation they seek.  Education in the broad sense is the way in which we prepare each successive generation to take its place in the world.   A society like ours makes conscious choices about what knowledge to impart, what skills to cultivate, what values to instill, and how best to put all of these pieces together.   If that task is in the hands of people who desire fundamental change, they have considerable opportunity to achieve their ends.   Nor are the transformationist methods mysterious. By setting educational standards from kindergarten through graduate school, these proponents of fundamental change impose their own ideas of what is worth learning and what isn’t. By controlling who receives the credentials to teach and who is actually appointed, the transformationists ensure the task is carried out by and large by people who are trained to advance their cause. By commanding the distribution of funds and other resources, these change advocates bring their programs to practical fruition. 

But transformationists do employ one method that is a little mysterious. It consists of crowding out alternative views with endless reiteration of banalities.  Transformationalism is, with few exceptions, allergic to debate.

These advocates of fundamental change certainly deserve to have their say.   Our culture, our economy, our civilization in general could be founded on rotten principles, and the debate over how a society should best organize itself is never-ending. Freedom and equality are not the only options as core principles.   Indeed hierarchy is a much more common basis of social organization, and transformationalism seeks to restore it with a hierarchy of its own: rule by the ideologically enlightened.

 It doesn’t hurt to have a debate over whether America should stick with its Jeffersonian ideal of “All men are created equal,” or switch to the new conception of “diversity,” in which the conception that “All groups are inherently different,” takes precedence.   Likewise, we can debate whether a mixed capitalist economy is, on balance, good, or whether some more comprehensive version of state control of the economy would be better. We might benefit as well from a good debate over the essential characteristics of our civilization. Has it on the whole provided a successful path for human flourishing or is it mainly a legacy of various kinds of oppression?   And surely we should debate whether the achievements of Western science have been to the benefit of humanity or have merely expedited ecological doom.

But the transformationalists do not welcome such debates or, in most cases, even acknowledge that the issues are open to debate.   The proponents of transformation have, in their own minds, weighed the matters and decided that education is best served by teaching only one side of the ledger. Diversity is good; capitalism unfair; state centralization beneficial; Western civilization oppressive; and “sustainability” the great existential issue of our time. 

Diversity, anti-capitalism, state centralization, the deconstruction of Western civilization, and sustainability: this is more than a list of positions. The elements on the list are part of a larger whole, one that aims, in its own view, at making America and the world vastly better.    If the movement succeeded in delivering the transformation it seeks, would America and the world actually be better off? The transformationalists allow little room for doubt or skepticism.    I am not sure this is confidence or its lack, but in any case their reflex is to shut down debate and to marginalize their opponents. In their eyes, this is not really a debate over policy differences. It is a war between the enlightened forces of goodness and those who would perpetuate the injustices of the old system. 

The collection of individual positions taken by the transformationalists also has another important commonality. All of them invoke the need for greater social control to be exercised by a class of experts. Diversity needs its gatekeepers; state centralization its bureaucrats; sustainability its watchmen.  Our educational system now, taken on its largest terms, is a recipe for ceding personal freedom to a class of people who “know better” than we do how we should live our lives.  

That impulse is now well-entrenched, fully institutionalized, and massively supported by state and federal government. It has all the advantages of the status quo, while those who uphold views opposed to this dominant model have generally been pushed to the outskirts of the educational system. They are to be found in private schools, think tanks, centers, institutes, and a handful of small, mostly sectarian colleges.  Many of these dissenters are vocal. They do their best to project their dissent into the larger national conversation, but they seldom break through. 

A New Agenda – Ten Basic Principles

The agenda I intend to propose aims to restore the integrity of American education at every level. It seeks to do this mainly by altering the system of incentives on which the current system is based.  Because it relies on the power of incentives and the capacity of individuals to make choices, it contains little in the form of immediate and drastic change. 

When I say restore the integrity of American education, I do not mean attempting to replace the current system with a model from some other epoch. Reform has to be rooted in the present and must address current needs and realities. We can, however, learn a great deal from the past if we pay attention. And different periods of history offer different lessons.

When thinking about the reforming education, of course, I have the same impulse of many other critics: there are practices that I would prefer to abolish outright, ideas that I think have no legitimate place in the curriculum, books that seem to me unworthy of being taught—and all the unworthier to the extent they displace their betters.  But this sort of would-be reform through fiat is not what I intend to put forward in the series of proposals that will follow. I don’t intend to give this bonfire-of-vanities impulse any lead.  My goal is to vanquish the bad not by uprooting it, but by opening a path for the better. 

And to open that path, I want to start with some guiding principles. The proposals themselves will start with another post. The ten principles that follow are simply a place to begin.    This is a work in progress: 

Education should focus on learning, not credentialing.  Credentials such as high school diplomas, college degrees, and certification exams do have an important role to play, but they are rightly understood as outward tokens of inner accomplishment.    Of course, encouraging actual learning rather than the accumulation of course credits and passing grades is more difficult. 

We can learn from others who already know.   For nearly a century, the dominant pedagogy in American schools has been based on psychological theories that emphasize individual “discovery” of knowledge.  Guided by this precept, teachers are often reluctant to teach their students the “right answers” or to show them the best way to solve problems.   We need to get past this self-imposed handicap. No child can or should be expected to invent human knowledge from scratch.  We need a pedagogy that empowers teachers to teach actual knowledge. That has important implications, beginning with the need to make sure that the teachers themselves possess the knowledge they are supposed to teach.

Some knowledge is basic. Students should learn it first.   This principle applies to all levels of education and seems obvious, except that it is so often violated.

Some knowledge is intermediate.   It demands its own kind of teaching.   The mid-level between basic and advanced is a crucial stage in education and seems poorly served by our current system. 

Higher education should focus on higher knowledge.   Although almost anything can be taught at a college and students can be awarded college credit studying it, the proper purpose of college is to focus on higher knowledge. 

Critical thinking is a component, not the whole of higher learning. This principle seems needed because of the widespread idolization of “critical thinking” as the sole legitimate intellectual goal of liberal education. In that context “critical thinking” often translates into learning how to debunk any idea that rests on the authority of tradition, learning, or intellectual inquiry.  But “critical thinking” rightly understood is part of a project that entails learning to synthesize, abstract, develop cogent overviews, frame creative hypotheses, entertain counter-factual ideas, pursue analogies, and draw in both disciplined and imaginative ways on the resources of an educated mind. And critical thinking should never be disjunct from intellectual modesty and deference. 

Education should be transparent.  Schools and colleges should not be mystery cults. They should be clear about what they teach and why and what else they do. 

Academic freedom depends on adherence to rational discourse.   The much-abused term “academic freedom” gets invoked these days as justification for a great many things that have little or nothing to do with the rational pursuit of truth. No doubt this is because many who invoke the term doubt that “the pursuit of truth” is a meaningful goal of academic inquiry, though they would like to preserve the social privileges that come with academic freedom.   But this is intellectual misappropriation.  Academic freedom depends on a shared commitment to rational discourse in pursuit of truth.

Education in a democracy should be for everyone, but higher learning isn’t.   Our system of colleges and universities pursues many forms of training for many purposes. It isn’t realistic to imagine a quick retreat from the something-for-everyone approach that has become dominant in American higher education, but that doesn’t prevent the recognition that only a small part of our system actually focuses on “higher learning.” In principle, we need to identify and foster this sector. 

Vocational training is important, but college may not be the best way to foster it.  Our society requires many specialized forms of knowledge and skill. We need to think more creatively about ways to develop these. 

I repeat: these ten principles are a start, not a finish. I’ll adduce others in the contexts in which they seem needed. I start with these ten because they bear so directly on the purposes of education. How do we get from purposes to incentives? That will be the subject of my next piece.

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