U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Good is Education to Society? The Thin Line Between Justice and Order

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the so-called education reform movement lately. Many of the movement’s highest-profile success stories have been (or should have been) discredited by recent cheating scandals. Although the cheating in Atlanta seems to have been the most systematic—the “Atlanta miracle” was built on the same house of cards as the “Texas miracle”—even movement darling Michelle Rhee hasn’t escaped the brouhaha unscathed. At least one of the D.C. schools Rhee touted as exemplary gained blue-ribbon accolades thanks to impossibly lofty wrong-to-right erasure rates. Unsurprisingly, high-stakes testing, where student scores are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations—upon which rewards and punishments are issued—have led to a culture of cheating and corruption. We should expect much more of the same, since this is the model touted by Obama and his Secretary of Education, former Chicago Public Schools CEO (yes, CEO) Arne Duncan, in the form of the “Race to the Top” policy that allocates big money to those states most aggressive in implementing measures celebrated by educational reformers.

There’s much work to be done by educational historians on the so-called educational reform movement. Although movement activists herald their ideas as fresh and bold, they don’t offer much new (aside from the enthusiasm with which they embrace market solutions to intransigent problems). For instance, like progressive educators since John Dewey, current educational reformers almost always sell their wares as instruments of justice. And yet, like the progressive education movement of the early twentieth century, current trendy reform mechanisms always end up serving the ends of order: whereas the progressive education movement’s most longstanding success story was its pedagogical program for “Americanization,” current reform success is calculated by how well students score on standardized tests and by college-entrance rates. In short, educational progress as measured by how well students stack up against conventional standards will always and inevitably reinforce the status quo.

Educational thinkers have long debated the role of education in society from one side or the other of the thin line between justice and order. In a compelling review of John Marsh’s Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, Malcolm Harris of The New Inquiry expresses the pessimistic, but frankly realistic view that schools are nothing more than engines of social reproduction. He pithily writes:

The hope is that every student has a teacher or two over a decade and a half that really makes them question and think, but either way, we silently acknowledge that they’ll spend the majority of their young vigor-filled lives quivering at the arbitrary mercy of petty kooks and jowly tyrants. Schools train students in what business professor Stefano Harney says every diploma really proves: “that the student can follow arbitrary authority, endure boredom, and compete against others.”

Such dour analysis has deep roots in Marxism. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “Culture is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine.” We might as well substitute “culture” with “education.” Thinking about education as merely reproducing the capitalist order has been common amongst neo-Marxists since conditioned by Louis Althusser’s famous 1969 essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation).” (Much of my analysis of Althusser and his acolytes is drawn from the conclusion of my book, Education and the Cold War.) For Althusser, a state apparatus such as a public school system hailed, or, in Althusserian language, “interpellated” subjects to their predetermined tasks. Subjects in the educational apparatus were “always-already” called into being. There was no hope that people could rise above the ideological structure of a school. Justice was, at best, a façade, covering over the actual work being done by the schools: reproducing the dominant ideology and, as such, the status quo social order.

The leading neo-Marxist theorists of educational reproduction in the United States after the 1960s were Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Their book Schooling in Capitalist America was the most important empirical contribution to the genre. The Bowles and Gintis critique was rooted in their disillusionment with liberal reform in the United States, specifically with the failed assurance of social mobility—the promised by-product of public education. One of the basic thematic premises of Bowles and Gintis was that “the meritocratic orientation of the educational system promotes not its egalitarian function, but rather its integrative role.”

And yet, there have been a host of thinkers with leftist and Marxist orientations who have emphasized the liberating possibilities of education. Paulo Freire, author of the acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which has been canonized by colleges of education, is the most important signpost of such thinking. According to Freire, the great humanistic task of the oppressed was to liberate both themselves and their oppressors from dehumanization. But, paradoxically, humanization affirms itself in the face of dehumanization—this is the “pedagogy of the oppressed.” Henry Giroux, the most widely read North American of the Freire school of thought, took this one step further: he argued that educators should join the oppressed in the vanguard of liberation. Education could be a force for revolution.

Such thinking continues. From a political position similar to Malcolm Harris, yet with diametrically different premises about the possibilities of education, Julia Pointer Putnam argues in her recent Monthly Review essay—“Another Education is Happening”—that education can be put to work for a more just society if it deemphasizes individualistic, meritocratic achievement and instead accentuates the goals of community-building (reprising some of the arguments made by the community-control activists of the late 1960s). In building on the work of legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs, Pointer Putnam advocates:

a type of learning known as Place-Based Education (or Community-Based Education), where the local community and environment serve as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum. This approach diminishes the boundaries that have been built up between schools and the community. Place-Based Education emphasizes the ability of young people to learn by addressing the real-life problems around them.

If such pedagogical thinking sounds familiar, that’s because it is, at least, to those who have read John Dewey or any number of those schooled in Deweyan pedagogy. In fact, Pointer Putnam is explicit about grounding her theory of education in Deweyan thought. She even quotes Dewey to that effect: “The teaching-learning environments that would bring greatest growth are places where children and adults grow together, where the schools are not separate from the community.”

Dewey believed that education was the key to remolding society along more just lines. (Much of this section on Dewey is taken from Chapter 1 of my book Education and the Cold War.) Dewey’s theory of education was socially democratic. He believed education could and should remold society to be cooperative and just, even if at the expense of efficiency and order. In this regard, although he influenced progressive educators from both the order and justice sides of the movement, Dewey was firmly on the side of justice. Dewey’s theory of education was also one of agency rooted in the belief that, since human history was contingent, human subjectivity could irrevocably alter the course of the future. He conceptualized education as a motive force in overcoming the tyrannical impositions of the past. In short, Dewey was antipathetic to education as conformity. For Dewey, the relationship between individual agency and the surrounding environment was one of mutual adjustment, not a matter of one-sided accommodation of the individual to a static environment. “The environment must be plastic to the ends of the agent,” argued Dewey, because the “transformation of existing circumstances is moral duty rather than mere reproduction of them.”

In this, many have since criticized Dewey as too typically progressive or liberal in his naïve faith in reform—especially in his faith in the ameliorative potential of education. (Most of this form of criticism has come from Marxists, or from populists like Christopher Lasch. Of course, Dewey took it from all sides. The great counter-progressive historian Richard Hofstadter contended Dewey’s progressive educational theories were anti-intellectual for emphasizing practical concerns—in fact, Hofstadter dedicated a whole chapter to this critique in his celebrated Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And no one American thinker has ever had more abuse heaped upon him by conservatives than Dewey—Democracy and Education ranks fifth on a recent Human Events list of the “Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries,” not as harmful as The Communist Manifesto, but more so than Das Kapital!) But despite his relatively optimistic theory of education, Dewey was always sensitive to the misappropriation of his ideas. He was against education for social order. In fact, he reserved some of his most venomous intellectual barbs for those progressive educators who sacrificed justice at the altar of order and efficiency.

In 1914 Dewey wrote an article in the very first issue of The New Republic that was brutal in its assessment of fellow progressive educator David Snedden’s version of vocational education, which Dewey described as a practice that fashioned schools as “preliminary factories supported at public expense.” In Dewey’s eyes, vocational education had become a method for subsidizing capital at the expense of labor. Dewey’s article sparked an instructive exchange with Snedden, who was taken aback by Dewey’s attack, explaining that he had grown accustomed to such haranguing by educational “reactionaries,” but did not expect it from a fellow progressive. Snedden argued that his vocational education system would benefit everybody—management and workers alike. Everyone would reap the benefits of increased levels of production that would result from an educational system that trained students to succeed in their predetermined vocational niches. In response to Snedden’s reply, Dewey explained that their divergence was “not so much narrowly educational as it is profoundly political and social. The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.” For Dewey, vocational education had become “an instrument in accomplishing the feudal dogma of social predestination.”

And yet, despite Dewey’s explicit hesitations, nearly a century later, the history of American education suggests that order almost always wins out over justice, no matter authorial intentions—and no matter that Deweyans persist in sprouting up across the educational landscape. We might need to come to terms with the fact that education—or more precisely, schooling—is meant to serve the ends of the status quo, i.e., brutal inequality. And thus, if the educational reformers have been successful at anything, it’s in ensuring a more efficient machine for reproducing the status quo.

Of course, as an educator, some degree of optimism is warranted. Since most of you, gentle readers, are educators, what say you?

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think about this every time I grade essays or take off points for not following the directions. I try to give some leeway for creativity in argument, but quite often not following the standard pattern of essay writing equates to bad writing rather than creativity. Sometimes, though, it is easier to grade based on not following the instructions than on a more amorphous “good writing” standard (especially in large classes).

  2. AH,

    Great find on the Julia Pointer Putnam parallel. I continue to love examples of history either trying to repeat itself or actually succeeding in the endeavor.

    Speaking more broadly on the capitalism-democracy-education triangle, I’m sorry to present a cliche, but one must follow the money. Let me lay down a related axiom: A democracy that does not deal with class issues will be ruled by class issues.

    On the topic at hand, class issues ~directly~ affect education in the United States—now and historically—through both politics (money buying power and interest, whether locally or nationally) and local property taxes (higher tax base equals better school funding). Indirect effects include better parental involvement, etc. Allow me to leave behind indirect effects for a moment to focus on the public sphere (though I acknowledge that some believe that is the beginning and the end of all education inequality and injustice).

    Until we find a way to remove, or at least distance, education from the vicissitudes of politics and class, or at least lessen the influence of both, we will continue to debate “reform.” And clearly those debates will all be variations on two themes unless the roots of our problems are addressed (i.e. do we want justice and equality in education, or not?). To me, education needs to be treated as a kind of third rail, like social security has been—touch it at your risk. But this is an exceedingly difficult status to achieve in a democracy; indeed, it’s probably unachievable.

    One way to preserve something of a third rail identity in terms of edu meddling is tenure. But that is the very institution under assault at all levels. The conservatives today, who have thrived on rhetoric about “big government” fucking up our schools are seeking to destroy the very thing (i.e. tenure) that prevents turning our schools into pure political theater.

    – TL

  3. Well said, Professor Hartman. I thoroughly enjoyed your Gramscian analysis of educational culture. Americans since the time of Thomas Jefferson have celebrated the ameliorate effects of education while also affirming its power as a bulwark against social decay. I applaud those brave secondary educators who teach the place based or community based model of pedagogy which “emphasizes the ability of young people to learn by addressing the real-life problems around them.” As one of my heroes learned, there is often a price which is paid by such high school teachers.

    Because of your essay, I shall reread Hofstadter’s book. When I last read the book in the 1980s, i interpreted the chapter on Dewey as being more in line with Hofstadter’s argument about the U.S. having acquired a business culture in the Jacksonian era which emphasizes “acquisitiveness over inquisitiveness,” and that his “beef” with Dewey had to do with Deweyian skills learning emphasizing practical matters at the expense of true intellectualism. Also I am still stick at the genius of Hofstadter, who gets so much of the details wrong but still has an amazing resonance. Writing at the height of the American Public school system’s success and prestige, he was able to distill the essence of the critiques used by educational “reformers.”

    Lastly, I was wondering what connections you would make to the larger issues of the day and your ongoing project on the “culture wars.” Concerning the argument that the appeal of the “silver bullet” of education is that is is so much cheaper than jobs programs or spending on the United States’ anemic and steadily shrinking social safety net. I would like to argue that Americans have never adequately funded the endeavor, and that the “success” of the school system was predicated upon the gender oppression of the good old days, and that education although laughably underfunded began to fall apart once intelligent women could seek out other careers as systematic sexism faded. It is this process that those who argue the simplistic solution is “better teachers” to the problems of our system.

    Lastly, the plight of underfunded schools will once again receive its moment in the spotlight during the upcoming election cycle. And will promptly be forgotten. I wonder what those kids in rural South Carolina’s corridor of shame think of President Obama. Remember, less video games and TV, and we need to fight against “anti-intellectualism” in minority communities he said.

  4. Erratum: I wrote “…that some believe that is the beginning… .” The second “that” was meant to refer to indirect effects (i.e. some believe that parental involvement is the number one issue in relation to edu development and/or problems in schools). – TL

  5. Andrew, there are a number of intriguing ideas bound up in this post. For example, the long tradition of positing a kind of binary opposition between “justice” and “order” is striking. Is this perhaps hegemonic? I’m not theorizing so much as asking. And if viewing “order” and “justice” as antithetical terms in a zero-sum game is the/a problem, what is the solution?

    Tim’s solution seems both admirable and impossible — finding “a way to remove, or at least distance, education from the vicissitudes of politics and class.” Isn’t education historically, presently, and inescapably, a product of politics and class? The idea that education can be abstracted from those other concerns has a history of its own, also bound up, I think, in politics and class.

    What I found most striking, though, was your very last paragraph. It gave me a good laugh at my own expense. The “of course” would *not* be a matter of course for me. I would not necessarily see my own commitment to education as grounds for optimism. Instead, I’d be second-guessing my ideals, questioning my motives, and agonizing over my complicity in the system. I’m not saying you haven’t done all those things — I suppose we all do from time to time. But something about your optimistic note reminded me of Thomas Cahill’s wry observation about the difference between Augustine and Pelagius, with Pelagius affirming “Be all you can be!” and Augustine intoning “Just as I am without one plea.” Alas, there is not a Pelagian bone in my body. I am, despite my best efforts to the contrary [as is only fitting!] an heir of St. Augustine — or at the very least, St. Eeyore. Now, maybe I’ve misunderstood you, and you’re calling for optimism on existential grounds –“We are all involved in this enterprise, and it is therefore crucial that we find some hope/meaning/purpose in it.” Existential angst and the-band-played-on perseverance in a doomed cause –now *that’s* more my style.

    Anyway, it’s a great post, and I especially appreciate the fact that it calls for us all to develop and exercise a greater level of critical awareness about our role(s) within the system.

  6. @Lauren: I constantly think about ways I might be complicit in the very thing I decry about education in this piece–and often wonder if it’s even possible to be otherwise. But I don’t think giving students leeway to be creative with instructions really matters one way or the other in the grand scheme of things. If education is going to be liberating to society–as opposed to the individual–it needs to be collectively creative, perhaps in the ways described by Pointer Putnam in the article I linked to above.

    @Tim: I have to agree with LD that education cannot possibly be disentangled from politics or class relations. The so-called education reformers I show so much obvious disdain for in my post usually pitch themselves as transcending politics–much as Obama likes to think of himself above partisanship. But as David Bromwich brilliantly shows in his brilliant analysis of Obamaism, such is an extremely political move. Technocracy is just as political as aristocracy or democracy or any other “ocracy.”

  7. @Brian: For my take on Hofstader’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” I would refer you to Chapter Six of my book. Here’s a taste:

    Hofstadter found it “desirable to discuss the anti-intellectual implications and the anti-intellectual consequences of some educational theories of John Dewey,” despite the fact that he considered it impertinent to describe Dewey himself as anti-intellectual. Hofstadter was also conscious that the extremities and absurdities of progressive education… were a far cry from the intentions of Dewey, but that “utopias have a way of being short-circuited under the very eyes of their formulators,” a standard 1950s motif formed with Stalin in mind. But despite such hesitations and qualifications, Hofstadter went for the jugular in his critique of Dewey’s philosophy.

    Hofstadter was very critical of Dewey’s blurring of the lines between means and ends. “I believe Dewey did American education a major disservice,” Hofstadter wrote, “by providing what appears to be an authoritative sanction for that monotonous and suffocating rhetoric about ‘democratic living’ with which American educationists smother our discussions of the means and ends of education.” In other words, Dewey’s belief that democratic methodology was an end in itself became, in the hands of the less imaginative, an invitation to life adjustment education…

    Hofstadter might have been accurate in his critique [some elements of progressive education]. However, this does not then entail that he was necessarily correct in blaming Dewey. Perhaps Hofstadter was not as attuned to education as historians have long held. “Hofstadter was not a historian of education,” [his biographer] David Brown makes clear, “but matters of curriculum reform or the evolution of pedagogical practices were not really his concern.” Perhaps these should have been his concerns, as Hofstadter’s critique of Dewey falls flat precisely because he ignores matters of curriculum and pedagogy. Being in a classroom with teenagers from a wide variety of social and intellectual backgrounds can forever alter a person’s educational theory. For instance, Dewey’s experiences in his lab school helped convince him that a liberal, platonic theory of education was unrealistic. Hofstadter’s critique of Dewey and progressive education was weakened by his lack of attention to the realities of pedagogical practice.

  8. @LD: Thanks as always for your ever insightful comments. I hope these comments generate a post at your blog!

    First, you ask an intriguing question about whether the order-justice bifurcation is necessarily zero sum. Thinking about the binary as “hegemonic” seems a little too cute. There’s a historiographical tradition at work here. Historians of progressive education have almost always considered the question pertinent to their understandings of that movement. Did it prop up the status quo? Or did it make society better? I guess, as per David Snedden (the educational thinker Dewey grappled with in The New Republic, a debate I reference above), if you think the social order is fine, then propping up the status quo can serve the ends of justice. I think the title of Howard Zinn’s autobiography–“You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”–is a good way of thinking about schooling and our complicity in it. So yes, I do think education is a zero sum game between the poles of justice and order.

    Second, I am amused that you consider my post too optimistic. How could I have been more pessimistic, without proclaiming the sky is falling? My final paragraph was my feeble attempt to conclude with a note of hope, however false. If I am optimistic, you are spot on, it is in the existentialist “thrownness” sense. We might as well give it the old college try. What else have we got between us and the vortex of nihilism?

  9. Dear AH and LD: The point of my paragraph—the one that began “Until we find a way to remove, or at least distance, education from…”—was that we will NEVER stop debating reform here. It’s part and parcel of the way our capitalism-democracy-education triangle works. The rest of the my paragraph (i.e. “third rail”) was sort of an in-an-ideal-world scenario. And utopias don’t exist, right? In other words, “education reform” topics constitute job security for historians of education in the United States. – TL

  10. Andrew, how did you know that the one thing I really need right now in my life is someone to tell me I ought to be writing? You are so thoughtful. 😉

    As to my question about hegemony being “too cute,” I’m not sure what you mean by that. I wasn’t trying to be funny or flip. (Or did you mean “cute” in the pugilistic sense of the term?) There is tension in the relationship between order and justice — maybe even a fruitful tension? — but I think they might be related in a more complicated way than just pulling in opposite directions. I would think they are interdependent — there can be no justice without order, because justice implies a right relationship of all parts to one another and to the whole, and that is simply another name for order. Now, it seems that there can be order without justice, but such order would be inherently unstable. (Ooof! That has “Hegel” written all over it.)

    Now, I didn’t say you were too optimistic — just that your conclusion sounded more optimistic than mine would. This isn’t a bad thing. Let a thousand flowers bloom. I guess metaphorically invoking the Pelagius/Augustine polarity — ugh, talk about hegemony! — could be seen as suggesting that optimism is somehow heretical. That wasn’t my intent at all. Besides, if there’s a figurative Pelagian in this thread, it just might be Tim! (I kid, Tim. Besides, now that I’ve seen your latest comment, my faith in your cynical side is fully restored.)

    But existential hope? That I can do. As the AmEx commercials said, “Don’t leave home without it.”

  11. “[T]he pessimistic, but frankly realistic view that schools are nothing more than engines of social reproduction” is hardly a discovery of Marxist social critics, though no doubt it flatters their pretensions of posing a serious challenge or even possessing the capacity to subvert the status quo to expose education as something which “merely reproduc[es] the capitalist order.” That seems to go without saying; reproducing order is usually understood to be the point of education. Geraint Perry frames the issue this way in an essay on Rousseau’s educational theory: “Most commonly, education is perceived as an effective force in the ‘reproduction’ of prevailing social and political values.” On the other hand, it can be used to reform those values. Educational theories are thus usually of two kinds, those which “take existing human motivations as given and those that aim at their transformation.”

    The important question isn’t “whither education reform?” but the one posed in the title of this post, “What good is education to society?” That question can be refracted as a series of related questions: What is the purpose of education? Who is to be educated? Who shall be educated? Who shall do the educating? Is education a means or an end? These can themselves then be refined into a single question again: Does (a certain kind of) education produce (a certain kind of) society, or does (a certain kind of) society produce (a certain kind of) education? These questions are about as old as society and education themselves.

    Everything we’re discussing here is a consequence of something that distinguishes modern society from its predecessors, namely, mass compulsory schooling. None of this is an issue if that isn’t the type of educational complex that exists today. The mandating of compulsory education implies that it was held to be beneficial, for the society requiring it and for those compelled to receive it. (Who benefited more is a separate issue.) Compulsory education in its modern form received its impetus in the Prussia of Frederick the Great, inspired by so-called Enlightened absolutism. Yet only a few decades earlier provision of education for the lower orders was attacked as a threat to the preservation of society.

    Thus Bernard Mandeville, in his notorious Essay on Charity and Charity-Schools (1720) argued that those institutions were “pernicious to the Publick” because they instilled in the poor of England habits of sloth, idleness, and a dangerous tendency to think for themselves and aspire to a better life than they could have, or than society could afford to allow them. “To make the Society happy and People easy under the meanest Circumstances, it is requisite that great Numbers of them should be Ignorant as well as Poor . . . The Welfare and Felicity therefore of every State and Kingdom, require that the Knowledge of the Working Poor” should be limited to what will allow them to perform their occupations, and go not an inch beyond.

  12. It was in reaction to this view that Joseph Priestley advocated, in his Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768, 1771), a view of education that strikes us as distinctly modern and democratic, the view that both justice and order require education to be left in the hands of individuals, with no interference by society or state whatsoever. In so doing he may also be said to have propounded one of the earliest theories of education that was recognizably “progressive,” i.e., one that relies on the assumption that knowledge and the powers of the human mind progress, and that the purpose of education is not to restrict those powers and their progression, but to facilitate them. Priestley had an abiding antipathy to all public education. Far from preserving social order, Brown’s type of state-sponsored education would subvert it because it would destroy the force from which all social goods arise, the powers of the human intellect. “It is least of all, therefore, for the advancement of knowledge, that I should be induced to wish for the authoritative interposition of society.”

    Priestley was not entirely disinterested; as a Dissenter, he had reason to protect individual control of education. It’s no accident that the homeschooling impulse today flourishes among those with religious motives for resisting the potential for “inward control” inherent in state education. What has changed since Priestley’s time is that homeschooling now involves a minority of students, whereas in his time and all history before that, most of what constituted education was homeschooling of one kind or another. But the issues remained the same: What is the purpose of education? Who will teach? What will be taught? Who will be taught?

    Generally our answers to those questions have followed the principles of Priestley’s or those of the marquis the Condorcet. As did so many other things, education took on its modern guise in the French Revolution, and against those with great ambitions for state involvement in education, Condorcet claimed that even the concept of “public education” was invalid and illegitimate, since “education” strives for a molding of body and soul that had become both impractical and pernicious. Education of this totalizing sort had its heyday in antiquity, when it applied to a few who could be immersed in it, while everyone else suffered lives of miserable toil to support the happy few. Nowadays, in contrast, education had to be limited to instruction. The latter concerns itself only with imparting the truth of facts and arithmetic; the former reaches into “all political, moral, or religious opinions.” Condorcet, like Priestley before him and for similar reasons, believed that was the last thing the state should aspire to. “Thus it is necessary that public authority limit itself to regulating instruction, while abandoning the rest of education to families.”

    Condorcet and Priestley were writing in the midst of a revolution in the conception of the state’s relationship to the individual, a revolution in which the individual’s role in determining the nature of whatever was accorded the status of “common good” became paramount. (On this, see Peter Miller’s excellent Defining the Common Good (1994).) The notion that “education is going to be liberating to society – as opposed to the individual” would have struck them as a non sequitur, or as a form of oppression. Their perspective, however much it has been tattered and scourged in the intervening centuries, still prevails. Most controversy over education would make little sense, I reckon, if that weren’t so.

  13. But as we know, the public authority has never proved itself particularly able or willing to resist the temptation to reach into “all political, moral, or religious opinions.” And this is largely because those to whom the public authority is responsible, want it to do just that, however much they clamor otherwise. The question really is not whether public education should be used to inculcate political etc. opinions, but whose opinions it should inculcate. That’s probably ever been the question, and how it is answered goes a long way towards determining answers to all the others. Thus we’re left with this intractable and interminable problem of managing the relationship of society and individual in a way that will attain for both the maximum possible justice and order. Justice and order may be in tension, but it’s a misnomer to conceive of them, as far as education is concerned, as separated by a twain that shall never meet, or as the addends of “a zero sum game.” LD is right on this score, I think.

    Plato would tell us that such thinking succumbs to a fallacy because only what secures justice and order merits the name education. What counts as “education” is “education from childhood in virtue, a training which produces a keen desire to become a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and be ruled as justice demands.” Training aimed towards the acquisition of practical knowledge, or money, or anything “not guided by reason and justice, we should want to call coarse and illiberal, and say that it had no claim whatever to be called education” (Laws 643e – 644a). We in turn would respond that Plato’s characterization is coarse and illiberal, especially as it would later sanction Aristotle’s “tyrannical exclusion of husbandmen, merchants, and tradesmen, from the ranks and rights of citizens,” as John Adams excoriated it two millennia later. We make no apology for this practical mode of education, we even positively encourage it to a degree that leads to charges of illiberalism and philistinism from the opposite direction as Plato’s.

    Maybe what we should wonder at is not that education seems hardly to function, but that it functions at all. “Today we receive three different or opposing educations: that of our fathers, that of our schoolmasters, and that of the world. What we are told by the last upsets all the ideas of the first two” (SL IV.4). In these two sentences Montesquieu identified the dilemma at the heart of modern education. No one has resolved it yet. But it is an essentially political question, because which education prevails will determine the shape of society, and thereby the disposition of justice and order. That is perhaps the only thing on which educational thinkers will agree.

  14. Apologies for the lengthy – and multiple! – posts. Since no one else has, I’ll comment on the most interesting part of Andrew’s post: the Matt Groening cartoon. I recall reading (or seeing) something about Groening in which it was stated that he viewed the American educational system as essentially a mechanism for setting people up to fail. He’s certainly no friend of America’s public schools, as this cartoon and twenty years of The Simpsons amply testify. Surely there’s something waiting to be written on that, if it hasn’t been already.

  15. @LD: Yes, you’re right, justice and order operate in dialectic fashion–as theorized so well by Adorno and Horkheimer in 1944. If I had know that’s what you meant I would not have called you “cute.” My apologies. I guess justice AND order, as opposed to justice OR order, is really then the crux of the problem.

    @Varad: Thanks for another of your lengthy and “rambling discourses”. I always learn a lot. I hope, though, that you’ll forgive me for not thinking it necessary to go back to the French Revolution (much less Antiquity) every time I want to discuss modern historical developments like mass schooling. It goes without saying that any discussion of compulsory education is a discussion of recent history. It was not even until after World War II that the majority of American teenagers attended high school. So we’re talking very recent history–my specialty!

    Thanks also for pointing out that the most interesting thing about my post is the Groening comic strip! I guess I could have saved time and just posted that alone! In all seriousness, though, he (and you) might not like public education. And I might not like it for the same reasons. But it’s better than the alternative. Which I’ve come to think of as a truly pessimistic place to be.

  16. Andrew, Certainly you don’t have to reach back to the French Revolution, or Plato, or whatever. I was only trying to elucidate the origins of the change that education thinkers have to deal with now, namely, the prioritization of education as something that benefits the individual first and foremost, and society secondly. Everyone since, it seems to me, has been trying to resolve that tension of how you can have education benefit the individual, but still benefit society as well. The other thing I think I showed was that this is a perennial concern. The circumstances change, but the same issues seem to crop up again and again. I think this confirms the point point about education having a deeply political cast. No one would raise such a fuss if it did not.

    As for Groening, I don’t think he dislikes public education per se, but he clearly dislikes how it is organized, how it is run, what it’s used for, and what it does to its many “victims.” There’s a moralism in his critique which is hidden not much below the surface. I don’t dislike public education per se, either, but I agree with a lot of Groening’s critique. Public schools seem to fail a lot, or at least not achieve the results they could. At least a little of that is due no doubt to the fact that they are caught in this tension of trying to serve students and society at the same time, and because of this working at cross purposes, wind up serving neither.

  17. Great post and remarkable discussion. I wonder though, if as intellectual historians, we’re in danger of over-thinking this. I think we can ask an important question signified by this letters: WWACD… what would Amy Chua do?

    I’m not advocating Chua’s lunacy, but I do think there’s something to be said about parenting and work ethic being an important part of this conversation.

    I also think there’s a basic function of education that seems to be missing here: the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Learning these basic skills are not merely “instrumental” (as Dewey might have it) in preparation for the job market, but they are essential to understanding how the world works, and how to be a social being within it. I’d add that basic science and history and literature do this is as well.

    This is only a matter of social class insofar as schools in different neighbourhoods fail or succeed to impart these most basic skills. Most high school students won’t become intellectuals, much less intellectual historians (and thank goodness for that, otherwise I’d never get a job). But I don’t think teaching math on its own simply perpetuates the system or maintains rigid social hierarchies.

    I’d even argue that math is rather universal, and can serve as a bulwark against authoritarianism. At least I thought that was part of the point of George Orwell’s “1984,” when the forces of Big Brother tried to convince Winston that 2 +2 = 5. By knowing, truly knowing, that 2 + 2 = 4, and how to read and write, we have a power that no authority can take from us.

    I’d also argue that schools, at a basic level, serve an important social function. They teach kids how to socialize, how to make friends, how to get along. Of course, this can be extremely difficult, and bullying and popularity contests and all the other problems that plague American schools can get in the way. It’s here I think Dewey is most useful: I think more emphasis on group work, and cooperation, rather than individual achievement and competition, could do American students a lot of good. That’s democracy in education, at least to me. This is not to say that individual students should not be held accountable: they should certainly be expected to learn certain basic skills. And some degree of competition is good and desirable (there’s Amy Chua again), and practical (maybe even “pragmatic”) for the cut-throat “real world.”

    I also think a real problem in American education, unfortunately, is the over-crowding of American higher education. I love the university and all the it represents, but I still think too many students are going to college. In my ideal fantasy world, I’d love to see a return to the original New School of Social Research model, sort of like adult higher ed for interested citizens who are not necessarily seeking a degree, but want knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Also, if high schools were better, college wouldn’t be a required (and often meaningless) stepping stone to higher paying employment. Learning for learning’s sake. I guess I’m a Renaissance man at heart.

    My rambling 2 or 3 or 4 cents.

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