Heroes and Villains in American Education


American education is a catastrophe. The evidence supporting this conclusion is overwhelming and has been for decades.

For example, a December 2016 article in The Atlantic reported that fifteen-year-old students in the United States placed “near the bottom of 35 industrialized nations” on the math portion of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test.1 This was slightly worse than America’s showing on the 2012 PISA exam, on which American students scored below the PISA math mean and ranked twenty-sixth out of the thirty-four nations tracked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). On the 2012 test, 55 percent of students in Shanghai, China, scored at the highest or second-highest level, as did 13 percent of all students. However, only 9 percent of American students scored within these levels. And the top students in the United States performed poorly compared to those in other countries. Students in Massachusetts, a relatively high-achieving state, scored above the U.S. national average—but ranked two years behind Shanghai students.2

Even more appalling, various sources indicate that some 44 million American adults cannot read well enough to read a simple story to a child—and nearly half of adults in the United States are functionally illiterate, unable even to read a drug label.3

None of this is surprising. We have been inundated with bad news regarding the American education system for decades. For example, in 1988, a mere 5 percent of seventeen-year-old high school students could read sufficiently to comprehend information disseminated in historical documents, college textbooks, or literary essays. On the topic of history, “sixty percent did not know why The Federalist was written, 75 percent didn’t know when Lincoln was president, and one in five knew what Reconstruction was.”4

By the 1980s, the ongoing decline of education in America prompted the infamous report by an investigative commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education. Published in 1983, its ominous opening line was “We are a nation at risk.” Even more baleful was its conclusion: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”5

This dire warning, although well publicized, did no good. The Educational Testing Service reported in 1994 that 50 percent of college graduates in the United States could not read a bus schedule and “that only 42 percent could summarize an argument presented in a newspaper article.”6

Why have we allowed this to happen to ourselves? Rather, why have we done this to ourselves? How and why is it that America, historically the most plentiful source of innovative and inventive minds, has established an educational system that cripples the mind?7 What caused this degradation?

How and why is it that America, historically the most plentiful source of innovative and inventive minds, has established an educational system that cripples the mind? Click To Tweet

Toward answering such questions, it is important to understand that American schools have not always been so bad. Indeed, at one time American education was superb. . . .

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Endnotes

1. Emily Richmond, “How Do American Students Compare to Their International Peers?,” The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-do-american-students-compare-to-their-international-peers?/ (accessed June 2, 2018).

2. Julia Ryan, “American Students vs. the World: Expensive, Unequal, and Bad at Math,” The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/american-schools-vs-the-world-expensive-unequal-bad-at-math/ (accessed June 2, 2018).

3. National Adult Literacy Survey (1992) NCED, United States Department of Education. Cited at www.readfaster.com/education_state (accessed July 9, 2018).

4. John Hood, “The Failure of American Public Education,” Foundation for Economic Education, February 1, 1993, www.fee.org/articles/the-failure-of-american-public-education/.

5. “A Nation at Risk,” www2.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html (accessed July 8, 2018).

6. Charles Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write, or Add (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995), 100–101.

7. See, for example, Andrew Bernstein, The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic, and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005). See especially chapter five, “The Inventive Period,” 137–61.

8. Much of this material was included in my earlier article, “The Educational Bonanza in Privatizing Government Schools,” The Objective Standard 5, no. 4 (Winter 2010–2011): 21–32. I repeat it here because it sets the context necessary for this article.

9. Hans Sennholz, ed., Public Education and Indoctrination (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1993), 38.

10. Sennholz, Public Education, 22–23, 26, 38–39, 44.

11. Benjamin Franklin, Writings (New York: Library Company of America, 1987), 1372.

12. Sheldon Richman, Separating School and State (Fairfax, VA: Future of Freedom Foundation, 1993), 38.

13. Richman, Separating School and State, 38.

14. Thomas Sowell, Inside American Education: The Decline, The Deception, The Dogmas (New York: Free Press, 1993), 7.

15. Pierre Du Pont Nemours, National Education in the United States of America, translated from the second French edition of 1812 and with an introduction by B. G. Du Pont (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1923), 3–4, quoted in Sennholz, Public Education, 23–24.

16. Sennholz, Public Education, 44; John Taylor Gatto, “Our Prussian School System,” Cato Policy Report, March/April 1993, 1. This entire section on superlative early American education is an edited version of a passage in my essay “The Educational Bonanza in Privatizing Government Schools.”

17. Quoted in Lawrence Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957 (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 62.

18. Cremin, Transformation of the School, 62.

19. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids, 203.

20. Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 134.

21. Ravitch, Left Back, 135.

22. Ravitch, Left Back, 137; Thomas Snyder, ed., “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait,” nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf (accessed July 8, 2018); the nation’s entire population in 1920 was roughly 106 million. The proportion of five- to seventeen-year-olds in the country was 28 percent in 1900 and gradually declined to 20 percent in 1947. School enrollment rates for this age group were 51 percent in 1900 and rose steadily to 75 percent in 1940. If roughly four million students were IQ tested each year during the 1920s, simple arithmetic tells us that this represents a huge proportion of the student population.

23. Ravitch, Left Back, 156.

24. Ravitch, Left Back, 163–64.

25. Ravitch, Left Back, 164.

26. Ravitch, Left Back, 165.

27. Ravitch, Left Back, 166.

28. John Franklin Bobbitt, The Curriculum (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), 3–5, quoted in Ravitch, Left Back, 165.

29. W. W. Charters, Curriculum Construction (New York: Macmillan, 1923), 4, 13–14, quoted in Ravitch, Left Back, 166.

30. Charters, Curriculum Construction, 44–46, quoted in Ravitch, Left Back, 167.

31. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids, 205.

32. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids, 205.

33. Richard Mitchell, The Graves of Academe (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981), 75.

34. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids, 206, quotes from National Education Association, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education: A Report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, Bulletin No. 35 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Education, 1918).

35. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids, 206–7, quotes from Cardinal Principles.

36. Ravitch, Left Back, 125.

37. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids, 205.

38. Ravitch, Left Back, 125.

39. Quoted in Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids, 205.

40. George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense (New York: Scribners, 1905), 284, quoted in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, www.iep.utm.edu/santayan/ (accessed July 8, 2018).

41. Ravitch, Left Back, 127.

42. “Social Studies in Secondary Schools: Preliminary Recommendation by the Committee of the National Education Association,” History Teacher’s Magazine (December 1913): 291–92, quoted in Ravitch, Left Back, 128.

43. John Dewey, The School and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 15.

44. Michael Knoll, “Laboratory School, University of Chicago,” in Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy, edited by D. C. Phillips (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2014), 455–58, available online at mi-knoll.de/122501.html (accessed June 11, 2018).

45..Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards, The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, 1896-1903 (New York: Appleton-Century, 1936), 96–113, 118, 127–37, 156–81, 185–99, 206–18, 240–41, quoted in Ravitch, Left Back, 171.

46. Ravitch, Left Back, 178.

47. John Dewey, The School and Society (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), 11, 20.

48. John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Collier Books, 1938), 17.

49. “My Pedagogic Creed,” School Journal 54 (January 1897): 77–80, http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm.

50. Dewey, School and Society, 11, 20.

51. Cremin, Transformation of the School, 220.

52. E. D. Hirsch, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 52.

53. Ravitch, Left Back, 126–27.

54. Ravitch, Left Back, 179.

55. Ravitch, Left Back, 179.

56. Ravitch, Left Back, 179; interior quotes from William H. Kilpatrick, “The Project Method,” Teachers College Record (September 1918): 323, 329–30.

57. Samuel Tenenbaum, William Heard Kilpatrick: Trailblazer in Education (New York: Harper, 1951), 264–66, quoted in Ravitch, Left Back, 209.

58. Quoted in Ravitch, Left Back, 205–6.

59. Ravitch, Left Back, 217.

60. Ravitch, Left Back, 216–17.

61. Ravitch, Left Back, 218.

62. Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method (Middletown, DE: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2014 (1912), 3–11 and passim.

63. Ravitch, Left Back, 299.

64. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Mortimer J. Adler: American Philosopher and Educator,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, June 24, 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Mortimer-J-Adler (accessed July 17, 2018.)

65. Ravitch, Left Back, 300, 301.

66. William Heard Kilpatrick, The Montessori System Examined (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 54–55.

67. Kilpatrick, Montessori System Examined, 59–60.

68. Ravitch, Left Back, 298, 303.

69. Eunice Fuller Barnard, “A Teacher’s Teacher Tells What Education Is,” New York Times, March 21, 1937, 5, quoted in Ravitch, Left Back, 304.

70. Dewey quoted in Ravitch, Left Back, 304.

71. Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read (New York: Harper & Row, 1955), 10.

72. Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read, 26–34 and passim.

73. Quoted in Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read, 12–13.

74. Dixie Lee Spiegel, Reading Teacher, April 1978, quoted in Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read (New York: Harper Colophon, 1983), 24.

75. Martin Gross, The Conspiracy of Ignorance (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 78.

76. Leonard Peikoff, “The American School: Why Johnny Can’t Think,” in Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 217.

77. Quoted in Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read, 54.

78. Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read, 58–65.

79. Jeanne Chall, Learning to Read: The Great Debate (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 3, 7. Quoted in Ravitch, Left Back, 356.

80. Ravitch, Left Back, 354–55.

81. Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, 81.

82. Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, 81.

83. Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, 81.

84. Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, 106.

85. Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, 107.

[86] Kati Haycock, “47% of High School Grads Aren’t Prepared for College,” April 13, 2016, www.marketwatch.com/story/how-high-schools-are-failing-those-who-earn-a-diploma-2016-04-13 (accessed July 30, 2018).

87. Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, 115–16. Italics added.

88. Annie Holmquist, “High School Reading Lists: 1922 vs. Today,” www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2018/05/high-school-reading-lists1922-today-annie-holmquist.html (accessed July 18, 2018).

89. Quoted in Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, 187–88.

90. Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, 46 (italics in the original).

91. Private correspondence from CliffsNotes’ general editor to the author upon the occasion of hiring him to write the notes for three Ayn Rand titles.

92. Mitchell, Graves of Academe, 69.

93. Arthur Bestor, Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Our Public Schools (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1953), 101.

94. Hirsch, Schools We Need, 54.

95. Gross, Conspiracy of Ignorance, 115.

96. The company offers various apps, games, workbooks, and so forth that help children master the alphabet and sound out words. See hookedonphonics.com.

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