036 Education at the Crossroads


The year 1989 was a historic watershed: the Berlin Wall came down and the communist world stood exposed as a failed utopian experiment. That collapse should prod us to weigh the worth of other socialist ventures, especially when even the “democratic social welfare” states of Western Europe such as Sweden seem increasingly incapacitated by the intrinsic fallacies of Marxist ideology. Socialism’s demonstrable failure–the inability of government to effectively own and control of the means of production–should instruct all of us as we chart our paths into the 21st century.

Exposed by this failure is one of the most important of all political questions: what is the real meaning of “equality,” the actual equality embedded in the essence of our humanity. On this issue, Alexis de Tocqueville astutely noted: “Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”

We often fail to place education within the broader context of ethics and politics, which always struggle with such issues as freedom and equality. To liberate or to equalize is a choice educators must make. Some educational theories seek to grant equal opportunity to all at the point of access, then allowing free persons to perform in accord with their talents and character. Other educational theories seek to impose, through compensatory mechanisms of various sorts, an equality of “outcomes” which level individuals to a common denominator dictated by “fairness.”

We who teach often feel like hanging our heads–and hardening our hearts–when confronted with the “latest” study of the “failure” of America’s educational system. Year by year, even when “new instruments” are designed to more accurately measure student accomplishment (such as the recent exam developed in California allowing for ethnic diversity and encouraging thought rather than recall), the evidence mounts that today’s students are simply not learning as they should. (The California test reveals that only seven percent of the students are proficient in mathematics!) Ironically, it seems, the more public education fails the more educators insist that the sole solution is money and facilities, more programs and classes–more of what’s steadily failing: public education!

Myron Lieberman’s latest work, Public Education: An Autopsy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c. 1993), adds detailed indictments to the familiar litany of laments for our students’ poor performance. But, in addition, it includes a prescription for renewal: alongside the public schools, he urges, we should allow a free market system to create hosts of more effective alternatives. At the very least, the author argues, even a step toward “market socialism” would allow options in education which would outperform the centralized, monopolistic, socialistic, government-run school system.

(If you object to the use of the word “socialism,” please consult the tenth objective of Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto which calls for “Free education for all children in public schools.” On the other hand, by contrast, remember Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that “to compel anyone to support with taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves is both tyrannical and cruel”.)

The book’s title, of course, indicates Lieberman’s dour assessment of public education. The carcass still exists, gasping in its death throes, but its life has gone: “What has died is the rationale for public education” (p. 1). That’s mainly because public education is producer-driven rather than consumer-driven. It’s the teachers and their unions which determine educational policy rather than the parents and their children–or the business world which will hire them. Consequently, so-called educational reforms inevitably focus on and seek to empower teachers ( more pay, smaller classes, better facilities, etc.) with little actual concern for the well-being of students.

Lieberman especially indicts the teachers’ unions for misleading the public. Though the media rely almost exclusively on National Education Association publications for salary data, such are carefully tailored to “substantially understate teacher compensation” (p. 78). Taxpayers rarely learn of the actual costs of the public schools and would probably revolt if they discovered their hidden revenues. State education bureaucrats and local school district press releases routinely “misinform their constituents about the educational achievement of their students” (p. 83).

The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers are heavily involved in the political system. They do everything possible to preserve their monopoly, basically established as the Department of Education has settled into the federal bureaucracy. Members of these unions formed the largest “interest group contingent of delegates” to the 1992 Democratic national convention (p. 312).

In the states as well, every effort is made to centralize and maintain control over the schools. Rather than elicit support from the public by proving the schools’ proficiency, public educators seek to massage political powers to insure their privileges. So, for example, when a voucher system proposal surfaced in California, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Bill Honig, vowed to pour $10,000,000 into a campaign to defeat it. The president of a specialized firm which gathers signatures for such ballot initiatives was “offered $400,000 to refrain from gathering signatures for an initiative” (p. 337). He refused, but the CTA opened its vaults and funded the massive campaign which defeated the 1992 initiative.

School policies which mandate that no students shall fail, inflating grades so that all students imagine they are doing well, is yet another form of educational dishonesty. “Self-esteem” is certainly important (though not all-important), but to deceive students concerning their abilities (and to have them discover otherwise when unable to perform well in college or on the job) is reprehensible.

All of us must realize that more than jobs is at stake! The future of this country rests in the hands of those who educate our children. To compete in a global economy, we must educate young people as well as our European and Asian competitors. The need for math and science is self-evident, but, the Department of Education confesses, our 14-year-olds are near the bottom and our 18-year-olds are “last” when compared with students in other “advanced and developing countries.” In math, only nine percent of our 13-year-olds could handle complex problems, “whereas 40 percent of the Koreans did so” (p. 145).

Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have steadily declined for 25 years. (Here I must add that an Educational Testing Service study shows that 90 percent of the differences in test scores results from five factors: school attendance; time spent watching TV (the less the better); number of pages read for homework; number and quality of books in the home; and the presence of both parents in the home. I think it’s obvious that the schools are not primarily to blame for students’ failures.)

That is not to excuse the schools completely however, especially since they often claim more money and facilities will reverse the academic slump. Lieberman scoffs at the rationalization of many educators who argue that SAT scores have declined because the greater number of students taking the test makes it inevitable! Scholarly studies cited by the author show that “The underlying reason for the decline since the 1970’s has not been the expansion of the pool of students taking the SAT but an actual decline in achievement” (p. 147). Educators often resort to blaming the umpire when test scores indict the system. Shooting the messenger is always easier than hearing his unwanted message!

Rather than shooting the messengers, it’s time to begin probing alternatives. Just as the failed socialistic economies of Eastern Europe demonstrate the need for decentralized, market-oriented systems, so too the failure of America’s socialized public education system proves the need for creative alternatives. Lieberman suggests a variety of approaches–including the use of tax monies for parochial and for-profit institutions–which would break the hammer-lock of compulsory public education and enable parents and students to freely choose the kind of education which they judge best.

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Reading Lieberman, who takes a rather libertarian approach, prompted me to reread a book I read 20 years ago, Deschooling Society, by social critic Ivan Illich (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, c. 1970), which represents the position of one on the radical left. Surprisingly, the two arrive at the same verdict: compulsory public education is flawed and should be abolished.

Toward the end of his treatise, Illich re-tells the ancient story of Pandora’s box–which when opened loosed evils on earth–and offers this insight: “Man has developed the frustrating power to demand anything because he cannot visualize anything which an institution cannot do for him. Surrounded by all-powerful tools, man is reduced to a tool of his tools. Each of the institutions meant to exorcise one of the primeval evils has become a fail-self, self-sealing coffin for man. Man is trapped in the boxes he makes to contain the ills Pandora allowed to escape. The blackout of reality in the smog produced by our tools has enveloped us. Quite suddenly we find ourselves in the darkness of our own trap” (p. 157).

Here Illich refers to the distinction drawn by Aristotle between making and acting. In Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote: “For neither is acting a way of making–nor making a way of truly acting. Architecture [techne] is a way of making . . . of bringing something into being whose origin is in the maker and not in the thing. Making has always an end other than itself, action not; for good action itself is its end. Perfection in making is an art, perfection in acting is a virtue.”

Too often, in our technological society, we invest our energies in making things, taking control of nature and shaping it to our desires, stamping our own ideas on the world around us. The schools, basically, prepare students for such “practical” work, “making a living.” Yet such endeavors never fully satisfy, for they fail to fulfill our deepest self, our real nature. Only when we learn to act, to live as persons who can think and act so as to perfect our being, do we find “happiness” as Aristotle defined it.

Thus Illich urges that “The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies. We need a set of criteria which will permit us to recognize those institutions which support personal growth rather than addiction, as well as the will to invest our technological resources preferentially in such institutions of growth” (p. 76). This means the schools, which have been designed by teachers for teachers to teach, must be disestablished.

The school, especially in the poor nations for which Illich most deeply cares, has become an oppressor, keeping people addicted to its “services” rather than liberating them to perfect their being. We live in an increasingly “therapeutic society.” (Most of us know how “therapeutic” the church has become!) “At some time during the last two generations a commitment to therapy triumphed in American culture, and teachers came to be regarded as the therapists whose ministrations all men need, if they wish to enjoy the equality and freedom which, according to the Constitution they are born” (p. 99).

Designed to serve us, the school has become a coffin; designed to illuminate us, it’s become a darkened cave. “All over the world,” he asserts, “the school has an antieducational effect on society: school is recognized as the institution which specializes in education. The failures of school are taken by most people as a proof that education is a very costly, very complex, always arcane, and frequently almost impossible task” (p. 11). Thus misled, the people are willing to tolerate the increasing cost and incompetence of the schools!

In fact, when people are allowed to find the teachers who teach what they want to learn, they learn rather quickly and easily. “Most learning,” he insists, “happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction” (p. 18). Were a variety of non-compulsory educational facilities opened and funded, were a host of gifted teachers available to teach what people needed, learning would flourish. For all their excesses–and their rhetoric at times runs wild!–what Illich and Lieberman help us do is consider radical alternatives to what seems, in many ways, a failing system. To imagine disestablishing the schools overnight is, of course, vapid daydreaming. But to think honestly about the failures of the public schools, to explore options which might help students learn more effectively, to consider de-centralizing and opening up the entire educational experience, demands we listen to such critics as these.

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For a more encouraging and substantial discussion of education, turn to a book published fifty years ago: Jacques Maritain’s Education at the Crossroads (New Haven: Yale University Press, c. 1943). If only we had a truthful understanding of human nature and society, he thinks we might more effectively design healthy educational systems.

Here Maritain writes prophetically: “The task of moral re-education is really a matter of public emergency. . . . . That teachers in public schools may not face unruliness and violence, moral authority must be recognized; and there must be a serious teaching of moral principles, I mean as grounded on truth rather than as suitable to social convenience” (p. 93). The “present agony of the world,” he believed, is “a supreme crisis of the Christian spirit, which for a long time has been neglected or betrayed in democracies, and which totalitarian states are now determined definitely to abolish, then it is obvious that a revival of Christian conscience and a new work of evangelization are the primary and unquestionable conditions for the moral re-education that the man of our civilization needs” (p. 107).

Maritain begins by insisting we set forth coherent “aims of education” which gives order and direction to our endeavors. “Education is an art,” he says, “and an especially difficult one” (p. 2). Thus it demands we have artful designs with clear objectives (or ends) in mind. It is an “ethical art” which truly seeks to free persons to attain the end for which they are created. As practitioners of the art of teaching, teachers are more like farmers or doctors than sculptors. There must be an attentiveness to the nature of the person, an ars cooperativa naturae (art cooperating with nature), a genuine ministering to the learner which characterizes good teaching.

At this point he cites some wise words from his master, St Thomas Aquinas, who urged students: “‘Always make sure that you actually understand what you read or listen to,'” and “‘avoid speechifying on anything whatsoever.'” To both teachers and students, Aquinas said: “‘never leave behind him any difficulty unsolved.'” “He also warned teachers–this advice was already necessary for the educators of his time–‘never to dig a ditch that you fail to fill up.’ He knew that to raise clever doubts, to prefer searching to finding, and perpetually to pose problems without ever solving them are the great enemies of education” (p. 50).

Above all else, education should encourage the development of moral reasoning, virtuous living, qualities of mind and character which, we early discover, cannot be mechanically inscribed in the young. Facts can, at least momentarily, be poured in. Data can be inscribed in computers. Our young people have often acquired lots of facts. But they know little about the soul, the life of the spirit, the moral dimension to life, the life of freedom. Moral persons, of course, are necessarily free persons who make moral decisions and become persons of character.

What we mainly aspire to, as persons, is freedom. Most deeply, we long for an inner spiritual freedom, the freedom which St Paul described as freedom of the Spirit. Our social world, our vocational world, have worth, but lack the eternal dimensions our heart craves. “Thus the prime goal of education is the conquest of internal and spiritual freedom to be achieved by the individual person, or, in others words, his liberation through knowledge and wisdom, good will, and love” (p. 11).

The love which we need comes not from mental training, of course. It comes from strong family ties and religious examples. It is, ultimately, a gift from God, a gift of grace. The true liberation we all need is freedom from self-centeredness, egoism, sin. Thus there is, in a profound sense, an essentially religious component to genuine education.

Ultimately, he says, “our chief duty consists, according to the profound saying of the greek poet, Pindar, in becoming who we are, nothing is more important for each of us, or more difficult, than to become a man. Thus the chief task of education is above all to shape man, or to guide the evolving dynamism through which man forms himself as a man” (p. 1). Indeed, “education is not animal training. The education of man is a human awakening” (p. 9).

What is man? What is the nature of human nature? To answer this question is the most important of educational inquiries. The failure of socialistic systems reveals their flawed definition of man–homo faber–as a worker, a tool-using animal. Where man is so defined, education becomes a variant of animal training. And since animals, such as bees, are maximal specialists, education seeks to mass produce specialists who can methodically work in the factories of mass production.

But perhaps this behavioristic, materialistic, socialistic approach is wrong. If, in fact, the Greek, Jewish, and Christian understanding is correct, we best understand “man as an animal endowed with reason, whose supreme dignity is in the intellect; and man as a free individual in personal relation with God, whose supreme righteousness consists in voluntarily obeying the law of God; and man as a sinful and wounded creature called to divine life and to the freedom of grace, whose supreme perfection consists of love” (p. 7). And this definition of human nature leads to distinctively different educational strategies.

As educators, we are probably always at some “crossroads.” Clearly that’s the case today. And Iknow of no better consultant as to which turns to make than Jacques Maritain!

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The right education for free persons, Maritain insists, is a “liberal education” in the humanities. There’s no other way to find truth than to engage in the great conversation of those who have best illuminated it. “The mental atmosphere for adolescence should be one of truth to be embraced. Truth is the inspiring force needed in the education of the youth” (p. 62). This is best attained by “the ‘pure reading,’ as Charles Peguy put it, of a ‘pure text'” (p. 70).

Rightly read, the great books root us not only in an intellectual tradition. They enable us to taste the life of the mind which, as spirit, opens us to the living Spirit, whose Love enables us to ascend to the virtuous life, a plateau never attained through reason alone.