In Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality (New York: Three Rivers Press, c. 2008), Charles Murray proposes “a transformation of American education—a transformation not just of means, but of ends. We need to change the way the schools do business” (p. 11). Murray, a distinguished social scientist, believes we are enthralled to an “educational romanticism” that is in fact a lie: “The lie is that every child can be anything he or she wants to be” (p. 11). Without question the lie is benevolent, promulgated by folks (educators in particular) who want to help children. But like most lies, in time “its effects play out in the lives of young people in devastating ways” (p. 12).
Dismantling our educational romanticism begins by recognizing the simplest of all truths: ability varies. For example, there are, as Harvard’s Howard Gardner famously argued, “seven intelligences: bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, spatial, linguistic, and logical-mathematical” (p. 17). Gifted athletes are rarely theoretical physicists and great musicians easily fail as politicians. Evidence shows that virtually all students who academically succeed excel in spatial, linguistic, and logical-mathematical ability. Consequently, “educators who proceed on the assumption that they can find some ability in which every child is above average are kidding themselves” (p. 29).
Self-evident truth number two is this: Half of the Children Are Below Average. It’s as inescapably true as the law of gravity. Most parents and teachers learn to accept the fact that their children may be less than excellent in athletics or music, but they resolutely insist linguistic and logical-mathematical skills can be mastered by anyone (namely, their own children). In fact some of us are just not smart enough to fathom Einstein or follow Aquinas. This is because our IQ is as hardwired into our being as our height and hair color. We may develop our latent abilities, but only in terms of their given potentiality. Nor do schools much matter! As the celebrated Coleman Report definitively demonstrated, “the quality of schools explains almost nothing about differences in academic achievement. Measures such as the credentials of the teachers, the curriculum, the extensiveness and newness of physical facilities, money spent per student—none of the things that people assumed were important in explaining educational achievement were important in fact. Family background was far and away the most important factor in determining student achievement” (p. 58).
Equally discomfiting to progressive politicians and educational romantics is Murray’s truth number three: “Too Many People Are Going to College.” No doubt influenced by parents and teachers, “more than 90 percent of high school seniors expect to go to college, and more than 70 percent of them expect to work in professional jobs” (p. 104). Many who enroll fail to graduate and all too many who finish fail to actually learn much. While presidents and pundits trumpet the importance and possibility of everyone getting a college degree, we must face the fact that not nearly everyone has the ability to do college work (especially in the traditional liberal arts). “How smart do you have to be to cope with genuine college-level material? No more than 20 percent of students have that level of academic ability, and 10 percent is a more realistic estimate” (p. 67). Without an IQ of 115 it is difficult to benefit from higher education simply because “real college-level material is hard” (p. 70). Cognizant of this, colleges and universities have minimized the liberal arts curriculum, enabling students to sample a cafeteria of courses and graduate without significant mental exertion. “In this environment, the opportunities for learning of all kinds have diminished. Students learn less in the way of subject matter, but also less in the way of hard work, self-discipline, self-restraint, and respect for superior knowledge” (p. 100). They may very well enjoy their years on campus and develop valuable social contacts but “college life throughout much of he American system is not designed to midwife maturity but to prolong adolescence” (p. 101).
Finally, “America’s Future Depends on How We Educate the Academically Gifted.” Contrary to egalitarian, feel-good rhetoric, the nation’s “future does depend on an elite that runs the country” and this elite will come “overwhelmingly from among the academically gifted” (p. 107). Members of our elite are, however, demonstrably smart but often foolish—indeed many are “ethically illiterate” (p. 126). In fact: “A large proportion of the academically gifted students who will run the country in the next generation” will probably enter their careers “ignorant in some of the most important ways—sloppy in their verbal expression, unschooled in tools that they will need to make good decisions, innocent of any systematic thought about the meaning of a human life, oblivious to all of these shortcomings in their education, and oblivious to their own intellectual limits” (p. 162). So we urgently need to recover a classical liberal-arts approach to education, designed to inculcate the cardinal virtues, rooted in the classical philosophical and theological heritage of the West, focused on sound judgment and responsible citizenship. Educating for “wisdom requires extended study of philosophy, because it is not enough that gifted children grow up to be nice. They must know what it means to be good” (p. 113). Still more: they must learn humility, acknowledging “their own intellectual limits and fallibilities” (p. 113).
Having established his four essential truths, Murray suggests some ways to improve the nation’s schools, primarily by establishing meaningful discipline and order in the classroom and disabling the progressive educational establishment which has reigned for a century. If students were early assessed for their abilities and properly directed into appropriate paths, required to work diligently, and allowed to progress as quickly as possible, the academically gifted would move on to college while average youngsters (at least two-thirds of high school students) would enter the work force.
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Christians often ponder the trajectory of higher education in America whereby scores of religious schools drifted from centers of pious orthodoxy into bastions of secularist infidelity. To understand this process, Julie A. Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, c. 1996) proves most instructive. It is, she says, above all a story of the shift “from the nineteenth-century broad conception of truth to the twentieth-century division between facts and values” (p. 2). Intellectuals in the 19th century “assumed that truth had spiritual, moral, and cognitive dimensions. By 1930, however, intellectuals had abandoned this broad conception of truth and embraced, instead, a view of knowledge that drew a sharp distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values.’ They associated cognitive truth with empirically verified knowledge and maintained that by this standard moral values could not be validated as ‘true.’ In the nomenclature of the twentieth century, only ‘science’ constituted true knowledge. Moral and spiritual values could be ‘true’ in an emotional or nonliteral sense, but not on terms of cognitively verifiable knowledge. The term truth no longer comfortably encompassed factual knowledge and moral values” (p. 2).
To verify her thesis, Reuben documents “the unity of truth” everywhere assumed by 19th century college and university professors. “The unity of truth entailed two important propositions. First, it supposed that all truths agreed and ultimately could be related to one another in a single system. Second, it assumed that knowledge had a moral dimension. To know the ‘true,’ according to this ideal, was to know the ‘good’” (p. 17). In fact: All truth is God’s truth! What’s learned in biology classes harmonizes with biblical revelation; what’s studied in history seminars illustrates divine providence; what’s espoused by philosophy professors squares with the Logos incarnate in Christ Jesus.
Nevertheless, the rapidly-expanding cohort of progressivist scientists embracing the Darwinian paradigm rejected both the historic Baconian commitment to common-sense empiricism and the philosophical tradition of natural law. Since everything is evolving, there are no intrinsic essences in things and, as William James concluded, “scientific theories were instrumental rather than descriptive” (p. 46). Imbued with this conviction, prominent academics such as Cornel University’s president, Andrew Dickson White, celebrated the victory of science in his History of the Welfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. They further insisted that educators devise curricula appropriate for the “new knowledge” and institute electives (consistent with the view that scientific “truths,” whether biological or sociological, anthropological or psychological, constantly change) as a substitute for the prescribed classical studies (e.g. Latin and Greek) ingrained in the liberal arts. This better suited professors increasingly devoid of “faith in the ideal of the unity of truth” (p. 241).
Easily the most influential of the devotees to the “new knowledge,” Charles Norton Eliot, “began his administration with plans to promote science and decrease the presence of religion at Harvard” (p. 77). Conciliating constituents distressed by his agenda, he found he could promote the “scientific” study of religion as long as all forms of dogmatic theology were eschewed. In short order the Harvard strategy prevailed, and hitherto “Christian” universities such as Yale charted a secular course. As a result, Reuben says: “In 1870 religious instruction in colleges consisted of required courses in moral philosophy, often supplemented by lectures on natural theology or the evidences of Christianity. By 1890 these courses had disappeared from the university curriculum. In their stead, faculty advanced a variety of electives related to religion” (p. 88). This move was applauded by liberal clergymen such as Henry Ward Beecher, who declared: “‘To admit the truth of evolution is to yield up the reigning theology. It is to change the whole notion of man’s origin, his nature, the problem of human life, the philosophy of morality, the theory of sin, the structure of moral government as taught in the dominant theologies of the Christian world’” (p. 96). The time had come to reformulate the Christian faith in terms prescribed by Science, reducing it to what people “felt and did, not what they thought” (p. 112). Religion on campus was shifted from the classroom to the chapel (increasingly voluntary) and extracurricular activities.
With religion effectively sidelined at the dawn of the 20th century, university educators looked for scientific substitutes to replace it. They still believed in progressive moral development and prescribed courses designed to encourage it. So newly empowered “social sciences” instituted courses in social hygiene, eugenics, economics, psychology and sociology, all promoted as verifiable vehicles for ethical improvement. Representing the ethos of the day, John Dewey and James Tufts published their Ethics in 1908 and saw it adopted by scores of colleges and universities. The authors dogmatically rejected any Supernatural Source of morality and reduced to a purely naturalistic prescription. Yet even this effort floundered as younger “scholars thought that eliminating ethical concerns was the key to achieving scientific rigor and intellectual consensus. These scholars viewed morality as a matter of personal preference” (p. 188). Subsequently ethics as well as religion was banished from prestigious university classrooms. “By the 1920s,” Reuben concludes, “most natural and social scientists defined their academic role in terms of specialized instruction and the advancement of scientific knowledge, effectively undermining plans to make their disciplines the basis of a new secular moral education” (p. 210).
Given the assumption that morality lacks scientific justification, some university educators shifted their hopes for moral instruction to the humanities. Perhaps, following the admonitions of Matthew Arnold, an aesthetically-attuned “culture” might replace religion in perfecting “humanity through the ‘harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling, which make the peculiar dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature’” (p. 215). A cohort of “New Humanists,” following Irving Babbitt, insisted that great literature and art, rather than science, contained the wisdom needed for modernity. To Edwin Greenlaw, “‘the service of literature, rightly conceived, is akin to the service of religion. . . . Our materials are human lives, instruments to be played upon by spirits of the dead, by living spirits incarnate in poetry and music and art, by the deeper music of humanity’” (p. 218). But art and literature failed to bear the burden of inculcating morality—as did the assorted and ambitious programs promoting “student life.” Consequently: “Over the twentieth century leaders of research universities strengthened their institutions’ commitment to the advancement of knowledge, but they were never able to recapture university reformers’ faith in the power of knowledge to elevate individuals and the world” (p. 265).
The Making of the Modern University successfully blends the depth of a Ph.D. dissertation with the accessibility and readability of a treatise targeting a general audience. To better understand why America’s universities have become such bastions of secularism Reuben’s work proves essential.
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Joe Kernen co-anchors CNBC’s Squawk Box, a morning business show. Distressed by what his daughter, Blake, was learning (or not learning) the fifth grade, he and she co-wrote Your Teacher Said WHAT?! Defending Our Kids from the Liberal Assault on Capitalism (New York: Sentinel, c. 2011). Like lots of parents, Kernen and his wife “wanted our kids to believe in God, love the country, and respect the principles of hard work and fairness. We wanted them to value honesty, courage, and kindness, to be polite and respectful” (pp. x-xi). In addition, they wanted them to understand and appreciate the freedoms (economic and religious) America affords. But they discovered that their kids’ teachers, rigorously implementing their Progressive ideology, often contradicted parental convictions.
Fifth-graders easily embrace Progressive positions because, Kernen finds, “ten-year-olds are natural Progressives” (p. 9). They’ve been taught that good people share their goods with other, that it’s bad to be selfish. Cutting a pie “fairly” means giving the same size slice to each person, for there is only one pie to divide. Caring for animals (and thus the environment) easily becomes a moral imperative. Kids also live in a world governed by lots of imposed rules—food choices, bedtimes, leisure activities. And, of course, they’re constantly cared for by watchful parents. “Progressivism, at its core, isn’t really anything but the idea that the government ought to act like a parent” (p. 10). But whereas the Kernens hope their children actually grow up and assume adult responsibilities, freely functioning in the market economy, the “Obamacrats in the White House, the Senate, and the House and a dizzying number of bureaucrats, obedient to their Progressive instincts, want to keep the American people children forever” (p. 10).
To help his daughter prepare for adulthood, Kernen decided to teach her the basics of the free market—defining terms, illustrating processes, defending the right of a free people to make a living and control their properties. He particularly explained and stressed how millions of individuals, making decisions about things they fully understand, are far better informed and prudential than a handful of experts engaged in central planning. He furthermore endeavored to demonstrate the media’s dishonesty in portraying businessmen and multinational corporations as villains. Sadly enough, Hollywood continually adds “to America’s (and the world’s) economic illiteracy” (p. 101). Aligned with the Hollywood elite, Blake Kernen’s teachers seem to despise business and denigrate America. Her “teachers are uncomfortable even describing the American way, much less defending it” (p. 106). They often celebrate Europe, with its generous welfare programs, entrenched in nations such as Germany for more than a century, while condemning America’s free enterprise system as benefiting the rich rather than providing for the poor. But when honestly evaluated, Europe cannot compare with America on a whole variety of items. What’s evident is this: “When you build a nanny state, you turn a decent-sized chunk of the populace into the sort of people who depend on nannies: infants. Or at least into the ten-year-olds who make the best Progressives and liberals” (p. 111). Such dependency, however comfy, hardly befits a healthy, mature person. Unfortunately, the USA, under Barack Obama, seems determined to emulate the European way.
President Obama is as committed as any European social democrat to regulating every aspect of American life! “The desire to regulate economic life,” Kernen says, “might be the defining characteristic of Progressive philosophy” (p. 127). Without a doubt, “Regulation is progressivism” (p. 127). And, since kids crave set structures, ten-year-olds such as Blake easily support all kinds of rules. Her father, however, wants to show her why many rules and regulations (such as those requiring cosmetology licenses) are designed to favor a select few (generally union) workers. Carefully investigated, it becomes clear that most economic regulations rarely “ever accomplish what they were intended to do, and almost always have some genuinely bad unintended consequences” (p. 132). Kernen then illustrates “the sheer idiocy of most regulations” that was abundantly evident in the massive stimulus bill—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—that “put so many regulatory strings on its money” that the funds sunk into the quicksand of endless bureaucratic maneuvers needed to comply with assorted mandates (p. 136).
Most of these rules and regulations are, furthermore, designed not simply to protect us from evil but to make us better people. Progressives like the Obamas “are determined to make everyone else just as virtuous as they are” (p. 150). For example, when buying coffee, we’re lectured on the propriety of purchasing more expensive “fair-trade” brands. (During my final years teaching at a university, some of my colleagues pushed to mandate such “fair-trade” coffee for the department!) In fact, as Kernen shows, “the difference between the fair-trade price and the market price is nothing more than charity” given to farmers who refuse to use the machinery and pesticides necessary to compete in the free market. Still more: “even as charity, it’s not exactly a success story. Only about 5 percent—5 percent—of the fair trade price actually makes it back to the producers anyway” (p. 154). At the pinnacle of the Progressive agenda to help us all is, of course, universal health care. This “effort to make the national government responsible for the nation’s health care (or at least its health insurance) is as old as Progressivism itself; it was one of the promises on which Theodore Roosevelt rand for president on the original Progressive Party ticket. He lost. His cousin, FDR, attempted to make the federal responsibility a part of the original Social Security legislation. He lost, too. Harry Truman in 1949; Richard Nixon in 1972; Bill Clinton in 1993. Lost, lost, Lost” (p. 205).
In 2010, however, Barack Obama succeeded! Consequently, unless Obamacare is overturned by Court or Congress allegedly free Americans will actually be forced to purchase health insurance. During the first two years of the Obama administration, it looked as if the “Progressive nirvana” had at last arrived—“a government takeover of health care; management of virtually the entire financial industry; ownership of more than half of the domestic automobile business; and, of course, close to a trillion dollars in ‘stimulus’ spending that most amounted to a gigantic subsidy of the country’s public employee unions while increasing the nation’s unemployment rate” (p. 213). All of this, Kernen thinks, bodes ill for us all. So to help us (as well as his children) understand—and, more importantly, resist—this Progressive onslaught, Kernen wrote Your Teacher said WHAT?! Whether or not it matters will be determined as voters decide, in 2012, what kind of a nation we prefer.
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