280 Losing Our Mind?

   In 1960 America’s schools were widely considered among the world’s best.  Then came the ‘60s revolution which significantly changed the culture, including  the erosion of educational standards.  Within two decades concerns for the schools’ quality became amplified, and in 1983 a presidential committee issued Nation At Risk to alert the public to manifest deficiencies in our schools.  In 1987 Allen Bloom  voiced his lament for the quality of university education in The Closing of the American Mind (which became a surprise best-seller).  Mounting concern in political circles led to federal initiatives such as President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” seeking to arrest the decline by insisting that certain standards be met to insure children were receiving a decent education.   But despite all the discussions—and the massive expenditure of funds—America’s K-12 students now score near the bottom in standardized tests administered in industrialized nations.    

To assess this issue, Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow edited a volume titled The State of the American Mind:  16 Leading Critics On the New Anti-Intellectualism (West Conshohocken, PA:  Templeton Press, c, 2015).   In their Foreword—“America:  Have We Lost Our Mind?”—the editors state that Americans had historically been characterized by “independent thought and action, thrift and industriousness, delayed gratification and equal opportunity” (#92 in Kindle).  Such traits had largely disappeared by the mid-80s as traditional content-focused courses, designed to transmit the core knowledge and wisdom of the past, were replaced by student-centered activities aiming to enhance self-esteem and critical thinking.   Consequently:  “Instead of acquiring a richer and fuller knowledge of U.S.History and civics, American students and grown-ups display astounding ignorance of them, and their blindness is matched by their indifference to the problem” (#157).  The “rugged individualism” of the past has dissolved into rampant self-absorption.  “Not only has self-reliance become a spurious boast (‘You didn’t build that’), but dependency itself has become a tactical claim” (#157).  Rather than celebrating their freedom to think and debate, large numbers of “Americans accept restrictions on speech, freedom of association, rights to privacy, and religious conscience” (#165).  The closing of the American mind seems to continue, especially in the nation’s educational institutions.

E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s “The Knowledge Requirement:  What Every American Needs to Know”  updates his 1987 manifesto, Cultural Literacy, urging the schools to recover their commitment to transmitting knowledge of history, civics, mathematics, science, and literature.  Now armed with the fact that SAT scores have declined for 50 years, Hirsch restates his case and blames the decline on the fact “that general knowledge” is not emphasized in the schools.  As teachers emphasize “skills” rather than “mere facts” many students learn very little and demonstrate it by performing poorly in international exams.  Ironically, Mark Bauerlein, in “The Troubling Trend of Cultural IQ,” notes that IQ scores have significantly increased during the past century—we’re actually getting smarter!  But higher IQs have not resulted in more knowledge.  Thus an alarming number of high school graduates (two-thirds of the students entering the Cal State University system) need remedial courses in math and writing, demonstrate a dwindling vocabulary, and have limited general knowledge. 

In “Biblical Literacy Matters,” Daniel Driesbach draws a dismal portrait that should concern everyone, for there has been “an alarming decline in biblical literacy” that includes an “ignorance of key biblical texts, stories, characters, doctrines, themes, rituals, and symbols” (#749).  Compared with George Washington, who often brought biblical phrases into his writings, today’s politicians frequently prove inept when trying to appear biblically astute—e.g. Howard Dean citing Job as his favorite New Testament book!  “In his 1800 assessment of education in America, Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours observed, ‘Most young Americans . . . can read, write and cipher.  Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly—even neatly.’  He attributed America’s high literacy rate to frequent Bible reading, which, he also said, ‘tends to increase and formulate ideas of responsibility’” (#864).  Two hundred years later we can hardly say the same!  And this loss of biblical literacy bodes ill for a nation whose laws and political premises are so suffused with biblical precepts.

In “The Rise of the Self and the Decline of Intellectual and Civic Interest,” Jean Twenge identifies one of the most important problems plaguing modern education.  Teachers for decades have stressed the absolute, if not ultimate importance of self-esteem.  All students, we’re told, must feel good about themselves—and any problems they have must be attributed to a lack of self-esteem.  Believing in yourself—not learning history or mastering calculus or becoming virtuous—is the pedagogical goal!  So today’s students routinely consider themselves masterful mathematicians or writers whereas their test scores demonstrate the converse.  Their inflated self-evaluation is bolstered by the rampant grade-inflection everywhere evident.  In 2012, 37 percent of high school seniors had an A average.  Whereas in the 1960s the most common grade in college “was a C, by 2000 the most common grade was an A” (#2269).  It’s revealing that “the ethnic group with the lowest self-esteem is Asian Americans” who “also demonstrate the best academic performance, possibly because their culture emphasizes hard work rather than self-belief” (#2370).  

Radio host Dennis Prager says “We Live in the Age of Feelings” bequeathed us by the ‘60s and thus fail to reason rightly.  Rather than wondering of something is “true” or “right,” today’s youngsters almost inevitably ask “how do I feel about it?”  They value their own feelings rather than the well-being of others, their own response to music and art rather than classical aesthetic criteria, and their own sexual satisfaction (e.g. cohabitation, abortion, sodomy) rather than the good of society (e.g. marriage and children).   Feelings fuel the ubiquitous concern of the young for “social justice”—meaning favoritism for the poor and disadvantaged, supporting the “poor man, even if he is in the wrong” (#3407).  Such convictions lead to such educational “reforms” as re-writing history books to exaggerate the role of women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities, thereby erasing the truth of the American story.  

In a more foundational essay, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, identifies “The New Antinomian Attitude” as the “greatest threat” we face, for it has led to “an Empire of Desire” that flourishes in our postmodern world and corrupts our culture.  “Ministered to by a therapeutic vocabulary empowerment, the pedagogy of multiculturalism, and our dominant, paradoxical moral code of nonjudgmentalism, this empire has come to dominate the American Mind” (#3741).  Whatever we want we will have!  Not even stubborn realities such as sexual differences will deter us.  In adopting this antinomian attitude “we’ve empowered the dictatorship of relativism, which is closely allied with the harrying mentality of political correctness” (#3881).  And with this we have effectively constricted the reasonableness needed for a healthy culture.  So we are, in fact, losing our mind!

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Though I generally encourage reading the books I review, sometimes I think people should merely know about a book without laboring to digest it first-hand.  So though the information in Terry Moe’s Special Interest:  Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Washington D.C.:  Brookings Institution Press, c. 2011) is truly important, the treatise is clearly designed for scholars rather than the general public.  His thesis is clear and disturbing:  though individual teachers may very well be deeply committed to their students the teachers unions have another, overriding objective—protecting and advancing the welfare of their members.    Thus we have such things as New York City’s “Rubber Rooms,” where 700 teachers daily do nothing (since they are incompetent) while continuing to  draw their salaries and full benefits.  They’re teachers who don’t teach!  But they’re protected by their union, which makes them impossible to fire.   

While not bad enough to be sent to the Rubber Rooms, another 5-10 percent of our teachers are mediocre at best and clearly harming their students.  If we could merely replace the bottom 10 percent “‘we could dramatically improve student achievement.  The U.S.could move from below average international comparisons to near the top’” (#157).   Educational reformers know this, but every effort to change the system has failed for one simple reason:  unions oppose efforts to discipline ineffective teachers , to allow school choice or merit pay.  Before 1960 unions had little power and exerted little influence.  The National Education Association (now the largest union of any kind in the U.S.) was a professional organization largely controlled by school administrators.  In the 60s, however, the unions began to win legislative and judicial victories that enabled them, by 1980, to establish “what was essentially a new system of public education” (#218).   “The rise of the teachers unions, then, is a story of triumph for employee interests and employee power.  But it is not a story of triumph for American education” (#1419).  

The unions mastered the art of financing politicians (almost exclusively Democrat) who would in turn generously appropriate money to the schools and require union membership.  Unions  “were the nation’s top contributors to federal elections from 1989 through 2009” (#251).  They also effectively marshal their members as “volunteers” to work in important campaigns (especially school board  elections and bond proposals).  And they have effectively aligned themselves with other powerful public sector unions to mutually enrich themselves at the public purse.  When confronted with the dismal record of student achievement (near the bottom compared with other developed countries), the unions loudly insist the problem is simply financial—given enough money, all would be well in our schools!  Yet the U.S. spends “more than twice as much on education—per student, adjusted for inflation—as it spent in 1970 (and more than three times as much in 1960” (#296).  Unions insist that small classes insure better learning  and demand we hire more teachers to man small classrooms.  Yet whereas in 1955 there were 27 students per teacher and there are now 14, the students are demonstrably less well-educated.  Smaller classes mainly mean more teachers—and more union dues—but less effective instruction.

Yet amidst the generally dismal story of America’s schools there are a few “small victories for sanity.”  New Orleans has witnessed some “path-breaking” improvements launched in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005!  The city’s “teachers were dismissed and the local union and its formidable power” was crushed (#4414).  Then state and local officials were free to establish “a full-blown choice system filled with autonomous charter schools” now enrolling 60 percent of the city’s children (#4420).   Short of a hurricane, however, constructive change rarely comes in the nation’s largest cities!  Consider Washington, D.C., dead last in test scores and “long known for having one of the worst, most incompetently run school systems in the country” despite its lavish funding (#4753).   When Adrian Fenty was elected mayor in 2007 he resolved to reform the system and brought Michelle Rhee on board as Superintendent of Schools to do so.  She sought to “build a new personnel system around performance:  rewarding good teachers for their success, creating strong incentives to promote student achievement, and—just as important—attracting a new breed of teachers” who would improve things (#4811).  But Rhee soon exited because the unions opposed her every move and help orchestrate the defeat of Mayor Fenty at the next election.  

In Moe’s opinion, unless the teachers unions are radically curtailed there is no hope for the children in public schools.  The symbiotic bond between the unions and the Democrat Party must be dissolved.  School vouchers, school choice, charter schools, and new technological options offer positive alternatives to the established order that may in time improve things.  But ultimately, for any meaningful reforms to take place the teachers unions must somehow be sidelined.    

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In John Dewey and the Decline of American Education:  How the Patron Saint of Schools Has Corrupted Teaching and Learning (Wilmington, DE:  ISI Books, c. 2006) Henry T. Edmondson III demonstrates the old adage that “ideas have consequences.”  After briefly noting the general consensus regarding the decline of the nation’s schools during the 20th century, he declares that John Dewey’s educational philosophy explains much of it.  Indeed, his dolorous “impact on American education is incalculable” (p. xiv).  Committed to the pragmatic proposition that truth is “what works” when solving problems, and holding “that belief in objective truth and authoritative notions of good and evil are harmful to students,” Dewey disdained metaphysics, ethics, history and theology.  (His anti-religious statements rival those of militant atheists such as Nietzsche and Marx, whose moral nihilism and socialist aspirations he sought to promote in the schools).  Deeply influenced by Rousseau’s Emile, he considered books—and especially the classics that constituted the core of traditional pedagogy—impediments to the experiential “learning-by-doing” he favored.  Students should work out their own moral standards through “values clarification” discussions rather than study Aristotle’s Ethics or McGuffey’s biblically-laced Readers.  

Surveying the academic scene in 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter said:  “‘The effect of Dewey’s philosophy on the design of curricular systems was devastating’” (p. 37).  Rather than studying the traditional “liberal arts,” the schools now seek to “liberate” students from the shackles of the past, encouraging “creativity” and engendering “self-esteem.”  Socialization—most notably progressive social change—increasingly replaced learning and scholarly proficiency as the central mission of the schools.  “Thanks in no small part to Dewey,” Edmondson says, “much of what characterizes contemporary education is a revolt against various expressions of authority:  a revolt against a canon of learning, a revolt against tradition, a revolt against religious values, a revolt against moral standards, a revolt against logic—even a revolt against grammar and spelling” (p. 56).  

To rightly respond to the educational problems we face, Edmondson invokes Flannery O’Connor, who simply advised parents:  anything that John Dewey says “do, don’t do.”  To make our schools good for our children, the ghost of Dewey must be exorcised!  Banishing such things as “whole language learning” (which leaves students unable to read and spell well), “fuzzy” math (which replaces memorizing with analysis) and “values clarification” would be a healthy place to begin!  Making the study of history central to the curriculum is essential—as is the discipline of memorizing facts about the past.  Learning logic—unlike indulging in “critical thinking”—would equip youngsters to actually think rather than emote.   In short:  we must rescue our children from the pernicious pragmatism of of John Dewey.

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Years ago I read and favorably reviewed David Gelernter’s Drawing Life:  Surviving the Unabomber—a moving account written by one of the nation’s most prestigious computer experts—a professor at Yale, an Orthodox Jew who was seriously injured by one of the notorious Unabomber’s mailed explosives.  Subsequently I’ve found various of Gelernter’s books (several of them historical monographs) worth perusing.  This is quite true of his America-Lite:  How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats) (New York:  Encounter Books, c. 2012).  “Everyone knows,” Gelertner begins, “that American civilization changed in the 1960s and ‘70s” (#20).  “In 1957, Americans were pleased with America and proud of it,” but within 20 years “that proud confidence was gone, crumbled like mid-bricks into flyblown could of dust” (#105).  Revolutionary cultural changes—evident in an eroding of public civility and “the etiquette that used to govern relations between men and women”—have fundamentally changed America.  In significant ways, America has been Europeanized.  Responsible for these changes are those Gelertner dubs PORGIs—“post-religious globalist intellectuals”—who disdain both patriotism (love of country) and patriarchy.  

The PORGIs have effectively orchestrated a cultural “coup” by occupying the universities and making their prestigious degrees the price of admission to social prominence and financial success.  They are energized by their leftist ideology, which is “a new religion” morphing into such things as “earth worship” and the “sacralization of homosexuality” clearly akin to “ancient paganisms” (#402).  Addicted to—and intoxicated by—various theories (e.g. social justice,  global warming, affirmative action), the intellectuals portray themselves as champions of truth and righteousness.  But, strangely enough, they have little interest in any concrete facts that might refute their theories!  As Hannah Arendt said, evaluating the social revolutionaries of the ‘60s:  “‘The trouble with the New Left and the old liberals is the old one—complete unwillingness to face facts, abstract talk, often snobbish and nearly always blind to anybody’s else’s interest’” (#356).  

Rather than dealing with the oft-inconvenient facts before them, today’s intellectuals “invent theories and teach them to Airheads.  Airheads learn them and believe them” (#286).  Airheads “never need to think at all” since they need only repeat the theories and dogmas fed them by their professors.  To Gelertner, “Barack Obama and his generation of airheads, the first ever to come of age after the cultural revolution, are unique in American history.  All former leftist movement were driven by ideology.  Obama’s is driven by ignorance” (#1479).  The president “himself is merely a mouth for garden-variety left-liberal ideas—a mouth of distinction, a mouth in a million, but a mere mouth just the same.  He is important not as statesman but as symptom, a dreadful warning.  He is important not because he is exceptional but because he is typical.  He is the new establishment; he represents the post-cultural revolution PORGO elite” (#1491).  Obama’s historical ignorance distresses Gelertner!  That a president could refer to “the bomb” (rather than the bombs) that “fell on Pearl Harbor,” or to brag that his great-uncle helped liberate Auschwitz (a Polish camp liberated by the Russians), demonstrates his prestigious but vacuous “education” in the most elite schools of the country!  “What kind of mismash inhabits this man’s brain?” (#1532).  

Unfortunately, “There is a pattern here.  This president is not an ideologue; he does no reach that level.  He is a PORGI Airhead:  smart, educated, ignorant.  And there is a deeper, underlying pattern.  Obama has learned theories about the police versus black men.  They are wrong.  He has learned theories about ‘real causes’ of terrorism and about ‘isolated extremists’ and ‘Islamophobia.’  They are wrong.  He applied his theories just the way he was taught.  But the theories, being wrong, gave him wrong answers.  That is the PORGI elite, the new  establishment” (#1614).  Obama  will soon be replaced.  Butt the ‘60s revolution has succeeded inasmuch as “a new generation of Obamacrats enters America’s bloodstream every year, in late spring, when fresh college graduates scatter like either little birds of puffs of dandelion seed to deliver a new crop of Airhead left-winger to the nation and the world” (#1497).  Knowing little about history, having read little literature, free from any grounding in logic or philosophy, their college experience has primarily trained them to be faithful leftists.  

Despite their impoverished education, their growing power has resulted in Gelertner calls “Imperial Academia,” a confirmation of one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 warnings concerning the pernicious power of an emergent “scientific-techological elite,” which (through government funding and political influence) posed a threat “gravely to be regarded.”  Massive amounts of federal money now flow into academic institutions, which in turn provide the government with highly-trained experts who and support big government solutions to the nation’s problems. 

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