By Primus Mootry
For The Herald Bulletin
“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”
— Horace Mann (circa 1840)
Horace Mann is known as the father of American Public Education. Aside from teaching academics, he saw public schools (then called common schools) as the means to bring children of different classes fully into the conversation of what it means to live in a democratic society — to be an American.
Although Mann had his detractors, his approach to our system of education, first adopted in Massachusetts, spurred the establishment of a national system of schools for every American child. Because he was bitterly opposed to slavery, I suppose, were it not for the time period in which he lived, Mann would also have included black children as students — as Americans.
In any event, since their establishment well over a hundred years ago, America’s public schools have done a spectacular job of bringing a nation of immigrants into a common language, common aspirations, and common values. Not perfect, but nonetheless spectacular. To the point, how else might this relative homogenization have been achieved in such an ethnically and culturally diverse nation?
In spite of its harshest critics, our system of public education has worked well for most Americans, and for a very long time. The real trouble began over 50 years ago with the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision striking down segregated schools in every state. The most rigidly segregated states went to extraordinary lengths defiantly to go over, under, around, bend, or break the landmark decision.
In 1954 Virginia, for example, Senator Harry Byrd launched a plan known as Massive Resistance. The plan included changing school attendance laws to ensure that no child would be required to attend integrated schools; giving “tuition” grants to white parents for use at all white public or parochial schools; and closing schools outright. Through legal maneuvers known as interposition, many other states, mostly Southern, also openly defied the law of the land.
In the North, rigidly segregated housing patterns and suburbanization had essentially the same effect on school desegregation. The flood of blacks pouring into northern cities as part of the Great Migration were forced into ghettos, their children forced into ghettoized schools. It was segregation just the same — schools separate, and decidedly unequal.
But this is just one sorry chapter in the history of our public schools. The important thing to note, though, is that the problem is not one of school performance, per se, but the failure to appreciate Mann’s notion of schools as “the balance-wheel” of a free society. For all the talk of school reform, the critical nexus between school and societal norms and expectations continues to evade our thinking. Or maybe not.
What I mean is that Brown vs. Board of Education was not about school reform at all. It was a mandate to states to implement social reform, civil rights, “with all deliberate speed.” In other words, it contained no provisions concerning teacher performance, curriculum, length of school day, and that sort of thing. That didn’t come until about 30 years later.
It came in the form of a scathing report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Then-education secretary Terrell Bell directed this group of education experts to study America’s schools and come back with recommendations. Their report said things were bad.So bad, in fact, “if a foreign power imposed this mediocre system on our country, we might consider it an act of war!”
The report, called A Nation at Risk, caused a flurry of activity by school reformers at local and national levels. Then came the schemes — open enrollment, vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools, magnet schools, privatization, more standardized tests and, well, good-bye neighborhood school.
Our public schools are worse off today than they have ever been. Their punishment is to be left with fewer resources and a tougher job. What was supposed to be school reform became school deform.
Also, many expert observers say our schools are being re-segregated by both race and class. My view? I think our system of public education is being dismantled. If we are at risk from its demise, we will have no foreign power or terrorist act to blame. Only ourselves.
Have a nice day.
Primus Mootry is an Anderson resident. His column appears Wednesdays.