“Priminent [sic] National Education Reformer Making a Home in Nashville,” announced the headline on Google News. Just in the nick of time, you might think, but when you read the story on Missouri News Horizon’s website, you will find that the great reformer, one Michelle Rhee, is serving up the usual empty portions of educationese we expect from aspiring reformers. Inspired by a PBS special, Miss Rhee enlisted in Teach for America, a tax-consuming conspiracy of do-gooders that sends graduates of elite colleges out to enlighten the squalid masses of the ghetto.
Rhee gained fame for her success in turning the Washington, D.C., school system into the paradise of discipline and solid learning commemorated in the film Waiting For Superman. After viewing the film, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss referred to Rhee as the “educational Joan of Arc.” More realistic researchers conclude that her triumph was the usual smoke and mirrors: windy rhetoric backed by phony statistics and dishonest test-taking. When recently Atlanta’s teachers were discovered to have coached their students on how to cheat on standardized tests, why was anyone surprised? Students do not want to learn, and if they did, our teachers could not teach them. Cheating is now the American route to success in high schools and universities.
Rhee says she is concerned with the decline of the competitive spirit in American schools. Using her daughters to illustrate the problem, she tells a mob of educationists in Tennessee that, while her kids have filled their rooms with ribbons and medals for soccer, in fact, “They suck.”
Rhee, though born in Michigan, has apparently not learned enough English to know that this slang expression refers to an obscene act once illegal in 50 states. She may not even care. She has moved part-time to Nashville so that her girls can be with their father, Tennessee’s education commissioner, but she spends the rest of her time in California with her “fiancé,” former NBA star and now Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, another leader in education reform. Johnson’s St. Hope Academy, unfortunately, has been accused of inappropriately spending funds received from Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps, and the academy has agreed to pay the government over $400,000.
Johnson’s personal scandals involve allegations of fondling teenage girls. The former Phoenix Suns point guard actually apologized to one of his alleged victims, but in the self-justifying language we expect from the pre-adolescent mind: “What you’re saying happened, I’m not entirely agreeing happened.” Johnson was wasted in basketball: He might have been Bill Clinton’s English teacher.
There was a time when teachers were supposed to know standard English, speak without profanity, and avoid the scandals of fornication, adultery, and divorce. That was also a time when we took the schooling of children seriously enough not to degrade a discussion of education by invoking comic-book heroes or involving sports stars, much less to permit anyone like Kevin Johnson access to children and teenagers. But it is to Kevin Johnson and Michelle Rhee that education reformers turn for inspiration—Johnson, because he is a black sports hero; Rhee, because she is an Asian female. What counts is not ability or integrity but belonging to a politically approved race or sex.
Older teachers and conservatives who remember a better America sometimes express outrage over the recent decline in standards and the plague of “political correctness,” but they are victims of nostalgia. Destructive social revolutions cannot be brought to fruition in a few years or even in a few generations. The American values preached from the 1930’s to the 1950’s reflected the genteel self-hating racism of an American elite class that had shed crocodile tears over Harriet Beecher Stowe’s poorly written fantasy.
Schools have been the factories in which we cranked out the perpetual adolescents who hated everything their ancestors had accomplished. No one today can praise Jefferson without piously denouncing him as a slaveholder and citing the Sally Hemings affair as if it were an established historical fact rather than a theory perpetrated by a known liar.
Anyone who has gone to high school “knows” that before the 20th century American men spent their lives lynching Negroes, beating women, abusing children, and keeping Jews out of country clubs. State schooling in the United States, from the very beginning, has been a political and ideological project that had little to do with training young minds and everything to do with liberating American children from the shackles of tradition, which can be loosely defined as anything their grandparents ever believed.
By and large, state schooling developed in the decades after the War Between the States. Some New England schools, it is true, had state superintendents or agencies even before the war, but for the most part public schools were still public—that is, controlled by the people of local communities. It is only when large cities and state agencies assume control over local schools, standardizing curricula and textbook selection and amalgamating dozens of community schools into consolidated assembly-line systems, that it becomes proper to speak of state schooling.
Pseudo-professional educationists staged a coup in the decades before and after 1900. They were clear in enunciating their agenda: Parents were too stupid and selfish to be trusted to make decisions; the traditional curriculum had to be destroyed and replaced by a curriculum designed by so-called social so-called scientists, who would create a new democratic man.
Although John Dewey was the Lenin of state schooling, he was hardly an original mind. Anyone dull-witted enough to be taken in by Trotsky could scarcely be regarded as terribly clever, much less original. Like every other phase and aspect of America’s homegrown red revolution, the sources have to be sought in the revolutionary currents of 18th- and 19th-century Europe. The first American kindergarten, for example, was set up in Watertown, Wisconsin, by Margarethe Meyer Schurz, the wife of the political reformer Carl Schurz. Both Carl and Margarethe were Forty-Eighters, pursuing the goals of the continuing revolution.
There are many aspects to the Revolutions of 1848, but they can best be seen as projecting one or another theme of the French Revolution: nationalism, socialism, the destruction of the traditional social order, and the reconstruction of society on the basis of social theories they mistook for science. The artificial nationalism of the French Revolution required the creation of a new kind of man, the citoyen, just as Stalin had to create the New Soviet Man, and American liberals the New Democratic Man. Over a century before John Dewey, the Jacobins realized that to create their new democratic man they needed a national educational system.
The Constitution of 1791 called for the establishment of a nationwide system of education, and Talleyrand, the former bishop and future diplomat, formally proposed a bill declaring education an affair not of the Church but of the state, which would use the schools to promote national culture and loyalty to the Revolution. Under the French plan, as in our current American system, the state assumes ultimate responsibility over the mental and moral training of children. Some powers can be conceded to the family and to the Church, but these are gifts from the state, which may rescind them.
In 1792, Condorcet drew up an elaborate plan for public instruction designed to turn out liberal individualists (like Condorcet), but, despite his great prestige, the Assembly failed to pass his education bill, though the Jacobins continued to pass laws and regulations infused with idealistic desire to turn children into obedient wards of the patrie. Semi-religious republican catechisms were drawn up to inculcate republican ideology into the young victims. The Jacobins had less concern for real teaching. Although the Church and Her properties had been nationalized, the teaching orders were at first permitted to carry out their traditional duties down to mid-1793, though something like three fourths of the teachers at the University of Paris had been cashiered for refusing to endorse the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.
While the government was driving out clerical teachers and refusing to pay the salaries of teachers who remained, it confiscated the property of the teaching orders. Like all ideologues, they could not imagine any principled opposition to their scheme, and they still supposed the priests and nuns would go on teaching privately in the hope of receiving compensation that would never be paid. Entire towns were left without teachers, and complaints flooded into Paris.
The Directory that took power after the fall of Robespierre finally rescinded the state’s guarantee of universal primary education and gave parents a choice on the schools to which they would send their children. But education would remain under the control of the central state, even when the state conceded some rights to church schools.
The nature and purpose of education had been revolutionized, not just in France but throughout the West. To the extent that government had anything to say about it, schooling was designed to create obedient and useful citizens who would serve in the army, pay taxes, and acquiesce in every new revolutionary scheme undertaken by the disciples of Robespierre and Gracchus Babeuf. The net effect was a continuous depression of intellectual and moral standards until we reached the temporary nadir at which Bill Bennett could serve as education czar, Bill Clinton pose as a national education leader, and Michelle Rhee and her lover could cut their public capers as reformers—all of them paid for by gullible taxpayers.
There is no point in wasting time and money in any effort to reform or modernize or technologize our schools, so long as they are under the control of the new aristocracy of tax-consuming educationists. Perhaps we might take a leaf out of the book of revolution and borrow the phrase used by the Paris mob to threaten the aristocrats of their day: “À la lanterne!”