The Editorial Comment was presented as a speech by Dr. Carlson, Executive Vice-President of The Rockford Institute at the April 16, 1984 meeting of the Philadelphia Society.
Whole forests have been sacrificed in the last two years to the latest phase of this nation’s perennial debate on education. Yet the debate swirling about us has yet to focus satisfactorily on the root problems besetting American public education. Unless a series of admittedly more esoteric and troublesome questions are examined–”What is the fundamental purpose of public education?” “What role should our schools play in shaping American culture and identity?” “What civilizational content should energize school curricula?”–the contemporary debate will accomplish little of duration.
In hopes of promoting this wider discussion, I will focus on what I call the “American pluralism problem.” In an era where “cultural pluralism” is almost universally acknowledged as the defining metaphor of the American nation, it may seem tiresome to drag that old controversy out again. Yet I believe that one cannot understand the fundamental contradiction of the contemporary public education enterprise except by examining the history of our nation’s pluralism problem.
Aristotle laid out the basic argument for public education. The constitution of a democratic republic, he argued, demanded an education in conformity with it, an instruction in “the republican spirit.” It was, Aristotle said, “plain that the education of all must be one and the same, and that the interest.” Similarly, 19th-century architects of American public education saw a well-schooled citizenry and cultural unity as necessary to the success of the American republic. Looking at the widening diversity of social, ethnic, and religious groups coming into the U.S., they feared that value conflicts could rend the body politic, leaving the American republic helpless. For example, in an address to Ohio teachers in 1835, E. D. Mansfield stated: “It is altogether essential to our national security, strength and peace … that the foreigners who settle on our soil should cease to be Europeans and become [Anglo-]Americans…. We must become one nation.”
So began the American crusade for public education. Over the next half-century, the struggle for national identity became intertwined with the common school movement. The goal was the inculcation of a common language and of common ideals, traditions, habits, and aspirations: in sum, indoctrination into a shared culture and national faith, one rooted in a diffused Anglo-Puritan ethos and beholden to a usually Protestant God. The McGuffey Readers best captured the moral order and social virtues which the public schools sought to instill. Ethnic parochialism was the enemy against which public school advocates struggled; the public school house with an American flag fluttering atop soon emerged among the most potent symbols of American nationhood.
The first “crisis of confidence” in the American public schools occurred during World War I, when a series of studies in New York City showed that what were then called the “new immigrants” from Southern and Eastern Europe were not being effectively assimilated. Responses to this apparent failure of the educational “melting pot” varied. Some, including the influential historian of education Ellwood P. Cubberley, worried that this wave of immigrants threatened “to corrupt our civic life.” Cubberly wrote: “Our [educational] task is to break up these groups or settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as a part of our American race, and to implant in their children … the Anglo-Saxon conceptions of righteousness, law and order, and popular government.”
New York University’s Henry Pratt Fairchild maintained that efforts at “Americanization” in the public schools and elsewhere were not working simply because assimilation was extraordinarily difficult to achieve, “America is a spiritual reality,” Fairchild wrote,”a whole complex of cultural and moral values” which could be absorbed only after decades of contact, not simply through the schools. Restrictions on immigration, he concluded,were the only answer.
A third response emerged in the work of Horace Kallen, professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Kallen argued that the assimilation process should have failed for it was opposed to both democracy and true cultural growth. A committed cultural pluralist, Kallen dismissed the fears and vanity of “native Americans,” whom he labeled “scared lodgers at home.” The cultural geography of the United States, he insisted, showed the existence of many unique cultural groups and very little evidence of homogenization. Indeed, the American immigrant experience actually seemed to sharpen ethnic loyalties. Denying any “public” purpose to education, Kallen argued that “the actualities of human life are first and last human individuals.” Referring to public education, he concluded: “If indoctrination is inescapable…it had best be an indoctrination in the relativity and contingency of all doctrines, in their dependence on choice and experience.”
Yet the celebration of American pluralism was interrupted during the late 1940’s and through the 50’s, as the American people seemed to be forging their own distinct identity. The crucibles of this American style were the burgeoning postwar suburbs: new kinds of communities beyond the immigrant experience. Under the influence of suburban life, ethnic differences waned while adherence to middle-class norms spread. Hyphenated-Americans of many–but not all–stripes poured into the developing communities, voluntarily suppressed their distinctions, and sought fulfillment in their immediate families, their growing churches, and in their new neighborhoods. The process represented more than mindless conformity.
By the mid-l950’s, intellectuals acknowledged the change. Conservative sociologist Carle Zimmerman, for example, noted with pleasure that, “in answer to the ‘challenge’ of world leadership,” American culture was “homogenizing” and “creating a new and much stronger family system.” Liberal economist and historian Walt Rostow cast Americans as “a suburbanizing nation” with “an increased social and political homogeneity.”
Public education also recovered its confidence during this period. Referring to the mission of the schools, University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote: “The community rests on the social nature of man. It requires communication among its members….And their philosophy…must supply them with a common purpose and a common concept of man and society adequate to hold the community together.” On a more prosaic level, the “suburban, middle class” America of the 1950’s found its moral equivalent of the McGuffey Readers in the “Dick and Jane” series, books that taught “the American way of life” now seen as rooted in the suburban environment.
Then came the time of troubles. Critics; well-meaning and otherwise, charged that the suburban vision of America was incomplete, that it was merely the product of the unique demographics of the post-World War II era, a system undergirded by transient fashions, one without sustaining roots. While I believe that this vision of America was more than an illusion and that it exhibited both moral purpose and an internal logic, it is true that it fell with surprising rapidity. Undoubtedly, the modern civil rights movement was one source of disequilibrium. What began as an overdue and correct effort to claim a place for black Americans in this new suburban dream became an assault on that vision and resulted in new claims for racial separateness. Malcolm X’s declaration “I don’t even consider myself an American” helped to shatter the vision. Similarly, Nathan Glazer’s and Daniel Moynihan’s 1963 Beyond the Melting Pot represented a second “rediscovery” of ethnicity in America and implied the tentativeness of the American identity. In 1965, Congress fundamentally altered the immigration law so that growing numbers of Asians and Latin Americans found their way to this land.
America was again changing, but this time there were no significant voices arguing for “Americanization”–few even mentioned it. Instead, the doctrine of cultural pluralism was triumphant.
Parallel developments affected public education. Critics such as Colin Greer argued that the schools had failed in their assimilative tasks in the past and could do no better now. The goal of “integration” represented a wistful mythology. At most, American society comprised a series of subsocieties based on ethnic identity. Social psychologist Otto Klineberg attacked the “middle class” stereotypes found in grade school texts–the intact suburban families, the comfortable homes, the clean clothes, the smiling people–and he urged greater sensitivity to cultural diversity. As the author of one primary school reader confessed in the mid-1960’s, “My series … is middle class, white, and sometimes I am a little ashamed.” Thus died the America of the “middle-class consensus.”
At its 1982 convention the National Education Association affirmed its belief in “multicultural education” as “a way of helping every student perceive the cultural diversity of U.S. citizenry so that children of many races may develop pride in their own cultural legacy.”
So public education has come full circle and is now devouring itself. Created as a means of inculcating shared values and a common social purpose, public schools now instruct students on how to recognize, cherish, and advance their differences. Forged in cultural wars against parochialism, public education now claims to be uniquely qualified to promote parochialism.
Some people ask, “Is the result so bad? Pluralism and diversity bring joy and variety, welcome relief from the drabness of conformity. Moreover, doesn’t a pluralistic America still work? We still produce, we still consume, and in moral terms we are freer than ever before. Is there really a pluralism problem?”
Yes, I think there is. As theologian Richard Neuhaus suggests, the absolutized pluralism of today is the death of pluralism and a danger to all else that we hold dear. Poet Wallace Stevens said: “We live in the description of a place and not in the place itself.” In our celebration of the “new pluralism,” we Americans have lost our tenuous grip on the shared “description” of our place. We no longer can claim common normative values against which we can, as a community, judge normality and deviance, define our heroes and villains, or weigh the relative claims put forward by various political interests. Political power is now largely divorced from any moral foundation. Fears that the loss of a common moral vocabulary would result in Hobbesian chaos now seem justified. Most of our confused politicians, while spouting moralisms in profusion, no longer really weigh moral arguments; they merely consult their opinion polls and follow the drift.
So what’s to be done? Simply put, we must intellectually reconstruct our understanding of American culture; we must build a renewed description of “our place.” Our past errors have come in part from equating outward conformity with the true bonds of community: the mistake of successive efforts at defining the “American” lies in assuming that visible alikeness means unity. Indeed, the opposite may be true. Correctly seen, it is the pluralism of externalities–of food, clothes, skin color, habits, song, and speech–that can bring health, vitality, and excitement to a culture. It is the pluralism of internalities–of values, mores, and meanings–that brings social decadence and meaninglessness disguised as liberation.
Also, a source of our dilemma may lie in the very origin of the American experiment. Created in rebellion against Europe, claiming to be a “New Order For the Ages,” the United States has had an uneasy relationship to the Western Civilization which gave it true birth. The values and meanings shaped by Greek, Roman, and Judeo-Christian thought are part of our very marrow as a nation. But these traditions are also dismissed as symbols of a narrow past, ones certainly irrelevant to the late 20th century.
Our sense of a vital, morally sound American culture can be restored, I think, only by first recovering conscious bonds to our mother Civilization. Since Western Civilization may be dying in Europe, it is vital that we preserve it here. As one step in that process of intellectual reconstruction, the Latin, Orthodox, and Jewish traditions need for the first time to be wholly integrated into the American cultural equation. Moreover, while all races and all external customs should be welcomed and celebrated as part of our visible pluralism, we must insist on broad exposure to and respect for the values and meanings of the Western tradition which gave birth to this land. On that basis, then, can rest a cultural order focused on family, faith, and property as the guarantors of our liberty and opportunities for happiness.
Can public education take part in these tasks? Given its present condition, it’s unlikely that it can since it now denies any authentic cultural purposes. The burgeoning number of nonpublic schools suggests that many American parents are today unconsciously heeding Aristotle’s advice in his Ethics to compensate for the public neglect of virtue by promoting “goodness” in one’s family and friends. Such a turn in no way provides a resolution to our cultural dilemma, and may for a time accentuate our differences. Yet with public education’s abdication of “public purposes,” the turn to “nonpublic” schools may paradoxically be the first and necessary step toward public renewal.
-Allan C Carlson