History Taught Backwards and the Education Crisis

When thinking about the crisis in American education, a crisis of falling enrollment and teacher burnout, I often think back to when I studied to become a teacher. Something that happened on the very first day of class has never left me.

I was sitting in a classroom at a community college in Maryland with students who were half my age and mostly female when we got our first homework assignment. It was an essay, “Metaphors of Hope,” from our class textbook, Teachers, Schools, and Society. “Metaphors of Hope” is an account—supposedly—of what is right about American education. The essay’s author, Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld, began teaching in 1956 and is the author of several books on pedagogy. The metaphors of hope that Chenfeld writes about are the indications of hope amidst the collapse in every category of the American educational system.

My professor—I’ll call her Karen—was a nice, attractive woman around 40. She is a terrific teacher, kind, funny, and knowledgeable. She has years of experience. Yet on the first day, something felt off. A few of the students purchased the wrong book; instead of Teachers, Schools, and Society, they had with them a book that was sitting right next to it called Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. When somebody pointed out the mistake, Karen looked pained and a little disgusted. It was the face you’d make if you went to an expensive Italian restaurant and were presented with a plate of pasta with hair on top of it. “You can return that book,” she said. Not: you can read it if you want, see what you think. You can—the tone was more like you should—return that book.

Naturally, I bought Whatever It Takes as soon as class ended. I then turned to “Metaphors of Hope.” The current scene in American education, observes Chenfeld, is like the Devastation Trail in Hawaii. Devastation Trail is a place where a volcanic eruption has left a wasteland of black ash; however, there are plants that manage to grow. This is the metaphor for modern education; yes, there is bullying, drugs, illiteracy, and awful teachers. But there are also signs of hope. “As a stubborn optimist,” Chenfeld writes, “I always search for markers of thimbleberry, swordfern, creeping dayflower, and nutgrass—metaphors of hope!”

Our first assignment was to write about our own metaphors of hope. We were also assigned a chapter in Teachers, Schools and Society about the history of education. One of the major figures in that history, Karen told us, was Horace Mann. I already knew who Horace Mann was, and I had already formed an opinion about him and his theories about education. Mann (1796-1859) is considered the father of American public schools. A 19th-century Massachusetts reformer, he convinced Americans that they should pay for public, or “common,” schools, and established the Massachusetts State Board of Education. 

Mann was a complex figure, perhaps best described by Christopher Lasch in his 1995 book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. In his chapter on Mann and the common schools, Lasch points to a central paradox that remains unresolved: the theories of Horace Mann were egalitarian, pro-peace, and humanistic. He was completely successful in creating public schools. Yet his methods caused the very problems education faces today. They killed excitement, passion, and learning as a gateway to a thrilling life of fearless scholarship where nothing is ruled out of bounds.

Mann was a product of both the Enlightenment and New England Puritanism. He referred to “the heroic period in our country’s history,” and claimed that America should have “stood as a shining mark and exemplar before the world.” Yet Mann’s Enlightenment reliance on science, humanistic antipathy towards war and religion, and Puritanical distrust of love and its passions—his disdain, in other words, for all the basic, dynamic phenomena of life—made schools that were dull

In short, Mann’s theories were a lousy fit for the drama that plays out in the democratic and religious culture outside the classroom window. Lasch writes: 

The history of reform—with its high sense of mission, its devotion to progress and improvement, its enthusiasm for economic growth and equal opportunity, its humanitarianism, its love of peace and its hatred of war, its confidence in the welfare state, and, above all, its zeal for education—is the history of liberalism, not conservatism, and if the reform movement gave us a society that bears little resemblance to what was promised, we have to ask not whether the reform movement was insufficiently liberal and humanitarian but whether liberal humanitarianism provides the best recipe for a democratic society.

An education that does not deal with war, love, religion and the fierce debate of democracy, Lasch argues, is not much of an education at all; these days, “we share Mann’s distrust of the imagination and his narrow concept of truth, insisting that the schools should stay away from myths and stories and legends and stick to sober facts, but the range of permissible facts is even more pathetically limited than it was in Mann’s day.”

Lasch had exactly summed up my feelings, with one exception—since Lasch’s book at that time was already 20 years old, teachers were sticking less and less to “sober facts” and more and more to leftist propaganda. It was all so dreary. One of the best teachers I had taught history at the private Jesuit high school I attended in the 1980s. This teacher taught history backwards, so that the year begain with an assessment of Watergate, then the Vietnam War, then on to the Cold War and the Civil Rights era and Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. History was full of conflict and myth and religion and love and sex and everything else. It was exciting. I got so interested in Vietnam that I read every book I could get my hands on about it, from Michael Herr’s Dispatches to Stephen Wright’s  harrowing and eccentric Meditations in Green.

One of the most incredible and dramatic American lives belongs to Geoffrey Canada, the subject of Paul Tough’s Whatever it Takes. Equal parts history, profile, science, and sociology, Tough’s book tells the story of a remarkable man and his ambitious project to break poor black kids out of poverty. Canada is an African American educator and activist who in the 1980s and ’90s came across statistics that changed the way he looked at the problems of poor black people. One study revealed the massive discrepancy between the vocabularies of poor people and everyone else, and how this affected everything from taking tests to doing well in job interviews. 

In the first few years of life, babies from poor households hear far fewer words, and what they hear is often negative. Hearing fewer words, and more negative words, has a physiological effect on the brains of poor children—it actually affects brain development and brain chemistry. Infants of all races who are read to and treated with love, support, and kindness do better on tests, in conversation, in job interviews, etc.

This lack of nurturing, Canada believed, kneecaps poor kids before they even reach the first grade. The liberals are wrong that racism and economics are why blacks do not get ahead—after all, massive social spending and economic booms have not changed the black unemployment rate much in the last 40 years. And certain conservatives are mistaken in claiming that IQ is destiny. How could it be, if IQ is so malleable in the earliest years of life? What matters is how a child is spoken to and treated in the first few years of life. Change that, and you may be able to change everything. 

Tough sums it up: 

However you measure parenting, middle-class parents tend to do it very differently from poor parents—and the path they follow, in turn, tends to give their children an array of advantages, both cognitive and non cognitive: a bigger vocabulary, better brain chemistry, a more assertive attitude. As (researcher Annette Lareau) pointed out, kids from poor families may be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite—but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.

That phrase “a more assertive attitude” is striking in our current climate of teen suicides and millions of kids on medication for depression and anxiety. For me growing up, books and school meant knowledge and adventure which translated into a more thrilling journey through life. The phrase “assertive attitude” also reminded me of something I saw a few weeks ago when I came across some footage on YouTube of teenagers in the 1980s dancing to New Wave music in a club. Coming from that era myself, I thought I might see someone—maybe even me!—in the footage. I then saw a line in the comments section that was noteworthy: “They all look so confident.” 

Obviously written by a young person today, it was a commentary on how our lives and our educations four decades ago presented us with the idea that life should be met head on, not avoided. In our Catholic school with its myths, legends, credos and incredible and dynamic figures like Pope John Paul II, we were living Geoffrey Canada’s philosophy of exciting and assertive education—not today’s passive, guilty, virtue-signaling slog.

In 1990, Canada formed the Harlem Children’s Zone, a massive social experiment that set out to change the way poor black kids are raised, read to, spoken to, even fed. In 1997, the Zone started a program encompassing 24 blocks; in 2007, it was expanded to cover almost 100 blocks. It involves both charter schools and public schools. Canada has appeared on “Oprah” and “60 Minutes,” and his results are impressive. One stat from his website: 

Of the 161 four-year-olds that entered the Harlem Gems in the 2008-2009 school year, 17% had a school readiness classification of delayed or very delayed. By the end of the year, there were no students classified as ‘very delayed’ and the percentage of ‘advanced’ had gone from 33.5% to 65.2%, with another 8.1% at ‘very advanced,’ up from only 2%.

This is wonderful, hope-filled stuff. And if we can be blunt, it is easily verifiable to anyone with familiarity with the problems holding back many poor black families.

What is striking about Canada’s breakthrough is that it has the potential to push past the Left-Right divide over education. The Left’s view is summarized in Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities. Kozol is a sad-sacked geyser of left-wing condescension, and his books and lectures are long laundry lists of rat-infested schools with collapsing infrastructure. But Kozol has little to say about the crisis of bad parenting in both the black and white communities or about how teachers have moved away from teaching that life is an incredible, exciting adventure and instead seem only to understand it as something to survive, usually as an aggrieved victim. On the other side is libertarian Charles Murray, who has written a lot about education, but who thinks that IQ is destiny, despite the fact that IQ appears to be at least somewhat malleable and improve if a child is read to from a young age. 

Once, in the New York Times, Geoffrey Canada summed up his philosophy: “For me, this is not an intellectual debate. This is quite literally about saving young lives. For parents in devastated neighborhoods such as Harlem, the decision to send their child to the local failure factory or a successful charter school is no choice.” 

It takes both a village and good parents to raise a child.

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