Most of the fights in education today are about three things: money, money, and money. The legislative and policy arguments, be they over charter school funding or teachers’ pensions, inevitably revolve around budgets.
I think the more interesting debate is over what to teach. Every time I meet a parent I eventually pose this question: what should your child learn? When they graduate high school, what should they know that would make you say: “Yes! I got my money’s worth out of the school system.”
The answers vary. In the mad rush of raising children, school can become like a black hole their kids disappear in from September to May. It’s a place they go to, come back from, and do homework for. At some point they have to figure out what to do when they leave it.
So the number one answer parents usually give me is that school should prepare their children to get into and graduate from a good college.
Fair enough. While the jury deliberates over the value of a college degree compared to its cost, it is still a ticket to higher earnings over a lifetime. Rarely do I hear my personal opinion: the purpose of the American education system is, first and foremost, to make good American citizens. Making them productive citizens is a secondary goal, and preparing them for college – a distant third.
Of course it’s great if they are productive, which I will define as making a lot of money. But a person can make $40,000 a year and still be productive. They will still pay taxes, own a home, buy things that keep the economy going, etc. But this is only an economic consideration. Surely there are more important things than money?
There are, and everyone admits to this truth. It is harder to put into practice, though, because parents are vaguely suspicious of idealism. It doesn’t pay the bills. Find something that does before you commit yourself to a lifetime of ideas.
This is always sound advice, but when we speak of idealism in this case we’re not talking about particularly grandiose goals. We mean all Americans should be able to discharge the duties of their citizenship.
This is why our country’s birth was such a landmark event – it was a swan dive into an unknown pool of idealism. The idea that you are born with rights that no government, no person, no earthly institution can take away from you is, in a nutshell, our founding principle. Natural law. We take it for granted today, but what a truly revolutionary concept it was at a time when the world was ruled (or usually misruled) by tyrants, kings, emperors, sultans, and thugs. Every American parent, regardless of political persuasion, surely agrees with this. Most assume it is taught to their children at some point in their academic career.
Think again. Of course, there is the obligatory lip service to America’s liberal ideals (i.e. – government of the people, by the people, and for the people), but these receive much less energy and passion than the catalog of America’s sins. The Constitution is portrayed as a dry, lifeless document, noteworthy for the fact that slaves were counted as only three-fifths the value of a free man. The fact that it was a masterpiece of compromise forged by people who understood human nature and were desperate to come up with one, just one, experiment in self-rule before they died is rarely emphasized.
Part of the problem is the way civics is taught. It is often presented in a vacuum with no contrasting idea. To know how good we have it, we have to know how bad everyone else had it. This comparative approach necessarily means criticizing other systems and ways of life. There is nothing racist or imperialistic in this approach. It is how judgment is taught.
But the very word “judgment” is often a pejorative now, which leads to the other part of the problem: the great unease which academia (K-12 and college) displays toward American exceptionalism.
We are firm believers in American exceptionalism, but we don’t teach it because we want our students to thumb their noses at the rest of the world. Rather, we want them to see what has failed in other times and places so they realize the advantages of our system. If they don’t learn that, how will they have the will and passion to preserve, protect, and defend it?
To that end, we often combine our civics units with those from our “How Not To Do It” file. This includes excerpts from William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Donald Wood’s memoir of apartheid South Africa, Asking for Trouble and, of course, that masterpiece of Dystopia – 1984.
We don’t use these examples to say, “See what idiots they were!” We present them in this spirit: “Be careful, this could happen to you too.”
Dean Acheson once said that the United States, by default, had become the “locomotive at the head of mankind.” The only guarantee of peace, he thought, was the “continued moral, military, and economic power of the United States.”
Maintaining this power is a big responsibility. Our young people are definitely up to the task, but we can’t just expect them to figure it out on their own. They must be taught to meet this 240-year-old responsibility for self-government.
Unless, of course, we prefer Winston Smith’s life to the one we have now.