The idea of public education has been one of America's singular contributions to the democratic project. The genesis of American public education may be found in the early laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Connecticut and New Hampshire which, immediately after their founding, urged the formation of grammar schools in every village to promote literacy in order to encourage the study of the Bible among their citizens, who were overwhelmingly Puritan. After the adoption of the Massachusetts Constitution, which was drafted by John Adams, the duty to support and promote public education was incorporated into the Massachusetts Constitution.
By 1791 seven of the fourteen states had specific provisions for education. Thereafter, a native son of Massachusetts, Horace Mann, successfully championed the adoption of universal public education. During the administration of Abraham Lincoln, the Morrill Land Grant Act in1862 provided federal support for the study of agriculture and engineering at the university level, By the 1870s, Mann's model of universal public education - kindergarten through university - had become the goal throughout the United States.
Portrait of Horace Mann from a selection of public domain portraits of historical figures at the Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas at Austin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With increased state and local support for public education and the enactment of truancy laws and mandatory school attendance ages in the twentieth century, illiteracy in the United States was virtually extinguished while the possession of a high school diploma became the norm rather than the exception. The passage of the GI bill after World War II enabled 7.8 million veterans to attend colleges and trade schools or to be trained in business and agriculture programs. This surge in higher education enrollment was accompanied by an extraordinary expansion of the public, taxpayer-supported universities across the country that became the envy of the Western world.
The American philosopher John Dewey extolled public education as the great equalizer and as a crucible of American democracy. His message resonated. By the late 1950s, it appeared that Dewey's conviction and Horace Mann's vision had become the American reality.
The emergence of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam anti-war protests, supported by large number of students, sparked the counter-revolution. By the late 1960s, public education at all levels was under assault. Ronald Reagan began his political career in 1966 by attacking the student peace demonstrators at the University of California-Berkeley as well as its professors, and the University of California itself. As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan waged a relentless campaign against the independence of the University of California system, reduced its funding, and fired its president, Clark Kerr.
Elsewhere around the country, right-wing organizations, fueled by private foundations and money, ominously warned that public education posed a clear and present danger to the "American way of life" because its institutions had been infiltrated by liberals, socialists an other assorted "do-gooders" who were bent upon subversion. Slimy demagogues such as Spiro Agnew pandered to the ever-present strain of anti-intellectualism present in American culture with appeals to the "silent majority" as he railed against the "nattering nabobs of negativism," a phrase originally coined by H.L. Mencken.
As the assault upon public education has widened, advocates for public education have beaten a hasty retreat while the voices for charter schools, vouchers, and privatization have grown ever louder.
Recently, an article in The New York Times by Stephanie Saul ("Public Money Finds Back Door To Private Schools," May 22, 2012) described an ominous trend in which a number of U.S. states have created or are considering scholarship tax-credit programs to fund private school tuitions, the effect of which will be to further de-fund and destroy pubic education. To date, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania have enacted legislation that, as of 2011, had already extended tax credits in excess of $329,000.00 to individuals and corporations.
Ms. Saul reports that, during a time in which hundreds of thousands of public schools teachers have lost their jobs because of right-wing demands for public austerity as a response to the collapse of demand in the market economy, the programs that now operate in eight states are the most rapidly growing components of the school choice movement. By the end of this school year alone, Saul reports that these programs will have redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students.
Equally worrisome, a significant amount of money has also been given to private, sectarian schools that openly teach the theology of creationism. In her article, Saul noted that almost a quarter of the schools that participate in the program in Georgia require families to openly profess their religious faith and that many of those schools espouse Christian fundamentalism. One widely accepted sixth-grade science text recounts the creation story contained in Genesis, but omits any other possible explanation. An economics text that is used in some high schools predicts that the Anti-Christ will one day subvert the market economy and control all sales and purchases.
Saul also reports that a number of these schools use textbooks produced by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Book, a Christian publisher in Pensacola, Fla. She quotes one Jon East, vice president for policy at Step Up For Students, the organization that runs the Florida scholarship program to the effect that, "It's a Christian curriculum, and some parts of it are controversial."
An A Beka high school science text Ms. Saul perused argues that "much variety within the human race has developed from the eight people who left the Ark." Another text, used in sixth grade, repeatedly makes references to Noah and the Great Flood whom the book's author asserts is the reason for the existence of the world's petroleum reserves and for the development of fossils.
Saul also found that many of the history and economics texts used in these sectarian schools that receive public funding through tax credits reflect an undeniably right-wing world-view. One text asserts that the magnitude of the Great Depression was exaggerated to persuade the country to accept socialism, and it described "The Grapes of Wrath" as propaganda.
Ms. Saul interviewed the headmaster of the Covenant Christian Academy in Cumming, Georgia,who confirmed that his school used the texts she described but claimed that they were part of a larger curriculum."You have to keep in mind that the curriculum goes beyond the textbook," the headmaster said. "Not only do we teach the students that creation is the way the world was created and that God is in control and he made all things, we also teach them what the false theories of the world are, such as the Big Bang theory and Darwinism. We teach those as fallacies."
The totality of the evidence suggests that American education, at almost every level, is experiencing a profound crisis and has failed to create a literate, educated citizenry. For example, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that over forty million Americans age 16 and older have significant literacy deficiencies. In addition, more than 20 percent of Americans read at or below a fifth grade level which is far below the level needed to earn a living wage. The data with respect to scientific literacy is also disquieting. Americans in general do not understand what molecules are, less than one third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, and one adult in five thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
The further fragmentation of American education, coupled with the indoctrination of children in Christian madrassas, can only exacerbate this trend and contribute toward further gridlock and polarization in American politics. Sadly, many Americans are as unable to distinguish between a scientific theory and a theological conviction as they are to understand that the infinitive "to educate" is not a reflexive verb. As a consequence, they are equally unable to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and propaganda. Illiteracy in all of its manifestations thus becomes the enemy of democracy
The link between language and thought is explored in George Orwell's profound novel 1984. In that seminal book, the central character, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to help to create for the omnipresent tyranny which governs Oceana a new language, Newspeak.Newspeak is the ultimate language of control: Each year in the Ministry of Truth, thousands of words are eliminated. In addition, antonyms are collapsed into synonyms. Hence, "Freedom is slavery, "Ignorance is strength, "War is peace." As Orwell reminds us in the appendix to that novel, when one loses the capacity to use words correctly, one loses the capacity to think; when one loses the capacity to think, the ability to rebel or to imagine alternatives to the status quo is irrevocably extinguished.
The goal of many of the religious zealots who oppose public education is to create a fundamentalist majority who will impose the stamp of their religious convictions upon this country's institutions and convert the United States into a theocracy. The goal of the right-wing foundations and the corporate supporters who fund these religious lunatics is equally sinister: It is to create a passive, poorly educated population who will accept their lot in life and willingly subordinate their lives and educations to satisfying the needs of the market economy.
The Marxist philosopher and social critic Herbert Marcuse warned that "An economic system that encourages its young men and women to tailor their educations to the needs of the marketplace, irrespective of their hopes and ambitions, is an economic system that should be roundly condemned. A nation that discourages the study of art, music and the Humanities is a nation that will inevitably find itself populated by unthinking dolts and automatons." Dolts and automatons will never be able to imagine the possibility of creating a better future for themselves and their children or understand that collective action by citizens, in the ballot box and in the workplace, is the only means to curb the further growth of plutocracy.
The Balkanization of the United States is well underway. The de-funding and further destruction of public education will only exacerbate this trend. If not reversed, the motto of this country will inevitably metamorphose from e pluirbus unum to its antithesis, e(x) uno plures.