Before getting into a deeper discussion of my original piece and the response to it, let me clarify a few positions.
First: One of the consensus values regarding education is that providing education to all will, in turn, provide opportunity to all. Extending the educational opportunity makes real the value of a society of equal opportunity.
Second: A literate society benefits society as a whole as well as the individual member.
Third: Becoming literate enhances the ability of each member to pursue personal opportunities and lift oneself up.
Fourth: The U.S. Constitution was written as a social contract document to limit powers of the government, while protecting the physical presence and rights of the minority.
In my original piece I used a historical analysis to support the claim that the early Puritans held literacy in high regard. Mr. Willing agreed to the importance of public education to this group. However, he misrepresents the Puritans as having come from the “Enlightenment, and had a profound respect for higher education." To be precise, the Period of the Enlightenment did not begin in Europe until around the 1650s ending around 1790 to 1800. To think that the Puritans were part of the Age of Reason is misleading. The emphasis that Puritans and other Congregationalists placed on literacy had begun as a response to monarchs and established religions attempting to limit access to newly translated and published bibles, as well as interpretation of said bibles. They choose to step outside of mainstream European society, as have many other outlier groups, the Puritans sought refuge from overly repressive regimes and societies, seeking sanctuary in North America. One of the latest groups to do so was the movement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from Nauvoo, Illinois to the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
Although the basis for the Puritans and early Congregationalists was to create basic literacy for religious purposes, it established the value of literacy and became an important part of the American traditional values system, that all should become literate. Based on their mandate, they found the best means to accomplish such was through a public education system, supported entirely by the local community.
Universal literacy has become one of the most important reforms of the American Experience and set us in the position to lead by example for the rest of the world. However, contrasting the value of universal literacy was clearly not a value of the “Old South”. Mr. Willing criticizes my critique for the introduction of the “Old South’s” approach to education as a means to link the current conservative movement to that approach; whereas, the responsibility for education is placed on the individual and their family because of the important conservative value of personal responsibility. It is linked by the nature of the arguments offered by the current fiscal conservatives. The arguments being made now could just have easily been made in the latter half of the 19th century for those defending the old system. Although the system was forced out and a public education was imposed, it didn’t find the same support as in the North and West. Funding has always been a problem and the focus has always been to provide the mere minimum.
We have developed two traditions, one of universal literacy and the other of personal responsibility. The aspect of the “Old South” is that if we privatize the schools that it will soon become a reflection of the “Old South” tradition. The progrssive position is an argument against taking the risk of privatization and undoing all that has been accomplished toward the goal of universal literacy, which is of higher value.
Mr. Willing accuses me of “making presumptions without a case”. He is reading something into it that isn’t there. Education, like any other social institution, must change in form and structure to remain relevant. The centralization of education services was consistent with the idea of the Industrial Revolution and Age. From manufacturing experience it was learned that applying economies of scale would enhance the function of the institution. This had absolutely nothing to do with the content of education but only the form and function. The changes to content came about from a number of very basic variables. Greatest of all has been the ongoing commitment to equal opportunity.
There is an assumption made by many that there is only one type of morality and that is religious morality. Contrary to that assumption is that morality does exist outside of the religious framework. Since the public schools are forbidden to teach or reinforce religion, it is only logical and proper that they teach and reinforce secular and humanistic morality. Many of the moral principles are found in both secular and religious morality, but when the moral principle is strictly religious in nature; then it is forbidden. Let me give this example; orthodox Jewish women are commanded to dress modestly. If in a public school setting, all the female students are orthodox except for one, then to teach that the one student who doesn't conform is not just wrong, but unconstitutional. Same goes for children of parents who are not legally married, the school cannot promote legal marriage as a moral or disired principal, it is best left to personal choice outside of school. Two of the landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court were Engel v. Vitale in 1962 and Murray v. Curlett in 1963. These two rulings essentially establish the abolishment of school prayer and the reading of the bible as part of class instruction. Public schools have been very careful to maintain themselves as secular institutions.
Schools do teach and reinforce respect for the law, full literacy, access to higher education and diversity. Mr. Willing’s assertion, that the secularization of schools is somehow wrong, makes no sense with respect to the law. Mr. Willing creates a logical absurdity by claiming that we should have respect for the law but then we shouldn’t secularize, when the law clearly states secularization.
Why are the federal and state governments involved in education, when by tradition it has been a function of the local communities? Quite simply it is about equal opportunity to education. To provide an equal educational opportunity for someone who is attending a small rural school and for someone attending a large suburban school, the only way to assure equal opportunity is to “level the playing field” through monetary resources. The small rural school probably doesn’t have the tax base to support education in a manner that the suburban school does, which has a much larger tax base. Therefore, funds are collected and pooled at the federal and state levels and then redistributed. This has been found to be the most efficient means and for many conservatives the most contentious. We the citizens, through our government have the right to know what our tax money is being spent on, whether it is local, state or federal. This has led to the creation of a system of government bureaucracy that has grown around the oversight of the distributed funds. One of the greatest criticisms of handing out vouchers is that the public has no voice or oversight into the private school.
Mr. Willing’s inclusion of the example of the Communists is not only wrong but entirely misleading. In the first place he cites the 1940s as the period of the communist threat, but in fact communism in the United States was at its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the programs instituted by the “New Deal” effectively pulled the teeth out of the movement. To attempt to equate communism to the inclusion of state and federal governments into education is categorically incorrect.
Mr. Willing goes on to claim the Political Left is killing public education through fostering policies that don’t support economic success is, at best, a strange statement. Since when is education designed to support economic success? Education is designed for one mission and one mission only, to make people literate and capable of functioning in our society. As all institutions they are interrelated with other institutions, but to put on education as a means to economic success is inconsistent with the stated mission. Mr. Willing’s statement could be equated to religious policies that support economic success, since religious institutions are a major component of our society. I have also seen where he refers to education as an industry rather than an institution. This is mixing conceptual meaning that has no logical connection.
Mr. Willing goes on to attribute the current system of education to Horace Mann and John Dewey. Both were instrumental in creating a universal approach to education. Again, Mr. Willing gets his dates wrong and the periods the two men were influential. Horace Mann, who is attributed as the father of American education, lived and worked in the first half of the 19th century, while John Dewey was a major influence in the first half of the 20th century. His critique of the two was more like claiming they were devils incarnate. When, in fact, the two contributed mightily to the emergence of a great American Society. They put the foundation under the American system.
Mr. Willing continues to claim that the liberal left is committed to killing public education by continuing the protection and adjustment of the policies of the past. I really don’t know what evidence that he has to this statement, he certainly hasn’t produced it here. There is no doubt that the left wants to reform education and make it more in line with the today’s technological environment. One of the problems the left is concerned about is the reestablishment of sectarianism, religion and the loss of oversight in the public school systems. Schools are going through a great transitional period, trying to catch up with change in other parts of society and globalization. Much of the current system was designed to accommodate the Industrial Economy and not the Information Economy. However, teaching and teaching techniques remain at the forefront of bringing about universal literacy and preparation for life’s journey.
In my closing of the original piece Mr. Willing was perceptive of my use of a Selah to accommodate further thinking. To return to previous education models, such as privatized schools, will in fact devastate the general literacy of our nation. Rather than unifying the nation, which our current system has effectively accomplished, it will divide the nation. It will become a mark of our general decline as a civilized nation.