For far too long, we on the left have been playing Old Maid, while the reactionaries have been playing contract bridge. It is time for us to change the game: five-card stud poker, table stakes. On the table is the future our country, our Constitution, and our democratic republic. And the stakes for the opening hand is the American education system.
President Jefferson, in his Sixth Annual Message to Congress in 1806, wrote of the importance of education to this nation. He considered education to be so important that it should be funded in such a way that even a war could not impede its consistent funding by Congress: "The present consideration of a national establishment for education, particularly, is rendered proper by this circumstance also, that if Congress, approving the proposition, shall yet think it more eligible to found it on a donation of lands, they have it now in their power to endow it with those which will be among the earliest to produce the necessary income. The foundation would have the advantage of being independent on war, which may suspend other improvements by requiring for its own purposes the resources destined for them." (The Complete Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition; volume 3, p. 424; 1904.)
The reactionary oligarchs who wish to control our nation want the American people ignorant and unthinking. As Lord Brougham pointed out in a speech to the British Parliament on January 28, 1828, "Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern but impossible to enslave." American educator Alan Bloom, in the Preface to his most important work, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), stated it more succinctly, "The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration." A liberal education is not about turning you into a "liberal:" it is about giving you a background of history, and alternative modes of thought and belief that give you a wider choice in your decision making effort than a simple authoritarian "Yes" or "No." In military terms, it is teaching you that there are alternatives to just assaulting your enemy's front: you can bypass him and cut him off from his supplies, you can attack his flank, you can use the indirect attack, i.e., threaten something that is more important than his current position--say his capital--in order to force him to withdraw, etc. The possibilities are endless. It is what is referred to as "thinking outside of the box," or more properly, "critical thinking." German philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel may have put it best in his book The Philosophy of Right, (no. 58; 1821; translated 1942), "Education is the art of making man ethical." This is the last thing the oligarchs want: people who will tell them no, for whatever reason; they want subservient drones who obey the orders of their "betters."
However, just as Aristotle once reportedly told Alexander the Great (when the future conqueror was his student, and Aristotle Alexander's tutor), "There is no Royal Road to mathematics;" there is no quick, easy, one size fits all fix for the American educational system. There are some very limited requirements that we can universally impose, like those suggested by Italian education innovator Maria Montessori in Chapter 5 of her breakthrough book, The Montessori Method (1912), "If an educational act is to be efficacious, it will be only that one which tends to help toward the complete unfolding of life. To be thus helpful it is necessary rigorously to avoid the arrest of spontaneous movements and the imposition of arbitrary tasks." We may also do everything in our power to avoid setting what is learned in public education or private study in concrete, by cultivating an open mind (Zen Buddhists call it a Zen mind), a questioning and criticism of everything, including our own beliefs and knowledge, open to a host of new knowledge, information, and modes of thought as our information age culture develops it. As Dr. Thomas Szasz wrote in his 1973 book, The Second Sin, the chapter titled "Education," "Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all." This can unfortunately make many people uncomfortable, in that it requires both skill and dedication on the part of teachers, and patience on the part of the rest of us to deal with the truly inquisitive child and youth.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Book 1 of Emile, (1762) stated, "We are born weak, we need strength; helpless, we need aid; foolish, we need reason. All that we lack at birth, all that we need when we come to man's estate, is the gift of education." Providing that strength can however seem dangerous, as Thomas Jefferson noted to in a letter to Thomas Cooper in 1822, "The article of discipline is the most difficult in American education. Premature ideas of independence, too little repressed by parents, beget a spirit of insubordination which is the great obstacle to science with us and a principal cause of its decay since the Revolution." (The Complete Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition; volume 15, p. 406; 1904.) But a century later, American author Raymond Chandler noted, " It's fairly obvious that American education is a cultural flop. Americans are not a well-educated people culturally, and their vocational education often has to be learned all over again after they leave school and college. On the other hand, they have open quick minds and if their education has little sharp positive value, it has not the stultifying effects of a more rigid training." (The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler, "Notes on English and American Style;" 1976). I would say that it is worth the risk of some small degree of "insubordination" among our youth and young adults in order to make certain that they are not overly impressed by titles, or social or economic position, but that instead they should always be polite to those with whom they interact, whether that individual is a prince or pauper. This is a "republican" attitude of which Jefferson would approve.
What can we do to correct these problems?
As Raymond Chandler noted above, American education is a cultural flop. It is imperative that this fact be reversed, and that music and the rest of the arts be given a place in the modern public school system, so that rich and poor, every American has the opportunity to discover their inner muse. When I think of the musicians who would not have had the opportunity to play without a music program at their school--Louis Armstrong and Motown's seminal bass player James Jamerson are two who immediately come to mind--I cringe at the future of music in America. And what is true of music is even truer of the other cultural arts. Drama, artwork, creative writing, and other areas of belle arts are in even worse shape. This needs to be corrected now.
One of the greatest problems with the American education system is that it is overly dependent on rote memorization as its method of learning. Education should be a dynamic event, which ebbs and flows in order to maintain the student's interest. Some things cannot help but by their nature rely almost entirely on memorization and repetitive usage: spelling is the best example. But other subjects, such as history and science, should not be taught in such a boring and uninformative manner. In these subjects, the why and the how are every bit as important as the who, the what, the when, and the where, something that is too often forgotten by under-inspired or under-informed teachers. Let us make these subjects live, by showing why they are important to today.
Smaller classroom size, better teachers with better pay to attract the best people we can, more personal instruction that emphasizes different teaching methods for those who learn differently, better more comprehensive social studies textbooks that cover not only the great men and women, but also the average person and their times. Let us have a system of teaching that emphasizes the different uses of the knowledge the student receives, but helps them to excel and, God willing, find knowledge he will not only use for the rest of his life, but an avocation to follow. To quote Felix E. Schelling, in his 1929 book Pedagogically Speaking (Chapter 8), "True education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success, the glorious inequality of talent, of genius; for inequality, not mediocrity, individual superiority, not standardization, is the measure of the progress of the world." If we use education to not only learn to act in a polite and civilized manner, not in a haughty or superior fashion to others; when we realize that we are all equal in having some talent or ability that we can do better than others in our community, and positive knowledge that we can convey to others, whatever it may be; then we will all have a place at a Round Table, where no one is at the head or the foot, they just are; then on that day we will finally be living Thomas Jefferson's immortal words in the Declaration of Independence: " We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal"" And when I say "Men," understand I mean all of humanity: both sexes and every sexual orientation, all races, every creed and color, and social or economic standing, without limit, Amen.
There are those who believe that this is a Utopian vision; but I, like Thomas Jefferson, am a realist. To quote T homas Jefferson from his letter to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours in 1816, "Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected." (The Complete Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition; volume 14, p. 491; 1904.)
Amen Brother Jefferson, Amen.