The world has changed quite a bit since I entered Dundee Elementary in 1965–66. No-fault divorce did not yet exist. Two-parent families were the norm. Abortion had not yet been legalized. The late-modern drug culture had not yet exploded. WWII had been over for more than 20 years and the baby boom had just ended. The suburbs were burgeoning. Top 40 radio was in its heyday and Roger W. Morgan was playing the hits on the Mighty 1290 KOIL. The hippie movement was still a sub-culture. The Vietnam War was intensifying but mostly we got just a moment or two of it on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. The civil rights movement was on the news as Dr King and others led peaceful demonstrations calling Americans to honor the promises enshrined in the constitution. Too often, however, those marches were met by fire hoses and police dogs. The Watts Riots, which were a reaction to decades of unjust treatment of minorities by the LAPD, convulsed Los Angeles in 1965 leaving scars that would last for decades. In those years, however, my school and neighborhood were all white. So, naturally, I did not see any oppression even if it was not far from my quiet (still remarkably well-preserved) neighborhood near the old money neighborhood in Omaha. Economically, things were stable. The median family income in the USA was about $6,900 (= approx. $53,000 in 2017) and most families lived on a single income. Credit cards were just coming into use. The inflation rate was higher then (about 4%). Perhaps everyone was miserable and repressed but it did not seem so but then what did I know? I turned five years old in 1966.
Public school was among the dominant realities of my life until 1979. When I began school, teachers were not only allowed to use corporal punishment, they were expected to administer it as needed. I certainly gave my teachers plenty of reason to spank me. Schools were expected to act in place of the parents (in loco parentis). Nearly all of my teachers were female and they were expected, during most of my education, to respect the authority of the parents. The emphasis in school was, until the mid-70s, on the objective. This is what parents meant in the 80s when they complained that they wanted teachers to focus on “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” They could sense that something was shifting but most Americans did not know the history of public schools and were not aware that prospective teachers were being taught in “teachers college” and in universities that education was not “rote memorization,” that it was about “enrichment” and “experience” more grammar, logic, and rhetoric. During my entire primary and secondary education whenever anyone mentioned memorization it was inevitably accompanied with the adjective “rote” and we were given to think that was a bad thing. No teacher explained to me not only the utility of memorizing or the mechanics of it until my logic professor did so in passing, in 1981.
By the late 60s and early 70s the culture and economy were changing and so was education. In 1968 Dr King was assassinated and riots erupted in major cities across the USA. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. The Tet Offensive changed the American perception of the Vietnam War. Anti-war protests increased as more Baby Boomers were drafted. The hippie and drug cultures were more visible, even in middle America. Movies were becoming more sexually graphic and violent. Abortion on demand became legal in 1973. To date more than 60 million Americans have died under Roe v Wade (and Doe v Bolton). The Beatles were no more and disco ruled in the last days of top-40 radio. The effects of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were beginning to be felt but to speed up progress school districts began to try to integrate schools by busing children one part of town to another. In economics, a long-running, large-scale war combined with spending on “Great Society” social programs and attempts to stimulate prosperity through taxing, borrowing, and spending led to “The Great Inflation” for about a decade. That meant that products cost more but salaries and wages could not keep up. Each dollar earned was worth less than it had been. The economy stagnated and what was then called “Women’s Lib” (second wave feminism) saw wives going work outside the home (as they had during WWII). That meant a growing number of “latch-key” kids (of which I was one) and less parental supervision of children. Though the divorce rate had been climbing through the 20th century, fueled by a large-scale demographic shift from the country to the city (urbanization) and two world wars, 1 the advent of no-fault divorce resulted in a sharp jump in the divorce rate and the number of single-parent families.2 By the 70s the television showed us all in “glorious living color” what “the good life” could be. Families, like the government, increasingly began to pay for things on credit in a frantic attempt to obtain it. In the schools, the emphasis on the subjective was beginning to become more manifest. By the mid to late 1970s, teachers were openly challenging the authority of parents, and advocating to their students a more radical social and economic philosophy.
The video below, published recently on the web, illustrates what is taking place in some public school classrooms. In it a Los Angeles area high school teacher is recorded demeaning members of the U. S. Military in a five-minute, expletive-filled rant. Warning: this high school teacher uses vulgar language.
Is this teacher an exception? Probably. We hope so but I heard more restrained rants about the evils of America when I was in high school. As of this writing, the district is “investigating” the matter. In a sane system, this teacher would be looking for work as a car salesman.
What was the state of American religion during these shifts and during the decline of the public school experiment? In 2005, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton described the dominant religion of evangelical young people as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That is an apt description. Traditional Christian belief and practice has not fared well in Modern, urbanized America. Under the Second Great Awakening America could have been called predominantly Christian, even though that theology, piety, and practice had more in common with the sixteenth-century Anabaptists than it did with the Protestant Reformers. By the 1920s, however, “Christian America” was falling apart. The Roaring 20s were more socially and religiously radical than one might think. The rise and dominance of theological liberalism shattered the faith of many Americans such that the dominant American theology between the 1920s and 70s should be described as “moralistic deism.” As one of my university professors said, “In the 18th century God went to the corner for a beer and never returned.” The dominant Deism of the American founders and other elites percolated through the culture and emerged victorious in the early 20th century. It formed the dominant cultural assumptions of the white working and middle classes. African-American families were probably more traditional in their theology and piety during this same period.
The self-esteem revolution, part of a larger turn to the self, which coincided with the advent of no-fault divorce and abortion on demand, added the third element to what has become the dominant strain of American evangelical religion: the therapeutic. Today, the dominant American religion is an ad hoc mix of economic/social aspiration and self-esteem. The lines between the liberal mainline and the evangelical suburbs have blurred to the point of being indistinct. Mainline churches look like the evangelicals and the evangelicals look like the mainline.
Why this brief socio-economic historical survey? Because our public schools are not merely (ostensible) educational institutions. Since their beginnings they have been social laboratories where social theories were tested. In their nature, every neighborhood school is a pool of the beliefs, values, and practices of the families whose children attend and of the administrators who set policy and the teachers who conduct classes. Critics such as Jacques Barzun (1907–2012) predicted the decline of the modern educational project long before it manifested itself in the way that we see now.
Arguably, judging by the academic outcomes that university professors are reporting and that graduate school professors are seeing, the American public school system has largely given up on anything like a traditional educational mission. The defenders of the public school system do not point to academic accomplishment but to social outcomes. Schools are said to be succeeding at producing “better human beings.” The decline in educational standards is obvious. Marc Tucker notes that high school textbooks that were once written at a 12th-grade level for high school seniors are (as of 2015) written at a 7th-grade level. There was a natural tension between economic aspiration, which might have driven schools to remain more focused on educational standards, and the new self-esteem religion and the subjective-therapeutic has won.
Were schools focused on objective tasks, e.g., learning to read well, to write well, to think well, to compute, to learn world history, to learn basic science and methods, families in search of a traditional education be able to navigate the late-modern educational waters but few of the administrators, teachers, parents, or students involved in public school seem to be there for a traditional educational purpose. Further, the necessary conditions for education have eroded dramatically. Ask a public high school teacher what it is like to try to maintain order in a classroom in 2018. If you have not been in a public school classroom you are in for a surprise. My high school world history teacher, Miss Wihelmina Johnson, was a stout old lady. She maintained control of hormonal teens through force of will but no one ever really challenged her in 1978–79. Today, even teachers in affluent suburban schools testify to the difficulty of crowd control. Students look at their smart phones and text one another in class. Any attempt to remove a phone would result in a riot. One substitute teacher, with whom I recently spoke, who worked in affluent schools, quit the business altogether out of fear for her safety in the classroom. Under Modernism, “I” was the subject and either my intellect or my sense experience was the measure of all things. In a late-Modern therapeutic culture, “I” remain the subject but my feelings are now the measure of all things. The authority of teachers has been supplanted by the authority of the emoting self.
To illustrate the confluence of the social changes sketched above, the sexual revolution, and the collapse of traditional education consider the crisis of sexual predation in our schools. Contemplate this 2015 Washington Post headline: “More Teachers Are Having Sex With Their Students. Here’s How Schools Can Stop Them.” I had several first-grade teachers. It was not because we were a particularly rowdy group (although changing teachers regularly did not help things) but because the district hired young women who became pregnant and had to leave. It was considered poor form to have a pregnant teacher before a group of curious 1st graders. Before the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 70s, teachers were to be sexless, at least as far as the students were concerned. Never once did I ever hear any rumor of any sexual entanglement between a student and a teacher in Junior High or High School. That is not scientific evidence, I understand, but attitudes and behaviors have shifted observably. According to Terry Abott (in the article linked above), in 2014, “there were 781 reported cases of teachers and other school employees accused or convicted of sexual relationships with students.” In the year that his firm had been tracking this problem (to that point), each “week has brought news of 15 young people, on average, who were sexually victimized by the educators entrusted with protecting them.” A 2004 report published by the Department of Education concluded “Because of its carefully drawn sample and survey methodology, the AAUW (American Association of University Women) report that nearly 9.6 percent of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career presents the most accurate data available at this time.”3
The news headlines suggest that the problem has not improved. Google News generates far too many headlines like these: “Former Teacher Sentenced in Student Sex Case” (Des Moines, January 2018). “Student Teacher, 47, Pleads Guilty In Soliciting Sex From 13-Year Old Student” (January, 2018). “Ex-Teacher’s Aide Convicted Of Having Sex With Student Violates Probation” (January, 2018). “Former Dos Palos Teacher Sentence To Probation After Accused Of Having Sex With A Student” (January, 2018). The list could continue. These are headlines from this month alone. We are no longer shocked to see the local news covering such stories. Like school shootings, they have become “the new normal.”
We have not even mentioned the rapid and radical social changes associated with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. In 2008, Democratic presidential candidate averred to evangelical pastor Rick Warren that he opposed homosexual marriage on the ground of his religious convictions. By 2012, he had had putatively reconsidered those convictions. In 2018, anyone who spoke up, e.g., in a workplace lunch room, against gay marriage would find himself answering to the Human Resources Office. The same seems to be true in school. California has a mandated transgender policy. The complete rout of the traditional definition of marriage (as a legal union between two members of the opposite sex) happened in less than a decade. Google “School District Gender Identification Policy” and see what turns up. Here is the Albuquerque Public School policy. The NEA website directs readers to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) site which comes complete with corporate funding (Johnson & Johnson) and corporate endorsements (e.g., NBA franchises). The debate about whether there really is such a thing as a “trans-child” seems to have been largely silenced and the debate whether “trans-children” can use the restroom assigned to their sex of their self-identification seems to have ended in the affirmative.
A parent or parents who still believe that sex is a biological category and gender is a grammatical category, that marriage is naturally between two persons of the opposite sex and that children should use the bathrooms/locker rooms corresponding to their biological sex, that they should play on athletic teams according to biological sex, would seem to have virtually no voice or even a place in many public schools today.
It is beyond doubt that most American public school teachers are dedicated, hard-working professionals but they are so in a fundamentally flawed system. To a significant degree, the public schools are the product of an increasingly Narcissistic-therapeutic culture. Teachers can only teach the students that parents send them. The theorists behind the public education system long ago gave up on what was classically regarded as education in favor of an affective, subjectivist model of education. To make matters worse, the hands of those parents who would dissent are tied. Common sense disciplinary measures (e.g., moderate spanking) are now widely and foolishly regarded as “child abuse.” In some school districts even reasonable reforms such as Charter Schools are opposed with as much effort as possible. Parents work to pay property taxes to fund schools which, in turn, undermine the virtues they seek to instill in their children. Recently, the Los Angeles Times editorial board took the opportunity to smear alternatives such as homeschooling as a hotbed of child abuse while ignoring the collapse of the current system. Why should parents cooperate with such a system? Parents who want their children to learn to think clearly, to read and write well, to compute, to learn something of world history, in short, to get an education, should abandon this collapsing system with all deliberate speed.
1. The divorce rate jumped sharply by 24% in 1946. The divorce rate in 1965 was up 6% but only 2.8% in 1966.
2. According to the Census Bureau, the divorce rate leveled off in the mid-70s. What has changed since the mid-90s is the age at which people get married and the rate of marriage. From the mid-90s onward people delayed getting married or they simply did not get married at all.
3. “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” United States Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary, Document #2004–09. (HT: Walter Schute).