James J. Campbell
James J. Campbell

Cashing In on the Values of American Education

Can it be true that no one can comprehend the increasing levels of violence in our schools? Far from being a sign of the lack of values, it is the ominous sign of the presence of certain values now pervading the education of our youth, from grade schools right through university. These are values that demean human life, that confuse and destroy the ability to think, that rob children of their dignity and vitality, and substitute anxiety, resentment, and irrationality. It is the cashing-in of the consequences of the philosophy of John Dewey and the progressive public education movement.

Our educators long ago abandoned their charge to teach reason and the proper use of one's mind. It has become more important to mold the personality of the child, to produce a citizen who has the correct social attitudes above all, who is willing to live his life for others' purposes. And these objectives have come to dominate the educational activities of the schools: Teachers spend more of their professional education learning psychology, sociology, behaviorism, than they do learning their intellectual disciplines. Schools assume and assert increasing authority over the individual lives of their students: they feed them, counsel them, minister to their self-esteem, provide entertainment, organize athletic activities, volunteer their free time to "community activity," monitor their health, direct their health care with and without the agreement of their families, teach and monitor their sexuality, provide contraception, arrange abortions, undermine and demean their parents. And over the century that these priorities have been promoted, the education of our children has dramatically worsened, the level of literacy has declined, and more graduate with inadequate skills. The colleges spend 1-2 years trying to remediate the failures of schools (and lose that time to provide the level of education appropriate to university). We pay the highest per pupil cost for education in the world, and have some of the very worst outcomes. All suffer, but ironically it is the disadvantaged who suffer most, because a proper education is truly their best hope to improve their lives.

Commentators rely on cheap psychology to explain these events: loss of self-esteem, stress of contemporary life, lack of family support, and susceptibility to violence, emotional rage. Or cheap sociology: poverty, class envy, bad neighborhoods, guns, drugs, and not enough religion. Left out of these lists is: the mind.

We are accustomed to viewing emotions and the mind as opposites. But in truth, they are one. It is a man's (and child's) assessment of himself and of the world around him, however they are attained, that determines the state of his emotions. A child who is taught to think effectively, who is rewarded with knowledge and achievement, who learns the history of mankind's positive achievements, will be a child with self-confidence, efficacy, and a positive outlook on life. A child who cannot think, whose reward for work is ignorance and for achievement is humiliation, who is taught to despise mankind, will be a child of fear and anxiety, of helplessness, anger, and a negative outlook on life. We commonly say "get your emotions under control," by which we acknowledge the role of the mind and reason in governing emotional behavior. But we often miss the fundamental role of the mind in forming emotional responses. And so what do we do in our schools today? We teach children that mankind is the scourge of the earth, that every productive enterprise of man is a threat to the planet. Plants, animals, children, the earth itself are being destroyed by man. Our teachers even get the children engaged in lobbying on these matters. Our Vice-President Gore proclaims this assessment as the most important insight of modern times.

We teach our children that America was founded by a bunch of racist, hypocritical, environmentally reckless, antihuman white European misfits. That the Declaration and the Constitution are oppressive documents, which should be trashed or rewritten. And this is all accomplished because we don't even actually teach history anymore. The story of man on earth is not taught as a full, integrated context, as a story of advancement and defeats of fundamental ideas. Instead, it's a story of gangs and random events, with no rational explanation.

We convince children that they cannot even trust their parents, because their parents smoke, and are prejudiced. Parental authority is trumped at every possible opportunity. Even notes from the parents are not accepted in the schools. Children must write journals about their home lives, which then become subjects of discussion and humiliation.

Every subject, even the basic, foundational ones, is taught with a social or psychological purpose, rather than with the purpose of mastering the discipline. Thus, in reading, the schools abandoned teaching the basic phonemic and phonetic and symbolic nature of the alphabet, and the rules of its use. Instead, they declared that reading was a natural innate skill, and one need only teach whole words, one by one. In throwing out the concepts of reading, and teaching the concretes of reading (words-as-objects), the educators undermined children's reading skills and intellectual development. Thus, children are made to feel helpless, incompetent. They have poor vocabularies, poor spelling, poor comprehension, poor writing (which is hardly taught at all). A child without the skills or the concepts of reading cannot advance his knowledge and skill by himself, nor nearly as fast as a child who understands the conceptual nature of the act of reading. The first is overwhelmed at every encounter with something new; the other has the key to open every encounter.

But this approach sits well with the underlying philosophy. Listen to a prominent teacher at a national conference on teaching reading: "[Whole Language] advocates ... deny the view that grounded truth and meaning can be determined once and for all ... [We] would like to replace the desire for objective knowledge of reality and truth, the desire to be in touch with reality ... with a desire for solidarity with the community" (from the National Reading Conference, San Antonio, 1992). The most ardent desire and need of a child is to be in touch with reality. But the goal of teaching reading is not to put the child into touch with the reality of reading skills, but to put the child in touch with texts chosen by the educator, to make the child desire solidarity with the goals of the educator.

Having undermined the child's pride and confidence in being part of humankind, and undermining his confidence and pride in his nation, and undermining his relationship with his family, it is only left to destroy his individuality. This is already reflected in the program of instruction as above. Teach him in such a way that he will be incompetent, and then blame him and his family for not doing enough. Take his authority over his own life and choices away from him, and make him volunteer for purposes defined by the school. Do not reward excellence, but gently admonish those who have skills that they are lucky, that they should not take too much pride in achievement lest they humiliate someone. Emphasize these points by promoting and rewarding those who do not achieve.

Choosing values is the basic act of an individual. Such choices are the basis of living a human life. A total assault on the individual child would not be complete without an assault on his ability to make such choices. This is done in the discussion circle. Since, according to the educator above, there is no reality or truth to be known, the way our children are taught about values is to reach a consensus with others (the "community"), not on the basis of principles or knowledge, but on the basis of feelings. The lesson is twofold: the guide to values is feelings, and the validation of feelings is through consensus in a group. Such an approach divorces individual responsibility from values and action, obscures the true conceptual foundation of values, engenders a group or tribal mentality (well-suited to immature teenagers especially), and also causes unrationalized resentments in those whose personally held values are voted out.

This philosophy has now been taught for two generations of American children, and the consequences are everywhere apparent. At the level of the schools, we see more and more children without knowledge and purpose. Children who resent those who can achieve (e.g., at Littleton, the jocks), sit in their little groups, and talk about their likes and dislikes (their feelings). They take a consensus on values (as they have been taught to do), and justify eliminating who or what they do not like. They have no sense of guilt, because they do not know individual responsibility, and consensus provides the validation of their group, however small. Their cultural role models reflect all these values: the crude lyrics of their favorite songs, graceless dances (= graceless human beings), grubby clothes and styles (= unworthy human beings), raw sex (not relationships or love), gangs and groups, violence and emotion (consensus for power, not reason to understand reality.)

At the level of university, the same philosophy prevails, and is reflected in the intellectual assaults on history, literature, and lately even the sciences. It is the reason that the universities have become the most overt and thoroughly racist environments in American life. Reason has been abandoned at every level. Young people divide themselves into racial groups, and challenge each other on every front. Professors deconstruct history and literature, and declare that all knowledge is a means of power to oppress other groups. They destroy individual initiative and achievement by making learning irrational, and rewarding not intellectual achievement, but ethnicity and political correctness. And we see the same manifestations in the broader culture. Every news and commentary program in the country is geared to consensus through the use of polls. There is no discussion of principles and concepts. It is only: what seems to be the current consensus, and who (thereby) has the power. What progress was made earlier in the century on racism, has been engulfed by the new ethnic tribalisms spawned in our schools under the guise of multiculturalism. It is said that our President does not take any position or action without reference to public polls. And many of our legislators are no different. Issues cannot even be discussed in public because of the polls. No one knows his or her position on an issue until the consensus is known, with no reference at all on the basis of the consensus.

And so I ask again, can anyone really be surprised or mystified? When, after two generations of such education, our leaders have no discernible values and make life-consequential decisions for us on the basis of consensus, is it astonishing or simply mundane that our children should emulate those same behaviors in their own lives?

On the contrary, it is no surprise at all that this type of violence has emerged with increasing frequency first in the schools over the past decade. And it will continue to increase despite all efforts to control it, because the root causes, the programs of instruction, are not identified and changed. It is also clear that this same phenomenon of violence will come to plague the universities in the future, and even our communities will see more random violence of this type as these children mature.

When education was not a public enterprise, and the American Enlightenment values of reason, individual responsibility, and productivity prevailed in education, Alexis Tocqueville marveled at the devotion of Americans to the rule of law, at the proliferation of community self-help organizations, at the relative classlessness of society, even at the relative lack of violence in America! If the education of our children cherished these same values, Littleton and these other manifestations of irrationality would not be happening.

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