THE AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM
Charles L. McGehee
Professor of Sociology
Central Washington University
Ellensburg, Washington 98926 USAJune, 1987
THE AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEMThe observer who is desirous of forming an opinion on the state of instruction among the Anglo-Americans must consider the same object from two different points of view. If he singles out only the learned, he will be astonished to find how few they are; but if he counts the ignorant, the American people will appear to be the most enlightened in the world. The whole population ... is situated between these extremes.
--Alexis de Tocqueville
Democracy in America (1835)
The Structure of the American School System
The American school system is divided into public (common) schools and private schools. In each system are three levels of schools, primary, secondary, and college. The primary school, referred to as "elementary" or "grade school", usually comprises the grades of kindergarten through the eighth grade. In some areas primary school only extends through the fifth or sixth grades with "middle school" or "junior high school" offering the sixth or seventh grades through the eighth or possibly ninth grades.
Secondary school, called "high school", normally offers four years of education from the ninth through the twelfth grade. Progression from one grade to another and from one level of school to the next is predicated on successful completion of the previous grade or school. Graduation from each grade and from each level of school takes place upon successful completion of required course work. There is no comprehensive examination required for passing from year to year or for graduation. High school graduation is regarded as the end of basic education and follows the completion of the twelfth grade. Basic education is compulsory in all states, and, depending on the state, a child is required to attend school until the age of 14-16. High school graduation is not mandatory.
"College" is a vague term that refers generally to university education. Within the general concept of college are two possible levels of education beyond high school, undergraduate and graduate university study.
In the vernacular, the terms "college" and "university" are often used interchangeably, although university connotes a higher level of education and may be more prestigious. In its broadest usage "college" refers to the first four years of university, the so-called "undergraduate" period. As an undergraduate one is expected to broaden one's perspective by taking so-called "liberal arts" courses, that is, humanistic, scientific, philosophical, and expressive courses, in addition to one or more fields of major or minor concentration. "Junior college", also called "community college", offers the next two years after high school and is generally accepted as equivalent to two years of college.
Entrance into college at the undergraduate level is a function of requirements established by the college in question. It may require not only high school graduation but a certain minimal high school grade point average and successful completion of certain courses in high school which may be in addition to the graduation requirements from high school. Scores on one or more standardized achievement test, such as, the Scholastic Apptitude Test (SAT), may also be used in evaluating a student for admission. In some private colleges, especially those founded by religious groups, recommendations from persons sharing the values of the institution may be an entrance requirement.
Graduation from college (undergraduate school) is a matter of having completed certain required courses, accumulated a required number of elective courses, and met a minimum commulative grade point average. There is no comprehensive examination requirement for graduating from college at the end of the first four years. When one graduates, one receives the so-called "bachelor's degree" which may be the Bachelor of Arts, reflecting a course of study in the arts, humanities, or intellectual sciences; the Bachelor of Science, indicating a course of study in natural or physical sciences; or more specialized bachelor's degrees in education, business, and fine arts.
Generally speaking, only universities can offer advanced study in specialized areas. This advanced, or "graduate" education takes place the bachelor's degree has been earned. There are two levels in "Graduate school": The first level, which generally involves two years of study, results in what is referred to as the "master's" degree. The Master of Arts or Science, Education, Fine Arts, Business Administration, Social Work, and Engineering, to mention a few, are possible advanced degrees in specialized subjects. The next level of graduate school usually involves two more years of study and results in the doctorate. Certain graduate professional schools, such as, law or medicine, do not go through the interim step of the master's degree.
Entrance to graduate school is based on academic performance at the undergraduate level, letters of recommendation by undergraduate professors, and, possibly, scores on one or more standardized achievement tests, such as, the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Graduation requirements involve successful completion of a required course of study, minimum grades in each course as well as a minimum commulative grade point average. The Master's degree usually requires a written comprehensive examination, a thesis written under the supervision of a faculty committee, and an oral defense of the thesis. The doctorate (of philosopy) may additionally require a minimal knowledge of one or more foreign languages, as well as comprehensive written examinations, a dissertation which is supervised by a committee of graduate faculty, and a final oral defense of the dissertation. Doctorates in professional subjects, again such as, law and medicine, are structured differently in that practice and meeting the requirements for state licensing examinations are more heavily emphasized.
Receiving a degree does not automatically entitle one to do anything specific nor do they carry any titles which have standing in law. State licensing examinations, when they are required, are independent of the university system.
While public schools are wholly secular, private schools are divided among secular and parochial schools.
Secular private schools include primary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities. To secular private schools must also be counted non-governmental military academies as well as proprietary schools, that is, schools operated as profit-making ventures and which specialize in certain fields, such as, commercial studies or skilled trades. Some secular private universities originally had religious roots but over the years have lost their ties to their founding sects.
Private parochial schools include schools at all levels which teach general subjects while emphasizing the value orientation of the founding sect, as well as schools which are intended to prepare students for full-time religious work. Often such schools are quite small, reflecting the size of the sect sponsoring them. Private primary and secondary church schools with fewer than 15 pupils and colleges with fewer than 50 students are not uncommon.
American public schools at the primary and secondary level are functions of local authority, in contrast to European schools which are functions of centralized national or regional authority. The basic legal unit of public school authority is the school district, a geographical area established by law in response to the wishes of residents in the area who petition and vote on creation of such a district and a representative board of governors. This Board of Education, as it is called, has the power to levy taxes on property within the district, hire administrators, administrative staff and teaching faculty, create educational policy, establish and operate facilities, and in general provide for the education of children in the district (ages 6-18, generally). States also provide some funds for the operation of schools from state-wide tax revenues.
The federal government has no direct role in public education, although, it may exercize a great deal of influence through its ability to fund various activities. Further, the Constitution, as interpreted by the federal courts, is a powerful force in influencing -- even determining -- local school policy. This has most especially been the case in regards to racial desegregation and federal policies with regard to poverty, civil rights, and the exercize of religion in public schools.
Private interest groups, notably churches, frequently start their own schools, especially primary schools, to provide their children with education oriented to their particular values. There are no legal restrictions to creating such schools.
There are several secondary requirements, however, which must be complied with in order to meet other legal considerations. In the case of general education, the compulsory educations laws of each state require that a child go to school until a specified age, usually 14-16 years of age. They further specify that the child be taught by certified teachers. Teacher certification is a function of state government, and no person can teach children either in public or private settings unless he or she has received training in a teacher's college which offers a teacher education curriculum meeting state requirements. Similarly, the instructors of certain trade schools may be required to have certain credentials or a curriculum be structured in a certain way in order for the graduates to qualify for certification.
The only generally accepted mechanism for making sure that a school is a "real" school is the system of "accreditation". Throughout the country are a number of regional accrediting organizations, such as, the Northwest Association of Colleges and Universities, or the Northcentral Association of Secondary Schools. These accrediting associations are self-policing bodies which set standards of education and then judge each other to see if the standards are being met. They judge each other on such matters as quality of the faculty, library, curriculum, and instructional facilities and equipment.
There is no law that schools have to be accredited, though there are several informal mechanisms which make it desirable. A degree from a non-accredited college, for instance, has less prestige than one from an accredited school. Entrance into other schools may be more difficult if a student had studied at an earlier time at a non-accredited school. And financial support from the federal government and private foundations may be restricted to schools which are accredited.
If one does not care about accreditation, however, then one can study anywhere. This is typically the case with many small, sectarian "Bible" schools, where the students believe the education is more important than the standing of the degree, or where they intend to pursue careers in fields, especially religious fields, where the sectarian degree, accredited or not, is desirable.
If merely a diploma, rather than an education, is sought for the sake of employment or prestige, then accreditation may be of no concern. It is in this way that so-called "diploma mills" are able to operate. For a fee a person may purchase a degree without having to study or do any other academic work for it. There are no general legal legal restrictions prohibiting such "schools", though fraud statutes may punish their owners if they take money for services which they do not provide, or if a "student" of such a "school" represents himself to be qualified in a particular subject when in fact he is not. In general, though, the principle of caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware -- applies with regard to the quality of a diploma. It is up to the person placing value on a diploma, such as an employer evaluating a job applicant, to verify that such a school exists and that the applicant studied what he claims to have studied where and when he claims to have studied it.
The greatest problem which private sectarian primary and secondary schools have experienced as regards being "real" schools, however, has not been accreditation of the school but rather the certification of the teachers. It is not uncommon to find that teachers in small religious schools are not certified under state law, sometimes because they have not attended schools with certifiable curricula, such as Bible schools, but sometimes because they reject the coursework required for certification for moral and religious reasons.
There are a great number of private schools in America at all levels from pre-school to college and university. Indeed, private schools antedate public schools by centuries in that the first colleges established at the outset of the colonial period were religious in nature. Private schools, whether primary, secondary, or college, are governed by boards of trustees representing the particular organization or interest group which owns the school. Control has been close to the values shared by members of a group and the financial base of schools has rested on the ability of the supporters to pay. Typically an administrator is appointed who shares the values of the parent organization and in whom rests authority for day-to-day operation of the schools.
Whether public or private, schooling in America forms much more of a continuum than in Europe. That is to say, a child's school career continues for a longer time without interruption or having to make major decisions about the future than in many European countries. Moreover, pupils and students move from grade to grade and level to level without general examination, and transfer freely from one school system to another. Entry into a career takes place much later than in Europe, usually after 21 years of age or even older, and typically involves much indecision, changing of the mind, and trial and error. It is not unusual to find people ultimately working in fields totally unrelated to what they have studied in college. On the job training is a very common way of learning a job, regardless of what one may have studied. The Dynamics of the American School System
The American system has been described by Ralph Turner as a contest system, as opposed to a sponsorship system, more characteristic of Europe. In a sponsorship system individuals attach themselves to other persons, masters, professors, employers or other guiding forces, and the person's future develops out of the relation to this sponsor. In a contest system individuals seek their fortune by pitting themselves against prevailing conditions. The person's future develops out of the interplay between his personal qualities of skill, intellect, etc. and the forces of fate and the market place. To the extent that America is a contest system, it follows that dynamics of American schools must be understood in terms of the conditions of "the contest".
At the outset of the colonial period, earlier settlers from Europe brought with them elements of the European feudal system and established their own local version of the landed gentry and an hereditary class system. It was very much still a "sponsorship" system. Schools during the first 150 years were aristocratic and classical and served the interests of a more-or-less hereditary elite, but they were not well suited to life under primitive conditions. Moreover, many were very narrowly sectarian. But as the War for Independence came nearer (1776), new ideas were starting to take effect which would influence the course of education in America: the growth of scientific inquiry, ideas about the nature of man, and criticism of absolute authority, to name a few. The sense of "contest" began to replace "sponsorship" at the guiding principle.
The principle of local control of schools, a fundamental tenent of American education, also was established during this period. Colonial schools, though established by the state, were narrowly sectarian and were governed by local committees of town selectmen. Such local school committees later became boards of education. The practice of local control was in part of function of the practical difficulty in communicating between schools and state government and partly a function of the desire of parents to retain control over their schools.
The Revolution and the consequent purging of European loyalists set the scene for the emergence of a new school system based on the principles of being free (without financial cost), public (egalitarian), nonsectarian (separate from religious dogma), and universal (compulsory). Within these issues, that is, finance, equal access, religion, and compulsory attendance is to be found the dynamic of today's American schools. They were argued then and they are still being argued.
When settlers populated the country, especially during the movement into the West, there was little or no government and certainly no schools, at least at the outset. Immediate interests, immediate relationships, and immediate problems dominated daily life. Children, if educated, were usually taught by their parents in the home. There were two key implications for this practice: (1) children took on the quality of being the private property of their parents (more so than in Europe, for instance, where teaching a child was more in accordance with royal and clerical decrees, traditions, and community expectations), and (2) children were much more likely to be trained in the values and customs of their own parents and the local community than had they been trained by agents of a central authority or organized clergy.
As life improved and communities grew in size, the village elders met and decided that, among other things, they probably ought to have a school. Presumably they realized their own limitations of time and talent for educating their children. And besides, social mobility in a land governed not by the limits of ascribed status of feudalism but by the unlimited possibility of achieved status must be, sooner or later, a function of education. Clearly, as competition for available resources increased, the person who can read, write and figure is in a better position to compete.
And, so, they put an advertisement in the paper in Boston or somewhere else back East for a "school marm" (to draw on the stereotyped, though not inaccurate, view presented in old western movies). And of course you know how the little lady arrived on the train with her big hat boxes and all. Now, it is important to note that she was not being hired to change the village's children. She was being hired in loco parentis, as a parent substitute. It was taken for granted that she knew how to read and write and knew geography and history. The parents' main concern was her morals and her upbringing; parents wanted confidence that she would instill in their children the same values that they, the parents, held.
The community, therefore, had a keen sense of the school being an extension of the private family -- not of the church or the state -- and they jealously guarded their schools as a primary means for perpetuating their own personal way of life.
This scenario was, of course, not true for all of who populated the land. It was less true for those who arrived later in the history of the land and found themselves moving into an already developed system. It was not true at all for blacks who were brought as slaves nor for Asians and other "colored" minorities who were brought in as cheap labor. And it certainly was not true for American Indians, who were simply excluded, or worse, eliminated, from the society altogether.
Now, America has long been a European dream of freedom from want and oppression, but there are certain contradictions inherent in an idea of escape from misery and oppression to a place of unlimited space, opportunity, and personal freedom, especially when countless millions have the same dream.
In the first place, the land, regardless of its immense size, was limited. To the extent there was not enough space or opportunity for all, this meant that sooner or later conflict would develop between those who arrived first and those who would come later. Further, there was bound to be conflict between those who had gained control over limited resources and those who needed those resources. And there was bound to be conflict between those who were there voluntarily and in control of their own destiny, and those who were there involuntarily and whose destiny lay in the control of those who profited by their existence.
These contradictions became obvious not long after the revolution (c.1830) when immigration began to increase and when industrialization and urbanization began to be noticed. The resulting rapid social change, as evidenced by the breakdown of families and traditional moral values, gave rise to "revivalism", an emotional religious movement embodying the principle of moral and spiritual regeneration through change of the individual by individual initiative within a context of eternal values. Emotional religious movements emphasizing social change through individual rejuvenation and a return to traditional values were to reappear periodically throughout American history in response to social crises.
The stresses of the developing society obvious after the Civil War (1861-1864) which had the effect not only of freeing the slaves, but of consolidating the ascendancy of northern industrial interests and unleashing massive northward migration from rural areas of the south. At the same time industrialization was developed on a gigantic scale which was accompanied by massive immigration from poorer areas of eastern and southern Europe. Science and technology expanded such that, for the first time in history, real promise of solving man's problems seemed at hand.
Yet every solution seemed to bring with it new problems: anomymity, materialism, poverty, crime, and decadence. The upshot was the emergence of feelings of losing control -- control of personal destiny, of family, of community, and of national destiny.
As for the freed slaves, whites took the position that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. Blacks wanted their freedom; now it was up to them to improve their own lot. As far as blacks were concerned, however, the abolition of slavery simply changed their status from being owned to being rented. Moreover, the chances of changing things, through education, for instance, were nearly impossible, since black schools, when they existed at all, were very bad. Furthermore, they were creations of those who stood to lose if the schools were good. Specifically, those who stood to lose were the affluent whites who would have to pay for good black schools and who would have lost the unskilled black labor which poor schools perpetuated, and the poor whites with whom educated blacks would be in a position to compete.
The same principle applied generally in that blacks legally were denied access to everything from accomodations to zoos. The legality of "separate but equal" treatment of blacks was upheld by the United States Supreme Court as late as 1897, which meant that education for blacks, other than the most minimal, was nearly out of the question.
The period from 1870 to 1920, the era of monopoly capitalism, was particularly disturbing for American society. With massive industrialization came even more profoundly changing values and relationships, especially those involving the private family, the backbone of traditional American values. The fears that these changes elicited were reflected in key changes in laws of the day. Not only was abortion outlawed during this time, but also contraception, homosexuality, the advertising and sale of devices for recapturing lost manhood, advertising oneself as a marriage counsellor, and the like. The fear of such change meant that parents were increasingly becoming apprehensive about the welfare of their children in a society in which all standards of conduct were disappearing.
Symptomatic of this were surges of renewed interest in religious revivalism and especially of the emergence of protestant fundamentalism around the turn of the century. In a rapidly changing world, the fundamentalists sought permanence in immutable tenets of the Bible and traditional family structure and values. In a search for an explanation for the changes which were taking place, science and liberal philosophy were often singled out for blame, especially those branches of intellectual inquiry which had been rethinking the origins of man.
The most threatening of these were the works of Charles Darwin. Of particular concern were the implications of Darwin's theory of evolution for school curricula: What should children be taught about the nature of mankind and man's relationship to other life on earth?
While much of the debate centered on the idea that man was descended from apes, the real issue lay in the question of whether man came into being as an accident of impersonal and mechanistic forces of nature or by the deliberate act of a Supreme Being. The distinction was not trivial, since questions of right and wrong, good and bad, and the purpose and value of life and action were believed to be made irrelevant by the notion of evolution. In an accidental and purposeless world, intentional action and, hence, control of conduct, stability of traditional relations and values, and rearing of children according to the wishes of parents would be impossible.
The matter became particularly celebrated in the trial of John Scopes, a high-school biology teacher in the state of Arkansas, who was charged with violating a state law which prohibited the teaching of evolution. The trial (1925) pitted two of the most famous lawyers in the country against each other, former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, in a trial which became not only a media event but also pointed up parents' desperate struggle to retain control over schools and the right to teach their children their own values even if contradicted by science.
Although Scopes was convicted, supporters of the Biblical story of creation were made to look like fools by Darrow's cross-examination of Bryan, and little by little state laws barring the teaching of evolution were abolished and evolution became the only perspective on the origins of mankind taught in public schools. But although the matter was put to legal rest, it did not go away. The high living of the 1920's, the Great Depression of the 1930's, and World War II in the 1940's, merely served to hide it for a while.
Curiously, though, Darwinism had a profound impact on schools in another way, a way which enjoyed the support of school boards, parents, and communities. This was through the philosophy of "social Darwinism" as promulgated by Herbert Spencer and as adopted by leading industrialists, such as, Andrew Carnegie. The principles of social Darwinism were well-suited for the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the age of the Great Industrialists and rapid and mammoth industrial growth, in that it argued that those who had made it to the top of the economic ladder represented the survival of the socially fittest. Indeed, in the era of unbridled laissez faire capitalism at the turn of the century, social Darwinism was the supporting philosophy. Not only did it explain and justify everyday experience, it also coincided with Judeo-Christian values as embodied in the Calvinist work ethic.
It was also in this context that sports, especially American football, a particularly aggressive team sport, came to play an over-ridingly important role in American education,. If the American system can be said to be based on the principle of "contest", then then the football field became the symbolic representation of the contest which was increasingly moving out of the reach of most citizens. The football field came to function as a sort of modern gladiatorial battleground in which only those fittest for the battle survive.
Competing on the playing field had practical significance too, in that it was -- and still is - - seen as a builder of character and leadership qualities. Athletes are not infrequently the most popular people in schools and leaders in school affairs, and athletic success is often valued by prospective employers as evidence of the values prized in the business world.
Once started, the role of athletics became a self-perpetuating phenomenon in that it came to be closely linked to the so-called "old boy network", that is, the network of informal contacts by which young people entered the higher status job market. Former football players, especially from higher status schools have tended to value other football players, assuming that they came from an appropriately high status school.
With racial integration, however, the value of athletics as a ticket to the old boy network has diminished substantially. Now many star athletes are black. It does not follow that they will join the old boy network because of their athletic prowess. On the contrary, success of a black athlete may be seen as evidence that he would not have been successful in school otherwise. But as performance skills become more important in the business world, the role of athletics as a selection mechanism is declining for all.
Another side effect of social Darwinism was the stimulus it provided for successful industrialists to support education. As one of the "fittest", Andrew Carnegie contributed millions of dollars for educational facilities to encourage others to join the struggle for social survival. His sense of noblesse oblige was clearly linked to the precepts of social Darwinism. The professional public school teacher
With the first public education laws of the 1820's, children of the poor and not so poor were successfully brought brought under the control of institutions which trained them for useful vocations and occupations. In so doing, a new specialization in education emerged, that of the public school teacher.
Teaching highly defined curricula to recalcitrant students under the dictates of autocratic boards of education dominated by local business interests, the public school teacher came to be placed in the role of quasi-factory worker, subject to the same abuses that were being experienced elsewhere in the expanding industrial economy, namely, low wages, long hours, heavy work loads, restricted freedom, and arbitrary dismissal without recourse. But teachers regarded themselves as professionals rather than workers. Thus, as industrial labor began to organize to dominate their system, teachers were organizing to professionalize theirs.
Since popular education was a new endeavor, teachers lacked systematic standards of instruction and evaluation about 1835 they began to organize themselves into professional interest groups to further their newly discovered shared interests as teachers. They formed state associations of "practical teachers", edited their on journals, held their own conventions, and created traveling institutes which were sorts of normal schools on wheels.
By 1857, 23 such organizations existed, but while the main goals were professional, they were also concerned with the state of teachers' salaries. More important, though, was the emphasis at that time on professional self-evaluation, that is to say, the profession judging its own members rather than permitting outsiders (lay administrators), who may lack the qualifications, to judge it.
The post-Civil War period was a time of unification and expansion on all fronts, including teacher organization. By 1870 several smaller groups, including school superintendents, had merged to form the present day National Education Association (NEA). This early alliance with the superintendents, on the grounds of professionalism, was to become a bone in the throats of many teachers in years to come gave the appearance of NEA being a "company union".
If things were bad for industrial labor, they were also bad for teachers. Economics, as well as the advent of Darwinism, made job status in the public schools tenuous. But the limited school board finances, along with business interest which were invariably represented on boards, produced only discouragement for teachers. Their alliance with administrators and commitment solely to professionalism permitted little action other than discussing matters of educational theory and methods.
It was this inadequate treatment of the problems of teacher welfare that gave rise to the first labor union for teachers (Chicago, 1897). But it soon became apparent that individual locals were powerless against school boards and powerful community interests, and by 1916 twenty groups in ten states had affiliated nationally into the present-day American Federation of Teachers (AFT), an action group barring administrators rather than an association concerned with philosophy and professional unity.
American universities generally followed the models of Oxford and Cambridge and later the German universities. They differed from the European universities, however, in that their organizational strength lay not in the faculty, as was the case in European universities, but in their founding sects. Initially, interests in higher education in the colonies, as in Europe, were dominated but clerical interests. But the fact that there was no single dominant, unifying religion led to a proliferation of institutions along narrow sectarian lines. Lay boards of trustees governed the schools strictly along the ecclesiastical interests of their domination, and the faculty member who did not like it could look for work elsewhere.
Generally speaking, higher education in the United States in the early 19th Century was a dismal affair, characterized by a multiplicity of ill-staffed, ill-financed small colleges. Rigid adherence to the principle of absentee trustees meant that the governors were unable to govern the everyday affairs of the institutions over which they ruled. This weakness of the trustees made the position of president extremely powerful. In the words of Hofstadter and Metzger, "He became at once its dynamic center of authority, its symbol, and its spokesman. He occupied and in a sense created an office which has no equivalent in academic systems outside the United States. The prestige and pride that elsewhere were vested in the faculties came to center in him - - and there, with some modification, they have remained to this day."
The early 19th Century saw problems emerging on a wide scale in higher education problems with respect to student discipline and financial solvency. Neither trustees nor presidents were able to deal with the problems of disorder, and so the faculty was given the duty of disciplining the students. The faculty, therefore, became indispensible in the day-to-day operation of the schools. As a consequence more and more faculties insisted on and received participation in major policy and operational functions, such as, faculty appointments, curriculum and admissions policy, etc.
The very poverty of American schools until the mid-19th Century compelled a financial dependency on the philanthropy of wealthy alumni, a fact which was to weaken church ties and increasingly direct college activities along the interests of the benefactors. With the decline in ecclesiastical influence, the position of president came to be filled, more often than not, with a motley array of politicians, businessmen, lawyers, professional administrators, and even generals.
If the economic importance of the original European faculties was a factor in their strength, the very lack of economic importance of American faculties prior to the Civil War (1861-1964) can be counted as a factor in their impotence. There were few graduate faculties, and those were by and large philosophical and theological; virtually no doctorates were granted. "Higher" education in the United States was, in most cases, little more than an extension of high school. It was not until the direct intervention of private philanthropy in the late 19th Century and the passage of the Land Grant Colleges Act of 1862 that higher education in the United States became important. This law established a network of research universities as important centers in the development of modern industrial and agricultural technology,.
The continuing, though declining, role of the churches, the increasing role of the State and business in academic affairs, and the growing indispensibility of faculty produced extreme tensions, most notably with respect to the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution, socialism and historical analysis which was critical of American industry and the United States' emergence as a world power at the turn of the century.
The issue which initially came to bind together faculties in the United States was academic freedom, which had come to be synonymous with Lehrfreiheit, Lernfreiheit having never been seriously developed due to the faculty's role as disciplinarian of students. The long established American principle of lay boards of trustees came to cast faculties in the role of adversaries to the public interest. Moreover, the increasingly severe economic fluctuations of the rapidly developing industrial economy at the turn of the century coupled with a gradual saturation of the market for college teachers, meant that job security also became an issue. More often than not the content of beliefs and lectures provided the justification for eliminating jobs. Thus, academic freedom and tenure became identified as the academic cause celebre of American higher education.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which emerged in 1915 to defend faculty interests, attacked arbitrary and capricious acts of boards of trustees and administrators which, by threatening job security, could affect the freedom of a professor to teach what he in his professional judgement thought best. Academic freedom and tenure became linked and the AAUP became an agency of codifying and enforcing these principles through investigation and academic censure. But in developing principles to insure fair treatment of faculty, colleges and universities, which were already acquiring factory-like characteristics in an effort to operate fiscally more efficiently, were increasingly rationalized and bureacratized. Nevertheless, the autonomy of university faculties was enhanced through their efforts. American education after World War II
The impact of World War II on American society in general and American education in particular can hardly be overestimated. Apart from the more obvious consequences of rearranging world political boundaries and interests and establishing American ascendance over much of the world, the war had equally far ranging consequences for the daily lives of Americans:
The country had been pulled out of the Great Depression by the war with the consequence that because of massive rural-urban migration, rural life, for all practical purposes, was ended as a dominant way of life. Women had experienced massive liberation from the traditional roles to which they had been bound due to the need to assume the burden of industrial labor for the war effort. Blacks had experienced service alongside white Americans under conditions of non- discrimination and had experienced more equitable treatment abroad than at home. Income for white and black alike was higher than it had ever been, and economic prosperity seemed closer than ever. The young people who fought in the war returned home as mature adults demanding education and other benefits which they had missed because of military service. Marriage and child bearing, which had been put off due to the war, increased dramatically. And, although the end of the war brought an immediate economic decline, the economy was soon thriving again on new technology from the war, new markets opened by the destruction of European economies, and the reorganization, consolidation, and modernization of industrial firms.
The war had several specific consequences for education. Returning veterans were allowed to attend college free of charge. This meant rapid expansion of the higher education system and an increase in the number of college graduates. The rapid rise in the birthrate after the war, the so-called "baby boom", also caused a corresponding rise in the number of children entering the school system from about 1950 to 1960. This "wave" moved through the entire system affecting all levels as it went. Therefore, World War II veterans and those who lived during the war but who were too young for military service, found enhanced job opportunities in education as the system expanded to accommodate the expanding population.
Blacks who either had returned from the war or had experienced less discrimination and higher income during the war, also demanded better education. The 1950's were characterized by legal attacks on schools from primary schools through college. Pictures, such as, those of soldiers escorting small black children to school in Little Rock, Arkansas, under orders of President Eisenhower, and of Governor George Wallace of Alabama standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama barring entrance to a young black girl who was being accompanied by federal marshalls, commanded public attention and generated consternation.
At the same time the content of instruction began to change. While modern psychology and pragmatism had long influenced American instructional techniques, the new generation of teachers which emerged from teachers' colleges after the war were much more inclined to change things fundamentally than had been their own teachers. Specifically challenged, for example, was learning by rote memory and drill as opposed to "conceptual" learning and learning under conditions which were less structured. Barriers to communication, such as, fixed seating, walls, and doors were eliminated in favor of unobstructed open space and moveable equipment. Anything which caused discomfort or hardship or which did not seem to have immediate value was discarded.
The key word was "fun." If learning weren't fun, then learning wouldn't take place. "Fun" was doing what one wanted, when one wanted, and where one wanted. It was not fun to be told what to do, when to do it, or where to do it. "Fun" was being spontaneous rather than planned; "fun" was being active rather than passive; "fun" was in taking control rather than being controlled.
Names, dates, and places were not fun; parts of speech and spelling were not fun; vocabulary was not fun and nor were multiplication tables; foreign languages were not fun; and neither was poetry. Sports and elective courses for "self-realization" were much more fun and required courses became less and less fun. Over the next three decades fewer and fewer things of substance would be taught, and, of course, less and less of substance would be learned.
The 1950's and 1960's was a period of unprecedented growth of schools. As new families were founded and the birthrate increased, suburbia also developed as young affluent families fled older parts of cities into which blacks were beginning to move. New suburban communities -- "bedroom communities", so-called because their residents worked elsewhere and merely slept there -- sprung up like mushrooms. The most modern schools were built to keep pace with the wave of post-war births which was advancing through the system.
Recall that, although the states provide some support for public schools from general revenues, the bulk of school funds come from property taxes in the district itself. It follows, then, that the quality of the schools in a district will reflect the income level and property values of the residents of the district. The schools in suburbia, therefore, were the best since the communities were affluent and the parents were well-educated. They were of the most modern contruction, had the most modern equipment and facilities, had the best teachers and used the most up-to-date methods.
Blacks, however, were left with what fleeing whites left behind -- old and often dilapidated school buildings in declining neighborhoods where the residents earned little money and the property was of little value. Consequently, it was not possible to generate much tax revenue for schools.
Affluent blacks, who also wanted education for their children, were increasingly frustrated with the situation, since they not only could not improve the schools within their districts, but also could not leave the district to attend another school or to buy property and move to a better area.
And thus it was that in 1954 the Brown family sued the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, (in a case known as Brown vs. the Board of Education) for maintaining a separate school system for blacks, on the grounds that separate schools were inherently unequal and psychologically damaging to black children. The U. S. Supreme Court agreed and ordered an end to "separate but equal" schools.
The impact of this decision was to be profound, although at the outset the decree was either resisted, ignored, or complied with only on paper. It is perhaps fair to say that, for most whites, race as such was not the issue so much as social class and coersion by central authority. The initial active resistance was greatest in the South where the tradition of racial separation was strongest. The North, which fancied itself to be on the side or goodness and decency with respect to slavery and the Civil War, may have removed racial restrictions from the law books, and may even have officially welcomed a few children of middle-class black families. But the patterns of residential separation were such that merely eliminating legal barriers did little or nothing to change the barriers to school attendance or quality of education.
School desegregation was just one of a number of racial issues which were generating concern at the time: discrimination in voting, housing, law enforcement, transportation, accommodations, and the use of public facilities, to mention a few. Civil rights was the issue which linked schools to the rest of the society, and it turned everything upside down.
As blacks "invaded" hitherto white residential areas of cities, whites fled to the suburbs. Nevertheless, the absolute racial barriers in schools were dropped little by little. But due to the nature of housing patterns, schools came to be segregated de facto all over again in that "as neighborhoods went, so went the schools." Hitherto all white schools accepted black students as they moved into neighborhoods, and as blacks moved into neighborhoods, the whites moved out leaving the schools once again nearly all black and suffering from a declining tax base.
In an attempt to apply the Supreme Court's Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, federal courts and federal legislation began to require school districts to go beyond desegregation, which had already been accomplished, and to seek to achieve "racial balance. Racial balance was to be achieved, if necessary, by transporting students by bus from their own neighborhoods to distant schools within the same district. Since some urban school districts may be quite large, this meant that children often went to school far from their own homes.
This practice had several consequences: It meant that children went to school with strangers. Parents did not know teachers and teachers did not know parents. Parents did not know the other children, and parents did not know the other parents. And whatever sense of community had existed around neighborhood schools, however poor they may have been, was now lost. The neighborhood school was dead.
The idea of desegregation was generally interpreted to mean that it would be necessary to send blacks to white schools to achieve equality, since white schools were better. This meant, then, that blacks who were being bussed in from other, poorer areas, were immediately identified as being interlopers, indeed even invaders much as a germ may be said to invade a healthy body. And the response of many white parents and their children was similar -- they tried to stamp out the disease. Thus, it was not uncommon to find violence and hostility directed at the newly arrived black students.
On the other hand, desegregation was not fought by whites as much as one might have thought as long as it was black students coming to white schools and coming in "moderation". Blacks were sometimes even welcomed by well-meaning white middle-class parents as long as the blacks were also middle-class or otherwise "upstanding". Busing, however, brought in many of lower social status and coarse demeanor, and this caused a great deal of trouble, such as, name calling and even fights in school corridors.
In point of fact, though, by "racial balance" the courts meant balance everywhere, not just in the better white schools. And, accordingly, in the mid-1960's whites began to be bussed into black neighborhoods to attend poorer schools in unsavory conditions in order to meet the federal courts' view of desegregation.
White parents were furious, and their fury had at least two specific consequences. On the one hand, some parents responded violently, by burning school buses, for instance. And on the other hand, other angry parents responded by taking their children out of public school and sending them to private schools. In a process which has now gone on over a period of some twenty years or more, white "academies" were created as alternatives to desegregated schools, especially in the south. Later, "Christian" day-schools were created in the north not only as alternatives to desegregation but also to combat the values taught in public schools and to correct the declining level of student competency.
In the meantime, efforts were made to improve poorer, though desegregated, schools by renovating buildings, purchasing new equipment and upgrading the curriculum. To compensate the for generally low level of skill of black teachers, white teachers were even bussed against their will into poor areas of some cities to teach in schools, which, in spite of court orders, remained predominantly black. The level of violence in these schools was often great, and teachers who were not physically assaulted often began to show psychological symptoms similar to battle fatigue.
In order to avoid the idea of compulsory bussing, which was causing so much anger, some school boards began to experiment with different methods to achieve racial balance. Some systems attempted to achieve racial balance by instituting voluntary bussing to schools outside of their own neighborhoods. This generally was unsuccessful, however, since it was more likely black students who wanted to go to white schools rather than the other way around. Some systems created within the context of voluntary busing so-called "magnet schools", schools which had curricular offerings so good or so special that they would act as "magnets" and draw a racially-balanced student population to them on a wholly voluntary basis. In some instances they were successful.
Over the years patterns of racial segregation within public schools have generally been broken down even in spite of the white "alternative" schools which have attracted only a small minority of pupils. Whether desegregation has produced better educated children is another matter, however. In general the level of competency of American school children has been declining since the early 1960's. While many factors are involved, forced bussing has been blamed by many as the primary cause. Even minorities are now beginning to complain about the quality of education now that they have seen desegregation in action. Simply going to school with whites has not been enough to improve the lot of black children. It is in this context that more and more black parents are calling for black schools in black neighborhoods on the grounds that only they, black parents, can decide on and implement programs to meet their needs. Schools which attempted to meet the needs of two diverse populations at the same time have been unable to meet the needs of either, it is argued.
There have been a few black alternative schools founded to provide better education, though not in an effort to preserve "racial purity," as have some white alternatives. But operating separate schools is expensive, and therefore the numbers of black alternative schools are few.
Interestingly, all immigrant groups to North America who have tried to maintain a degree of cultural awareness and identity have found it necessary to create their own schools either as totally autonomous alternatives or as adjuncts to the public schools. Without control over transmission of language, cultural practices, and values, identifiably different cultural characteristics quickly disappear as the group becomes assimiliated into the cultural mainstream.
The civil rights movement actually enhanced the process of assimilation by outlawing all different treatment of students based on ethnic or racial status. Even before the resistance of blacks to desegregation other minorities tried to maintain their identify within the public school system. Hispanics, that is those persons with Spanish surnames (especially those of Mexican or Puerto Rican ancestry), sought to be taught in Spanish with English taught as a second language. Unfortunately, the experiment has been a disaster in that the students frequently emerge as being quasi-illiterate in both languages and unable to compete at any level of the everyday world.
American Indians, are by far the worst off of any American minority. Their schools are not bad, and because of treaty obligations, the federal government pays all school expenses even though college for any Indian who wants. Nevertheless, interest in education is low.
The coming of desegregation also coincided with the coming of the teacher strike. In 1962 the National Education Association gave up both its ties to school administration and earlier conception of professionalism and resorted to striking in order to compel improvements in salary and working conditions. Over the next two decades teachers' strikes increased greatly along with the financial woes of school districts. Parental anger grew with the number of teachers on picket lines and the number of days their children stayed home due to strikes. In the view of many parents, teaching, the noble profession to which they had entrusted their offspring, had become just another job. In loco parentis was also dead.
In truth, the American educational system has probably never been the equal of European systems with their state examinations and emphasis on rigor. Nevertheless, in 1963 the consequences of all of these massive changes in American education began to be noticed. In 1963 the average scores for high school seniors on a nationally administered college aptitude test (Scholastic Aptitude Test; SAT) began a dramatic and uninterrupted decline which was to last until 1982. While one may not accept the validity of such exams for predicting individual success in college, as an indicator of the state of the nation's schools, they were undeniable. And it must be remembered that the SAT was measuring the competence of college-bound students who were overwelmingly white and middle-class. It was no longer possible to say that poor education was the domain of the poor and the colored.
Worse yet was the fact that students who were graduating with deficiencies were going on to become teachers not only of children but of teachers as well. Thus, one year's incompetence multiplied itself many times over in successive years. A downward spiral was set in motion which insured increasing incompetence of students and teachers alike for the next two decades.
At about the time when the SAT scores began to decline, the civil rights movement, which had just become codified in federal civil rights legislation in 1963, hit the campuses of higher education. In 1964 the Berkeley Free Speech Movement began, the consequences of which were to shake higher education to its very foundations.
Although the immediate issue was students' right to say what they wanted to, think what they wanted to, and learn what they wanted to, it was no accident that the leaders of the movement were teaching assistants who had been attracted by the expanding university but who found their way to the top blocked by entrenched, older professors. The assistants did the work and the professors got the rewards. What was to follow was, at root, a rebellion of the socially non-mobile, but it too contributed in a major way to the decline in competency. The resulting criticism of college curricula was based less on an broad philosophy of education than on a preoccupation with immediate reality and the abuses of the past.
Requirements for graduation from college at all levels were thrown out in wholesale lots. English and foreign language requirements were abandoned; mathematics and science requirements were watered down so as to be meaningless or even abolished; grading systems were modified to make possible taking certain courses without being graded at all; and in some schools grading was done away with altogether. Again, the concept of "fun" and, later, "relevance" came to dominate program development. If it weren't "fun" or socially "relevant", then it would likely not be offered, and if offered, probably not required. If it weren't required, it would probably not be taken.
It was in this fashion that historically fundamental programs and coursework began to decline in importance in higher education. Mathematics, science, philosophy, and history, for example, all began to decline in importance in college programs in the 1960's and early 1970's in favor of more "fun" and "relevant" courses in sociology, psychology, and in newly developing academic areas, such as, "Black Studies", an academic consequence of the Civil Rights movement.
One driving factor in much of this change in higher education during this period of the late 1960's and early 1970's was the war in Vietnam and the military draft. Thousands of young men were able to avoid the draft by enrolling in college, and as long as they were maintaining their grades, they did not have to go to the increasingly unpopular war. Thus, much pressure for curricular change was coming from people who were interested in higher education primarily as a means for avoiding something else. Examinations, grading, graduation requirements and the like were, for many, irrelevant yet important in that failure to meet requirements, perform well on exams, and get good grades meant getting drafted. The demand to change educational practices, therefore, did not necessarily start from sound pedagogical premises.
But by the early 1970's the peak of the "baby boom" generation had passed through the college system, and both the draft and the war had been ended. Enrollments in public schools and colleges and universities began to plummet, and with this decline questions of finances came to dominate educational planning once again. The 1960's and early 1970's had been years of growth and plenty since both the "War on Poverty", a massive federal project to aid the poor, and the war in Vietnam had been supported simultaneously by massive government spending. In the words of then-President Lyndon Johnson, the country would have both guns and butter.
But with declining enrollments colleges and universities were put much more on a factory- like financial basis. Cost effectiveness, management by objective, and rational planning came to dominate all things. The managers took over. If courses were small, eliminate them; never mind their importance in the curriculum. If programs failed to be popular, cut them; never mind their role in the mission of the university or their service to the broader society.
Liberals' faith in the ability of government to change society had been shaken by the failures and abuses of the War on Poverty and related programs. Besides, government was no longer in the position to provide careers as massively as it had in the 1960's. So, perhaps out of conviction, perhaps out of desperation, students began to turn from the traditionally dominant liberal arts to business and commercial studies for their future.
As inflation and economic dependence on the rest of the world became a reality in the 1970's, retrenchment in all segments of society became a salient issue. The pent-up hostilities over civil rights, desegregation, the loss of the war in Vietnam and the related decline in patriotism, corruption in government and the failure of government programs, the sexual revolution, declining competencies, the ever more frequent teacher's strikes, increasing juvenile delinquency, drug abuse and violence in the schools, and social change in general, began to take their toll on public support for education.
Because of decentralized control and funding of public education, American public education must rely on voters to approve basic taxes for much of their support. Most school taxes are established by law and are not subject to voter approval after the level has been established, but if schools need extra revenue for additional programs, construction or maintenance, they must levy additional taxes or sell bonds on the financial markets to raise the money. In either case, they must seek approval from the voters in the school district.
Over the years school programs had become larger and more complex without expanding or altering the financial base. Expansion and maintenance of programs developed as expanded offererings usually were funded by special levies or other tax increments.
The school levy vote, it turns out, is just about the last vestige of pure democracy left in the country. It is, for most people, the only opportunity to have a say in actual policy matters with a voice that counts. So, the public, having become increasingly angry about almost everything, began to vent their spleen at the schools by voting against additional taxes for schools.
They were angry at the cost -- in some areas homeowners were paying thousands and thousands of dollars a year just for school taxes. They were frustrated with the poor job that schools were doing at educating children, and they were upset at the general state of the society even though they may have had nothing against the schools per se. In the words of one woman who voted against a bond issue proposed for much-needed modernization and maintenance of one school system, "I appreciate the schools and don't want to hurt them. But there is so much bad in the world today, and I just wanted someone to know how I felt." As a result, school finances in the 1970's were sent into turmoil by widespread and repeated losses of voter support for school levies, whatever the reasons.
Public colleges and universities are not usually funded in the same way as the lower grades. They are funded by direct appropriations from legislatures in addition to revenues generated locally through tuition, fees, etc. Nevertheless, they experienced similar financial problems in that legislatures refused to continue to provide the same level of support to which they had become accustomed. Costs were a major consideration, but legislatures also had not forgotten higher education's role in the anti-war movement.
Nor were private colleges and universities immune from financial problems. Indeed, they were hit harder than the state institutions, since they had to live almost entirely from the fees generated from tuition and endowments. Many private schools lost endowments and other financial support because of their political activies during the Vietnam war, but basically they were experiencing the same problem as the public schools: The baby boom was past and the number of students was declining. During the 1970's more than 500 small, liberal arts colleges - - often old and respected -- closed their doors forever. Many merged with other private schools or were absorbed by state systems.
One issue specifically has come to dominate the 1980's: religion in the classroom. In 1963 the avowed atheist, Madelyn Murray challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court the historic and widespread practice of starting the day in public schools with prayer. The U. S. Constitution prohibits Congress from establishing laws which "respect an establishment of religion". She interpreted this to mean that prayer, indeed any activity in public schools which had anything to do with religion or religious themes, was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court agreed in a finding which has had nearly as profound an impact on public schools as the racial desegregation decision of 1954. The upshot of this decision, which survived many attempts to get around it by making prayer "voluntary" or allowing for silent meditation, was to secularize the schools to an extent never yet seen in history. Not only could prayer not be said, symbols of traditional holidays, such as, Christmas or Easter could not be displayed unless they were secular in nature. The Baby Jesus and the Wise Men were out, but Santa Claus was okay; "Silent Night" could not be sung, but "Jingle Bells" could; Christ on the cross was taboo, but the Easter bunny was fine. Homosexual students could organize and meet with official sanction on school property, but Christian students could not meet to study the Bible.
In truth, only a minority of students and parents cared that much about the issues, although most others thought the restrictions were silly, especially when traditional holiday practices were curtailed on Constitutional grounds. Nevertheless, these changes formed the basis for a broadly organized attack on public education on the grounds that "eliminating God from the classroom" was the cause of all the social ills which the country had been experiencing since the 1950's.
This attack was fought on several fronts. First and foremost, was the prayer issue, but beyond that attacks by the same people were waged against textbooks and curricula, too. Textbooks, it was argued, taught children a distorted "liberal" version of American history by making the white man out to be a villain and dwelling on historic problems, such as, slavery and the maltreatment of ethnic minorities, while at the same time glorifying sin and corruption. Traditional values, it was further argued, were being further eroded by what was said to be "secular humanism" which advocated sex education, "values clarification" (children being encouraged to decide for themselves what is right and wrong through group discussion), women's liberation, and homosexual rights. And, finally, it was argued that evolution, the issue which many thought had been laid to rest in the 1920's, was being presented in textbooks as if it were truth. Pupils, so the complaint, had no possibility of learning the Biblical version of Creation. The issue, of course, still was the nature of man. Is he a devine creation, or is he the accidental biproduct of an impersonal and mechanical process? Will he be governed by absolute and traditional values or will he be governed by the hedonistic jungle principle, "If it feels good, do it"?
In spite of the decentralization and local control over schools, the possibility of influencing curricular decisions on a broad scale, it turned out, was much greater in the 1970's and 1980's than in the 1920's for two reasons: First, many states, by this time, had established textbook commissions which approved, sometimes even selected, texts for the entire state system. And second, some states were so large and wealthy -- notably Texas and California -- that publishers would tailor texts to meet that state's wishes, since countless millions of dollars would be spent on purchasing a single text for the entire state system. Once selected, then, that text would likely be adopted by other, smaller and less affluent states.
Individual local school boards were also approached directly in an effort to persuade them to adopt or reject specific texts or otherwise change their curricular policies. Local groups of concerned parents, often working in concert on a national level, would plan and lobby the school board, and, in the absence of opposition (frequently the case), they often succeeded in changing school policies.
In this way a relatively small number of people, with the cooperation of sympathetic and sophisticated electronic communication media, such as, the Christian (television) Broadcast Network (CBN) which broadcasts fundamentalist religious programming by satellite, a well-developed system of independent Christian radio stations, and systematic use of computerized mailing lists, were able to influence curricular offering in public schools over a wide area.
By the mid-1980's, "offensive" and "liberal" viewpoints had been purged widely from public school curricular materials, although opponents of these changes began to organize and fight the trend. Court suits also began to rule that "creation science" is merely a cover for a religious perspective, and that is could not be taught. As a result, publishers began to rewrite their books yet again.
At the college level, a group calling itself "Accuracy in Academia" was organized to monitor "leftist-liberal" viewpoints in college classrooms by assigning student monitors to report on class content. "Inaccurate" material would then be brought to the instructor's attention, and if it were not corrected the matter would be published in the campus newspaper for all to read. Instances of "inaccuracies" reported have included professors talking about nuclear disarmament or criticizing the government's policy on Central America. In response, a liberal organization called "People for the American Way" was organized, the purpose of which was to challenge conservative attacks on classroom teaching and instructional materials.
Criticism of the public schools grew in the late 1970's, led not only by conservatives but liberals as well, and stemming not only from churches but also from the federal government and from universities, who had had to provide remedial training in basic English language skills and mathematics because so many students were entering college with severe deficiencies. The result of the criticism was a tightening of standards at all levels of instruction, first in the universities and then later in public schools. Requirements in English, mathematics, science, were reinstituted or strengthened and foreign language was once again treated more seriously, though not nearly to the extent found in Europe or elsewhere in the world.
As a result, the twenty-year decline of SAT scores stopped, stabilized and even began to improve in the early 1980's. "Back to basics", that is, a return to emphasis on teaching basic skills, became the watchword.
The battle is not over, however. Conservatives have proposed that the federal government give families educational vouchers which could be "spent" at the school of their choice, including private sectarian schools. In theory the "free market" would thereby work to improve schools in that less popular schools would have to improve their programs to meet the demand. Opponents fear, however, that the voucher system would lead to further decline of public schools in that only the economically and intellectually poorest students would remain as the more intelligent and affluent whites flee with their vouchers.
In the meantime, parents are challenging mandatory education laws by taking their children out of school to educate them themselves at home. If parents can demonstrate their ability to educate a child to state standards, courts are dropping their objections.
Parents are also challenging classroom reading material which violated the families' fundamentalist Christian beliefs. In 1986 several Tennessee families argued that reading books, classics such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Wizard of Oz, and Macbeth, were biased against Judeo-Christianity and taught occultism and sorcery. The court ordered the school to accommodate the parents by providing their children with non-offensive reading materials.
In 1987 parents in Alabama went a step further and challenged the entire curriculum for public instruction in Alabama, charging that the content of 48 textbooks unconstitutionally advanced the "religion" of "secular humanism" and inhibited Christianity. The textbooks, they argued, ignored major American historical events, family values, patriotism, and the value of work. The court agreed and banned the books.
Conservatives were elated with these rulings. Liberals, while conceding deficiencies in the textbooks, fear chaos in the schools if the interests of each group are allowed to dictate school policy. The cases have been appealed, and the matter remains far from settled. Conclusion
American schools, as the rest of America, exists in a flux of conflicting external and internal pressures. Race, class, economics, "haves" trying to keep what they've got, and "have nots" trying to get what they don't have -- all characterize the "traditional" pressures on American society and its schools.
This review suggests that schools in America are barometers of social change. Even though change has been the dominant characteristic of American society, change is still the thing which Americans have trouble dealing with, especially change which threatens their sense of control over their destiny.
Right now America is going through the singularly most threatening period in its history in that the natural defenses of its borders have evaporated, its vast reserves of natural resources are dwindling, its industry is leaving and its markets softening, its former cooperators are becoming competitors, and its friends are becoming less friendly. It is head-over-heels in debt. Whereas it was once independent, it is now becoming dependent. Opinion polls nothwithstanding, it feels itself increasingly helpless, hopeless, and hapless. And that makes it angry.
This anger is a grass-roots anger, and it is mirrored in American schools. American schools are decentralized and unsupervised and they respond very quickly to stresses experienced by the people. If this analysis is correct, local control will continue to insure that the schools will reflect America's anger and fear. Day-to-day life in American schools will continue to be difficult.
And, yet, American schools work. The absence of central control makes it difficult to propagate a
single perspective or mobilize the masses, even though some some might like to do it. The
struggle to cope with change has produced stability, while the search for stability has produced
conflict. The very difficulty of maintaining stability or establishing unity, it might justifiably be
argued, accounts for the energy and creativity often found in American schools. In any event, out
of this conflict has emerged a functioning system almost in spite of itself.
1. Ralph H. Turner, "Sponsored and contest mobility and the school system." American Sociological Review, 1960, 25:855-867.
2. For detailed history of the American school system, see James Mulhern, A History of Education: A Social Interpretation (2nd ed.), New York: Ronald Press, 1959.
3. A sense of the conservative individualist tradition in America and the anger which it demonstrates when denied control over its affairs, especially parenting and schooling, is to be found in Zachary Montgomery, The School Question From a Parental and Non-Sectarian Stand-point. An Epitome of the Educational Views. 1889. Reprinted: New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1972.
4. For historical background on science, religion and public schools, see Donald E. Boles, The Bible, Religion, and the Public Schools, Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1963; and Dorothy Nelkin, The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools? New York: Norton, 1982.
5. An excellent discussion of the effect of Social Darwinism on American life may be found in Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915, (rev. ed.), Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
6. Sports are very important in American life and play a key role in education. See, for example, Steven A. Reiss, The American Sporting Experience: An Historical Anthology of Sport in America, New York: Leisure Press, 1984, especially section III "The Rise of American Sport: 1870-1900" and section IV "The Golden Age of American Sport: The Early Twentieth Century"; Paul Gardner, Nice Guys Finish Last: Sport and American Life, New York: Universe Books, 1975; and Donald J. Mrozek, Sport and American Mentality, 1880-1910, Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1983.
7. See for example The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920; for more on the relationship between monied interests and higher education in the U. S. see also Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America, New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1918.
8. More on the history of teacher organization in the United States may be found in Zalman Richards, "Historical Sketch of the National Education Association" in History of the National Education Association of the United States, 1857-1891, Washington, D. C.: National Education Association, 1892: Edgar B. Wesley, NEA: The First Hundred Years, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957; and Commission on Educational Reconstruction (CER), Organizing the Teaching Profession, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1955.
9. Sectarian schools have formed the backbone of American education from the outset. They have been overwhelmingly Protestant in the Puritan tradition, at least until the late 19th Century. Due to widespread anti-Catholic sentiment and a lack of monied patrons, who were largely Protestant, Catholic schools only began to take a foothold in the latter part of the 19th Century, and then mainly in urban areas. The interested reader may wish to read more in Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962; Alain Touraine, The Academic System in American Society New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974; and Oscar and Mary F. Handlin, The American College and American Culture, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970; Morris T. Keeton, Models and Mavericks: A Profile of Private Liberal Arts Colleges, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971; C. Robert Pace, Education and Evangelism: A Profile of Protestant Colleges, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972; and Andrew M. Greeley, From Backwater to Mainstream: A Profile of Catholic Higher Education, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.
10. Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, New York: Columbia University Press, 1955; pp. 124-125.
11. For an extensive analysis of the development of faculty consciousness in higher education, see Hofstadter and Metzger, ibid.
12. Many volumes have been written on race and education in America. For a survey of the history and issues, see Jennifer L. Hochschild, The New American Dilemma: Liberal Democracy and School Desegregation, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984; and George R. Metcalf, From From Little Rock to Boston: The History of School Desegregation, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.
13. For discussions of important issues in minority education, see Meyer Weinberg, The Search for Quality Integrated Education: Policy Research on Minority Students in School and College, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983; Richard Pratte, Pluralism in Education: Conflict, Clarity, and Commitment, Springfield, Ill.: Charles Y. Crowell, 1979; and Ulric Neisser (ed.), The School Achievement of Minority Children: New Perspectives, Hilldale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986.
14. For more on the teaching profession, strikes and collective bargaining see Edward B. Shils and C. Taylor Whittier, Teachers, Administrators and Collective Bargaining, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968.
15. An important discussion of the Berkeley movement is to be found in Seymour Martin Lipset and Sheldon S. Wolin (eds.), The Berkeley Student Revolt: Facts and Interpretation, Garden City, N. Y.: Anchor Books, 1965.
16. The decline unleashed a tremendous criticism of American schools starting in the late 1960's. Books such as Charles E. Silberman's Crisis in the Classroom, New York: Random House, 1970, sparked wide debate and many attempts at reform.
17. For discussions of fundamental issues, see, for example, David E. Engel (ed.), Religion in Public Education: Problems and Prospects, New York: Paulist Press, 1974; and John Herbert Laubach, School Prayers: Congress, the Courts, and the Public, Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press, 1969.
18. The general lack of success at reforming schools and reversing the declining competencies of
students, however, can be noted in the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in
Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, D. C.:
National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). This report rekindled the nationwide
debate about quality of instruction.
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