|Mountaintop removal: "The course of things was set."|
At the nation’s founding, many prominent statesmen called for universal education—not to prepare children for work, but to prepare them to be participating citizens of a republican government. “If the common people are ignorant and vicious,” Benjamin Rush said, “a republican nation can never long be free.” In a republican government, the people are sovereign.
Are the common people of America ignorant and vicious and incapable of self-government today? And if so, what hope is there for the future of our republic?
Should we blame the schools for the character of the citizenry? Rush seemed to think that education was the key to making Americans fit for self-government. Thomas Jefferson had that same hope, so he submitted legislation to the Virginia legislature. The anti-tax sentiment that led Virginians to reject Jefferson’s proposal to fund public education is a feature of our political culture that is still with us, and still limits spending on education, especially in the former slave states, most of which didn’t establish public schools until Reconstruction. (Taylor, 440).
It’s not clear to me, though, that spending more money would do much to turn the schools into great academies of citizenship. I teach at a private high school that spends (hold onto your hat) about $100,000 per year per pupil annually. We have no civics requirement. Students read novels and poems and write a lot of essays reflecting on the events of their brief lives in four years of English class, but the history requirement is just two years, only one of which covers the United States. The other year deals with the rest of the world. Over time, enrollment statistics show that students are taking fewer history electives, probably so can fit more math and science electives into their schedule because that's what they are told impresses college admissions officers. Everyone must get to calculus by 12th grade! Don’t get me wrong. Our students are well educated, and many of them do go on to public service. And there are lots of optional opportunities for students who want to get a political education, like our Washington Intern Program. But the required curriculum seems geared toward other ends than producing well-informed citizens.
Even within the two-year history requirement, I’ve seen an erosion of focus on citizenship. When I first started teaching there in 1997, the American history teachers would spend a full week on the US Constitution every fall. Students read the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and anti-federalist essays and talked about whether the advocates or the critics had the better argument. Some classes would even assign the Articles of Confederation—and then talk about whether the new frame of government was really better than what it replaced. Some of us even played Constitution Jeopardy with our classes. This wasn’t the equivalent of, say, a year’s civics course, but it was a good solid week of instruction that sent a message about the importance of democratic process. That approach has since been abandoned, and now most of my colleagues probably spend a day on the Constitution. There’s a lot of US history to cover in three trimesters—and since I got there in 1997, Father Time has continued to add more items we SHOULD cover—two impeachments, an election decided by the Supreme Court, the obliteration of the World Trade Towers, the nation’s longest war, the first black president, and a reality TV presidency (featuring a sustained attack on reality). And we never get more days to cover this stuff. But this is just one very exclusive private school in New Hampshire.
About 90 percent of Americans get their history and civics education in public schools. Around the time Exeter history teachers abandoned their Constitution week, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind education reform bill, which emphasized math and reading, apparently at the expense of every other subject, including history, social studies, and civics. The pressure to give children a head start in these subjects has gotten to the point where some toddlers are learning to read before they are toilet trained (Julian, 38). The decline of civics education has not been lost on some of us and lately there has been a vigorous debate about whether or not the public schools are teaching enough civics, much lamenting about the political ignorance of graduates, and no consensus about what should be done. Some of the debates are ideological struggles over the content of existing history and civics courses. Should Texas students be told that the defenders of the Alamo were “heroic”? That slavery was the singular cause of the Civil War? Let’s count the number of references to George Washington vs. Martin Luther King. Who should get more mentions?
(An aside. I am plowing through Taylor Branch’s long history of the Civil Rights Movement and just happened to be reading about the the March on Washington. Here's what he concluded about King's "I Have a Dream" speech: “The emotional command of his oratory gave King authority to reinterpret the core intuition of democratic justice. More than his words, the timbre of his voice projected him across the racial divide and planted him as a new founding father.” You can bet that today's American electorate would be bitterly divided over whether or not we should consider King to be one of the “founding fathers.”)
Similar hand-wringing goes on about undergraduate training. A couple of years ago, an Exeter alumnus, Thomas Ehrlich, spoke in the assembly hall about citizenship education at the college level. His book, Education for Democracy argues that “American higher education pays relatively little attention to undergraduate political learning” (Ehrlich, 4). Enrollment in college humanities classes and majors is declining as students, insecure about their economic future, increasingly opt for majors like business and STEM that they think will prepare them for good jobs. Conservatives may see that as a positive trend, since increasingly, they believe, undergraduate education in the humanities has become an exercise in ideological brainwashing. That may explain the explosive growth in conservative Christian colleges and Universities at a time when many small liberal arts colleges have been failing even before the devastating blow of the pandemic lock-down.
Some think the problem is less what we teach than how we teach it. Do our schools prepare students for taking an active role in democratic governance? Do they include students in decision making? Do we encourage them to disagree with teachers and administrators, or are students required to passively follow orders during the school day? Do schools tend to foster free thinking or “groupthink”? Are we cultivating authoritarian personalities or liberal democratic citizenship? The answers to these questions may be more important than how much time we spend on the Constitution or the nuts and bolts of government functioning.
We live in a diverse nation where every community has autonomy in determining how schoolchildren will be educated so it is impossible to generalize about the quality and content of the “nation’s schools.” What seems pretty certain, though, is that they are radically unequal, in terms of how well they are funded and what is taught in them and how it is taught. Affluent public school systems and the tonier private schools, like Phillips Exeter Academy, are probably less authoritarian than the public schools in working-class neighborhoods and parochial schools in red states. But even at Exeter with its radically student-centered pedagogy, there is a tendency toward group-think and social enforcement of a certain left-of-center political orthodoxy. Somehow, Exeter attracts an overwhelmingly liberal faculty and a largely liberal student body, and most conservatives mostly keep their views to themselves. As Americans increasingly find themselves living in ideologically homogeneous communities, the schools in those places increasingly reflect the general political consensus of the neighborhood and so increasingly, school children encounter fewer people with different views (Bishop). People who study such things tell us ideologically homogeneous environments weaken attitudes of tolerance and lead to political extremism and “the demonization of legitimate political difference”—a kind of political tribalism (Hess and McAvoy, 26). In one tribe, those who disagree with us are narrow-minded bigots; in the other, they are godless "libtards."
Meanwhile, all students seem to fear the future. The privileged and mostly affluent students that I teach are anxious about college admissions and the prospects of starting their work lives under a mountain of debt. Less privileged young people fear different things. In her study of 100 working class young adults, Jennifer Silva draws a heart-rending picture of a swath of the population that has been let down by every institution they have encountered, from the family, to schools, to work places. Silva writes that their experience has been
characterized by low expectations of work, wariness toward romantic commitment, widespread distrust of social institutions, profound isolation from others, and an overriding focus on their emotions and psychic health. Rather than turn to politics to address the obstacles standing in the way of a secure adult life, the majority of the men and women I interviewed crafted deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from their painful pasts—whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment—and forging an emancipated, transformed, and adult self (Silva, 10).These folks are neither equipped nor inclined to be able to put much time and effort into thinking about their duties as citizens and and who can blame them? In a way, they are just the most American of Americans, a people who have always leaned toward individualism and mistrust of institutions, and who tend to conflate collective action with conspiracy rather than see it as a path toward bettering their lives. I wish everyone would read Silva’s book. Instead, readers have gobbled up J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, in which the narrator pulls himself up by his bootstraps and argues that collective solutions can’t solve the problems of the people he left behind in the heartland—they just need to stop blaming the economy and re-discover personal responsibility. Vance’s memoir, in the great tradition of American uplift narratives, from Ben Franklin to Horatio Alger and from Booker T. Washington to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, really struck a nerve and spent two years on the best-seller list. Oprah, of course, endorsed it. Vance was mentored at Yale Law School by Tiger Mom/law professor Amy Chua who famously gave a harrowing account of what parents need to do to raise successful children in the modern economy (somehow, Vance miraculously succeeded without such parenting). When Chua’s book hit the best-seller list and the front pages of the nation’s press, it made us lesser parents of Gen. Zs and Millennials feel guilty, lazy and pathetic. (Not everyone agrees with Chua’s prescriptions for child rearing or Vance’s diagnosis of cultural decline in Appalachia. I prefer Joe Bageant’s hilarious and insightful reflection, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War. See also, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Hochschild).
The problems Vance describes among the family and friends and neighbors he left behind are not unique to Appalachian Kentucky and Ohio, but are common to all the places in our country that got hollowed out by the giant sucking sound that was the background music of Bill Clinton’s free trade utopian fantasy, in which every young person would get a college degree and go to work in a lab coat, making oodles of money selling high-value-added products to the poor slobs who got stuck manufacturing the cars and cheap plastic toys we could all now afford in abundance. Somehow the economy didn’t develop in that way, in spite of the certainty of the smartest people, educated in the best universities, and their elegantly simple, mathematically provable theory of comparative advantage. Instead, Americans abandoned by the New Economy got something called “deaths of despair.” According to sociologists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, this epidemic of despair has caused more deaths annually in recent years from things like suicide and drug overdose than the numbers some of the higher estimates are predicting from COVID 19. These deaths—not COVID 19—were responsible for the first decline in the life expectancy of Americans since the Pandemic of 1918.
If the founding fathers gave schools the mission of educating democrats, Clinton seems to have changed the mission when he embraced free trade (NAFTA, etc.) and declared (over and over): “In today's knowledge-based economy, what you earn depends on what you learn.” Thomas Frank sums up Clinton’s message for young people: “You get what you deserve and what you deserve is defined by how you did in school” (Frank, 69). I see a direct line from Clinton's comments about education to the popularity of the Hunger Games franchise. Childhood has become a high-stakes period of preparation to succeed in a relentlessly competitive globalized economy and those movies represent an exaggerated and entertaining, but scary version of the New Childhood. And forget about collective, political solutions—the economy is like physics or the laws of nature that can't be change. But the Self is infinitely adapable and resilient, to use a buzz word of the New Childhood.
But the schools don't seem to be fulfilling their new mission, according to Silva’s subjects, who say the education system is not preparing them for the kinds of jobs Clinton promised would materialize after he sent blue-collar manufacturing jobs overseas and said that “we have to better educate our people to compete” (Frank 69). The people Silva interviewed “expressed profound feelings of anger toward the school system, which they believe betrayed its implicit promise to prepare them for the future” (Silva, 87). They feel the same about other institutions that have let them down and have concluded that they just can’t rely on outside help or collective solutions to their problems. They are completely alone, “dependent on outside help only at their peril” (Silva, 83). Neither families, public schools, colleges, nor political parties can be relied on. Silver more recently interviewed working class young people in a post-industrial city in Pennsylvania, two-thirds of whom told her they don’t bother to vote. “Whoever they want to win is gonna win, and it’s all a matter of who has more money,” said one. Essentially, they think, America’s vaunted democracy is a sham, and only a sucker would waste their time on it. Yet they tend to believe in the notion of meritocracy (Silva, 106). So they put their efforts where they will do more good, on the Self. As one of interviewee puts it: “I am a big self-help reader” (Silva, 88).
They have a point. Government does seem to be controlled by moneyed interests and to be largely resistant to majority rule. According to a famous study by two political scientists, when you look at the policy preferences of the majority of American voters, corporations, the wealthy, and Congress, there is a close correlation among the last three and very little between the first and last. So really, why bother? Why not just stock up on the self-help books and do your best to succeed, or at least survive, in the world you were born into? And should a teacher really be filling students with idealistic notions about the obligations of citizenship in a sham democracy, distracting them from the difficult-enough job of preparing to make a living?
Silva’s subjects face a dilemma. The worst of their problems have roots in public policy decisions made by the people who did politics in the past and those problems could be mitigated by different decisions in the future that will be made by the people who are doing politics now. As Pericles put it, “just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean that politics won’t take an interest in you.” But a weighing of costs and benefits, it seems on the surface of things, would find that the marginal utility of those people’s next hour of life will always be greater if they spend it on self-improvement, friendships, family, career, even hobbies and entertainments. The control you have is more direct, the outcome is more likely. That’s why the uplifting literature of self-help books and success memoirs are so popular. So who will make those future policies?
The cost-benefit analysis for people with gobs of money seems to point in a different direction, if the study I mentioned in a previous essay is anything close to indicative. Who wouldn’t conclude that time spent earning a 22,000 percent return on an investment is time well spent? So Yeats might be wrong. The passion of the “worst” is not a matter of conviction and neither is the apathy of the “best.” It’s about incentives and cost-benefit analysis. For most of us the incentive is an unlikely outcome way down the road. For a few, the outcome is more likely and more immediate. Statistics, in fact, show a consistent correlation between income and voter participation rates. The less affluent you are the less likely to vote.
Writing this makes me feel more despair than hope. When despair and hopelessness start to win out over hope and a sense of possibility, it makes me inclined to see my work as a teacher as just a job, a way to make a living, to earn a paycheck. I am writing this during a sabbatical granted by my employer, on the assumption, I guess, that a period of reading and reflecting on what I teach will make me a better teacher. Sometimes during these weeks, which happen to coincide with the social isolation of the pandemic response, the things that I’m reading—especially Silva’s book and the daily newspapers—and my reflections here encourage more despair than hope. Teaching in the American system of education, made up of public and private schools, religious and secular, rich and poor, does more to maintain the status quo and increase inequality and undermine democracy than to bring about the future that I might hope for—a future where democracy is improved to the extent that it can solve the most significant problems we face collectively. This in turn, makes me want to just quietly make my way to retirement, plugging away, sitting quietly in the back rows at faculty meetings, grading the papers, and escaping at every chance to our Northcountry home to tend my garden and cultivate a good life for my self and my family.
I’m often haunted by a passage I read in For Common Things, a book Exeter alumnus Jedidiah Purdy wrote toward the end of the Clinton presidency, when the triumph of the New Economy seemed complete. Purdy ran into an old friend from Harvard who had gone to work facilitating mountain top removal coal mining projects in Purdy’s beloved hill country of West Virginia. Such projects, Purdy writes, remove as much as 500 vertical feet from a mountain and leave the landscape and surrounding communities devastated. This friend was not an evil man—he understood the negative consequences of his work and seemed to have some qualms about doing it. But he cited the logic of global capitalism, the mandates of “The Market,” and the growing legions that these gods were leaving behind. If he didn’t do his job, someone else would. “The course of things was set. While he couldn’t say that he endorsed it, he saw no reason to be on the losing side.” (Purdy, 93-95)
No one wants to be on the losing side. Thus, schools emphasize calculus, bookstore shelves sag under the weight of self-help books, psych meds are prescribed and therapies multiply; homes are improved. It’s all geared to helping individuals tend their own little garden plots and get on the winning side, even while the space on that side shrinks. But it’s something to hope for, nonetheless. Purdy’s friend and Silva’s subjects didn’t lack hope. They just lacked hope in collective solutions.
In this world, how do we prepare tomorrow’s youth for citizenship? Or do we even try? I said at the end of the fourth essay in this series, I’m not optimistic about the political future but I do think I have enough hope to sustain a few more years of teaching history and politics in a way that is geared toward preparing my students to be good democratic citizens (the subject of my next essay on the hope theme). Or maybe, as my brother would say, it has nothing to do with hope at all, but just a prescription for acting that is inherently good and a determination to follow it regardless of whether there is any possibility of having an impact.
Hope Essays: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6
Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart
Thomas Ehrlich et al., Education for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement.
Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education
Kate Julian, "Childhood in an Anxious Age and the Crisis of Modern Parenting," The Atlantic, May 2020, 28-41.
Jennifer M. Silva, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty.
Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History.