by Bruce Thornton
Transforming educational institutions into political propaganda factories.
Almost 40 years ago, the report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Reform appeared. It documented the failure of public schools to teach the foundational skills and knowledge necessary for a good education.
The ensuing controversy led to various reform movements, most hampered by powerful teachers’ unions and the educational bureaucracies. One bright spot was the growth of charter schools, which enjoy autonomy from the state and federal regulations that serve entrenched professional interests at the expense of students. “School choice,” also anathema to Democrats, aims to give parents the ability to move their children to charter schools. This reform is particularly important to minority parents whose children are often trapped in failing public schools.
Both of these reforms have been regularly attacked by a Democrat Party that carries water for the Ed. Inc. establishment, which is one of the Dems’ most lucrative sources of political contributions. So it’s no surprise that Biden’s Ed. Department has issued new regulations designed to cripple charter schools’ autonomy by putting them further under the thumb of unionized public schools.
If these regulations are left unchallenged, one of the best options for helping parents escape “woke” politicized curricula and pedagogical incompetence will be weakened, accelerating our public schools’ already dangerous transformation from educational institutions into political propaganda factories.
One change in the regulations, concerning start-up funds for new charter schools, is so egregious that several Democrat Senators have signed a letter in protest of the changes. As The Wall Street Journal reports,
The Senators take issue with the requirement that schools applying for the money provide evidence of charter demand and declining enrollment in district schools. “This would empower federal reviewers to ignore state and local decisions to authorize new public charter schools,” they write. The requirements could “make it difficult, if not impossible,” for charters to access the federal funds.
There’s another problem with the “community impact analysis.” According to Jared Polis, the Democrat [sic!] governor of Colorado, this rule would give “anonymous grant reviewers in Washington the ability to veto parent, community, district and state efforts to open a new school.” You know there’s a problem when Democrats, the party of centralized, intrusive technocratic power, are speaking up for local autonomy in deciding what benefits people’s children.
Moreover, the educational crisis publicized almost 40 years ago has gotten much worse. As a college professor during that time, I’ve had a front-row seat at that unfolding disaster. Since I taught General Education courses like Elementary Latin and Humanities, I had numerous college freshmen right out of high school. The decline in foundational skills like writing, reading, grammar, and broader cultural and historical knowledge was obvious. The students weren’t dumber, they just weren’t being taught anything other than the politically correct nonsense du jour and racialist cheerleading.
One metric of change was the amount and difficulty of reading I could assign. During the Eighties and early Nineties, in a Humanities course covering ancient Greek and Latin, I could assign Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Sophocles’ Ajax, Euripides’ Medea, Plato’s Apology and Republic, Lucretius’ The Nature of Things, Catullus’ Poems, Vergil’s Aeneid and Georgics, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Juvenal’s Satires. As the years passed, I had to eliminate the more difficult works, reduce the number of books I assigned, then limit the number of pages they had to read, until toward the end of my career, the students were required to read a fraction of the text.
The problem is not that they were and are stupid or lazy. They’re just not used to reading books that are longer and more intellectually sophisticated. Theirs is a trivial world of screens and emojis, Twitter and Instagram, not the written word and foundational knowledge.
The other metric that tracked the decline in basic skills appeared in my Elementary Latin course. Latin is mostly a matter of memorization and repetition. But as time passed, more and more students seemed incapable of memorizing vocabulary or verb conjugations. Everybody, of course, can memorize something. It just requires time and repetition. I used to tell my class that like me, they are all walking around with scores of song lyrics in their heads, because they listen to them over and over.
The problem was that memorization and repetition -- what the pedagogy industry calls “drill and kill” -- became verboten in many schools, despite the fact it has been the foundation of learning for millennia. That’s still how people learn to play a musical instrument or master skills in sports. Schools used to have students memorize famous poems or speeches, which also taught them rhetoric, vocabulary, and grammar. For most kids, of course, it’s drudgery. So modern schools, steeped in a therapeutic view that education should never annoy students or make them feel bad, has pretty much abandoned such requirements.
The other necessity for learning Latin is a knowledge of English grammar: the parts of speech and their functions, and how words, clauses, and phrases work together to create meaning. The most difficult aspect of learning Latin is that it’s an inflected language: nouns signal their grammatical function (subject, direct object, etc.) not, as in English, by their position in the sentence, but by their form or “case,” a suffix attached to it. Students have to memorize these endings, but more important is knowing what it means to say a noun is in the nominative case: That it’s the subject of a verb.
Again, as time went by, the concept of inflection became more and more difficult for students. That’s because fewer and fewer of them were being taught the parts of speech and English grammar. The old school exercise of diagramming sentences to show the words’ grammatical relationships was discarded, just another example of a vaguely fascistic “drill and kill.” As a result, more and more students on exams can’t identify the form and function of words.
In the end, I was reduced to giving students a cheat-sheet with all the terms used for identifying forms and functions for nouns and verbs. But that didn’t help, since they would use “tense,” which describes verbs, for nouns. In other words, they couldn’t distinguish a noun from a verb.
The real revelation, though, came during the semester I had to teach on Zoom. The only way to do exams was to have students do them at home. I assumed they would use their books and everybody would get A’s. But after the first test, their scores were hardly better than in-class tests.
One silver lining of the covid lockdowns of schools has been the awakening of parents to what’s going in their children’s classrooms, and they don’t like it. Even Democrat parents have been pushing back, which is why those Democrats above are protesting against the Department of Education’s regulatory tyranny. They saw what happened in Virginia, when a seasoned Democrat who sneered at protesting parents was defeated in the governor’s race by a Republican political tyro; and in deep blue San Francisco, where three radical school board members obsessed with changing politically incorrect names of schools were recalled. When a political party is facing a disastrous midterm election, such events concentrate the mind wonderfully.
The only positive developments during my observation of educational decay were charter schools and home-schooled students, who were invariably the best students in the class. I also was heartened by the quality of students from the on-campus charter high school, which requires two years of Latin. For their third-year requirement the students can take one of the university’s Advanced Latin courses. Over the years, the students in those courses were some of the best I’ve ever had, and most went on to prestigious universities.
Of course, there are lots of good teachers and students in public schools, but they succeed in spite of the educational establishment, not because of it. But relying on individual talent, virtue, and character to overcome institutional decay is not a viable long-term strategy for improvement. What A Nation at Risk said 40 years ago is even more true today: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
We need to support proven reforms like charter schools and school choice if we want to stay competitive with a rival “unfriendly foreign power” like China.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.