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Misunderstanding the Woes of Present-Day Education

January 1, 2011

Neither Left nor Right but Catholic


By Stephen M. Krason

Not long ago, The Wanderer ran some articles about the perennial topic of the woes of current American education and educational reform. It mentioned the usual claims that poor teachers, inadequate funding, poorly functioning schools, and an insufficiently lengthy school year are at fault. Even the colleges with their heavy regiment of institutional assessment have bought into the belief that educational failures are overwhelmingly their fault. The articles suggest that, to the contrary, poor student motivation is the real problem.

This is true, as is the fact that family and community troubles are mostly its cause. Still, I think there is another more basic problem. This is the flawed egalitarian notion that everyone can excel academically and, in fact, that an academic education beyond the most basic levels is for everyone. Some people are simply more inclined to academic studies than others. Most major schemes from the first major federal efforts to fund and shape the character of American education under LBJ to George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” to the current Obama administration’s push to put a “great teacher” in every classroom and “race to the top” grants have completely ignored this, and have instead embraced a quasi-utopian vision about the academic capabilities of most students.

I saw this directly when at a luncheon seminar on liberal arts education at Princeton University two years ago I raised the question about whether such an education was for everyone. One of the attendees, the son of a Princeton professor from a politically liberal family, objected that my view was “elitist.” I wondered if he thought that just anyone should have been permitted to attend Princeton, that everyone would be equally qualified to enroll there.

A confused notion of equality has been behind this, to be sure. The differences in human talents are ignored. The obvious inequality resulting from accidental qualities is held to be as unacceptable as political inequality or inequality in fundamental human dignity. Where Catholic social teaching seeks equal opportunities for people, the modern secular mind-set wants equal results—no matter how much it must distort things to get them.

Two other things are the cause of this flawed outlook. One is the excessive exultation of intellectual work and an attitude that diminishes the value of manual and other types of non-intellectual labor. This is, of course, quite contrary to what the Church has always taught: that all honest work is good work. The other is a prideful notion of overcredentialism. That is, some professions or paraprofessions have thought that they can garner more prestige if they require people to get more formal academic training before becoming practitioners, even though the previous regimen of on-the-job training was adequate to guarantee competence. Many health care fields come to mind. Colleges and universities, hungry for more students, have been only too ready to oblige them. Vocational training is only a small part of today’s education, firms have largely gotten out of it, and the Catholic schools have just conceded it to the public systems.

One result of all this has been an attitude that everyone should go to college, with the resulting decline of higher education academic standards, growing student debt crisis, and increasing disillusionment of young people that their college education was not enough to guarantee them a good job.

Perhaps we should recall what Alexis de Tocqueville said about the kind of education that most people in a democratic republic like the U.S. needed: “scientific, commercial, and industrial,” instead of classical. In other words, it would be a vocational, instead of liberal arts or heavily academic education. He also never said that it had to be carried out just by what we today identify as educational institutions. To be sure, he like Aristotle, Pope Pius XI, and many others also understood that civic education—knowledge and appreciation of the elements of good citizenship—is necessary. He thought that, at least in this sense, a democratic republic required an enlightened citizenry.

It is curious that American education today, with all the reform efforts, legal strictures, and federal mandates, fails abysmally at civic or citizenship training. In spite of all the demands for academic study and degrees to enter this or that occupational field, it also fails the provide anything like the sound academic training—that is, a sound liberal arts education—for those who both Tocqueville and our Founding Fathers knew should receive it: future leaders in politics and in the many areas of endeavor in American life. The evisceration of the liberal arts is an old story in America, dating back to the nineteenth century. This is no small reason why so many in our political class have become increasingly oblivious to our Founding principles. For them, ideology has replaced the truths that a true liberal arts education would have instilled. One aspect of this is the very convolution of the notion of equality that so confuses today’s outlook about education.

Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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