John Dewey writes in Democracy and Education: “Men still want the crutch of dogma, of beliefs fixed by authority, to relieve them of the trouble of thinking and the responsibility of directing their activity by thought” (1916, 339). Dewey believed that the “influence of the experimental model” would overtake the dogmatic foundationalism in America’s education systems of the early 20th Century. He argued that students should be inquirers in the world and not merely disciples or proselytes of their teachers. Such students, especially those in 21st Century classrooms who are engaged in what we now call critical thinking, should able to think for themselves, flesh out the deeper meanings of concepts and precepts, and do not accept the information handed out by their teacher as the gospel, absolute truth.
However, our 21st Century students appear to be in no better situation to participate in Dewey’s “experimental model” than those in classrooms one hundred years ago. Farhad Manjoo (2008) indicates in his book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, that the manipulation of information and images, often in an Orwellian fashion, on major media outlets via television and the internet and the fragmentation of information, have negatively impacted our student population and the greater population of Americans. E. D. Hirsch (2009) indicates in his book, The Making of Americans, that the gross lack of a common curriculum and the lack of a common language in the public sphere of communication have left our students unable to communicate effectively. They have a knowledge gap of basic information that differs from school district to school district and that disparity is even more evident when compared between white middle-class districts and poor African-American districts, as well as a massive empowerment gap, according to Meira Levinson’s (2012) book, No Citizen Left Behind, that compounds the issue.
I witnessed the modern effects of Hirsch’s knowledge gap and Levinson’s empowerment gap early in my teaching career. My former students, who were part of an urban, predominantly African-American high school in New Jersey, once, as a group, indicated to me during class one day that they believed white aristocrat slave holders in the South had conscripted their slaves to fight the majority of the battles in the Civil War. They believed, erroneously, that this was part of their collective history and that their ancestors had fought for the Confederacy. While it is true that some slaves were forced to dig trenches and prepare breastworks, there were no armed slave battalions, companies, or squads in any of Lee’s CSA Army. It may seem to be a small matter of technicality to some people, but the war to end slavery is a key moment in African-American culture and history. Their belief in something that is essentially and fundamentally false created a skewed view of the entire war and, thus, a skewed perspective of their own historical consciousness.
Qualitative observations, like that of my former students, usually only provide narrowly focused anecdotal information that can be taken out of context and not be representative of a larger group. However, quantitative data is hard, tangible proof that can stand the test of time and scrutiny. Sean Reardon (2013) recently wrote an article in The New York Times, entitled “No Rich Child Left Behind,” where he indicates: “In the 1980’s, on an 800-point SAT-type test scale, the average difference in test scores between two such children would have been about 90 points; today its 125 points. This is almost twice as large as the 70-point test score gap between white and black children. Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race” (2013, p. 1). These figures underscore and compliment my own observations at an urban, predominantly African-American high school. This is not to say that these children are in any way mentally deficient: quite the contrary is true. They are quite simply victims of a systemic lack of an accurate knowledge base within their particular education system. They cannot elect to take classes at white, suburban schools where the teachers are eager to perform their duties, where fellow students and their families are personally invested in achieving success through education, and where crime, hunger, and poverty are not central figures of each school day. My former students are victims of Levinson’s civic empowerment gap.
Quentin Wheeler-Bell (2013) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues against Levinson’s civic empowerment gap ideology, however, in his essay “Ideologically Misframing the Civic Empowerment Gap: An Essay Review.” He takes issue with Levinson in how she frames her argument regarding the civic empowerment gap. Wheeler-Bell indicates that “one of the symptoms marking the postsocialist condition is the shifting of political discourse to culture and away from redistribution…and the shift in political discourse becomes ideological when cultural concerns unreasonably overshadow structural and class issues, and as a result class domination is reproduced” (2013, p. 3). Wheeler-Bell believes that Levinson has “misframed” her argument “as a problem of multiculturalism” when it should actually be one of class warfare (2013, p. 3). He indicates that the evidence in Levinson’s book, No Citizen Left Behind, clearly indicates that the civic empowerment gap is “a class problem” (2013, p. 3). He writes:
Thus, by misframing the civic empowerment gap Levinson ideologically displaces the politics of redistribution, which in turn paints the picture that changing one’s culture dispositions is sufficient for challenging class domination. This is a culturalized picture of politics because class domination is a structural issue requiring radical social change. To avoid culturalizing politics, Levinson would have needed to explain the type of civic education needed to radically transform both the politics of recognition and redistribution (2013, p. 10).
If Wheeler-Bell is correct and the civic empowerment gap is, indeed, a class problem and not one of cultural origin, then what can be done to correct the structural inequity of education in a democratic society?
Dr. William Stanley (2005) of Monmouth University indicates in his article, “Social Studies and the Social Order: Transmission or Transformation?” that “schooling has functioned, in general, to transmit the dominant social order, preserving the status quo, and it would be more plausible to argue that the current economic and political systems would need to undergo radical change before fundamental change in education could take place” (2005, p. 282). Amy Gutmann (1987) argues in her book, Democratic Education, that “schooling in a capitalist society serves to reproduce social inequalities necessary to maintain the capitalist mode of production” (1987, p. 9); a sentiment which serves to underscore Stanley’s notion that a radical change in social structure is required in advance of educational reform, given that we currently operate within a free-market capitalistic society. Gutmann, however, also indicates that “the democratic ideal of education is that of conscious social reproduction” and that “the distinctive virtue of a democratic society… [is]…that it authorizes citizens to influence how their society reproduces itself” (1987, p. 14-15), which serves to, at least in part, serve Stanley’s transmission of the “status quo” scenario. The bottom line is this: those who hold the power in the dominant social order will work towards ensuring the perpetuation, or “conscious social reproduction,” of their way of life, regardless of the political affiliation or political structure (i.e., democracy, communism, socialism, etc.): it is an act of self-preservation. Wheeler-Bell (2013) indicates that, “according to Inequality.org, in 2007 the richest 1% of Americans owned 34.6% of the country’s wealth…[and that]…the bottom 80% of the American population owns only 7% of the country’s wealth” (2013, p. 3) It should, therefore, come as no surprise that those who hold the wealth and power in America also have major influence in the legislative arena and, in turn, exert influence over laws governing public education. It should come as no surprise that there is rampant gerrymandering of political districts and de facto segregation in the urban centers of the United States. The big question is how radical should social transformation be in America and how best to initiate that change?
It may be possible that social transformation in American education can take place without a great Marxist class revolution. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein (2012) indicate in their book, It’s Even Worse Than it Looks, that the politics of extremism have negatively impacted our democracy. They propose that government officials “expand the vote to reflect more accurately the sentiments and orientations of the broader citizenry, not the smaller extremes” (2012, p. 134); make participation in elections mandatory; end gerrymandering by way of redistricting; and hold open primary elections. Mann and Ornstein (2012) along with Manjoo (2008) agree that media outlets polarize issues for voters and only present fragmented information, which is often tainted with partisan rhetoric. The public deserves to have easy access to truthful, factual information regarding their government and its operations; a notion that used to be termed “transparency.” The public deserves to be represented in a way that best serves their interests: the best interest of Wheeler-Bell’s (2013) 80% of Americans. These are simple political reforms that are fundamentally good for America, relatively easy to execute with bi-partisan support, consistent with the Constitution, and represent the majority interest. George Orwell’s Animal Farm, however, gives us the best reasoning of exactly why these sorts of reforms are never passed:
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which” (1945).
Our politicians, much like the pigs of Animal Farm, have become something completely unnatural and completely disconnected with their constituency such that they run our country as if it were their own kingdom.
If political solutions are a “bridge too far,” then how about educational reform within the current framework of government? It seems that something can be done to equal the playing field at least in terms of educational equality. Hirsch (2009) argues in favor of adopting a common curriculum to help ensure a homogenous base of knowledge among all school districts in America. This, in my opinion, is a good idea and one that has taken the educational community by storm. Unfortunately, many educators are not so thrilled with the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or how they are being implemented. Mike Rose (2013) writes about these issues in his article, “The Core of the Matter,” in American Teacher. Rose indicates that “the federal government is spending $350 million on new high-stakes tests aligned to the CCSS but nothing specifically targeted to prepare teachers” (2013, p. 4). Rose makes the case that teachers are “not getting the help they need to find success in their classrooms with the Common Core standards – in many cases they are not even getting the standards themselves, just a link to them online” (2013, p. 5). Furthermore, he alarmingly indicates:
The New York State United Teachers recently surveyed more than 1,600 teachers and found that almost two-thirds say their district has provided professional development that ranges from ‘a low degree’ to ‘none at all.’ Fewer than one in three say that they have additional planning time dedicated to the new standards (2013, p. 5).
It is imperative that our children be given equal opportunity with regard to a sound, viable public education, but that cannot be done when teachers do not get the support they need. I believe that the CCSS goes a long way toward equalizing content knowledge, at least on the surface, but if they are not implemented cautiously, carefully, deliberately, and with a massive amount of teacher support, they may be doomed before they get out of the box.
Where does this leave us? Social transformation and political upheaval may be too unrealistic or only a utopic pipe dream. Educational equalization and a common curriculum may be another federal titanic money pit destined to sink on its maiden voyage due to the ineptitude of educational administrators. Is it easier to retreat into the classroom and lean on our own “crutch of dogma” and cry out romantically for the “good old days” of a simpler time when we had the same problems as today? The capacity for change lies within each of us. We can create that change, or so we tell our students. Maybe it’s time we listen to our own advice and forge our own path, create the citizens we want to be in our students, plant the seeds of change in their hearts, and dare to be our best.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: MacMillan.
Gutmann, A. (1987). Democratic Education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hirsch, Jr., E. (2009). The Making of Americans. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Levinson, M. (2012). No Citizen Left Behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Manjoo, F. (2008). True Enough. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Mann, T., & Ornstein, N. (2012). It’s Even Worse Than it Looks. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Orwell, G. (1945). Animal Farm. Boston: Mariner Books.
Reardon, S. (2013, April 27). No Rich Child Left Behind. The New York Times.
Rose, M. (2013, May). The Core of the Matter. American Teacher, 97(5), 4-5.
Stanley, W. (2005, September 1). Social Studies and the Social Order: Transmission or Transformation? Social Education, 69(5), 282.
Wheeler-Bell, Q. (2013, March 29). Ideologically Misframing the Civic Empowerment Gap: An Essay Review. Education Review, 16(5), 3-11.