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Virginia, Proudly Supporting the Educational Status Quo

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The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee has effectively killed two measures designed to encourage the creation of charter schools in Virginia, ensuring that public education in the Old Dominion, one of the most stultifyingly top-down school systems in the country, will remain that way.

“Localities and parents need to maintain control over whether or not to develop a charter school program,” said Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax. “The proposed measures took that power away. That is not the way to strengthen public education in Virginia.”

That’s precious. Parents have no control over charter schools as it is. Otherwise, there would be more of them, just as there are in almost state in the union… Which brings us to our philosophical musing of the day.

In reading Matt Ridley’s book, “The Theory of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge,” I was particularly taken by Ridley’s perspective on the evolution of educational institutions and how the world came to embrace an educational model of compulsory, class-based education in which students move in lock-step through “grades,” learning the same subjects at the same time, regardless of individual aptitude or learning style.

Private education had flourished around the world before the rise of the industrial school system. By 1840, literacy in the Northeastern states had reached 97% by 1840. Education was close to universal in the Great Britain by 1870. But it was the state-sponsored Prussian model, introduced in 1806 in response to Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon that caught on. The purpose of the Prussian model was to train young men to be obedient soldiers who would not run away in battle. Writes Ridley:

It was these Prussian schools that introduced many of the features we now take for granted. There was teaching by year group rather than by ability, which made sense if the aim was to produce military recruits rather than rounded citizens. There was formal pedagogy, in which children sat at rows of desks in front of standing teachers, rather than, say, walking around together in the ancient Greek fashion. There was the set school day, punctuated by the ringing of bells. There was a predetermined syllabus, rather than open-ended learning. There was the habit of doing several subjects in one day, rather than ticking to one subject for more than a day. Those features make sense … if you wish to mould people into suitable recruits for a conscript army to fight Napoleon.

American states, led by Massachusetts, began adapting the Prussian model as early as the 1850s. The Prussian model had much to recommend it for America’s burgeoning industrial economy — not for molding future soldiers but for molding the industrial workforce. As states stepped in, they crowded out private forms of instruction, which were diverse, competitive and innovative, in favor of a top-down system that dictated when and where children should attend, what they should be taught and by whom.

The key to remember here: States did not merely decide that universal education was in the public interest. They decided that universal education provided by the state was in the national interest.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, schools became vehicles for indoctrinating the citizenry. “Nationalized schools did much to teach children well into the twentieth century that their country was glorious and usually right,” writes Ridley, “while its rivals were perfidious and usually wrong, God was a Christian, and so forth.” The main difference today is that the indoctrination takes a different form. “It may be the gospel of multiculturalism and respect for the planet. … Platitudes about the state of the world, or the desirability of wind energy seem to crop up with alarming frequency in children’s textbooks, even when the ostensible topic is history or Spanish.”

One topic that Ridley did not address, but is certainly consistent with his argument, is the extent to which the educational system is subject to “regulatory capture” by teachers unions and other professional organizations. The educrats ensure that the system reflects their priorities in matters of pay, pensions, job security, working conditions and pedagogy. While their control over the educational establishment is far from complete — it routinely bumps up against fiscal limits, and teachers and administrators grapple with standardized testing established to create a measure of accountability — educrats and their ideological allies still exercise extraordinary power. And the last thing they want is to relinquish that power by putting it into the hands of parents by means of charter schools or, god forbid, vouchers.

If there is one force that could break up public-school monopolies, it is technology. Tablets and online learning are changing education radically in developing nations like Kenya where there is no entrenched educational apparatus to block innovation, Ridley says. Whether technology can broaden the sphere of educational freedom and choice in Virginia remains to be seen. As long as paternalistic elites believe that they know better than parents what’s best for their children, we’re not likely to see much progress.

(This article first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on January 29, 2016)


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