Those immediately following our Founders' era at the opening of the 1800s were not lacking in the 'will' to call for forcing sometimes intrusive reforms upon their fellows, which comes as a bit of a shock to those of us who imagine that time to be predominantly populated with pure liberty loving patriots; nevertheless, there was no lack of people willing to force their views upon the public, in the name of liberty. You can get the sense of this from the do-gooders themselves, such as this popular set of essays of the time, from a moralist, Dr. James G. Carter, writing in 'Essays on Popular Education' (1826), that to preserve the republic:
"...The ignorant must be allured to learn, by every motive which can be offered to them, And if they will not thus be allured, they must be taken by the strong arm of government and brought out, willing or unwilling, and made to learn, at least, enough to make them peaceable and good citizens...", and forcing the ignorant/stupid people into doing what was best for them, was something that many considered to be an acceptable and necessary thing for 'those who know best' to do (and who doesn't like to imagine that they are members in good standing with that group?).
"...The free schools of Massachusetts, as the most efficient means of accomplishing that object, should therefore be the property and the peculiar care of government..."
With the popularity of utilitarian thinking growing significantly, peoples' various good intentions to 'save the republic!', 'improve citizenry!', 'improve morals!', 'achieve economic success!', 'save religion!', for the greater good of ____[insert your preferred pretext here]___", were easily used to justify acting (whether openly or out of sight) for 'the greatest good of the greatest number', because they'd come to believe that their ends really did justify the means. Even so, it took a couple decades for their thinking to make it into law. Why? While they had an abundant supply of the will to propose and implement reforms upon the ignorant and stupid people, they typically saw someone else as being the problem, not themselves; and if a reform involved them, well, that was clearly a reform that was misguided and unjustified - good 'for thee, but not for me', which added to the noise of the day, but not so much to the laws on the books. Yet.
Up until at least the 1820s, most such reforms were seen as but thinly veiled calls for using the power of government to impose one particular reformer's own religious views, over what they deemed to be the 'inferior' views being taught to the rest of the public (or like Horace Mann's branch of Unitarians, demanding that all doctrine be excluded... which *surprisingly* meant looking very much like Unitarian doctrine), or on the other hand, those reformers claiming that popular understanding of virtue and morality didn't measure up to their own secular expectations, should be banished from the public square - either one of those reformers stood a good chance of getting themselves run out of town by those who didn't want to be reformed by them. In fact, both such reforms would soon be imposed, but something else would need to fall into place first, before all sides of the issue would support imposing them upon each other and themselves.
The acceptability of imposing such reforms upon others and upon themselves as well, began to spread more rapidly as American scholars began returning home from their European tours, and began dressing up their good intentions for the greater good as a more modern and scientific approach to education (remember Fichte). 'The Myth of the Common School' gives a detailed account of the period, and pg. 98 has one of the new 'science!' of education appeals that had begun taking shape, with Brown University President Francis Wayland, stating:
It wasn't so much that they were proposing to dress education up in lab coats & microscopes (that was still a few decades in the future), but that no matter whether their calls for 'education reform!' were outwardly focused upon religion, morals, the weakness of government, or the need to strengthen the economy, each of their reforms intended to use education as an experimental means of affecting the 'output' behaviors of graduating students as a fix for whatever was seen as being the popular societal failure of the moment. IOW, schools were coming to be seen as a technology which looked upon teachers as levers and students as cogs and textbooks as fuel, in a machine for producing a cure-all for the problems of both 'the people' and society. It may not have been apparent to most people at the time, but this form of 'school reform!' wasn't simply 'improving' various features in our schools, it completely transformed our view of what education is, what schools are for, and of who we are and should be, and whatever good intentions had initially unleashed it, would be undermined and undone by it, the more they 'succeeded' in applying it. One clear eyed professor at Princeton, Samuel Miller(1769-1850), hit the nail on the head in sounding an early warning of this in 1805, in his "A brief retrospect of the eighteenth century","...We have assembled today, not to proclaim how well our fathers have done, but to inquire how we may enable their sons to do better.... we, at this day, are, in a manner, the pioneers of this work in this country. Education, as a science, has scarcely yet been naturalized among us. Radical improvement in the means of education is an idea that seems but just to have entered into men's minds.... God helping us, then, let us make our mark on the rising generation."Wayland was asserting, it should be noted, not that education itself was unavailable or in short supply - he knew perfectly well that almost universal literacy was the rule in New England - but that the science of education was undeveloped; this led to limited capacity to make an impact on the next generation..."
"...This doctrine of the omnipotence of education, and the perfectibility of man, seems liable, among many others, to the following strong objections : — First. It is contrary to the nature and condition of man...."I'll come back to more of what he had to say shortly, but the truth is that the condition of our schools today has less to do with the laws that have been passed, than with the altered state of mind that led us to pass them, and taken as we were with the promises of 'school reform!', we'd failed to question what was actually being accomplished with it - the condition of our schools today is simply the predictable effect which could not not result from those causes which we are still reaffirming today.
Had We The People kept in mind what education actually was, and what its purpose was, we might have seen far enough into the likely future to see that the promises of those initial reforms and goals would soon be forced out by what they were helping to unleash, but, with nearly everyone eagerly using education as a means to their own ends, be those economics, religiosity, morality, or assimilating immigrants, they were unable to foresee any effects beyond their own rhetoric. Despite their best intentions, as noted in a 1958 study by William Kailor Dunn, they soon saw "...religious themes increasingly replaced by moral ones...", and while the 'Morals!' side briefly surged in the 'key facts' being taught, both soon vanished almost completely from the textbooks and classrooms, as new 'key facts' & skills of the next wave of newly reformed reformers, took their place:
Note: This wasn't a result of 'separation of church and state' challenges - that was still a century in the offing - these were the results of overtly religious and moralistic efforts, while trying to avoid contentious sectarian issues of doctrine, in service to the 'scientific!' mindset of using the schools to produce results other than the education of its students. By the time the contenders noticed that they were all being run out of town, it was too late. The famous 'free schools' run by protestant, catholic, or secular interests, had brought about the greatest literacy rate in history by educating students as they saw fit, but because the government run 'Common Schools' could only teach what no side objected to, and what all sides could agree upon in common was sadly lacking is educational worth, that meant that the only winners under those conditions were the economic and/or ideological interests which, following one form or another from Fichte, had an interest in eliminating educated people from the common mass of humanity - for the greater good and security of the state. The popular 'good intentions' of the moment had been transformed into the motive force of 'the ends' which justified whatever means seemed necessary, and, knowingly or not, produced the outcome that was noted by Albert Jay Knock's visiting Italian nobleman, as being the end of newly educated Americans, in America, by the 1890s.
There were other voices at the time beside Prof. Miller, trying to sound the alarm that:
"Doing right by wrong means, is worse than doing wrong", but unavoidably, as an educational form of Gresham's Law applied ('Bad money drives out good'), and with scientism (the dressing up of 'science!' in the robes of philosophy) leading the way, truth and virtue were forced out of what students were educated in. Good intentions abounded however, and when the reformers reforms were even vaguely associated with supporting 'science!', few wanted to be seen in even their own eyes as denying the science, enabling both the reformers and 'the stupid people' to see themselves as one of 'those who know best' which helped secure broad public acceptance for all manner of reform efforts - be they for helping the economy, making better citizens, strengthening the culture, or getting the better of foreign competitors.
The promises of 'school reform!' were of course launched with the very best of intentions by our Founding Reformers such as Noah Webster, Dr. Rush, and Dr. Franklin, who thought of their new education reforms, more as providing something 'in addition to' the betterment of the student, rather than as a tool for achieving something other than an education, and yet... their reforms intended to... use students... to ... resolve whichever issue beyond the student was the concern of the moment - be that Dr. Rush's '...to convert men into republican machines...', or Webster's 'create an American identity' and develop 'economic engines', or still others' call to 'improve the public's morals and virtues' - so that all that We The People needed to do next, was to prioritize which complaint the student's minds & lives should be adapted to fix first. However the particular 'sizzle' they were selling a reform with was dressed up as, it was the coupling of 'education reform!' with the appearances of a 'science!' of society, and the promise of more 'modern' and 'efficient' methods for achieving 'measurably improved results' through education, that was the spin that began to 'play in Peoria', and few seemed willing to consider any dangers that might be inherent in it.
English Classical School' in 1821 - which was conceived of as a useful step between grammar school and college levels. But of course those initial reforms were followed by others that incrementally nibbled away at the appearances of what had traditionally been associated with education - if you take a look at English Classical School's original curriculum, you'll see that it bears almost no resemblance to our high schools today - slowly, step by pro-regressive step, through successive waves of school reformers, each proposing their own experimental changes, each promising still 'more useful!' new directions in form and content, year in and year out, decade after decade, the reform process squeezed the 'old' classes in grammar, history, religion, and literature out, as more and more 'key facts' and 'new skills' were pro-regressively squeezed in, forcing the school year to be expanded by not just four to five more months per year, but by another four more of those newly expanded years.
Yes, our Founding Reformers would've recognized our good intentions today, but they wouldn't recognize what those good intentions have transformed our schools, or America, into, today.
When you keep in mind that accepting the utilitarian change to the purpose of Education, was the change of mind that ensured all of the disastrous reforms that would follow, it becomes much easier to see how we got from there, to here, through the pivoting and misdirection's inherent in implementing the reform template. The most obviously successful of those who first led the way in applying the 'reform!' template, was Horace Mann, a radical reformer with a knack for diverting the footsteps of our Founding Reformers into such unforeseen paths as would effectively conceal much of Fichte's Prussian System of education, under an Americanized veneer. His most significant 'achievement' in going down that path, was helping to bring about Massachusetts' first laws for establishing a mandatory public school system under a state board of education. It didn't take long for the people of Massachusetts to begin realizing what the semantics of 'a more democratic education!' had deceived them into establishing as law:
"...After all that has been said about the French and Prussian systems, they appear to your Committee to be much more admirable, as a means of political influence, and of strengthening the hands of the government, than as a mere means for the diffusion of knowledge. For the latter purpose, the system of public Common Schools, under the control of persons most interested in their flourishing condition, who pay taxes to support them, appears to your Committee much superior. The establishment of the Board of Education seems to be the commencement of a system of centralization and of monopoly of power in a few hands, contrary, in every respect, to the true spirit of our democratical institutions; and which, unless speedily checked, may lead to unlooked-for and dangerous results..."[emphasis added], but the deed was done, and they weren't successful in undoing it, as at each turn in the process, the objections of those with eyes to see, were brushed away as being over reactions, and those listening were given assurances of "Oh I'm sure they don't mean that!". The problem was (and is) that such a system as that, had to mean exactly "that!", and no matter how good the intentions of 'fitting youth to the machinery of government' might have been to begin with, such ideals as those are fundamentally incompatible with the 'old' pursuit of enabling students to develop an educated grasp of, and love for, what is real and true. Then, as now, the point of 'school reform!' was to reform the collective population into the image the reformers had in mind for them, and then as now, data and data collection were key to how a bureaucracy gains power over those it's supposed to serve. From pg. 123 of "The Myth of the Common School':
"...Virtually the only power that Mann and the board possessed was that of requiring annual school returns of statistics and othe information, and Mann had used this aggressively to collect the information that he then used with great effect in his celebrated annual reports (Complaints about such data-collection activities have not abated over the years!)Mann helped spur that progressive reorientation further onwards through another European innovation that he championed, that of replacing the traditional oral examinations between a teacher and each one of their students, with identical written tests given to the entire class at the same time. In oral examinations, teachers would ask each individual student questions, which they'd answer in their own words, which led to more questions, and answers, and so on, giving the teacher a solid understanding of how well that student understood the material they'd been covering in class, and how best to approach what they would be covering in class next, or next year.
Mann's requests for information, and use of the information he received, were in some respects the key elements of his influence over the development of the common school...
... Mann also was in the habit of sending out questions that sought information of a more subjective nature, generally in anticipation of basing policy recommendations on responses whose tenor he anticipated; there are no instances in which such responses appear to have caused him to change his mind about an issue!...."
That was not what Horace Mann was interested in, it was too individual, and contributed nothing towards using education to bring about the changes he wanted to see made in students, teachers, and the public. The answer he saw as being more of what he was looking for, lay in written tests,.
"... after visiting schools in Europe in 1843, returned convinced that written exams were superior. He wrote: “When the oral method is adopted, none but those personally present at the examination can have any accurate or valuable idea of appearance of the school…Not so, however, when the examination is by printed questions and written answers. A transcript, a sort of Daguerreotype likeness, as it were, of the state and condition of the pupils’ minds, is taken and carried away, for general inspection...", with written tests, Mann could replace the individual process of oral exams, a process that was itself educational, with printed tests, whose generic questions required students to recall similar (and eventually identical) answers that were pre-determined 'by those who know best' to fit the 'answer key', and which all of the other students would be trained to answer with as well. Tests such as those could be mass produced, and their scores tabulated (another form of data-collection) to give 'exact measurements' of what students knew, and which teachers were or weren't 'being helpful' (to the student, or the reformers?), so as to use the 'progress measured' to further their reforms by goading public opinion into line with it.
It should be no surprise to anyone that pursuing results without regard to their causes, leads to unforeseen consequences, and as historian William J. Reese, author of 'Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History', wrote in a New York Times essay,
"...What can we learn from the advent of what we learned to call “high-stakes testing”? What transpired then still sounds eerily familiar: cheating scandals, poor performance by minority groups, the narrowing of the curriculum, the public shaming of teachers, the appeal of more sophisticated measures of assessment, the superior scores in other nations, all amounting to a constant drumbeat about school failure....”Do you see the seeds of a familiar pattern in that? The promised panacea, accusations of fault over related failures, calls to increase and expand their efforts, and so on? Still more benefits found with testing, was the ability to use both the tests, and their results, to target those teachers, parents, and students, who hadn't yet been reformed into Mann's ideal image for them. The community wasn't blind to what he was doing, there was controversy and outrage over what he did, and over his pressing for still more and more reforms, efforts that clearly came at the expense of those students and teachers that his test results had unfairly targeted. As matters heated up, he temporarily scaled back his efforts, before soon pushing for still more. Eventually the public did tire of Mann and he lost his re-election - but the tests, and their uses, and the data-collection, remained, expanded, and grew to the point that they are now everywhere.
The reform pattern is difficult to miss in that description of how written tests were introduced with 'proven value' from European uses, followed by the 'unforeseen consequences' of students cheating on tests, followed by the need for progressively more tests, which then led to standardized tests, then state testing, and finally to nationwide testing standards. Once you notice it, it becomes hard to miss, is even a little bit fractal in its nature, in what's presented in all educational reform:
And when some portion of the 'that!' which opponents warned about actually occurs, or an even worse side-effect follows from it, simply rinse and repeat as you double-down with the same three steps as necessary, until the 'that!' which people were originally concerned with, gradually becomes what is in fact normalized and implemented everywhere.
- Propose a goal from the latest educational experiment to be 'given a shot' at training kids in far more useful answers and skills,
- Trot out experts from state and commerce to brush away concerns with 'oh, they don't mean 'that!', while assuring the public that they're needed for 'the greater good' of society and its workforce.
- That reform - whether it succeeds or fails - justifies calling for still more radical reforms to follow and be normalized into our educational system,
Step 1 in the pattern, despite its lofty sounding goals always involves providing students with less and less of substance, such as worthwhile literature, to think with, under the cover of providing 'more rigor' that drills students in 'key facts' & 'new skills' which support whichever ideological issues the 'greater good' requires them to serve. The pattern as a whole is something of an Americanized version of Fichte's methods for using schools to destroy free will and socializing conformity in a manner that effectively prevents 'wrong think'. And whether the goal of the moment has been to produce a 'new man', or economic utility, or governmental cogs, or more activists, the new ideal of going to school to 'get good grades and get a good job!', gradually forced out the original True North ideal of equipping a person to be a knowledgeable and moral individual who is capable of insightful thought and self-governance, as it had to - the two are incompatible contradictions that no amount of dialectical thinking could resolve.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the schooling spectrum, one of those enthusiastic students who'd taken the European Tour, Charles W. Elliott, had since become a professor at Harvard, gained his own PhD, and graduated to being the president of Harvard, at which point he introduced the radical new notion of 'elective classes'.
"...Contending that higher learning in the United States needed to be “broadened, deepened, and invigorated,” Eliot demanded a place for the sciences as well as the humanities in any sound program of liberal education. To counter the rigidity of the Harvard curriculum—which, following what was then general practice, was then almost totally prescribed—Eliot eliminated required courses. Under his successor, A. Lawrence Lowell, a balance was struck between required and elective courses..."That 'reform', in and of itself, was both an expression and a consequence of the transformation of Education - under the old view, those with something meaningful to teach, knew what they needed to teach to those who did not yet know it, and so students came to learn that from them. Under the new form, the students came to learn what they'd already decided would be useful for them to know, and they chose what classes seemed most interesting or useful for that, while grudgingly enduring 'that other stuff' they had to sit through to get their degree. That of course required not only adding more 'interesting classes' to the school curriculum to keep student's attention (and their parents $) on task, but also soon developed into budgeting 'uninteresting' classes out of the courses that the college offered, a cycle which within a century would see those classes which had originally been the central purpose of that college, entirely dropped from being taught in those colleges.
Now that's education reform.
In the end, all of 'school reform!' is about reforming you into something useful to something else
Earlier in this post I mentioned a review of significant developments of the 1700s, given at the opening of the 1800s, by a professor from Princeton, Samuel Miller. One issue he mentioned in that review, was two pages of concerns he had over innovations in education that were developing in the late 1700s, that were intending to use education as a means towards 'the perfectibility of man', which Prof. Miller saw as being '...contrary to the nature and condition of man...'. His concerns are well worth reading and thinking through, even today, particularly as he identified that what those new theories:
"... depicted in philosophic dreams is an absurd portrait of knowledge without real wisdom, of benevolence without piety, and of purity and happiness without genuine virtue...", and at the close of his comments on education, he sadly concludes, accurately, that:
"...The doctrine of human perfectibility however, is too flattering to the pride of man not to have considerable currency among certain classes of society. Accordingly, the effects of this doctrine may be distinctly traced in many parts of the civilised world, from its influence in seminaries of learning, on the general interests of education, and on many social institutions. That this influence is unfavourable, will not be questioned for a moment by those who consider truth and utility as inseparably and eternally connected...", and while I disagree with at least one of his points (having to do with Malthus), that last point above, the folly of failing to view "... truth and utility as inseparably and eternally connected..." - that is a truth that for the most part is not only no longer recognized by us today, but if you tell someone that today, it's likely that they'll be surprised that you'd say such a thing. That shouldn't be surprising, because when someone is saying we need to be 'practical', or 'pragmatic', or that we should 'pay less attention to worrying about what's right and focus on what's useful!', they are declaring their own implicit belief that Truth and Utility have no intrinsic connection, that they have no real relation to each other. Behaving as if Truth and Utility are separable, is what our Founding Reformers first 'reform' helped make into a norm for us, as their promises of prosperity which helped 'school reform!' to become a thing 200 years ago, nudged us into ignoring the fact that we were attempting to reverse cause and effect, and it's that assumption, and our willingness to look at what we're being promised, and not at what is being assumed and done in the name of that promise, which has led to the unending stream of dis-educational policies and laws that we've been imposed upon ourselves, since then.
The denial that "... truth and utility as inseparably and eternally connected...", is a tenet of 'Utilitarian' belief, which is something, IMHO, that is not only unwise for individuals to accept, it is disastrous for a society to adhere to - the world we're dealing with today is a result of attempting to treat it as an idea that 'works' - how does that seem to be working to you? It doesn't work, of course. But naively believing it will, causes us to redouble our efforts when we see that the policies that we've enacted on its promises, are failing - we think it's us that've failed, rather than suspecting that the 'truth' of it is a lie.
But point out to people today - whether Left, Right or Center - that "... truth and utility as inseparably and eternally connected...", and you'll typically be met with an exaggerated eye-roll and muttering about the need to be practical and get 'results!'. How many of those on 'The Right' who are upset over the state of our schools today, realize that 'Common Core' and SEL originated in the 'school reform!'s called for by the Right in the late 80s and 90s, which were capitalizing on exactly that reaction? And yet most of us today - Left, Right or Center - still think that we can pass laws to 'restore our schools', completely unaware that they are actively engaged in the very same pro-regressive effort to reverse cause and effect, that brought us to where we are.
Before we go demanding yet another 'school reform!', we need to realize that our past 'school reform!'s have reformed us into a people who don't even think twice about how divorced our good intentions are from reality, and until we fix that, 'school reform!' will continue doing what 'school reform!' has always done - reforming 'We The People' away from who we once were, into who we are becoming today.
And that's school reform.