June 28, 2007


Got discipline?: In a free-speech ruling, Justice Thomas misstates the purpose of education (Jonathan Zimmerman, June 28, 2007, LA Times)

For the last decade, I've taught a history course with that title at New York University. My students and I examine the different purposes that Americans have assigned to public schools, including:

A. to teach the great humanistic traditions of the West;

B. to develop the individual interests of the child;

C. to promote social justice;

D. to prepare efficient workers.

Over the last four centuries, Americans have struggled to balance these goals — and many others — in their schools. To Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, however, there's only one right answer:

E. to instill discipline and obedience

Public Education, Then and Now (Ben Boychuk, July 14, 2000, Precepts)
The ideals of that generation flowed directly from their learning and reading. Each and every founder raised his "public voice" to advocate universal education. From Washington and Franklin to Adams and Jefferson, every one offered his ideas about the state of education and the best ways to build an informed citizenry — from the lowliest mechanic's son to the most exalted Harvard grad.

As Jefferson wrote of his Virginia education plan in a letter to his friend George Wythe, "The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance."

Jefferson was by no means alone. George Washington called for a national university in his First Inaugural Address. John Adams asked his son in Europe to collect books and ideas for republican schools. James Madison tracked the education efforts in Kentucky and praised innovations and challenging curricula there. They agreed with Noah Webster that, "Knowledge, joined with a keen sense of liberty and a watchful Jealousy, will guard our constitutions."

Even before there was a Constitution, the young republic passed the first national education law on July 13, 1787. The Northwest Ordinance was written to govern United States territory north of the Ohio River. It read, in part: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

While the Justice's answer is not complete, all of Mr. Zimmerman's are inconsistent with the republican purposes of universal education. The point is to produce the informed and decent citizenry upon which consensual government depends to succeed. Fostering burnouts does nothing to advance that project.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 28, 2007 7:23 AM

"To promote social justice"?

If by that he means 'most educators aspire to use public education to promote social justice', I'll grant that. If he instead means 'most PARENTS wish public education to promote social justice', he is sorely mistaken. Some parents may have that as a goal, but most I think would want the fundamentals of education first before any attempt is made to mold the child's ideology in the educators' image.

The idea of using schoolchildren as lab animals for preparing A Better Society has much more to do with John Dewey (and, frankly, socialist ideals) than anything associated with the traditions of American education. One would think, after decades of poor performance and failed theories, that educators might abandon "molding" and return to actually teaching. That is, if they still know how.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at June 28, 2007 8:05 AM

I haven't read beyond what's posted, too P.O., but read enough to know Mr. Zimmerman to be part of the cause of most of what's wrong with many of the generations that have been exposed to his ilk's brainwashing. Education indeed!

Posted by: Genecis at June 28, 2007 9:28 AM

Any educator who doesn't understand the inherent contradiction in the term "social justice" is poorly educated indeed.

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 28, 2007 12:13 PM

I love the conceit. The author and his students are more knowledgeable than a Justice of the Supreme Court.

Posted by: erp at June 28, 2007 2:51 PM