Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

January 28, 2014

We the People: School reform or social disaster?

By John C. Wund
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools … destroys our democracy.” (John Dewey, 1907)

There were two comments reported in our Chronicle recently that set my teeth on edge. One was that the Common Core educational standards are law, and so we have to adopt them, and the other was that teacher merit pay (VAM) was the law, so we had to do it.

Who, exactly, decided that our community, our teachers, administration and Board of Education, were no longer competent to review curriculum or establish salary scales that best served our community? I discovered that the answer to that question is far too long for a single column piece, but it is vital to our understanding of what is happening to our schools.

I will, therefore, use a series of columns to suggest an answer. But, I think a review of history reveals an important framework.

Our early founders understood both the power of a liberal education (one that provided competence in language usage, history, science and logic) and its central importance to a democratic republic. John Adams wrote, “There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it … maintained at the public expense of the people, themselves.” Citizen Adams realized that without an adequate education, voters would be unable to make informed and logical decisions.

The children of wealthy New England factory owners in the early 1800s went to elite private schools that taught a broad range of subjects and emphasized independent thought. However, this same comprehensive, liberal education was often withheld from the masses. For example, “free public” schools were established in the Northeast for the poor, but emphasized discipline and only taught basic reading and math. And, of course, it was illegal to teach slaves even to read until just a few decades before the Civil War.

Therefore, early public school students (and slaves) were groomed to be better (docile, efficient) workers, while the sons (and daughters, by the way) of the wealthy were made into a more astute ruling class.

Thanks, in part, to the presidential election of Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson, the political dominance of those Yankee wannabe-overlords weakened and their dreams of establishing an American aristocracy faded, but never died. More Americans successfully fought to become decision-makers over the next hundred years. By the middle 20th century, a good public school education was almost equal to the best that private, “independent” schools could offer. The availability of a comprehensive, free education to the majority, the 99%, became a reality. That accessibility is now being withdrawn.

Not all education serves the same purpose. Some provides intellectual growth, the capacity for social mobility and responsible citizenship. Other "education" provides training for “jobs” and encourages obedient servility instead of the awareness needed for full civic participation and empowerment. Which of the two choices do you want for your kids? Which model is now being forced upon our public schools? Who is doing the forcing? How, and why?

(I’m sorry to leave you hanging, but… The next installment will be next month.)

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This column represents alternative thoughts to other published columns in the Crossville Chronicle. "We the People" is published each Wednesday. Opinions expressed in "We the People" columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact John Wund, editor, at jwund@frontiernet.net.