Fixing our lousy schools: Back to the future?

Glenn Harlan Reynolds Founder, Instapundit
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Our public schools stink. Rife with lousy performance and idiotic “zero tolerance” policies, they are the way they are because Horace Mann had a good time in Germany. But now it’s time for a change. Ironically, many kids may be better off being educated the way Horace Mann’s kids were — at home — instead of the way Horace Mann advocated for others.

At the time of the American Revolution, America already had one of the highest literacy rates in the world, which is one reason why Tom Paine’s pamphlets were so successful at stoking the fires of anti-British sentiment. But by the beginning of the 19th Century, educational thought leaders were looking for something to replace the decentralized American educational system.

The most influential of those thought leaders was Massachusetts Secretary of Education Horace Mann, who took a tour of Prussia and liked what he saw. Unlike the American system, the Prussian schools were highly centralized, with a state-directed curriculum of instructions, centrally organized statistics, and a professionalized, state-sanctioned instructorate.

Mann, who saw himself as a social reformer, found the decentralized American system frustrating. His goal was to socialize children, who were much more reachable than adult — “Men are cast iron,” he said, “but children are wax.” The Prussian system was much more appealing.

On his return, Mann extolled the Prussian model in his seventh annual report. This met with some resistance, as critics accused him of wanting to establish a “Prussian-style tyranny” in the schools, arguing that the Prussian model was based on a presumption that the government was wiser than the citizenry, while in America the presumption was the reverse. There was considerable basis for this complaint. Prussian theorists regarded public education, and higher education as well, as an institution of “police” and a way of making students “useful as future tools,” — but Mann’s idea ultimately caught on for the most part.

This approach not only reflected Mann’s social views but also met the economic needs of the day. Thus, the traditional public school: like a factory, it runs by the bell. Like machines in a factory, desks and students are lined up in orderly rows. When shifts (classes) change, the bell rings again, and students go on to the next class. And within each class, the subjects are the same, the assignments are the same, and the examinations are the same, regardless of the characteristics of individual students.

This was quite a change from the traditional public school’s predecessor, the one-room schoolhouse, where students of different ages were mixed together and where assignments often varied even among students of the same age. A teacher in a one-room schoolhouse was like a blacksmith, doing the whole job in his or her own way. A teacher in a modern industrial-era school was like a factory worker, performing standardized operations on standardized parts. And the standardized parts — the students — were taught along the way how to fit into a larger machine.

Like the difference between artisanal blacksmithing and industrial metalwork, the modern school system provided far less scope for individuality on the part of both its producers and its products. But the trade-off was seen as worthwhile: the modern assembly-line approach, in both settings, produced more of what society wanted, and it did so at a lower cost. If standard parts are what you want, an assembly line is better than a blacksmith. (Interestingly, Horace Mann’s children were homeschooled.)

19th century needs and 19th century politics produced a 19th century style of education. And in many ways, it was a success — the Mann model served the industrial revolution well, and millions were richer and healthier as a result. But we now live in the 21st century, and — with public education widely regarded as a failure, it’s time to think about whether 19th century approaches are still the answer in the 21st.

In the industrial era, Henry Ford would sell you any color car you wanted, so long as it was black, and you could get any kind of elementary education you wanted, as long as it was on the Horace Mann model. But this is the 21st century, where almost everything is customizable, even Fords.

Today’s alternatives range from homeschooling (“It’s not just for scary religious people anymore,” as we learned from Buffy The Vampire Slayer) to online school, to flipped-classroom Khan Academy style learning and more. Kids are different, with different skills, interests, and learning styles. There’s no reason why they should all learn the same way, industrial-style.

Technology helps, but it’s not the key element: Technology matters because it provides more options, not simply because of bells and whistles. Indeed, some of the most important technologies are really social technologies, like home-schooling and “flipped” classrooms. Our education problems will not be solved by gadgets alone but by changed methods that are, in some cases, made possible by gadgets.

But as big public school systems implode, K-12 education is exhibiting a degree of ferment we haven’t seen in a century, as new models are explored by parents, school, and entrepreneurs.

There are, at any rate, two ways in which things can go forward. On the one hand, these new and innovative approaches can take place within the context of publicly funded education, via things like charter schools. On the other, they can be embraced by parents who are fleeing what they regard as a failing public system. From the standpoint of public schools, the former approach is infinitely better. If parents are free to choose different approaches according to their situations and their children’s needs within the public school context, then those parents (and other taxpayers) will see public education as delivering value for their money. And while parents will remain supporters, the children will continue to keep enrollment numbers for the systems up, keeping the public money flowing as well.

On the other hand, if the only way parents can avail themselves of these new approaches is to exit the public school system, then they are likely to be resentful of the taxes they pay. And if enough people exit the public schools for other environments, taxpayers in general may come to regard public education as, essentially, just another program for the poor. That’s likely to mean a steadily decreasing willingness to provide financial support, especially in times when there is competition from other budget priorities.

Which path will we wind up taking? It’s too early to tell, but personally, I think it’s risky to bank on the farsightedness of public school administrators. So my money is on the continuing exit of students — probably the best and most motivated students, with the most involved parents — from the public school systems in favor of the wide array of alternatives that exist today. It may be that American education in the 21st century will look a lot like American education before the 19th: Individualized, decentralized, and producing a highly literate population. We could do worse — and in recent years, we have.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee. His book is The New School: How The Information Age Will Save American Education From Itself.

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Glenn Harlan Reynolds