Education & Belief: Cultural Change

The structure of American public education, and its laws and culture, are now so familiar that it is hard to imagine how it might be otherwise. Yet as we have seen, American public education as it exists today is historically contingent, the product of distinctive ideas (about the person, society, pedagogy, law and religion), as well as of social movements that gave these ideas institutional expression.  The question, then, is whether the structures and mythologies that comprise public education are amenable to transformation. What are the conditions under which this might be possible?

Historians and sociologists are always trying to explain social change, accounts of which range from idealism (“Great ideas change history”) to individualism (“Powerful men and women change history”) to material structuralism (“Economic relationships and industrial developments change history”). I think the best analysis of cultural change is offered by the prominent sociologist James Davison Hunter, whose thesis incorporates all three into a sophisticated account. Cultural change requires 1) overlapping networks of individuals with access to financial, political, intellectual and social capital, who 2) articulate a common goal over a long period of time, and 3) create new institutions that embody those ideals. For the change to enter the cultural mainstream, a sufficient number of people must be convinced that it is 4) sufficiently plausible and 5) morally compelling.

Hunter’s typology is a useful guide to understanding the pattern of change and development in public education. In mid-19th century America, for instance, Horace Mann, the founder of the “common school movement,” was a prominent Whig politician, the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, a Congressional Representative, brother-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a tireless writer and propagandist. He and his circle preached, taught and wrote about the new “common school” and its importance in forming a united citizenry. They engaged in political campaigns and like Mann held political and religious office. Their message did not gain traction, however, until the influx of Catholic immigrants made uniform schooling both plausible and morally compelling to the Protestant majority. Over time, the assumptions of the common school movement became the dominant educational ideology.

The same pattern of cultural change (overlapping networks of people with various forms of social capital; a long-term commitment; institutional expression; social plausibility and moral force) can be seen in the “separation of church and state” movement that began in earnest in the late 19th century and was eventually adopted both by the Supreme Court and the public imagination (Hamburger, Privileges or Immunities, Separation of Church of State). The same pattern may be seen in the progressive education movement that pushed out traditionalists in elite colleges of education in the early 20th century (Ravitch, Left Back).

Not all efforts to change education prevail, even those that meet many of the criteria for success. The Moral Instruction League, for example, grew out of the Ethical Culture movement in Edwardian England. The League, whose membership read like a Who’s Who of its time, aimed to replace religious instruction with secular ethics in state schools. The League had its own curriculum, its own lobbying group, regular meetings across the country and Parliamentary clout. Because of its influence the Board of Education’s 1906 Code of Regulations for the Public Elementary Schools recommended explicit, secular moral instruction to the Local Education Authorities. And yet the movement never caught on. Why? Ironically, the League’s own extensive, international survey provides the answer: secular ethics as a basis for schooling was neither plausible nor desirable to the teachers. The message wasn’t morally compelling at the time.

Finally, cultural movements may succeed but have disastrous, unintended consequences. Anglican Christian Socialism in late-19th and early-20th century England, for example, succeeded in persuading a majority of religious and political leaders that state socialism fulfilled the Church of England’s mission to society. But victory came at a great cost: within two generations, the enormously effective network of Anglican social services deteriorated, and with it much of the Anglican Church’s influence and credibility among the poor and disenfranchised.

What lessons can be drawn for educational change in America? There are ways in which the current movement to reform education fits with Hunter’s thesis. First, the leadership draws upon individuals with significant intellectual, financial, social or political capital (Brill, Class Warfare). They know one another. Pro-reform governors and state superintendents of education host public seminars with prominent academics. Furthermore, they operate outside of predictable political patterns. In fact, education reform attracts more bi-partisan support than any other issue of consequence, with right-leaning libertarians such as the Cato Institute making similar arguments and common cause with Democrats for Education Reform.

Second, these leaders are creating alternative institutions. They are founding charter schools, parent organizations, and new teacher training courses. They craft legislation to permit vouchers and tax credits for intentional schools, which open up a new way of “doing” education. Little by little, they are changing the experience that Americans have with public education and the expectations we bring to it.

Third, however, I fear the philosophical aspect of both the reform movement and also the defenders of the status quo, is too thin. On the one side is the libertarian option with its emphasis upon market-oriented “choice;” on the other, the statist option with its worry about “protecting public education against privatization.” Educational pluralism, in contrast, acknowledges that education cannot be neutral and therefore must be intentional, while granting the state a role in mediating the common good. Educational pluralism seems to me to offer a richer understanding of the human person and of the interactions necessary to a healthy civil society, than either side of the current debate allows.

How would educational pluralism contribute constructively to the very knotty, on-the-ground issues that require a direct challenge to the status quo? The message to the teachers unions, who control local and state schooling, is that educational pluralism addresses their professional needs and aspirations better than the state-control model: it offers intellectual honesty about the non-neutrality of education; it honors their own deeply-held convictions; it elevates their social status by replacing rigid, industrial-style contracts with agreements that are more typical of professionals.

The message to colleges of education and the state legislators that privilege their hold on teacher licensure, is that educational pluralism insists upon diverse schools of educational theory that match the plural beliefs of parents and students. Instead of fighting for intellectual dominance within an elite college of education, progressive educators can articulate their own views and give traditional educators the right to do so as well. Legislatures and regulators could encourage new teacher training programs that offer distinctive perspectives on the human person, the telos of education, and a pedagogy that correlates.

The message to parents is that America is the only liberal democracy that does not offer wide educational choices, in some fashion, to their families. Educational pluralism does not solve all classroom problems – in fact, it generates its own set of concerns – but it is the international norm, is enshrined in international human rights documents as the prerogative of parents, and should be considered here.

Changing the cultural assumptions around public education is neither inevitable nor self-evident. But the necessary criteria for deep and sustained cultural engagement are developing: diverse and overlapping networks of social, economic, and political capital; a long-term commitment by leading advocates; new institutions like charter schools and Teach for America; an increasing degree of social plausibility and moral argument. Will reform that opens the door to educational pluralism happen? Who knows? But for the first time in well over one hundred years, it is both plausible and possible.

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