Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Claptrap and Nonsense

I’d not ever heard of David Gelernter until Gadfly linked to a piece of his in The Weekly Standard. Provocatively titled A World Without Public Schools, Gelernter argues that the fundamental consensus that lead to the creation of our school system had completely eroded, and that as a result the school system should go with it. If you print the article it goes on for 10 pages, and in several spots his pedigree as an intellectual and a scholar shines through brilliantly.

Then you think about what he wrote, and it all turns to crap. For upon even the most cursory review, the pure asininity of Gelernter’s essay is the only thing that you can take away from it.

From the beginning his central tenet fails to hold up to any sort of scrutiny. Gelernter guiding hypothesis is that, “Public schools are first and foremost agents of the public.” Well and good. He fails, though, to understand just how nuanced the word “public” can be when talking about American education.

Consider your own local school; which public should that school be an agent of? Should it be a reflection of the immediate community, the public by proxy of proximity, or of the state system that funds that school? Or does the scale expand even beyond that, to the school needing to be an agent of, and an advocate for, the national interests? Put more simply, where does local control begin, and by extension, what is the community that you need to gauge the consensus of to define the mission of the school?

Gelernter goes on to argue that there is no longer a national consensus, a shared national vision of what is and what should be, and therefore the public schools can no longer advance our national interests and should be scrapped. To prove his point he tries to work a neat rhetorical trick wherein he proves first that there is no consensus, and then that there was, and therefore he must be right. He fails on both counts.

To demonstrate that there is no national consensus Gelernter goes back to the election of 2004, calling it a “split down the middle.” This proves, to him, that we are a divided country that couldn’t possibly agree on even the basics of what it means to be educated. I would argue that what he suggests here should be completely ignored as the useless contrivance of someone without any better evidence to try and carry his point home.

It was an election, and elections are nothing more than opinion polls with really good TV coverage. Why focus on Bush/Kerry, when you could use the 2006 midterm elections, which were a rout for the democrats? Why 2004, and not the opinion polls from today where a plurality think that both our President and our Congress are incapable of running the country? Ask voters today what they think of Nancy Pelosi and you’ll get your consensus in a right hurry, so again—why so much emphasis on 2004?

His fundamental argument, then, that consensus is impossible in America today doesn’t even have the gumption to get out of the gate. It fares slightly better than his other horse in the race, the idea that there was once a national consensus on education—that poor nag dies before it even gets to the track.

This is where the essay falls apart completely. Gelernter first trots out the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which says that the “great mass of the American people” agree with what education should be. He acknowledges himself that the book would have been speaking for middle America and ignoring a great swath, but he then ignores himself: “But there must have been some sort of consensus,” he explains, “the public was not bitterly divided, was not split in half as it is today.”

Really? It wasn’t? There was no racial divide, there was no class divide, there was no tension between our recent immigrants and those who were already here? It may help the cause that he champions in his essay to pretend that history didn’t happen, but that makes him no better than the textbook publishers he lambastes later on, the ones who ignore the great figures like Einstein to include the far less significant but far more multicultural, like Begay.

Not content with the rosy picture he painted Gelernter goes from the sublime to the ridiculous when he presents his next example of the great American educational consensus: the McGuffey Reader. To prove their greatness he reaches back to a book published in 1935 (Our Times, by Mark Sullivan) which contains reminiscences from students raised up on McGuffey who attest to just how wonderful it was.

Consider this for a moment. The proof that he’s offering of the national consensus is a 1935 comment about a 1900 basal series. This is evidence? A couple of paragraphs after that he praises Winslow Homer’s schoolroom paintings as another signal of the esteem that education once held. Again, this is evidence? Basal readers and paintings?

Then, there are the contradictions. Early on he assures that his vision is for the schools to remain free for every child, and that all taxpayers would continue to pay into the system. Towards the end, though, he outlines a scenario where all the schools in town, newly liberated of the public trough, would get together and “discuss programs and fees among themselves.” Which is it, then, free or fee-based? He offers a nod to the vouchers movement, but the thought is left to go begging, a victim of the author’s own lack of clarity. Early on he has his consensus dying in the 1970s; then he pins it on “intellectuals” taking over the universities in following WWII; then he quotes a speech from Woodrow Wilson in 1902 to say that the colleges were going down hill even then. They are dates, they might be relevant to something, but for the sake of what he was trying to do here? It just doesn’t work.

Gelernter ends with a question: Is there any chance that Abolition will be acted on, or even discussed? I have your answer: no. No, because it’s a half-baked idea, and no, because you did a poor job of making that idea better. This is one that will shortly be forgotten in the dustbin of history, not because of the system, but because it didn’t deserve to go any farther.

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6:58 AM  

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