Fault Lines in American Culture: The Case for the Common School

Written by Michael Hartoonian

The social landscape of the United States of America can be mapped by using a series of cultural fault lines that lie just beneath our society’s consciousness.  This cultural topography defines our social and economic condition in ways that contemporary surface descriptions fail to illuminate.  If left unattended these fissures will continue to divide and will diminish the republic.  If understood and addressed, America will experience a new birth of liberty and prosperity.

We have for some time now, walked over these fault lines, built upon them and have even acknowledged their existence and approaching danger.  But there has never been a systematic and comprehensive set of policies that address the interdependent nature of this reality.  It’s like living on an active geological fault line, believing that the future will never come.  The irony is that one of our cultural divisions holds the possibility of stopping the schism and providing a foundation of stability.   

The motto of our county is E Pluribus Unum…one out of many.  We should expect and welcome diversity in all things while working to enhance our unity through a common narrative.  Right now our cultural fault lines present us with a kind of myopic diversity that is manifested in disjointed ideologies and isolated perceptions of a particular “better” nation.  These ideologies are illuminated in solitary policy “debates” addressing such categories as education, capital formation and consumption, immigration, income distribution, energy production and use, international commerce, national defense, and material and ethical infrastructures.  In these debates there is little attention given to listening to the other, or considering the possibility that “my side” could be wrong.  Most dangerously, the largest problem is that these divisions are pursued without any interest or compensating sense of unity.  

There is, however, one basic institution – public education – that was established in large part to create a unity or a “People.”  In America we have never had a natural tendency toward unity.  We have no common ancestry, no common religion, and no common set of norms relating to manors, food, or dress.  Our vast geography gave us different perceptions of people, landscapes, and climates.  We are not only different as individuals, but as families, tribes, nationalities, races, and classes.  The only thing that seems to trump these differences is education.  Different levels of education separate people more dramatically than class or race.

Individuals and families have always considered education as something good for their children.  In an existential way we believe that education is good for my children, while also believing that the education of others is something that we do not personally benefit from.  Others perhaps, should be trained for employment and consumption, while my child and the few should be educated for leadership and meaningful living.  We have all too often and prejudicially acted on this belief, and we should know better.  But there has also been the counter idea.  From the Land Ordinance of 1785 to the writings of Jefferson and Horace Mann; from the Committee of Ten to the many federal education programs enacted from 1957 to the present, enlightened public policy has attempted to make education more available to all.  However, in the debates and tension between diversity and unity – diversity always won.  There seems to be an American gene that forbids us to understand that diversity must be balanced with unity or the result is apartheid or anarchy.  Of course, unity without diversity is totalitarianism.  These and other subtleties of a democratic government seem beyond the natural capacity of the people.  Some even argue that this knowledge should be the purview of the children only for the privileged; certainly this is not for all children.

Yet most of us are familiar with Jefferson’s outrage when he learned that the Constitution disenfranchised most Americans.  He said that if we believe the people to be too indiscrete or stupid to govern themselves, we should not remove power from them, but enhance their indiscretion through instruction.  All children should go to school so they might become better; that is, more ethical, and also so America could become a society based on merit not on family wealth or name.  But we have moved in a different direction, suggesting that while it is ok for other children to go to common schools where they can be trained, my child should be educated privately.  In that way, differences can be exaggerated and the privileged can remain so.  This dichotomy is so ingrained in the minds of Americans that we believe that the purpose of the public school is to create an economy, not a culture. We should leave the culture stuff to the private media, the private market, and the privately educated. And if you still believe that public universities are public, just follow the money.  An increasing percentage of the cost of a college education is carried by the student, parents, and private grants.  It was once the case that the state paid for up to eighty percent of the cost of education, and with programs like the GI Bill, even more.  Today the percentage paid by the state is at half that level and falling fast.  We are losing our meritocracy along with our democracy.  

From the beginning of our republic, the stated goal of education was to provide a unifying narrative.  This would be done through learning about proper relationships with God, neighbors, family, land, and state.  We would learn English Law and Language and its antecedents.  We would study natural history and the stories of people and events, in order to study the characteristics and character of rightful behavior as a way toward a more common set of values, conversations, and worldview.  To be sure, the controlling myths created were far less than inclusive, but education would provide a confluence of cultures with the opportunity for real access to the material and human desire to explore, to question, to destroy, and to build again.  But, inclusiveness, and educational inclusiveness particularly, has to be intentional, both on the part of the individual as well as the society.  Far too many children don’t want to learn because their parents, community, and nation have given up on a system that denies them access to identity, meaning, and the opportunity to contribute.  Public schools seem not to be concerned with identity, purpose, or contribution.  They seem to be fixated on training, that is, having students acquire low level information (basic standards skills), but failing to understand that if a child does not know who she is, she simple will not care to be responsible or care to learn. When identity and attending responsibilities are clear, teachers teach and students learn with integrity.  

Education – specifically common or public education – should be seen as insurance against the cultural disasters of economic panics, unethical relationships among people, corrupt businesspeople, and politicians who think more of their ideology than their country.  The insurance policy was written by our ancestors, but never purchased nor implemented.  Today, cultural fragmentation and fault lines continue because we seem unable to understand the purpose of the public schools.  Like it or not, we are related, dependent, and enhanced through reciprocal relationships and duty.  The continuation of the republic will depend on our ability to understand E Pluribus Unum, and this knowledge rests most emphatically on the way the American people value public education – its purpose and integrity.  Whether we call it human capital, civic responsibility, or meaningful living, one thing is true altogether, and that is the fact that excellence and wealth can only be created by people who believe in a unifying myth of civic virtue.  Wealth is created, of course, not by any people, but by people who are educated to their responsibilities to self, family, community, and nation.  The drag from the uneducated in prisons, in Congress, in business, and from those running our schools is taking us to a dangerous place in the history of our country.

Education: the foundation of our market and republic

The fault lines within the landscape of education today reflect the divisions of the nation and communities.  Race, class, geography, occupation, religion, and political affiliation are elements that work to divide the country.  We could of course, add to the list things like mind-numbing media, government policies, and even greed.  In a republic like ours these divisions must be counteracted by the unifying power of public education.  But, because of timidity and lack of purpose, public schools have sold their souls to fads and flimflam policy makers as well as to dishonest free marketers.  When you don’t know who you are, people can mess with you, because you can’t be responsible.  American public schools do not understand their identity nor do they grasp the nature of their purpose.  Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s often quoted statement declares that, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”  

The truth of Moynihan’s statement rests on the precept that education is the most important element of culture and it determines the health of society as well as the wisdom to save it from itself.  With apologies to Mr. Moynihan:

The first profound truth is that education creates a culture, and the second profound truth is that education can change and save that culture from itself.

Cultures create the institution of education to protect, challenge, and save the culture.  The only question is what kind of a culture is education creating?  Educated or enlightened citizens must question the culture so we can understand what to keep, what to throw away, and what to build anew.  Families and communities bring the child into cultures that can be functional or dysfunctional.  Our present schools that are “relevant” or pay unnecessary attention to make sure that they “bond” with their communities create many more dysfunctional citizens – individuals who don’t know that they occupy the office of citizen, or the attending responsibilities.  In their soliciting, schools give-up their responsibility to teach and question the culture and are, thus, no longer public.  They are private in the sense that they believe that they have customers – students and parents.  And the school’s job is to serve their customers’ needs, even when the child and parent have little understanding of those needs.  At a basic level educators should know that in the average community in the United States only 20% of the households have children to send to school.  Thus, because of the fixation on the child, public schools have stopped serving the common good.  We have it backwards.  The child should serve.  The child should take seriously the questions: what can I do for my family?  My school?  My community?  The child should come to school asking, “can I study here?  And the parent(s) must do everything in his or her power to respect the authority of teaching and learning.  If the parent takes on the true identity of parent, then he or she will behave responsibly.  If the child takes on the identity of student, then he or she will behave responsibly.  As teaching is the responsibility of the teacher, learning is the responsibility of the student.  It is something that neither teachers nor parents can do for students.  Public schools by definition, must serve a public good – they are responsible for critically passing the republic on to the next generation.  It is the generational covenant we have with our ancestors and our children.  Without a conception of the public good, public school makes no sense.

The role of the school is to develop loving critics of our society.  These are individuals who can love the principles of democratic government and free, ethical markets, and still have the intellectual and moral power to question and change that culture when it forgets its way.  This is altogether true of the market. A market cannot be free, efficient, or serve the goal of allocating resources unless it is incased in ethics. Thus, the school must be irrelevant to the vulgarities and vagaries of the present. Through acquiring scholarship, we use the wisdom locked in the heritage of human history to address these vulgarities and vagaries with the civility and grace that will keep us all free in a state of civilization. They will create an enlightened culture. This is the purpose of the public school.  It is not here to serve children or their parents.  It is to serve the republic – to continue and improve our material and ethical infrastructure so wealth creation is enhanced and individuals, families, and the nation can flourish.       

While all this sounds counterintuitive, it is straight forward.  The problem is that the long and confusing history of education clouds the debate, mainly because education is a multibillion dollar business.  The rewards for creating questionable test and “teacher proof” materials are breathtaking.  Those who have been inside the belly of the beast could tell chilling stories, but the financial penalties associated with their more truthful utterances would be significant.

To be sure there have been and continue to be fault lines related to questions about the nature and importance of knowledge, the child, work skills, and citizenship.  Should we educate our children and ourselves to be thoughtful and purposeful citizens and scholars, or should we be concerned with employment and work place skills?  We can, of course have both, but the beginning of wisdom is the ability to put first things first. The present division pre-supposes a society that believes in a particular conception of human being – some worthy of thought and understanding, and some not; some capable of self-governance and others not.  This kind of “debate” has intensified since the enactment of federal mandates in the 1960s, in attempts to ameliorate inequalities.  But these efforts have left America with increasing and wider divisions in social class, student achievement, and different perceptions of academic goals.  This is no doubt the case because a community can be no healthier than its sickest institution.  Would that sickest institution be the families?  Churches?  Businesses?  Government?  What’s your guess?

We believe that education is the gate through which all children must pass if we expect a republic and market economy to prosper.  But we also think that schools and teachers are the only ones responsible if our children fall short of the goals of scholarship and citizenship.  The gate keepers to scholarship and citizenship are also found beyond the school.  This is the case because the gate is first and foremost the value that Americans place on intellectual activity, thoughtfulness, and civic engagement.  The anti-intellectual position of America in general has made these qualities problematic – No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Children First, and all the other ill-thought-out policies of the past, notwithstanding.  Because we fear our children more than we fear for them, we do not see the children of others as our children.  And, because many people who have children do not understand the identity or meaning of parent, we stand divided.  In the end, it seems that our children are really not that important to us.  Consider: who are the poorest among us – children.  Who have the poorest diets – children.  Who are the most abused – children.  Who have the most inadequate health care – children.  This condition was not created by schools.  It was created by a general attitude, as well as by government officials, business, media, courts, and legislatures who don’t understand the purpose and integrity of the public schools.  The fact of the matter is that there is no short-cut to learning.  It takes hard work, time, and most of all, a purpose that transcends the individual and places first value on our democratic and market environment; outside of which there is little or no chance that we can be free.  But, you say, “We are the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  Well, how free are we when we can’t jog through our parks at night?  How brave are we when we are afraid of our children?  Enlightened citizens, who possess a common narrative, are the only ones who can address the cultural fault lines that are pulling us ever further apart, and can keep us free in a state of civilization – a state where you don’t have to pack a gun to “feel” free.  The irony here is that our public school is the only institution that can create the unity of narrative and environment necessary for freedom by enriching the context and powerful creativity of our natural diversity. 

Michael Hartoonian is a Scholar in Residence at Hamline University and a frequent contributor to this site.  He can be reached by email at: mhart002@q.com 

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One thought on “Fault Lines in American Culture: The Case for the Common School

  1. A very thoughtful article! I especially enjoyed the argument about education originally being intended to form a unifying narrative and how by recognizing and understanding the rich diversity possible through education, freedom is enriched. Thank you for adding to the public discussion on education reform!

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