An American Conspiracy
In 1893 the National Educational Association (NEA) convened a commission to make recommendations regarding what would be the content, context, and rationale of high school education in the United States. Chaired by the President of Harvard, William Charles Elliot, 4 college and university presidents, 2 headmasters of prestigious private schools and 1 high school principal made up the committee, “What they would produce reflected an attitude based on an Enlightenment conception of education, that all were educable and that the development of personal culture and of a clarity of thinking would lead to a successful life defined by the individual. And, consequently, [would also lead] to a successful society made up of enlightened, clear-thinking people devoted to the ideals of democracy as instilled in them through the process of liberal education.”*
The most important notion of the committee’s recommendations was not that this type of an education, dedicated to the fullest development of the human mind through the study of subject matter, was excellent preparation for college, but that whatever was excellent preparation for college was excellent preparation to lead a meaningful purpose-filled life. Whether a student was college bound or not, this educational philosophy served the best interests of the development of each student which then, ultimately, was of great benefit to this young American society.
By 1911, this entire vision, with its bold and ambitious plan for educating America, was under full attack and the revisionists were having their way. A new committee, again formed by the NEA, largely made up of professionals in the field of education, had completely redefined the purpose of secondary education and discarded its old goals, while simultaneously admonishing the seeming pollyannaish and utopian vision of the 1893 committee.
Whether a student was college bound or not, this educational philosophy served the best interests of the development of each student which then, ultimately, of great benefit to this young American society.
The new working report, which eventually became the template for the 1918 Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education was the blueprint for what we have today as our ideological system for education. The Cardinal Principles designated schools as primarily places of training, castigating the more enlightened vision of 1898 as “responsible for leading tens of thousands of boys and girls away from the pursuits which they are adapted and which they are needed, to other pursuits for which they are not adapted and in which they are not needed. By means of exclusively bookish curricula, false ideals of culture are developed.” **
The educational system ultimately becomes both subservient to the economic designs of a young industrial society, purposefully and consciously under-educating entire segments of the population in order to provide the man (and woman) power needs of the economic and corporate machine of America. The very language of the report also implies that the “bookish” nature of education has a nefarious impact on our culture. The correlations between a narrow masculine/male framing for education and how our educational goals as a nation ultimately become articulated are of no coincidence. Who is driving the classrooms? Largely women. Who has been and is mostly driving leadership in our educational institutions? Men. Education, mostly, becomes nothing more than a form of training for the economic marketplace. The American educational system, priding itself on being the doorway into the American Dream, becomes a massive caste system based on socio-economics, race, and gender. If Hollywood were to make a movie about this moment in United States History, the word “conspiracy” would be all over the reviews.
By the 1970s, we see that the educational assumptions of the 1918 Cardinal Principles are being questioned and openly attacked. The atmosphere in education is full of desired reform and rethinking the purpose of educating children. This debate is largely being framed as a question of social justice and equity, coming from minority groups, the poor, and, yes, women.
The women’s movement had made significant strides at this point, both inside and outside of schools, but more is not enough and equality is equality. This progress is an objective reality measured in greater access to educational programs and therefore professions. It is not the subjective understanding of those in power over those who do not have as much power, namely men over women.
The American educational system, priding itself on being the doorway into the American Dream, becomes a massive caste system based on socio-economics, race, and gender.
The eventual backlash against women and schools and the profession of teaching have parallel tracks by the 1980s. Ronald Reagan comes into office and the entire nation seems to be retreating, retrenching and snapping back like a rubber band, into previously held social constructs. I cannot give any more justice to this issue for women than does Susan Faludi in her brilliant comprehensive Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. What I can add is how education was suffering a similar kind of fate during this period, one from which we have not truly recovered.
The reputation of educators seemed to reach an all time low at this period. As more women began to flood into the workforce and did not need to fill the classrooms of our schools in order to earn a living and find work satisfaction, the field of education felt the brain drain. The perception of educators also started to take a tremendous hit. Shows on television, such as Saved by the Bell portrayed teachers as dithering school marms, who had no clue what was going on with their students, prudish figures barely competent, or the men were geeky figures whose sexual orientation was ambiguous or open for question. The assumption of course is that real men don’t teach. The portrayal of school leadership during this period, in the form of principals, was even worse. With nothing better to do with themselves, principals roam the hallways, needlessly bothering students or getting their incompetent selves into problematic situations. The most notorious version of this principal as mean, near-do-well was in a seminal “classic” movie from the period, Ferris Bueller's Day Off where the conniving principal spends his entire day literally stalking Ferris because he obviously has nothing else to do with his vindictive, small-minded self.
Our changing attitudes and cultural assumptions concerning education had to do with several factors. Our economic circumstances in this country began to change rapidly as we moved from an industrialized nation to the hybrid consumer/service/technological model that we have today, which continue to progress in this direction. As Harvard professors Goldin and Katz point out, transitioning into a greater and greater technological model also means an educational system that relies on its workers to acquire more and more sophisticated skills, not just technical, but in the areas of problem solving, creative thinking, and communications.*** The Cardinal Principles of 1918 designed an educational system exactly contrary to the needs of a technocratic culture.
The portrayal of school leadership during this period, in the form of principals, was even worse. With nothing better to do with ourselves, principals roam the hallways, needlessly bothering students or getting our incompetent selves into problematic situations.
What also arose in this transition to a service/technocratic economy was the need for people to consume. And consume. And consume. Classrooms, which should be dedicated to driving students toward a purpose-filled life is not the type of education needed or desired by the economic machine. Growing up in the United States during this period, I can personally attest, that by the 1980s, America seemed completely obsessed with the economics of life and making money. Wall Street and its macho, testosterone fueled value system moved to the center of the American consciousness. The idea that you prove yourself as a man by the size of your bonus or paycheck seemed to take on new mythic proportions. Any kind of notion that education was to serve a larger purpose, to provide people with a sense of meaning, inherent worth, a sense of freedom and even for the health of a Democracy, seemed entirely dismissed and cynically antiquated.
So what does this have to do with gender? Schools, as places of learning, had also become genderized or even feminized. Girls were certainly finding schools to be places of success but which ultimately reinforced certain gender notions as well. Faludi also argues that the forces turning to the right in this country also fostered a sense that the gains of equality, found through the schooling system and the vision of equal education for all, were under full attack. She points to the relentless attack on the WEEA, the Women’s Educational Equity Act program, a publically funded program which was doing important, crucial governmentally sanctioned work to provide equal access for women. A “tiny, underfunded” program became the target of right wing think tanks and religious right organizations that saw it as some sort of feminist threat. Much of its work was just to help enforce Title IX legislation. So why all the hubbub? Why all the focus on this almost non-existent office? Because the far right in this country knew and they knew well: Education would be at the center of bringing about such eventual radical change to the male hegemony of American society that any efforts to move this agenda forward in any way needed to be eviscerated. Women’s roles and ascension to equality was predicated on equal access to the central human institution of education. How were they so sure? Because they saw it happening all around them.The emerging empowerment of women was coming from the ever expanding access and success of women inside of the educational system. The attack on WEEA was not just an attack on feminist values, but on values of equality in general. It was an assault on the very vision of education, its values and principles, as a great equalizer equally deserved by all. What the feminist movement was championing for themselves had much larger ramifications than just for women, and therefore education itself had to be reduced in status and concern.****
The attack on WEEA was not just an attack on feminist values, but on values of equality in general. It was an assault on the very vision of education, its values and principles, as a great equalizer equally deserved by all.
And for boys, schooling has become, for most, a means to an end, a way into the economic marketplace. There also lies the difficulty that our boys face when they come into schools. They are rewarded if they do well, joining an ever narrowing group of elite learners (and potential earners) who can find their piece of the 1%. Otherwise, school becomes a place of unrealized potential and often a threat to masculinity because of our ingrained notions about what constitutes a man. Education is either for men or it is not. It is either a highly elitist form of training or trade school. We rarely contextualize education for young women in this way.
The possible solution is clear: a complete rethink of the structures and approaches to education, beginning anew with something that is actually quite old. However, it will need all of us to imagine that only one part of an education and therefore life is served through the goal of economic dignity. Our aspirations and desires for our children can be so much more.
* McCambridge, T.R. Liberal Education and American School. Doctoral dissertation. 1997. p. 75.
** National Education Association "Report of the Committee of Nine on the Articulation of School and College" in Proceedings, 1911
***Goldin, C. & Katz, L.F. The Race Between Education and Technology. Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press. 2008. p100-101.
****Faludi, S. The Undeclared War on American Women. New York. Three River Press. 1991.