In the polarized United States everyone agrees about something, although the ways that we agree, the terms that we use, and the things that we say are quite different. In short, we agree that schools are in bad shape. In nobody's view are schools doing well. Expressions of this agreement, from left to right and reformist to radical, seem different, but are not nearly as different as one might expect.
On the left, public schools are championed as centers that add value to a democratic society in the way that roads and libraries do. This view is critical of public schools for not being as public as they should be, for becoming too representative of private interests. This view sees the curriculum of public schools as infected with a bias for Christian religion and the idolatry of the U.S. nation-state.
On the right, alternatives to public schools are sought after, from private academies to charter schools, because the public delivery method is seen as being too restrictive, limiting, and wasteful. This view is critical of public schools for being too bureaucratic and representative of insular local interests and the State. This view sees the curriculum of public schools as infected with a bias for secularism and anti-Americanism.
There are more radical positions, of course, that reject the school altogether or, more moderately, reproduce it in different forms at home and in alternative academic settings. But even these positions ascribe to the basic belief that the present state of schooling is a harm. Where the radicals differ from the more reformist right and left is that they do not see schools as failures. Schools, the radicals say, are quite successful at doing exactly what they were created to do—such as dividing a nation into neat and predictable binaries—most of all, to create a docile and unthinking class of useful idiots. We do not need to reform schools, on the radical view; we need to destroy them.
Critics of the Common Core emerged from every side as soon as it began about a year ago. Proponents of classical models of schooling hated it every bit as much as the Marxists and the free-schoolers did. From Bush to Obama, the transition from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top to Common Core is a seamless bi-partisan garment. I know much of this because I work closely with leftist and anarchist educational scholars and theorists, classical liberals, and Catholic conservatives of every stripe. Each group seems to think that each other one is a fan of these recent policies or some aspect of their rationale, but the truth is that they are not the enemies they suspect each other of being. Indeed, for once, they may be allies.
Those who support the status quo model of compulsory schooling, regulated by standardized tests that have no real standards, governed by arbitrary rules cooked up by a crockpot of social scientific studies that expire every two or three years, do so mainly for reasons of ignorance or self-preservation, not because they believe that the schools of today are worthwhile in their present state. For most people, schools are more reliable routes to miserable jobs and money than anything else out there, so why not support them?
Revolution begins with dissatisfaction. A true consensus is always already present in a dissensus infectious enough to go unnoticed. Perhaps this is why politicians say next to nothing about schools, except for conflating them with starry-eyed, Hallmark-card platitudes about education. The general public does not understand what schools are here to do, where they came from, and why we decided to make people attend them for 12 consecutive years under penalty of law during the mid-19th century. The ideological ways in which the vocation of teaching has been decimated is about much more than teacher unions and compensation. And there is blame to go around several times. We’ve lost our way, or perhaps we’ve found our way into a dissent that is long overdue.
How this state of schooling leaks into colleges and universities is not hard to see or understand. Ask any thoughtful academic about the state of her profession and home institution and the reply will invariably be grim about the future. The schooling consensus replicates itself across the humanities. How is it that atheistic analytic philosophy departments and leftist cultural studies faculties are just as insecure and fragile today as religious studies scholars and theologians? Academics sometimes like to think that one side is reaping the rewards of our vulnerability, but the truth is that this monstrous philistinism shows no prejudice.
In the fine arts things are even more poignant and terrifying. School killed jazz, some people say. Who knows? What seems clear is that the school of today is no longer the school of yesteryear, the school that, whether public or private, functioned as a primarily civic institution, with disciplinary but protective social purposes. The school of today is indifferent and even allergic to the civic model; schooling is today becoming less and less political and more and more economic in scope and purpose. Schools are, like prisons, a for-profit business, a barrel of fish booming and beaming with practical and relevant and quick ways to make a buck or two.
This new economic school is a threat to all. It is a menace with enough teeth to not be picky about the pet theories of those whom it eats. We don’t agree about education or the political questions of what a society is and should be, but I think that we all agree—even those who don’t realize it—that schooling today is lost and must be revisited from the beginning.
This is a weak consensus, to be sure, as all authentic agreement is, but it is a start for finding a direction that helps more than it harms. The schooling consensus might at the very least begin a modest experiment in seeing one’s own fate in the hands of another.