Damaged discourse

Public education’s decline endangers Americans’ essential citizenship skills

By Liat Spiro

Much has been written about the dumbing down of America, especially in response to the infamous SAT recalibration in 1995 and American students’ ailing test scores in comparison to international standards. At least since the 1983 federally-commissioned report, “A Nation at Risk,” Americans have discussed the dire consequences of academic failure for the country’s economy. Equally worrisome, however, is a secondary victim of lowered standards: the country’s polity.

Today, many of the Americans who experienced declining standards in school are unable to make persuasive arguments—to engage in the business of democracy. Unable to analyze and express their discontent, a relatively small, but rapidly-growing, group resorts to throwing bricks into Congressional campaign offices, while others hurl threats and slurs at their representatives. Others disengage completely, cynically denying any possibility for helpful change. At the end of the day, no constructive arguments are made, and Representatives Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY), as well as the Charlottesville, Virginia GOP office, are left to pick up shards of glass.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s, a decade commonly seen as full of turbulence, several important aspects of public education were markedly “U of C.” Many public high schools emphasized the use of primary sources. In a lower-class area of the Quad Cities, my mom and her peers were expected to read Hobbes, Locke, and many of the Founders for themselves. Better yet, teachers required them to make well-reasoned and persuasive arguments (both oral and written) about these texts. Rhetoric was analyzed; simplistic analogies were put to the test. The average high school student then knew more about economics than current students do. With a mastery of basic microeconomic and macroeconomic theory, earlier generations could approach major fiscal and monetary decisions with informed opinions. There was some degree of parity between common knowledge and the knowledge necessary to make good arguments and voting decisions. Today, that balance has been severely destabilized; the complexity of the economy has grown just as Americans’ understanding has diminished.

Prior to 1970, the majority of reform efforts advocated peaceful protest. More importantly, American citizens were making surprisingly incisive arguments at surprisingly young ages. Overall, frustration had an impressively productive outlet.

So why the focus on destruction nowadays? Why are Americans throwing bricks? Why are Americans spitting on Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) and calling Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) a faggot? Why are Americans calling Representative John Lewis (D-GA), a prominent civil rights leader, a nigger? In response to these questions, some have cited the struggling economy and the rage joblessness can engender. Others have focused on the changing face of America, demographic “challenges,” and the relative disenfranchisement of the white male. Yet others have mentioned the incendiary language and imagery employed by some Republican leaders. All of these are likely contributing factors, but I believe the major enabler has been the fall of the American public education system and many Americans’ subsequent inability to think critically, civically, and civilly about national issues. As Americans have become more easily duped and manipulated, the extreme fringe has found ready recruits. Violent discourse has gained popularity—and violent action with it. A recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center reveals that the number of active “Patriot” militias more than doubled in 2009.

How did we get to this point? First, both the Left and the Right have contributed to the dismantling of America’s public education system. Starting in the 1970s, relativism pervaded available curricula and assessment methods. Every child was talented; every argument was valuable. In humanities and social studies classes, students acquired few analytical tools with which to measure an argument’s worth or to discover what makes a good argument. Reflecting Reagan’s rhetoric, the 1980’s introduced the opposite approach (particularly in social studies courses): a black-and-white, dichotomous portrayal of America’s superiority. One narrative of history and nationalism reigned. There was little room for argument.

Much of our generation experienced the legacies of both faulty systems. In English classes, relativism remained an obstacle to students’ learning to make persuasive arguments. In social studies classes, many of us learned a diluted version of Fukuyama’s End of History—Capitalism was the spirit and the word. AP History exams only demanded knowledge of the constituent facts of one, accepted version of history. In too many public schools, arguments weren’t—and aren’t—being made and tested by students.

More recent changes are further endangering peaceful and productive political discourse in this country. The College Board’s 2005 removal of analogies from the SAT means that analogies and analogical thinking have largely disappeared from public school curricula. But politicians and pundits will continue, no doubt, to use analogies frequently and indiscriminately. How will Americans parse analogies and other rhetorical devices? Will they immediately accept policy proposals as “lipstick on a pig?” How easily will a bill be branded a “baby-killer?”

About a century ago, John Dewey observed that “we naturally associate democracy, to be sure, with freedom of action, but freedom of action without freed capacity of thought behind it is only chaos.” Freeing minds means challenging them.

— Liat Spiro is a second-year in the College majoring in International Studies.