Ira Chernus  


On a Sunday morning in 1690 the famous Puritan minister Cotton Mather climbed into the pulpit to warn his flock about the declining state of education in the younger generation, "which, if not prevented, will gradually dispose us to degeneracy." Ever since, the pundits have been complaining about the woeful state of our schools and asking plaintively, "Why canít Johnny (or Janey) read?"

Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush are criss-crossing the country asking that question. The "crisis in education" is a perennial crowd-pleaser. Itís as American as cherry pie. Unfortunately, when societyís leaders start lamenting the decline in education, it usually spells trouble for serious efforts to help young people learn.

Todayís school critics have something Cotton Mather never had: statistics. Statistics are like those inkblots in the Rorschach test. You can always see a crisis if you are so inclined. But there is just as much evidence that kids are a lot better educated today than they used to be. Most parents I know are amazed by how much the level of expectation has risen since we were schoolkids. So the important question is not why Johnny canít read, but why so many Americans choose to believe that our schools are failing.

One reason is the joy of jeremiads, those laments about societyís ills that Puritan ministers loved to preach. Americans still revel in a good jeremiad.

Historians have a pretty good idea why jeremiads became, and remain, so popular. The clergymen of Matherís day wanted a stable, predictable social structure. Their claim to authority depended on it. But the world was changing so fast that they couldnít control it. Since the ministers were most frightened about the uncontrollable future, they bemoaned the fate of the future generation and blamed it on the schools.

The pace of change has not let up since 1690. Schools keep changing too. By some measures they keep improving. But change still breeds anxiety, and a good jeremiad still sells. Itís no wonder. You get to affirm the values you prefer and share them with lots of other frightened people. The more people bemoan the sad state of the world, the better it feels.

Jeremiads recount the evils of the day in almost loving detail, contrasting them with something better that supposedly used to exist and could exist again. They sound like objective analyses of social problems. But they are not meant to be objective. They are meant to express and alleviate anxiety about cultural change, by praising the old values and habits and excoriating the new. Since it all sounds so objective, you can easily persuade yourself that your personal values are objectively true.

Historians of American culture would quickly see that the loudest critics of education these days are preaching jeremiads. They do not offer us careful analyses of education. That would mean reading and heeding mountains of scholarly literature, much of which finds that schools are improving. Nor do the critics lay out detailed, realistic programs for improving education. That would mean paying attention to professional educators, the people who work in the schools every day. They see the improvements as well as the problems. But that wonít help the preachers, who only want to cry out for someone to make things better. At best, they offer simple nostrums like national standards or vouchers and privatization.

Their anxieties are understandable, and they should not be blamed for feeling them. The idealized past they praise (which probably never existed) certainly cannot be realized in the future. And deep down they know itówhich is what gives such passion to their crusade. They are on a never-ending quest for an impossible dream. But that suits the critics just fine, because jeremiads are not intended to solve problems. They are intended only to make frightened people feel better. The "crisis" and the "failing schools" must continue so that the jeremiads can continue, for it is only in the process of constant lament that they can find any solace.

When the "back to basics" folks start warning about a crisis, I see a jeremiad coming and I duck. Itís a sure sign that the topic is not really education, but fears of social and cultural change. Itís just one more move in the ongoing struggle over the shape of our society and its values. Unfortunately, the kids become pawns caught in the middle. When that happens in a family, the experts call it dysfunctional. It is just as dysfunctional in a nation. If we are really interested in improving education, we should lower the emotional temperature, stop throwing sound-bites, take it out of the political arena, listen to professional educators, and start talking seriously about what is best for all our children.