In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter characterized writing on education in the United States as
a literature of acid criticism and bitter complaint…. The educational jeremiad is as much a feature of our literature as the jeremiad in the Puritan sermons.
Anyone longing for the “good old days,” he noted, would have difficulty finding a time when critics were not lamenting the quality of the public schools. From the 1820s to our own time, reformers have complained about low standards, ignorant teachers, and incompetent school boards.
Most recently, in 1983, an august presidential commission somberly warned that we were (in the title of its statement) “A Nation at Risk” because of the low standards of our public schools. The Reagan-era report said:
Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.
Our national slippage was caused, said the commission, by “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” This mediocre educational performance was nothing less than “an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”
Imagine the peril, the threat of national disaster: “our very future as a Nation and a people” hung in the balance unless we moved swiftly to improve our public schools. What were we to do? The commission proposed a list of changes, starting with raising graduation requirements for all students and making sure they studied a full curriculum of English, math, science, history, computer science, as well as foreign languages (for the college-bound), the arts, and vocational education.
It also proposed more student time in school, higher standards for entry into teaching, higher salaries for teachers, and an evaluation system for teachers that included peer review. Nothing was said about the current fad of evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores. The federal government distributed half a million copies of the report, and many states created task forces and commissions to determine how to implement the recommendations. Many states did raise graduation requirements, but critics were unappeased, and complaints about our educational failures continued unabated.
Somehow, despite the widely broadcast perception that educational achievement was declining, the United States continued to grow and thrive as an economic, military, and technological power. As President Barack Obama put it in his 2011 State of the Union address:
Remember—for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.