School Daze

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This country’s schools have effectively been nationalized. Officially, there is still competition between school districts, and among public schools, private schools, and home schools, but in effect we now have, after a century of consolidation, a national educational system, with a national Department of Education, federal aid to the schools, many government rules and regulations controlling public ¬∑schools’ operations and curricula, together with substantial power ceded to nationwide unions to license teachers and influence instruction. As a result, competition in the field of ideas and education has been severely restricted, the very opposite of what the situation would be if there were complete freedom of entry to anyone and everyone who sought to teach children.

So far, at least, the nationalized schools have not been used to promote frankly nationalistic propaganda. Nor does the government openly censor school curricula. But it has slowed down and in many ways restricted the ideas taught and the shape of competition in the field of education. This can be clearly seen in the production of textbooks, which usually promote prevailing opinions and rarely oppose the national government’s views on various issues. Generally speaking, the textbooks now being produced and used in the public schools tend to toe the line.

Intense competition among publishers for especially lucrative sales means that the most populous states (including California, Texas, and Florida), as well as big urban school districts such as New York City and Miami-Dade County, all with a centralized process for textbook selection, exert disproportionate influence. To avoid antagonizing any single group, publishers try to reflect diversity of population, to be politically correct in every respect. To avoid racial stereotypes, white suburban kids, Asian-American laundry owners or math students, and Mexican men wearing ponchos and wide-brimmed hats are declasse. The texts tend to understate whites and overstate minorities.

Some publishers have established guidelines for elementary and high school texts. McGraw-Hill specifies that 400/0 of the people depicted should be white, 30% Hispanic, 20% African- American, 7% Asian and 30% Native American. California, Texas, and Florida require publishers to reflect diversity but don’t specify percentages for particular groups. To keep diversity proportional to a textbook’s market, publishers count the pages devoted in various editions to illustrations of different racial groups. In a California edition, 35% of illustrations are of Hispanics and 7% are of African-Americans. In North Carolina, 60% are of Hispanics and 22% are of African-Americans.

Publishers don’t have numerical targets for religious affiliation, but are wary of slighting any religious faith. A picture of a pig walking down a street was removed from the cover of a 2005 first-grade reader, lest it offend Jews or Muslims who don’t eat pork. Photographers seeking to portray disabled youngsters in the lavishly illustrated textbooks often find it difficult to locate enough truly disabled children with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, or Down syndrome available to model, so they sometimes give a fully mobile child crutches or place him in a wheelchair. Photos of President Roosevelt in his wheelchair have become popular. Substitutions are sometimes made of one racial type for another “lookalike” type – a Southeast Asian for a native Mexican or a Chicano for a southwestern Native American. Publishers, though well-intentioned, have replaced one artificial vision of reality with another. Textbooks have become a veritable exercise in hypocrisy.

Modern textbooks are pretty well homogenized. Factual information has been watered down. Today’s school books include more pictures and proportionally less reading material than yesterday’s texts. As illustrations proliferate, intellectual content suffers. As the years go by, there is more history for students to cover, so accounts of the past must be shortened and some facts must be dropped. But the judgment of McGraw- Hill to include a profile and photo of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot, in the 2002 Texas edition of “The American Republic Since 1877,” without even mentioning aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright, certainly seems a stretch.

The persons responsible over the years for introducing government programs to help public school students have had the best of intentions. They have provided federal funds to help pay for school construction, integration, textbooks, compulsory school attendance, school library books, busing, school lunches, merit pay for teachers, standardized testing, special education for the handicapped, etc. In the process they have unwittingly produced, step by step, a “national” public school system. Moreover, in spite of their best intentions to improve the quality of public-school teaching and to assure “no child left behind,” requiring teachers to satisfy government-imposed rules and regulations hampers their ability to teach. Political goals have been accomplished at the expense of quality public-school teaching. As the late Professor Ludwig von Mises wrote in 1927: U[T]he school is a political prize of the highest importance. It cannot be deprived of its political character as long as it remains a political and compulsory institution.” And the compulsory U.S. public schools are increasingly politicized.

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