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American Education, Federalism, and the Unfulfilled Dream of Liberal Neutrality | Focus

Contemporary battles over Critical Race Theory in schools echo the history of American education policy, which provides crucial lessons.

“The Whole People must take upon themselvs the Education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expences of it. There should not be a district of one Mile Square without a school in it, not founded by a Charitable individual but maintained at the expence of the People themselvs. They must be taught to reverence themselvs instead of adoreing their servants their Generals Admirals Bishops and Statesmen.”
-John Adams, 1785

John Adams’ confident assertion of the need for quality public education in a democratic society is a ringing testament to the enduring importance of education in American political life, even at the infant stages of the American republic. Citizens, Adams writes, must be educated at public expense and taught to have reverence for themselves, if democracy is to succeed.  Yet education is, and always has been, highly contested ground in American public life. For centuries, Americans have fought at all levels and arenas of government over education policy’s administration, content, and ultimate goals.

Today, the most prominent and controversial battle over education policy is being fought over whether or not public schools should be permitted to teach Critical Race Theory. This is a school of thought which asserts that socially constructed notions of race are embedded in American institutions, perpetuating the systemic oppression of non-white Americans. Much ink has already been spilled over this debate, and more will continue to be spilled. So, rather than add another entry to an already saturated pop-up genre, it makes sense to step back from this particular battle and evaluate its broader history. In order to understand this situation, it is helpful to analyze the ways in which federalism---the layering of national and subnational governments---has influenced education policy in the past, as well as how competing conceptions of the common good have shown liberalism’s simple claim of legal neutrality on moral issues actually quite complicated.

Similar struggles over education policy can be found as early as the post-Revolutionary period in the United States. In particular, the idea that the state (and later the federal) government should be in the business of regulating local schools emerged quickly as a site of tension. In the early 19th century, the state government of Massachusetts imposed requirements that towns, which had primary prerogative over education, raise taxes and fund schools at public expense, establishing a precedent for state government to direct local decisions. In addition, the new state board of education proposed an increase in access to schools, the introduction of state standards for teachers and curriculum, and neutrality on the matter of religion.

State standards and religious neutrality generated significant opposition. Local communities rebelled against the idea of central control of education policy. So-called education “localists” fought to limit or even abolish the power of the State Board, while fights ensued over how the principles of different Protestant denominations should be taught in schools. Many reforms prevailed over these objections, but the fact that schools had emerged in the colonial era as primarily local and private institutions meant that the state’s role was permanently limited. These origins set American public education on a path of powerful local governance and fragmented authority in  education policy.

Battles over education, however, have never been just about who sets the rules but what kinds of rules are set: the content of education. Religion in public schools in New York State around the same time served as a similar flashpoint. An influx of Catholic immigrants to the state led to conflicts between the primarily Protestant schools and Catholic families. Fearing that Catholicism would corrupt the Protestant values of the early republic and ruin democracy with the outside influence of the Pope, Protestants fought the teaching of any Catholic values in New York schools. Such battles over the nature of the national common good, stoked by fears of the degradation of American values, echo the contemporary conflict over Critical Race Theory.

Most notably, it’s worth pointing out that both then and now, notions of a common good which exceeds the protection of a few key rights seem to generate the most passionate disagreement, whether over religion, notions of race, or any number of other issues. While a core tenet of American liberalism seems to be legal neutrality and institutional impartiality, historically speaking such a framework has never been fully realized, not least in the realm of education. For better or for worse, some sense of a common good has taken priority over neutrality at nearly every point in American history.

Thus disagreements over what children learn in school become existential battles, in which it is believed American values are at stake, because education is the first step in instructing the next generation in understanding the common good and national identity. Contemporary fights over CRT are little different.

Disputes over curriculum have also been tied to squabbles over administrative prerogative in the history of American education. Consider the consequences of the famous 1925 Scopes Trial, which brought the matter of teaching evolution in a Tennessee school to the courts after a local teacher refused to refrain from teaching evolution in his classroom, in disobedience of a Tennessee law. The American Civil Liberties Union, seeking to bring an evolution case all the way to the Supreme Court in order to establish a pro-evolution precedent, had actually recruited the teacher for the act. The trial which followed became a national sensation, but the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in such a way that the case could not be appealed to the Supreme Court, denying the ACLU the opportunity to establish its desired precedent. Importantly, the Tennessee court’s decision is indicative of the desires of powerful political actors in states, particularly in more conservative states, to prevent the federal government from establishing its own authority on matters of education policy. Such policy fragmentation, resulting from contradictory responsibilities between different branches of government, has resulted in disparate educational quality and preparedness.

The disjointed nature of education policy has been particularly impactful for Americans of marginalized backgrounds. The civil rights movement and the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson gave life to the first major federal foray into education policy: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 which  established special federal funding for schools in underprivileged areas. The bill was successful in some respects, and its goal of reducing disparities between districts–a perpetual problem in American history–was admirable. Its effectiveness, however, was hindered by the fact that it delivered money to districts without a sufficient degree of oversight. More importantly, the ESEA had no prerogative over the core sources of funding for education, which have always been localized. It was toothless, then, when it came to legislation like California’s Proposition 13, which severely capped the local taxes that fund education in the state and sharpened disparities between communities. The government’s inability to use its funding as leverage to assist students from marginalized communities was a serious constraint on the movement towards racial equality.

The most famous piece of education legislation, at least in the twenty first century, is No Child Left Behind, which passed under President George W. Bush with bipartisan support in Congress. While NCLB significantly increased the federal government’s role in education policy by introducing national standards, it did so in a way that perpetuated, rather than reduced, disparities across states and localities. Schools that failed to meet the national standards were subject to federal sanctions that included withdrawal of the funds for underprivileged students under the ESEA. Rather than establishing a firmer federal role for the sake of equality, or embracing education federalism by making local and state administration more robust, NCLB largely failed in its goals, doing little to reduce the funding gap or the achievement gap between privileged and underprivileged students.

There might be nothing new under the sun in American education policy, but there certainly are some lessons for the future. An incidental one, but worth remarking on nonetheless, is that the history of education policy in the US appears to reinforce, rather than undermine, some key assumptions of Critical Race Theory. There have been enormous disparities in access and outcomes of education policy for those who are socially constructed members of the out-group, be they Catholics in the nineteenth century or Black Americans in the twentieth and twenty-first. Both at the material and ideological level governmental institutions are structured in ways that have continued to privilege the dominant class (white Protestants) and its dominant narrative. Another lesson is that federalism can produce serious tensions within the country, as quality of education diverges significantly between states and different values are inculcated among students, exacerbating political differences. This hardly means that federalism should be done away with, but it is worth pondering these consequences.

Finally, and most importantly, battles over content get at a core tension in liberal democracy. In the modern era, partisans of liberalism assert that one of the system’s key virtues is its neutrality on questions of the common good. But the cases above suggest that this is enormously difficult to achieve. Whether American education is primarily Catholic or Protestant, firmly in line with scientific fact or in tacit rejection of it, rooted in a “pure” founding or one that built oppression into the system from the outset–there is no perfect neutrality along any of these dimensions. Education is a process of bringing up the young to have the right ideas about life and our society, and as long as we live in a society that values certain liberties, equalities, and political participation, neutral education is not possible.

If we are to look anywhere for a vision of education which is neither neutral nor indoctrinatory, John Adams may offer sage advice. His view was that in a democracy citizens must first learn to respect themselves and understand their own dignity, because without this one cannot engage as a responsible citizen. Such a view might be a useful starting point if we are to develop a sense of a common good that is substantive but not corrosive of the principles of liberal democracy. In a democracy, citizens must decide the common good. However, their reasoning must begin from an education which grounds their thoughts in an appreciation of their own power to form an opinion and in the awareness of human equality. Such an education is far from neutral, but it is the kind of partiality a democracy needs.

Further reading:

Adams' Letter to Jebb, 1785.

There are a number of nice tidbits of wisdom from Adams in this letter, although the quote about education is mostly an aside.

An Education in Politics, by Jesse Rhodes.

This is a nice history of education policy in the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first, very much an academic text but a useful one nonetheless. I drew on Rhodes’ analysis of how institutional fragmentation produced disparate outcomes among different groups for my own argument.

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.

There’s a lot of polemicism and misinformation being spread right now about Critical Race Theory, so I picked this introductory text by one of its founding theorists, Richard Delgado, to get a better sense of what CRT really has to say about race in America.

Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign Against Evolution, by Edward Caudill.

This is a well-written, well-researched, and easy-to-read book on the history of battles over the teaching of evolution in schools in the United States. I used it for my discussion of the Scopes trial.

“Schooling the State: ESEA and the Evolution of the U.S. Department of Education,” by Patrick McGuinn.

This article is a useful reference point for understanding some of the history of education policy in the United States, particularly the federal government’s role.

“The Struggle Over Public Education in Early America,” by Amy Smekar, David A. Moss, and Gregory DiBella, in Democracy: A Case Study, by David A. Moss.

Moss wrote this remarkably accessible text in 2017, which utilizes the Harvard Business School’s case study method for analyzing American democracy. I drew on it for the historical information on education in the early republic.


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