Education’s Real Culprits
Leon Botstein’s “Are We Still Making Citizens?” [Issue #36] makes important points about challenges in public education. But while I hesitate to disagree with the president of my alma mater, his discussion of the history and purpose of efforts to (as he puts it) “privatize” K-12 education is almost entirely incorrect.
Contrary to President Botstein’s unsubstantiated assertions, the people who first sought alternatives to the traditional public school model were not racists seeking to flee integrated schools. Rather, they were libertarian and liberal intellectuals searching for an alternative to an increasingly unresponsive public school bureaucracy; disillusioned public school teachers like those who founded the KIPP Academy; and a diverse group of political leaders like Polly Williams of Milwaukee, Kevin Chavous of Washington, D.C., and Jeb Bush of Florida, who saw generations of children marooned in failing schools.
For these reformers, promoting alternatives was not about undermining the public school model, but offering choices to families when local public schools were barely functioning. Botstein’s claim that this movement was a strike against the idea of public schools is thus backwards. Rather, it was a result of the failure of public schools—particularly in the inner cities—to provide an adequate education. It was the public schools and those who ran them that struck a blow against public education, not the people who sought to escape a failing model.
Botstein is also wrong that choice “favors the rich.” Many (if not most) school choice programs are limited to low-income students attending the worst public schools. In contrast, the rich have no reason to support school choice—they already have it. This may explain why much of the opposition to school choice programs comes from wealthy families (like the Obamas and Clintons) who condemn inner-city children to poverty while sending their children to outstanding private schools.
Botstein also misunderstands the role of teachers unions. Public-sector unions, which remain the most powerful voice influencing education policy, were not formed to promote educational excellence—they exist to promote the employment interests of dues-paying members. They therefore fight any reforms that might hold their members accountable for their performance.
Finally, Botstein sells parents short when he suggests that, given a choice, parents will choose schools that will not create good citizens. Families are perfectly capable of picking schools that will provide a well-rounded education—indeed, that is the model at the college level, where Pell Grants (a form of voucher) enable small, innovative schools like Bard College to exist. Despite Botstein’s alarm, children educated through parental choice can—and usually do—become discerning, engaged citizens. And these children will be better citizens than if they had no choice but to go to an unresponsive, dysfunctional, and monopolistic public school.
William R. Maurer
Institute for Justice
Who Defines the Public Good?
“Are We Still Making Citizens?” by Leon Botstein presents the author’s uncompromising agenda for the future of American education. Yet on close examination, this agenda does not live up to the standards that Botstein tries to establish.
In his piece, Botstein comes through as a staunch advocate of objectivity and truth. One absolutely essential condition of objectivity is a critical examination of one’s own premises—what Kant called synthetic a priori judgments, or what we commonly call self-evident truths. Botstein does not observe this condition, which makes his entire agenda very dubious, if not suspect.
Botstein reveals his strong predilection for liberal democracy—which is so strong, in fact, that he equates it with democracy per se. This commitment implies the acceptance of the entire liberal-democratic theoretical perspective on the social universe and its recognition of the individual as its ultimate ontological reality. It is this perspective that Botstein leaves unjustified, unrecognized, and, consequently, unexamined. He ignores the fact that numerous critics of liberal democracy, most importantly those who advocate communitarian approaches, have convincingly argued that U.S. democracy is essentially an elite rule. It was precisely because of their fear of elite rule that the Founding Fathers introduced checks and balances as a way of protecting common citizens from abuse.
Who are these citizens whom Botstein argues that our educational system should make? New members of the elite who can participate in and win public debates on the public good? Isn’t that what we have now?
Botstein minces no words chastising postmodernists for the rampant preoccupation with subjectivity in our society. According to Botstein, our school system should teach students to set aside their personal narratives and “contemplate the public good.” But how do you simply set aside subjectivity? Botstein’s proposal to expunge subjectivity from public debates evades a serious problem posed by postmodernists. If there is one good lesson that postmodernists have taught us all, it is that subjectivity is ineffable and ineluctable. It refuses to go away and can reassert itself in unexpected guises, including an objectivist one. Botstein’s failure to recognize this fact does not bode well for his agenda. Who will define what the public good is? If we follow his logic, it will be the elite-qua-citizens whom he insists our school system should make.
So, in the final analysis, what are we to make of Botstein’s agenda? One should recognize that it is inconsistent and contradictory. The path it charts points to the past, when instead our country and its educational system should be embracing the future.
Professor of History