|Graham Vyse: How unprecedented are the cultural battles we’re seeing today over education in America?
Rick Hess: You mightn’t imagine it, but it’s actually been normal throughout U.S. history for cultural tensions to drive public debate about education. In the 19th century, there were major disputes about compulsory schooling, what languages were acceptable in schools, who could attend them, or the status of parochial schools—all of which were along ethnic or religious divides.
Later in the 19th century and into the 20th, there were ferocious clashes over the “Jim Crow” laws in the South, enforcing racial segregation; later in the 20th century, over the desegregation laws of the Civil Rights era; later still, over “bussing” laws that mandated transporting students to schools within or outside their local districts to diversify the schools’ racial compositions.
But there was also a steady stream of very consequential, but less well-remembered, fights about curricula and educational access: There were conflicts over the teaching of science, which frequently turned on questions of religion and faith. There were conflicts over schooling for students from German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, East European, and Mexican communities. As the century went on, American education was variously consumed by fights over communism, school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, efforts to outlaw private schools, efforts to legalize homeschooling, the issue of teen pregnancy, the role of faith.
In this sense, the last few decades have been unusual—when the focus turned away from these value-laden questions about what should happen within schools and toward more technocratic questions about policy levers for improving the performance of schools: What are the right funding mechanisms? What are the right choice mechanisms? How best to hold schools or universities accountable? And so on.
Right now, there’s a feeling in America that it’s somehow weird for there to be so much cultural conflict in public debates over education. But from a historical perspective, the last 20 or 30 years have been a vacation from this kind of conflict. You could say that, in the substance of the fights, what the United States is experiencing right now is more the norm than not.
Vyse: What’s caused the shift back to that norm?
Leave a Reply