Saturday, February 27, 2010

Who's against a Common Culture?

Boston College professor Alan Wolfe no doubt means well when he calls for a ceasefire in the culture wars, or at least for a cessation of hostilities on the battlefield that is our public schools. To that end, he uses the occasion of his review in Christianity Today's Books & Culture of E. D. Hirsch's new book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, to make the case that we have become overly habituated to discussing our children's education in terms of Left and Right. He insists that we should strive to subdue this practice as it hinders one of the public schools' more important tasks: creating, communicating, and sustaining a common culture. Regrettably, his characterization of the disposition of blame for this problem is inaccurate and unfair.

According to Wolfe, one of the more valuable things about Hirsch's book is that it spends some time examining the case for school choice, one of the current enthusiasms of the Right. Hirsch, we gather, is sceptical about its benefits, but Wolfe leaves no doubt that he thinks it does more harm than good. He writes that, "School choice by its very nature militates against one of [Hirsch's] major recommendations: the adoption of a common curriculum that all students must learn."

Fair enough, I suppose, but he then proceeds to identify the drive for school choice with the motivations that also inspire homeschooling and private schooling, in particular those motivations that are religious in nature. What these three movements share, finally, is the inescapable pursuit of a particular and specialized education. That kind of education, according to Wolfe, institutionalizes its own form of illiteracy, an illiteracy which makes it incapable of nurturing the common culture we desperately need in our diverse country.

Wolfe begins his review, as I mentioned, by calling on us all to lay down our ideological swords. But there is no way of escaping the fact that the thrust of his case is directed against the Right, and in particular the Religious Right. Why? Because, in his judgment, the Religious Right has too often escaped its share of the blame for the cultural fissures that plague us. He encapsulates his plea for ending the divide with a culminating sentence that, despite its universality, is clearly directed at the Right: "The truth is that Americans of all persuasions need more factual knowledge."

There is so much wrong with that sentence:

1. The Left is currently enjoying a long and, from its perspective, productive run disparaging the very kind of factual knowledge that used to inform without controversy our common understanding of the "exceptional" nature of our country. We all know the drill: Columbus was an imperialist, Washington a slave owner, J.P. Morgan a robber baron, etc.

2. The Left has for some time now been in the grips of a post-modern, deconstructionist, epistemology that denies there is anything like a fact that one can know anyway. Moreover, and consistent with that epistemology, the identification of a fact, we are told, is itself merely an exercise in raw power disguised as an otherwise objective endeavor.

3. While even the Left cannot practice consistently this self-contradictory epistemology, it embraces it nevertheless as it affords the leverage needed to replace the traditional teaching with, as even Wolfe himself mocks, "the wonders of race, ethnicity, and gender", in a word, multiculturalism. (Could anything be more transparently contrary to the goal of a common culture?)

4. It was the Left who ridiculed the old pedagogy as unnecessarily fact saturated, not to mention undemocratically didactic and overly reliant on simplistic rote memorization.

It was for these aspects of the Left's education agenda, and more, that the Right, including the Religious Right, fled the public schools. Quite simply, up against a powerful, large, and growing public education bureaucracy controlled by the Left, they felt they had no choice but to open private schools or pursue homeshooling. And they did this at great cost to themselves. Whether they sent their children to private schools or homeschooled them, they were still taxed for the public education they no longer used.

Yes, in America a common culture needs to be defended. But first we need to identify, correctly, the enemy of that enterprise.

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