The War Over Culture in Education

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The War Over Culture in Education

September 5, 1991 19 min read Download Report
William J.
Distinguished Fellow

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The War Over Culture In Education

By William J. Bennett Since leaving government I have had a chance to reflect on the three posts I have held in the Reagan and Bush Administ rations: chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Sec- retary of Education, and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In looking back I realize that almost all of the disputes that I was involved in were fundamentally dispu t es over the condition and direction of our culture. In each of these jobs I found myself in the middle of cul- tural matters, cultural controversies, and cultural fights. Two examples help make the point, I think. The first occurred shortly after I was na m ed chair- man of the NEH. I was reviewing "documentary" films that had been produced with taxpayer money. One of the "documentaries" was called From the Ashes: Nicaragua, a film produced by the Wisconsin Humanities Committee. It showed the poor, unhappy w o rkers of Nicaragua toiling with bent backs and sad countenances, until the Sandinistas rolled into town. Then, the people dropped what they were doing, perked up and began to sing. They were transformed. All of a sud- den everyone looked a lot better-happ i er, handsomer, and more beautiful. I was told this film was an educational documentary, but it turned out to be nothing more than an outrageous piece of left-wing political propaganda. I denounced the film, describing it to The New York Times as "un- abas h ed socialist-realism propaganda, a hymn to the Sandinistas," and indicated we would take steps to stop funding this kind of thing. My liberal critics went nuts. My predecessor at NEH, Joseph Duffy, said "the endowment is not a moral pulpit." The director o f the film warned of "political and artistic censorship." Others said my action would have a "chilling effect" on free speech and the free expression of ideas, and so forth. I got this kind of reaction for simply insisting that they not use taxpayer money , or the name of the humanities, to fund political propaganda. Welcome to the cultural wars. Nine years (and many controversies) later, I was "drug czar" and attending a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans. The organizers of the event asked me to talk about the role of the church in the drug effort, particularly in regard to treatment. During the speech I en- couraged churches to get involved in fighting the war on drugs because, I said, "the drug problem is fundamentally a moral probl em-in the end, a spiritual problem. It is seeking meaning in a place where no meaning can come." I then said:

I continue to be amazed how often people I talked to in treatment centers talk about drugs as the great lie, the great deception-indeed a product, one could argue, of the great deceiver, the great deceiver everyone knows. "A lie" is what people call drugs and many, many people in treatment have de- scribed to me their version of crack, simply calling it "the devil." This has come up too often, it h as occurred too much, too spontaneously, too often in conversation, to be ignored. So I applaud your effort to bring those in need to the God who heals.

William J. Bennett is Distinguished Fellow in Cultural Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation and John M. Olin Fellow at the Hudson Institute. He spoke at The Heritage Foundation on September 5,1991. ISSN 0727-1155. 0 1991 by The Heritage Foundation.

Media Salvo. The people in the audience appreciated the fact that I repeated the'comments of the peop le in drug treatment programs. They saw it as an invitation to get involved in treatment programs and minister to the spiritual needs of people, so that drug addicts could get real help in- stead of a phony and deceptive lie. The day following my remarks a San Francisco Chronicle headline blared, "Bennen Blames Satan for Drug Use." The Sacramento Bee wrote, "Megal drugs are indeed the devil's handiwork, federal drug czar William Bennett said." And you can imagine the cartoons. Now, I think most Americans w o uld agree that a lot of people addicted to drugs have a spiritual problem, just as I think most Americans would agree that taxpayer money should not be used for political propaganda. What these two examples help illustrate, I think, is that when you enter the cultural arena you had better gird yourself for battle. And you had better be prepared to run up against the prevailing liberal orthodoxy. The interesting thing is that although I was often described by the media as one of the most accontroversial" fi g ures in Washington, many of my observations were exceedingly common obser- vations-maybe they were said with an edge and a certain pungency and feistiness-but never- the-less the sentiments I expressed were pretty straightforward, pretty typical, and pret t y ordinary American sentiments. And yet this led (at least in my career) to a great deal of controversy, whether we're talking about From the Ashes: Nicaragua, or about American education, or about the drug problem as a moral and spiritual problem. When w e are talking about culture we are talking about the "values environmenf 'in which we live and, most important to me, that environment of values, signals, and directions-the green lights, yellow lights and red lights-which comprise the environment in which we raise our chil- dren. At its best, I think the culture offers- a view of the good life, standards of right and wrong, and ways in which responsible individuals ought to behave. It also offers a perspective on things like knowledge, work, virtue, and be a uty. It is about matters that we attend to intentionally, and with some purpose and focus. Culture matters. There are a lot of research studies that tell us that what is in the.culture-the signals that are sent, what people value, and what values people h a ve-has a lot to do with what people will do, how they will behave, and even, in some circumstances, how they will turn out. Culture helps shape the beliefs and convictions, the internal compass, that determine individual be- havior. But culture is not sim p ly about matters of individual behavior. When we are talking about the culture, we are also talking about our collective social agenda, our work together. The state and health of our culture determines broad social and civic purposes-for example, how we t h ink of our schools, our colleges and universities, our churches, our entertainment, our art and our litera- ture. The state of our culture tells us a lot about what things we value and the kinds of purposes we as a people will strive toward. Schools and C u lture. I want to discuss the relationship between our schools and our culture. There is a lot of research that tells us that the character of a school, its ethos, is its most important feature. The kind of institution it is, the kind of things it values m o st, and the kind of things it val- ues least determine the kind of school it is. I believe that the major reason that education has deteriorated in America is because our schools were systematically, culturally deconstructed. They were taken apart. Many o f the things which mattered most in our schools were removed, and they were set adrift. I was at a conference recently given by a foundation on the West Coast which gives awards to teachers based on their teaching excellence. I spoke on the topic, "What do Americans want from their Schools?" I was happy to speak to the issue, since this was the first time in a long time that I


got a really easy one. And I told the audience what Americans wanted from their schools. We know what they want from their scho ols, because we have asked them and they have told us, and told us the same thing year after year after year: first, teach our children how to speak, write, read, count, and think correctly. And second, help them to develop reliable. standards of right an d wrong that will help guide them through life. These are pretty sensible expectations. Which disciplines should we teach in order for children to learn these things? Math, English, history, and science-- so say the American people. Different Priorities. F o llowing my speech there was a panel of Chief State School Officers. Each one began their remarks by saying they'd been waiting for years to get the chance to tell me what they really thought of me. And after doing that they each said, "Here are my ideas a b out what schools are about." And then they said the purpose of school is to teach students that we live in an "increasingly inter-dependent world," and schools should teach young people to appreciate "diversity" and have "tolerance" toward people who hold other views. But nobody said anything about teaching students how to speak, write, read, think, and count correctly or developing reliable standards of right and wrong. It occurred to me, No wonder we were talking past each other when I was Secretary of E d ucation. Representatives of the education establishment do not think the schools exist for the same reasons I do. We are engaged in an entirely different enterprise. And this became clearer to me as they went on. We then had an interesting dispute about p r iorities and who should actually decide what schools should teach. I objected to what they said. I told them, "I did not tell you what I think the schools should do. I told you what the American people want the schools to do." They kept saying, "Well, we d isagree with the American people." And I kept saying, "But they're their schools; they're not your schools." Well, clearly this is not.a hard one to figure out. They are the American peoples' schools. The education bureaucrats, or "educrats," are hired ha n ds and they should do the peoples' will. But they are not doing the peoples' will, and the reason they are not is that they have a wholly different understanding of what the schools should be about. One of the reasons they have a different understanding o f what the schools are about is because the schools have been culturally deconstructed. Ron Edmonds, who was a very impressive teacher and administrator, started the "Effective Schools Program" in the 1970s. Unfortunately Ron Edmonds died in the early 1980 s ; we could very much use his wisdom today. He talked about the characteristics of effective schools. I would like to discuss some of what Ron Edmonds thought the marks of effective schools are and in so doing, illustrate (1) how our schools have been cult u rally deconstructed and (2) what the task of culturally reconstructing our schools might involve. The first mark of an effective school, Edmonds said, is a safe and orderly environment. You do not have to be very old to remember the debunking of order tha t took place in the '60s and '70s. But it turns out that order really is a necessary condition for a good school. All the classroom management books in the early part of this century told the teacher, the first thing you have to do is get order. If you do n ot have order, you cannot teach. But the response to lack of order in the late '60s and '70s in the schools was to create the "open classroom," so there was not any order at all. By the way, when we ask American high school students what is the biggest pr o blem they face in the classroom, they do not cite drugs or violence. They say the biggest problem they face is dis- ruption by other students who will not let them learn. The classroom is not controlled, and there- fore, they cannot learn. We must once ag a in regain order in the classroom if we hope to improve American education. The second mark of an effective school is a clear andfocussed academic mission, including math, English, history, and science. If anything got exploded in the cultural deconstructi on of the


American school, it was the notion. of a clear and focussed mission. The curriculum expanded to include more and more "fluff' elective courses. As this went on, people forgot the answers to the question, "Why is math or English or history or science more i mportant than 'Rock 'n Roll as Poetry' or 'Baja Whale Watch'?" And now we are seeing this trend continue with the kind of ermulticultural" curriculum being proposed in New York, an idea that will have particularly perni- cious effects. One of the things I noticed as Secretary of Education was that when we found good schools, they were similar to what Tolstoy said about good families: they are all good for the same reasons. We found that the good schools for poor black kids or poorRispanic kids in the inner city have the same general features as the good schools in the suburbs. And now, with the kind of multi- cultural curriculum that has been proposed in New York and elsewhere, we are moving away from what works. As Secretary of Education the thing that I m o st objected to in the education of the poor in Amer- ica-particularly poor blacks and Hispanics-was that they used to get "back-of-the-bus" math and "Jim Crow" science. Not the real stuff, but the watered-down stuff, because of the assump- tions of people in the schools that these kids couldn't handle it. But now, they're being thrown off the bus completely. They are told to go back and study Thirteenth or Fifteenth Century African his- tory. There is no evidence that if they are taught African history tha t good things will happen, that it will improve their motivation or their future employment prospects. It will-to the degree that they are already alienated from our central, civic institution-make that alienation even more com- plete. Their alienation is t here for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is that they have too many people who are telling them that these institutions are not going to do them any good anyway. It has been said before, but it needs to be said again: if you were Grand Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan, you could think of no better way to keep blacks out of the mainstream of American life than to give them a curriculum which is entirely divorced from the mainstream of American life. You would teach the white children about DNA, the Constitu t ional Convention, the First Amendment, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and you would get black kids off studying some obscure Thir- teenth Century African anthropology, so they will not cause any serious competition to white soci- ety. This would be a di s aster for those black children. Many advocates of an Afrocentric curricu- lum may have the best intentions in the world, but this will be the effect of their effort. What these children need is an immersion in the culture of America and the West. They nee d an immersion not for our sake but for their sake, because we would like to see them have the same equal educa- tional opportunity as everyone else. So, we need to regain a clear and focused academic mission. The third mark of an effective school is instr u ctional leadership. Schools must be led. An at- tack on legitimately constituted authority and the notion of a leader-as opposed to a discussion group facilitator-was effectively carried out in the '60s and '70s. In effect you had schools being run by com m ittees rather than by principals. The way we began to destroy American education was this attack in the '60s and '70s that talked about principals as "wardens" and students as "pris- oners." It's worth recalling the many books that at the time undermined t he idea of authority. One of the first was Neil Postman's book, Teaching As a Subversive Activity. This view eliminated al- most all of the necessary conditions of successful schools. The fourth mark of an effective school is high expectations, another vi c tim of cultural deconstruction. A popular poster during the late 1960s said (as I recall), "I am not on Earth to live up to your expectations. You are not on Earth to live up to mine." Unfortunately, a lot of kids said that to a lot of teachers and somewh e re around the early 1970s a lot of teachers did. not know what to say in response. I ran workshops for English and history high school teachers in the early '70s. We asked, "What topic do you want us to cover?" And they said, "Authority. By what virtue do


people have authority? When is it ever right for someone in authority to act like they have author- ity?" So, we brought in surgeons, and painters, and judges, and architects, and other people who have authority, and they explained how authority is exercised not for the sake of those in author- ity, but for the people for whom those in authority are responsible. Only if teachers are clear about, and confident in, their own authority can they use it to draw out the best in their students. Students of t en do not think well of themselves; their teachers must help them to aim higher. With- out the teacher's upward leverage, the students will sink. The fifth mark of an effective school is student time-on-task Along with everything else, one of the attacks t hat was being made on school was that it was repressive and coercive, and students should be free to do what they want to do, and they will "naturally" come to knowledge. Left to their own, the argument went, and they will become little Descartes'. That i s a romantic view and it is flat-out wrong. If you believe nothing else, believe me on this: the most important predictor of whit a child will learn is how much time he spends on a task. Some kids can pick it up with virtu- ally no effort and some kids can spend all year on something and never get it. But for the great mass of kids, if they spend time on it, they will learn it. That is why we have what Chester Finn, one of the leading authorities on education, calls the "Harriet Tubman effect," that is, som e thing approaching 85 percent of the 17 year olds in America know who Harriet Tubman is, while only about one-third of our high school seniors can place the Civil War in the right half century. Is Harriet Tubman worth knowing about? You bet. So is Abra- ha m Lincoln. And so is George Washington. And so are the approximate dates of the Civil War. Why, then, the "Harriet Tubman effect"? Because she is taught in the schools. If you teach chil- dren things, most of them will learn. And since the decision was mad e to teach women like Harriet Tubman in American high schools people know who she is. Now let's apply the same principle to algebra and otherthings. By the way, if students are not studying Harriet Tubman or other worthwhile subjects, then they are learnin g other things. My son, one of the lights of my life, was out playing in the yard with his friends a year or so ago. They were running around and calling each other by some very unusual names-Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, and Leonardo. I turned to my w i fe Elayne, and I said, "You made a great choice in kindergartens. They are teaching them the masters of Western art." Of course, I was immediately corrected. These are the names of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My son occasionally watches the Teenage M utant Ninja Turtles and he picked up their names, and they are not the easiest names to learn. But if you watch something enough times, you can learn it. Might this have application to education? You bet. This'is what I mean by student time-on-task. And f i nally, Ron Edmonds' last mark of an effective school: frequent monitoring of student progress. Student levels of achievement must be assessed regularly. Classroom teachers do it weekly and monthly, and schools do it yearly. State and other government agen c ies should assess regularly, too. I do not have to tell you what people have said about tests and how terrible they are, because they "reduce people to scores," and so on. A safe and orderly environment, clear and focussed academic mission, instructional l eadership, high expectations, student time-on-task, and firquent monitoring of progress: these are some of the necessary conditions of a good school. We are just now completing a disastrous 25-year social experiment that proves that if you trash the neces s ary conditions for effective schools, you get trashy results. If anyone doubts this, they should look at schools that work and look closely at why they work. They will find the presence of solid values, traditional teaching practices, and the condi- tions 'I have mentioned. By the way, if you think this cultural deconstruction did not have to do with peoples' receptive- ness to the liberal criticisms of traditional school practice, take a look at a place where some of the


same arguments were advanced but did not take hold. Take a look at sports. Chip Oliver of the then Oakland Raiders wrote a book in the early '70s basically saying football players should not keep score anymore, should all be in the huddle together, should all eat brown rice and perfo r m the "dance, of football. Now, when coaches heard this, they said, "What the hell is he talking about?" But when people in the National Education Association and other parts of the education establishment heard the education version of this stuff they sa i d, "It makes sense to us. Let's give it a try." The coaches lacked the pretentiousness to buy into it; they just said it sounds stupid. And they were right. As a result, American sports performance is at its best ever. I still watch the Gonzaga College Hi g h School football team and compare it to the one I played on thirty years ago, when we were the city championship team. The current team would have beat our brains out. They are better than we were. Obviously, things like equipment and training are better . But equipment and training are better for education, too. Sports performance has improved because coaches did not stop doing the right things or stop having high expectations. They did not ask, "Let's see, who will be coach today?" They did not say to th e ir players, "I thought it was a bad block. What kind of a block did you think it was?" They did what they were supposed to do: they coached. And the kids have got- ten better. Today more kids are fit and the level of performance in almost every sport is t h e best ever, because coaches insist on holding to high standards. Remade Institutions. Unfortunately, the news is not so good on other fronts. The work of cul- tural deconstruction has gone on in many of our institutions-schools, colleges and universities , mainline churches,'the media, the legal profession and others. For the most part, then, our public sector institutions have borne the brunt of the cultural deconstruction. The assault was made pri- marily by people who held left-liberal political views, who believed that these institutions were corrupt, unsuitable, unworthy and unfit, and so they decided to remake them in their image. Nfi- chael Barone, editor of the Abnanac ofAmerican Politics, puts it this way:

The public sector institutions in which li berals have had custody for the last 20 years-the public schools, central city bureaucracies, university gover- nance-have performed poorly. The people in charge of them have a mil- lion excuses: they have a poor quality of students or constituents, they d on't have enough money, they must do things according to certain rules and reg- ulations because of internal institutional imperatives. These are the same ex- cuses the military made 15 or 20 years ago... the leaders of liberal public sector institutions are continuing to make excuses...

The returns are in, and they are not good in terms of liberal tutelage of our institutions. The lib- eral emperor has been shown not to have any clothes. However-and this is the interesting thing and one of our great poli tical challenge, it seems to me-while the emperor may not have any clothes, he still has an empire. He is still running the institutions. Contempormy liberalism has been intellectually and empirically discredited. Today hardly anybody wants to be known as a lib- eral. And yet, if you look at the institutions I have mentioned, you can demonstrate quite clearly, through research and common sense, that they still tend to be guided by a liberal ideology. So there is a great and important political task ahead f o r us. I am not speaking here of the task of electing a conservative President or a conservative Congress (although that is certainly important.) What is critical is the task of regaining our institutions-and regaining our institutions not to then subject them to a narrow or rigid conservative idealogy, but to let these institutions be governed by what works, by what makes sense, and by insisting that they remain true to their original pur-


pose. That is part of what we should be talking about when we talk about culture: how to reform our institutions so they serve the purposes for which they were intended. War to the Death. Midge Decter, one of the most insightful cultural commentators in America, has reminded us that if you are going to get in a fig h t about the culture, be ready for a really tough battle. Just because it is called "culture" does not mean that it will involve a polite discussion over tea and finger sandwiches. As Decter writes, "A culture war is a war to the death. For a culture war i s not a battle over policy, though policy in many cases gives it expression; it is rather a battle about matters of the SpiriL" What is the result of the culture war? Why does it matter who wins? Because whoever wins the culture war gets to teach the child r en. The good news is that people are now recognizing that the cultural agenda is critically import- ant. It is time that conservatives address cultural issues in a direct, succinct, understandable way and in a tone that is upbeat, affmning, and confident. The novelist Tom Wolfe has said that the '90s will be the decade of the debate about cultuxe and values. There are signs everywhere that confirm this: government reports, new publications, poll data, and attitudes in general. There is even something colum n ist Suzanne Fields has called the "new familism." All of a sudden every- one, including liberals, is re-discovering the importance of the nuclear family. And in another sign of the times, Morton Kondracke of The New Republic confessed recently to being a p rude because he thought people ought to have some restraints on their sexual activities. We should not underestimate the difficulty of the challenge. Because people recognize that cul- ture isa, matter of importance does not mean that an the questions wil l be resolved in the right way. These are tough matters. These can be deeply controversial matters. They go to the heart and soul of a nation. But I believe the subject is well worth exploring. I think that we are at the right time to do it because, to cit e another phrase of Tom Wolfe's, the "great relearning" has begun. We have begun to relearn some of things we forgot over the last 25 years. I would like to thank The Heritage Foundation for the opportunity to explore these issues. I promise you we will ta ke it seri- ously and I will try to make it as interesting and worthwhile as I can.




William J.

Distinguished Fellow