The Editorial Comment was presented as a speech by Dr. Carlson, Executive Vice-President of The Rockford Institute at the April 16, 1984 meeting of the Philadelphia Society.
Whole forests have been sacrificed in the last two years to the latest phase of this nation's perennial debate on education. Yet the debate swirling about us has yet to focus satisfactorily on the root problems besetting American public education. Unless a series of admittedly more esoteric and troublesome questions are examined–"What is the fundamental purpose of public education?" "What role should our schools play in shaping American culture and identity?" "What civilizational content should energize school curricula?"–the contemporary debate will accomplish little of duration.
In hopes of promoting this wider discussion, I will focus on what I call the "American pluralism problem." In an era where "cultural pluralism" is almost universally acknowledged as the defining metaphor of the American nation, it may seem tiresome to drag that old controversy out again. Yet I believe that one cannot understand the fundamental contradiction of the contemporary public education enterprise except by examining the history of our nation's pluralism problem.
Aristotle laid out the basic argument for public education. The constitution of a democratic...