Our national weeping and wailing over education spending cuts, public employee unions, and such like cause minds of a certain vintage to stop still and wonder. When were the divorce proceedings between home and classroom filed anyway? And who filed them, and why? It can be argued that the current traumas of education proceed from that divorce: further testimony to the general understanding that it's the kids who get hurt worst in divorce.
The divorce between home and public school classroom—accomplished by the end of the '70s—was a national calamity. To put it another way, once public education lost in great degree the robust support of the middle class, there was nowhere for things to go but downhill. And so they have slid for decades. Teachers parading around the Wisconsin capital like Jimmy Hoffa's truck drivers? It not only wouldn't have happened in ye olde days—it didn't happen.
The middle class and the public school classroom were hand in glove in a united enterprise. The former wanted—nay, expected—the latter to succeed. Johnny would read. Susie would con her multiplication tables. Because the middle class expected no less. Mothers and daddies weren't putting up with a lot of bad grades and bad behaviors. Stuff like that got in the way of education, which was about—for goodness' sake—urgent matters like personal advancement and civic betterment. Education made for a stronger, wiser America. That is what we believed—and why we supported teachers and principals.
You say I am generalizing. I am. Every assertion regarding the human experience is a generalization. The point is, we used to like teachers and support them. What happened?
The moral collapse of the middle class is pretty much what seems to have happened. As Whittaker Chambers noted in a different context, "History hit us like a freight train." We all, suddenly, wanted liberation instead of restraint and order and discipline—the prerequisites of good education. Someone at the top has to pass the word down the line: Here's what we're doing today, no back talk. What we were "doing today" wasn't always, in abstract terms, the best thing to be found out there, but it made for generally fruitful outcomes. Parents supported it, passing down to children the obligations of self-discipline.
Parents, I tell you, used to like teachers. Teachers liked parents in return. There was a kind of compact between them. Back us up, the teachers said, and we'll deliver the goods. The parents nodded their heads. OK.
That was until the compact came apart and society as a whole withdrew its support from the teacher: the teacher as authority figure anyway.
The compact came apart when the kids themselves took as role models all the fun-loving, war-protesting, authority dissing "campus activists," as the papers called them. You can't have a compact that no one is willing to enforce by—oh, scandalous word!—discipline. Educational standards took a tumble.
Wasn't every little kiddie a potential genius best left to himself? You might have thought so, listening to the discourse of the time. The federal judiciary's embrace of busing for racial balance further disordered the relationship between parents and public schools and drove a big hunk of the middle class into private schools or home schooling.
Home schooling: There's something to which no one gave a thought 50 years ago. It happens in the 21st century that some of the nicest, most dedicated people you could ever hope to know have chosen to instruct their kids at home: unable any more to trust the public schools with getting the job done.
Yes, teachers unions are arrogant; it hurts to see teachers laid off—that, too. And that isn't the end. The good teachers who still show up for work, compact or no compact, don't deserve the opprobrium and the turmoil in which so many are forced to operate. Lord, help 'em, they deserve better. And so—here is the genuinely grievous part—do the kids.
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William Murchison is a corresponding editor of Chronicles and the author of The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson (ISI) and Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity. William Murchison, syndicated columnist and longtime commentator on religious, cultural, and political affairs, has contributed to many national publications, including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, and First Things.