Sasse: Schools Should Do Different, Not More


Sasse pulls wisdom from the writings of some of his favorite reformers of America’s public schools. The baseline would be John Dewey’s footprint. Sasse is no fan of Dewey. To explain why, he sampled some quotes that read like Snopes should have debunked them, but it hasn’t. The first, from the Humanist Manifesto, which Dewey coauthored, read, “There is no God and there is no soul. Hence, there is no need for the props of traditional religion. With dogma [now] excluded, then immutable truth is dead and buried. There is no room for fixed and natural law or permanent moral absolutes.”

“Wow,” editorialized Sasse.

Having said that, Dewey also wrote, “[When] others are not doing what we would like them to or are threatening disobedience, we are most conscious of the need of controlling them and of the influences by which they are controlled.” Dewey had some good ideas, too; but when you combine the aforementioned, is it any wonder kids these days wait around to be acted upon?

Sasse, growing up in Nebraska with engaged parents, was different. “I couldn’t conceptualize growing up without the compulsion – first external compulsion, but over time the more important internal and self-directed kind of compulsion – to attempt and to finish hard things even when I didn’t want to,” he wrote.

But schools teach the opposite. Sasse paraphrased John Taylor Gatto, who wrote in Dumbing Us Down that schools, “from Harlem to Hollywood” teach the same seven lessons: “emotional confusion, social class disparity, indifference, passivity, intellectual dependency on experts, conditional self-esteem, and surveillance by those in charge.”

Sasse recounted Diane Ravitch, who studied the history of American education reform, observing that eventually, “some progressives began to have doubts, worrying that their grand designs ‘might be useful for teaching animals and very young children …’” That said, society as a whole has abdicated the responsibility of child rearing, and much of what used to lie in the realm of self-control, to the schools.

And schools can’t get enough grants, buildings, or extended time with students. Federal spending on public schools has, adjusted for inflation, quintupled over the last thirty years.

For the investment, we now have, a couple generations that “know exceedingly little about the nation they’re inheriting.” According to various polls and assessments Sasse cited, 18 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in US history; 27 percent, in geography; and 23 percent, in civics. Sixteen percent of millennials know what socialism is, and half find it preferable to capitalism because they feel it sounds gentler. More kids are going to college, but Sasse said one-third of four-year college students enroll in remedial reading or math classes, and the number is as high as one-half for two-year colleges.

Behaviorally, diagnoses and prescriptions, very rare in schools before the 1980s, proliferate. Schools are a good sales territory for Big Pharma. They wrap children in a metaphorical “bubble wrap,” overseen by educational specialists who Sasse and author Dorothy Sayers agreed, “act like the rest of us couldn’t or shouldn’t fully own our own process of learning.” So they “churn out indifferent, distracted, passive, dependent young adults.” Individuals in the rising generation give the impression they are counting on somebody else to solve their problems.

One progressive reformer Sasse lauded was Paul Goodman, author of Growing up Absurd. Sasse wrote Goodman, “feared that we were merely crafting the next generation of ‘organization men’ and sheep-like consumers. … He wanted a free society to be raising kids who would love poetry and beauty and neighborliness, not just bigger stores and deeper walk-in closets.”

Schools are failing because of a “moral hollowing.” Schools should not be closed to letting children dig into difficult and possibly uncomfortable questions like what their purpose is and “how the individual fits into the bigger, cosmic picture.”

If they’re going to exist, schools should teach children facts, how to connect them logically, and then how to defend their conclusions. Kids should not be protected against microaggression in their polarizing personal silos; they should seek opportunities to, “speak, be challenged, debate, and revise.” Instead, kids are graduating “without the mature tools of logical discernment about good versus weak arguments.”

“Our goal,” wrote Sasse, “is for our kids to be intentional about everything they do – to reject passivity and mindless consumption and to embrace an ethos of action, of productivity, of meaningful work, of genuinely lifelong learning.”

“Growing up is actual, hard work. I would venture to guess that most of our teens don’t need more therapy or more antidepressants. They need direction about how to acquire the habits essential for navigating adulthood,” wrote Sasse.

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