Earlier today on Sirius XM Urban View, an African-American talk station, the guest was Daryl Scott, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The conversation turned to STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — education, and the origins of the ongoing push to encourage institutions and students to focus on those subjects.
Can you guess what happened?
In 1983, the guest explained, a commission empaneled by the secretary of education issued a report titled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform.” In a memorable phrase, it warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s public schools. That phrase, he said, was a “euphemism.” A euphemism for what? “For us — for African Americans.”
There is nothing that happens in these United States that will not be impugned as secret racism. Nothing.
“A Nation at Risk” is in fact full of memorable phrases — “unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament” is redolent of the Cold War concerns of the day — any of which might be read as racist code by a 21st-century progressive, because a 21st-century progressive can read the ingredients on a pack of Bazooka bubble gum as racist code. There is, unhappily, an entire cottage industry (is “cottage industry” racist? or just another example of serf privilege?) dedicated to that sort of enterprise.
If you should find yourself with some time to kill, by all means scrutinize “A Nation at Risk” for a hidden racial agenda. The most I can find is periodic acknowledgement that educational-achievement indicators in “minority” communities generally lag those in “majority” communities (such was the circumspect terminology of the times), which surely was apparent to members of the commission such as Emeral A. Crosby, who was at the time the principal of Northern High School in Detroit. The report’s frequent focus is on predictions that technology (“computers and computer-controlled equipment”) will come to play a greater role in economic affairs, notably in “health care, medical science, energy production, food processing, construction, and the building, repair, and maintenance of sophisticated scientific, educational, military, and industrial equipment.” As government reports go, its predictions were reasonably prescient, though by 1983 most of those developments were readily apparent to those paying attention. “Learning is the indispensable investment required for success in the ‘information age’ we are entering,” it insists.
Educational reforms filtered through the machinery of politics are generally defective, for two reasons. The first is that two different things are meant by “education.” We have education in the true, Arnoldian sense of the word, the improvement of one’s mind (and possibly even one’s soul) through the study of “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” which is the goal of a classical liberal education; we also have the Bismarckian sense of education, the conception that commands the attentions of politicians, which understands the schools as factories producing the human widgets that the state requires for its own purposes, economic competitiveness and military preparedness at the top of the list. (A deep problem with state-run systems of education is that they almost always mistake their customers for their products.)
This leads to interest-group jockeying within the ranks of educators, with those whose personal interests are attached to the humanities feeling forever shortchanged. (That is one of the reasons for opposition to the current STEM push.) The second reason that political education reforms fail is that whether we are talking about education in the Arnoldian sense or the Bismarckian sense, political institutions are rarely very good at knowing what is needed in even the most general sense, which means knowing what is needed in any individual case — and real education happens only at the individual level — is an effective impossibility. Even when government focuses on the purely economic, factory model of education, it really has no way of knowing what is needed in the economy at any given moment, much less what is going to be needed 20 years hence, and still less how any given eight-year-old might fit into that equation.
“If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets,” the report says, “we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all — old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority.” A fine sentiment, but unconvincing as a program.
Education is a complicated business, and politics is a blunt instrument. Political management of education requires a great deal of aggregation and simplification, which is one of the reasons why there is so much emphasis on standardization and testing. In government as in any enterprise, managers focus on measuring what can be measured. Standardized tests play an important role in evaluating students and institutions both, and there is no reliably useful replacement for them, but they only tell us so much.
One of the things they do tell us, though, is that our current government-dominated model of education has been a catastrophe for African-American students. They are not the only social catastrophe for African Americans, and the effects of those catastrophes are difficult to disaggregate. But the data are reasonably clear.
Contra the gentleman on the radio, that “rising tide of mediocrity” was not intended in the main as a description of African-American educational outcomes. But it easily could have been — indeed, in many of our government-run school systems, mediocrity would be an improvement. Remedying these situations is difficult because in American life every instance of racial disparity or racial distinction is a miniature political fiefdom occupied by parochial interests with a strong preference for inertia.
That is not going to be improved by the cultural tendency that sees math-and-science education and African-American history as rivals. It matters a great deal what we mean by those things. If by math-and-science education we mean actual math and science (this is, sadly, not always the case), and if by the study of African-American history and culture we mean actually obliging students to sit down and read the works of Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison, then each contributes to a meaningful education. But such concerns often play a secondary role, at best, in our government schools. There is of course a great deal of ideological indoctrination and education-as-group-therapy (these are not always easily distinguishable), and a great deal of simple time-filling, the main purpose of which is to justify ever-swelling employee rosters in the public sector.
All of these are problems inherent to having a system of education that is organized not around the interests of students but around the interests of the employees of the education bureaucracy.
There is, finally, the unspoken matter that seems to me to be at the heart of such concerns as voiced by Scott and others: prestige. Policymakers are not alone in the very high esteem in which they hold the American technological and scientific establishments, and by extension the educational programs associated with them. That is the estimate of much of the general public, too. Is this evidence of latent racism? That is one possible explanation, but the more likely one has been that the achievements of the American technological and educational establishments have been, and continue to be, extraordinary, a source not only of great wealth but also of national pride. The achievements of the racial-grievance establishment ensconced in the schools? So far as I can tell, there aren’t any to speak of.
If you want to know why our educational establishment is so dysfunctional — especially in the matter of reforming the institutions that give such grievous disservice to the poor and the black — you have to understand the attitude that regards calls for an emphasis on science and technology as some sort of subtly racist reflex, and how that line of thinking is rooted in a self-interested resource competition in which specialists in African-American studies, among others, are likely to lose out. “A Nation at Risk” may not have produced an actionable agenda for education reform. But what is being offered as an alternative?
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.