THE PUBLIC in general and parents in particular are shocked from time to time when tests reveal the intellectual incompetence of public school teachers, or when some of the weird fads to which school children have been subjected come to light. But neither the public nor the media seem to see anything beyond the oddities of a particular school or particular teachers.
In reality, there are not only nationwide networks promoting everything from "whole language" to homosexuality in the schools, there is a large body of literature by education gurus -- going all the way back to John Dewey in the early 20th century -- urging schools away from their traditional role as conveyors of an intellectual heritage toward being "agents of change" in society.
What that means in plain English is that educators should be shaping children to be the kinds of people they want them to be -- as distinguished from the kinds of people their parents want them to be. It means that educators should not be so preoccupied with developing intellectual skills and more concerned with inducing in children the kinds of attitudes that would make them receptive to collectivist economic, social and political thinking.
This used to be called progressive education. Its de-emphasis of academics in favor of social engineering, its de-emphasis of teaching in favor of "activities" and "projects," and its de-emphasis of intellectual development in favor of social adjustment and ideological indoctrination are all alive and well today under new names.
An incisive new book titled "Left Back" by Diane Ravitch, a leading historian of American education, traces the history of the controversies which have raged around educational trends over the past hundred years -- "a century of failed school reforms," as Professor Ravitch's subtitle aptly puts it.
These reforms have failed repeatedly because what the public wants -- the three R's, for example -- conflicts with what the education establishment is determined to do, in its more grandiose vision of its social and political mission. Given this heady feeling about themselves and their role, it is understandable that the education establishment simply dismisses, denigrates and demonizes its critics.
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