The Next Accountability Part 4: Who We Are

The crisis over accountability in the education reform movement is revealing that we lack a basis for building consensus on what makes a good education. Without at least some limited amount of consensus, the crisis will remain unresolved; perpetual political conflict over what we want from schools will be our fate.

We can find such a basis in the things we share in common. In other words, we must ask who we are. We know we face the challenge of creating education policy; we lack a basis for dealing with this challenge because we are not sufficiently aware of the “we” who faces it.


Putting the Foundation Back Under the School Building

Since the progressive movement in education, we have moved away from basing education on any kind of assumption that we have something in common – in effect denying that there is a “we” at all. Even the freedom and diversity valued by the progressives is undermined. If we are no longer allowed to say that pluralism and progress are right because, say, they are in accord with human nature, or they grow organically from our shared historic experiences and the self-understanding of our polity, then why are they good? Why is it obligatory to strive for them and make painful sacrifices to achieve them?

There is no space here for a full evaluation of the progressive education movement, but this particular aspect of that movement has been a disaster. It pulled the foundation out from under the school building, which is why it fell down. We need to quit trying to rebuild the school without putting the foundation back under it.

So what do we have in common – who are “we”? We are, to start with, human beings. This may seem to us today a trite observation, of little value in setting education policy. That is a misperception, one to which our own time is uniquely susceptible.

In every previous age of civilization, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Adam Smith, it was understood that setting goals for education had to begin with an understanding of what it means to be human.

To be a human being is to be an individual, to be part of a family and part of a community. It is much more than this, of course, but these are the three most important points for getting the foundation back under the school building. It is the individual alone who actually achieves and appreciates the good, true and beautiful. But the individual does this in community, and a community that values individual freedom and diversity for these ends is needed. The family, as we will see below, is the mediating educational structure that makes it possible to relate the education of individuals to their membership in communities. (This, as we will discuss in Part 5, is the real reason parental choice is so essential.)

Speaking of being part of a community, in addition to being human beings we are also the inheritors of the American experiment in freedom and pluralism. This, too, may seem trite; we cannot build the practical details of education policy on superficial Fourth of July flag-waving. It may even seem offensive to some. But there are ways of orienting education policy toward the success of the American experiment without collapsing into shallowness or nationalism. The American experiment is not at odds with respecting pluralism and diversity; rather the reverse.

Educational movements in the early 20th century largely cut us off from these sources of common ground across our differences. The crisis over accountability cannot be managed without rediscovering how much we share as the inheritors of human nature and American civilization.


Individuals: The Unique Center of Knowledge and Action

The teacher’s standpoint…is neither simply dependent on what students think they want or happen to be in this place or time, nor is it imposed on him by the demands of a particular society or the vagaries of the market. Although much effort has been expended in trying to prove that the teacher is always the agent of such forces, in fact he is, willy-nilly, guided by the awareness, or the divination, that there is a human nature, and that assisting its fulfillment is his task.

He does not come by this by way of abstractions or complicated reasoning. He sees it in the eyes of his students.

-Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 19-20

Allan Bloom’s classic The Closing of the American Mind was, in large part, a diagnosis of how detachment from human nature and American civic identity had affected American education. Reformers today will have widely varying responses to Bloom’s overall thesis, just as they did at the time of the book’s publication. However, at least some aspects of his penetrating critique ought to command a pretty wide assent in our movement – and I’m convinced they would, if the book were as widely read now as it was then.

One of Bloom’s major themes is the lack of connection to human nature in the American understanding of education. As he writes in the beautiful passage reproduced above, the essential role of human nature in education is not an abstract ideology. It is something teachers see in the eyes of their students.

What is a human being? Whatever else we are, we are creatures with bodies and minds that have the ability to know and to do things. But the thing most relevant to remember when thinking about education is that we all experience a powerful sense of responsibility connected to our knowing and doing. We don’t just want to have beliefs, we want to have true beliefs. And we don’t just want to act, we want to do what is right or best.

This leads us to the importance of the individual and his or her freedom. In this series, I have shown repeatedly that the purpose of education is to help children grow in their ability to achieve and appreciate things – all kinds of things – that are good, true and beautiful. This implies the purpose of education is essentially focused on the individual. Each child needs to be taught how to make the most effective use of whatever scope of freedom is available to him or her for pursuing these ends.

It is not a society or a culture or a civilization that has the capacity to think and act. Only the individual human being has those essential capacities.

Therefore education is addressed to the aspiration of individuals to achieve and appreciate things that are good, true and beautiful. Educational expertise means understanding the conditions and methods that tend to facilitate the growth of those individual capacities. But it also means awareness of just how broad a range of conditions and methods may be necessary to do this with diverse individuals, and sensitivity to the need for individualized trial-and-error customization.

Of course there is a tension between the needs of the individual as a free and responsible agent and the community’s interest in having individuals who are good citizens. This is a permanent problem, as the history of political philosophy attests. I will address it more fully below.

Here, my burden is to show that the community cannot simply swallow up the individual or even displace the individual at the center of our educational methods. When we ask educational experts to develop a one-size-fits-all program, we are essentially using educational expertise as a substitute for the education of individuals, i.e. as a substitute for real education. And as we have seen, technocratic one-size systems seeking to create a “floor” of minimum performance inevitably become “ceilings” limiting maximum performance.

What is distinctive about pluralistic education is the view that the individual does not make the fullest use of these capacities unless he or she is aware of multiple possible alternatives – different visions of what is best and highest in human life – and free to pursue the ones that seem best to him or her, but responsible to choose rationally and wisely, not just on a whim or in obedience to raw emotions. We hold this view because we have a particular understanding of human nature, one that has always been central to the American experiment.

The educational progressives were right, then, to put the freedom of the individual first, and embrace the consequent fact of social diversity. Where they went wrong was in failing to connect individual students to anything good, true or beautiful. Students were to decide all that for themselves, not be guided into it by teachers and schools who were themselves wise about them. The burden of this series so far has been to show that education fails if teachers and schools are not seen as sources of wisdom about transcendent things.

Bloom argued that the American mind was “closing” because our educational systems were no longer built on that view of human nature that said individuals must develop an awareness of alternatives in order to choose (responsibly, deliberately) between them. The rising tide of alarm about Americans living in separate epistemic and cultural worlds, not understanding or even listening to one another, is only the latest evidence of how right he was.


Family: The Bridge Between the Individual and Society

My early experience of American simplicity had persuaded me that we were right, that we could begin with nothing, that uncultivated nature sufficed. I had not, however, paid sufficient attention to what students actually used to bring with them, the education that was once in the air that helped launch them.

-Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 54

Bloom recounts how, early in his teaching career, he thought Americans better prepared for a real education than their European counterparts. In Europe, children were assimilated into relatively fixed mental worlds at an early age. They arrived at school already knowing what they thought about the highest human purposes and pursuits. Americans were, by comparison, barbarically uneducated and vulgar, knowing almost nothing about the great questions of philosophy, art, science and justice – meaning they were at least potentially open, what Bloom called a “clean slate” in one chapter title.

Over time, however, Bloom realized that he had been taking a lot of important things for granted. He had not really been beginning from “uncultivated nature” or a “clean slate.” He had been building, unwittingly, upon foundations provided by a more basic kind of education that students had received elsewhere.

Our educational problem is not simply a rediscovery of human nature. There is always a social dimension to education as well as an individual one.

Human nature itself demands this. We are, by nature, social creatures whose thinking and action is always constructed from the materials that are provided to us by our relationships with others and the systems of symbolic meaning that we participate in with them. As Bloom discovered, students always walk into school having been shaped by other social structures. There is a need, then, to relate the education of the individual to those structures.

Bloom turns to the family as the primary connecting point between the individual and society. In this he follows both his own observations and a long, unbroken chain of observation in the history of philosophical thought. Radically different thinkers, from Plato to Tocqueville, have always viewed the family as the primary place where the social order and the individual are connected to each other.

The family must play this role because it is where human beings first learn the art of being human. It is the family that first trains children to think and act. The family draws upon children’s innate sense of responsibility to think and act well; by drawing upon it, the family greatly strengthens and encourages this sense, reshaping it from its raw and inchoate natural form into a solid, self-conscious sense of what it means to think and act well, and why.

The particular shapes into which families mold this sense of responsibility will determine what kinds of social order individuals are ready to live under. There were two primary things Bloom realized his students were getting from the family, which provided the indispensable bases of education for American citizenship. Interestingly, one of these is about human nature, and the other is about American civic identity.

The first foundation was exposure to serious books – primarily the Bible, but also at least some other great literature. This provided a basic sensitivity to the reality and intricacy of human nature: “It is a complex set of experiences that enables us to say ‘he is a Scrooge.’ Without literature, no such observations are possible and the fine art of comparison is lost” (p. 64).

The second foundation was a strong sense of American civic identity and the particular ideas of justice (equality, freedom) associated with the American experiment. This was especially important in providing some common shape across our differences in our sense of what it means to think and act rightly. However we may differ in other respects, as Americans we hold certain basic principles in common, such as respect for the rights of others. Education can take this commonality as a starting point.

Our purpose here is to show that a strong bond between school and family is essential. Systems take away the family’s essential role in education when they give too much power to other forces – whether teacher unions or a testing bureaucracy – at parents’ expense. We need not be detained here by all the other questions and controversies about the family currently troubling our polity. That, indeed, is one aspect of the “challenge of pluralism” that has been central to our analysis in this series. But it is not the aspect that is central to education policy.

What is central for education policy is that family and school are, and are seen by the child to be, reasonably well aligned in their views of human nature and civic identity. We cannot simply offload the great questions of human nature to families and keep schools “neutral” about them, for then the bond between school and family is broken.  Unless the family and the school’s ideas of what it means to think and act well overlap at least somewhat, the school will not be able to connect to students’ sense of responsibility to think and act well, which it is the school’s job to cultivate.


Community: Interdependence Across Differences

Every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum. It wants to produce a certain kind of human being. This intention is more or less explicit, more or less a result of reflection; but even the neutral subjects, like reading and writing and arithmetic, take their place in a vision of the educated person.

-Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 26

The strongest objections to the views outlined above are likely to be to a renewed role for the American experiment – for American civic identity – in the making of education policy. The many historic injustices committed by the United States have, understandably, made many people skeptical of efforts to build on American civic identity as something positive. But if we must have a basis for consensus about what is a good education, there is no avoiding the question of who we are as a people.

While education is always the education of individuals, it is always the education of individuals who live in community. To be educated means to learn to live better in the context of community. The school itself is a community, as we saw in Part 2; it is also a bridge to the larger communities in which students are being raised to live.

None of us is autarchic or self-reliant, however different we may be. We provide for our needs by providing for one another’s needs. We exchange our gifts and talents with one another in the marketplace and voluntary organizations. We respect a shared justice in the rule of law and our common history.

The whole beauty and glory of America is that it seeks to respect differences and protect people’s freedoms and rights without giving up this shared life. Any idiot could have created a plan for a pluralistic society in which people with different views were kept in separate cultural compartments that didn’t share a common civic identity, marketplace and justice system. In fact, such systems are not uncommon in global history. What took a world-historical level of genius (and audacity!) was to construct a social order in which diverse people would share all these things, while remaining diverse.

To create new accountability systems, we must figure out how schools fit into this tapestry of pluralistic community. Schools are educating students who come from this unique social environment, and who will, upon graduation, go out into it to live the lives schools are preparing them for.

Moreover, the community itself will, over time, derive its character from the education of its children. There is no hope to sustain a free and diverse society if we do not orient education toward that goal. This is why the community has a legitimate interest in education, although not one that overrides the freedom and responsibility of students as individuals or negates the interest of families.

I have already suggested why appeals to American identity and civic solidarity need not be merely shallow flag-waving. The United States has one of the world’s oldest and most cohesive political traditions. It is dedicated to propositions about freedom, equality and rights. These are certainly subject to differences of interpretation, which is where almost all of the interesting stuff in American history comes from (including the part of it going on around us now).

Nonetheless, the American propositions are clear and specific enough to create a huge amount of common ground in our sense of what is right and good, even across all our differences. We believe in respecting people’s rights and including diverse people in the social order. Only ignorance of the serious alternatives – of how people think and act in societies that really reject our propositions – prevents us from being keenly aware of how much common ground the American civic tradition provides.

But these civic traditions are not something that can be taught through top-down, centralized technocratic systems driven by bubble tests. They require authentic relationships between teachers and students, in strong bonds with families. Moreover, we lack sufficient consensus about them to create a single accountability system that all would agree on; to attempt to teach civics in a diverse society through a one-size-fits-all system is just an invitation to perpetual culture war.

The more intense objections to this kind of civic direction in education are likely to come not from those who think it will be shallow, but from those who are offended at the prospect of nationalism, jingoism or ethnic injustice.

It is true that American history involves, right from the beginning, terrible and deeply wicked ethnic injustice. But the strongest tools for dismantling that legacy are found in the American experiment itself. We return to the question posed above, in a new form: if racism and nationalism are not out of accord with a view of human nature and a set of national principles (equality, freedom) that we are willing to impose educationally, why are they wrong? Why is fighting them and making painful sacrifices to expel them obligatory?

Certainly there are ways of invoking the American story that are jingoistic. But there are also other ways that are not jingoistic. We must rediscover them if we want to find a basis for consensus in education.

As a matter of fact, rediscovering better and more responsible ways of affirming the American experiment is one of the best things we can do to expose the emptiness and wickedness of the less constructive sorts of patriotism. Jingoism and nationalism generally become attractive to people only after real love of country has been allowed to languish.

We might take as our model Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was never shy about deploying the principles of the American founding against the legacy of American racism. The “I Have a Dream” speech would make a wonderful basis upon which to build a new agenda for civic goals in education policy. King was effective in fighting his country’s injustices precisely because he loved his country, and felt a strong enough sense of solidarity with it to embrace as his own the broad outlines of its national principles of justice.

It is also necessary to avoid using this sort of civic education as a battering ram for either right-leaning or left-leaning political and cultural agendas. This has been a persistent problem in civics education in the last generation.

Who are we? We are individuals who need to learn to achieve and appreciate the good, the true and the beautiful; we are families that begin the process of educating children for that life, needing schools to come alongside; and we are a community committed to freedom, diversity, the rule of law and equal rights.

As we will see in that next and final installment, there are promising strategies for an education reform agenda that would serve these needs. As we have seen, education cannot assume the existence of a community that is seriously committed to the freedom to disagree, and respect for the rights of others. That is the outcome we desire from education. It would be circular if we also presupposed it as education’s basis. A combination of structural, institutional and cultural reforms could help us get what we want from schools.


For more from this series, visit:

 Introduction: “The Next Accountability: Getting What We Want from Schools – Without Technocracy

Part I: “The Next Accountability Part 1: What We Want

Part 2: “The Next Accountability Part 2: Where We Get What We Want

Part 3: “The Next Accountability Part 3: What We Don’t Want from Schools

Part 5: “The Next Accountability Part 5: How We Get What We Want


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