Jonathan Zimmerman: In a Free-Speech Ruling, Justice Thomas Misstates the Purpose of Education

Roundup: Historians' Take

[JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN wrote "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."]

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WHAT ARE schools for?

For the last decade, I've taught a history course with that title at New York University. My students and I examine the different purposes that Americans have assigned to public schools, including:

A. to teach the great humanistic traditions of the West;

B. to develop the individual interests of the child;

C. to promote social justice;

D. to prepare efficient workers.

Over the last four centuries, Americans have struggled to balance these goals — and many others — in their schools. To Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, however, there's only one right answer:

E. to instill discipline and obedience

That's what Thomas wrote this week in his strange concurring opinion in Morse vs. Frederick, better known as the "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" case. A banner with those words was unfurled by senior Joseph Frederick outside his Alaska high school, and he was suspended.

Ruling 5 to 4 in favor of the principal who censored the banner, the court decided that the school's interest in discouraging drug use outweighed the student's free-speech rights. But Thomas went further, insisting that the student had no right to free speech in the first place and that the history of American education proves it.

He's wrong. Simply put, the accurate history in Thomas' opinion is not relevant. And the relevant history that he recounts is not accurate.

Let's start with what he got right. As he correctly asserts, America's first schools primarily promoted discipline. "Early public schools were not places for freewheeling debates or exploration of competing ideas," Thomas wrote. The mostly male teaching force in the early 1800s brooked little or no dissent, often whipping children who challenged adult authority.

True enough. But so what? Here's the part that Thomas leaves out. From the very birth of the common school system in the 1830s, the strict discipline that he celebrates came under fire from a host of different Americans. The most prominent champion of common schools, Horace Mann, warned teachers against excessive force and the suppression of students' natural inclinations.

That's one reason Mann and his generation backed the hiring of female teachers, who were seen as more kind, tolerant and nurturing. (The other reason was that schools could pay them less.) By 1900, roughly three-quarters of American teachers were women.

The early 20th century would bring another burst of change to American schools, centered on the question of democracy. To reformers like John Dewey, schools based on strict discipline — and its pedagogical companion, rote memorization — could never give citizens the skills they needed to govern themselves. Instead of fostering mindless obedience, then, schools needed to teach children how to make up their own minds — that is, how to reason, deliberate and rule on complex political questions.

To be sure, plenty of Americans still wanted teachers to bring the kids to heel. And it's fair to ask whether schools today promote the kind of inquiry that Dewey envisioned.

The point is not that Dewey was "right" or that everyone agreed with him. Rather, history teaches us that Americans have always disagreed on the proper goal for schools.

None of this debate appears in Thomas' opinion, which gets cut off just when things get interesting. To Thomas, American educational history seems to end at the start. Our first schools aimed to instill discipline, he wrote, so that's what schools should do.

Worse, Thomas assumes that the schools succeeded in this task. "Teachers commanded," he wrote, "and students obeyed." But this command melted away in recent years, Thomas claims, when courts invented specious student rights — and "undermined the traditional authority of teachers to maintain order in the public schools."

Here's the part of Thomas' opinion that would be relevant — if it were true. But it's not. Yes, teachers tried to establish strict order and discipline in early American schools. As often as not, however, they failed.

Consider the 1833 memoir of Warren Burton, a New Hampshire minister. When faced with a particularly cruel teacher, Burton writes, his classmates revolted. They tackled the teacher, carried him outside and threw him down an icy hillside.

The theme appears in other memoirs and especially in fiction from the 19th century, which depicts unruly students — usually boys — challenging or mocking teacher authority. Think of Tom Sawyer lowering a cat by a string to snatch his bald teacher's wig. Such stories resonated with Americans because they understood — in ways Thomas does not — the chaos and violence that pervaded so many public schools.

So Thomas can spare us the nostalgia. Our schools were never the paragons of discipline he imagines. And pretending otherwise simply diverts us from the big question, which will never have a single answer:

What are schools for?

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Thomas W Hagedorn - 7/8/2007

Mann (and the other common school reformers) do not support Zimmerman's case against Justice Thomas's position. First, Mann felt passionately about the place of moral (and religious) education in the common schools. In fact, he felt it was more important than the intellectual aspects of schooling. He objected to the overuse of corporal punishment, NOT the enforcement of discipline and order in the schools. After all, he admired the Prussian schools! Second, the more progressive, shall we say humanist, pedagogy of Pestalozzi and Mann made little headway in the 19th century. If you go beyond the writings of a few selected elites, I don't think you find much of it in those schools. Mann is part of an East Coast-centered myth that hasn't been seriously examined for a long, long time. It reminds me a bit of the famous New Yorker cartoon that features the Big Apple skyline, New Jersey, a small bland space for the rest of the country, until you see the west coast.

Andrew D. Todd - 7/8/2007

Well, biology is rather a big tent, and I don't know which part you're in. At one end there are people who are almost biochemists, doing stuff like molecular genetics, and at the other end, there are people, such as primatologists, who are really social scientists. Before I went to engineering school, I had done a B.A. in anthropology, and after I finished engineering school, I went to graduate school in anthropology. I got to know a number of physical anthropologists (human biologists), met various distribution requirements, and did a certain amount of labwork, mostly involving measuring human bones. The physical anthropologists weren't very mathematical. Their use of statistics tended to be very shaky, involving the employment of a professional statistician almost as a kind of ghost writer. From practical experience in the laboratory, I learned that bones are much more amorphous than one would gather from reading the laboratory manuals. On a human-sized bone, any measurement closer than half a centimeter or so (say, two percent?) has a strong element of subjectivity.

One thing you should understand about engineering school: in the undergraduate engineering curriculum, practically every course is prescribed, and the courses are prescribed with a view to requiring students to learn the full width and breadth of the discipline rather than prematurely microspecializing. The core of engineering is physics; the core of physics is mathematics; and mathematics is a "child prodigy" field, characterized by extreme reductionism. It's not quite like the elective system. You appreciate that, in a prescribed course system, "a maverick who who works only at what interests him" will have a different pattern of grades than "an all-around team player."

Now as for thesis size, simplicity is a virtue in engineering design, and don't forget that engineers ultimately make things. A good engineer instinctively goes for approaches which can be carried out in a short period of time, which don't involve too much reinventing of the wheel. The reverse of simplicity is rube-goldberg-ism. At the same time, there is much more automation around than there used to be. Computer programming is much easier than it used to be, due to the availability of better tools. A technical job which was a day or a week's work thirty years ago is now often only a few minutes work. The skill level beyond a good master's thesis usually involves people skills, and those are not something which can be taught very well in an academic curriculum.

John Charles Crocker - 7/6/2007

Your right we should eliminate all schools, then our problems will be solved. All those kids who would be in school could be put to work in the fields and factories. Remember the child minimum wage is lower, think of the savings. Then maybe we could deport all those filthy liberal teachers and academics and let them be a burden on some other nation's economy. Great ideas as always.

John Charles Crocker - 7/6/2007

I agree that there is some difference in the average science or engineering student and the average humanities student. A "C" student is not someone who gets the occasional C, but one who averages "C" work (a D for every B). If you are a "C" student, either you are in the wrong program or you are having too much fun.

Re: Masters vs PhD in sciences
I can't speak to engineering programs, but in the biological sciences it can be difficult to get publishable results within the constraints of a masters thesis (very unlikely as a lead author). A few people in the rather small department where I am doing my research have new articles in Nature and a few lucky Masters students will have their names on those articles. A PhD and subsequent post docs allow for work at a level that can be published in at least mid level journals as the lead author.

You were definitely well served by the prof who coached you on grant writing.

Jason Blake Keuter - 7/6/2007

Compulsory education systems cannot and do not promote free speech. Their very existence is premised on a set of assumptions that presume these education systems have the right to deny individual self-determination in countless ways - all for the good of the non-entity "society".

Wake up and smell the crappy Folgers coffee in the mildew-riddled faculty lounge : the school system is the government; teachers are the government; and they presume to tell you what to do not only during the school day, but also outside of school hours. If you fail to do it, you are bad and are punished. If you do what the government says you are good. Every morning, inquisitions are conducted throughout the country about "homework", as prying government officials seek subtle signs that those they charged with doing what the government says, really did it. Every afternoon throughout the country, students and their families are the subject of vile criticism from government officials, who condemn them as awful because of their non compliance with their teachers' orders.

Schools today differ little from the medieval church at the height of its irrelevance and consequent corruption. Left-wingers searching for good rebellions might want to look into the anti-homework movement; off course, joining it would entail runnning the risk of attacking the very institutions from which they parasitically suck their living from the hapless tax payer (who rightfully doesn't care about what passes itself off as academic inquiry these days).

Andrew D. Todd - 7/5/2007

Foreign graduate students are nearly all in hard science and engineering, not humanities. Obviously, Laurence Brooks Hughes has nothing much in the way of personal experience of either graduate school, or of science and engineering.

In hard science and engineering, if you have to express yourself at the length of a book, you are almost certainly out to lunch. Truth is simple and beautiful in hard science and engineering, and the highest truth is the kind which you can express while standing on one foot. This means that the highest legitimate degree in hard science and engineering is the master's degree. A good master's degree, with a thesis, involves demonstrating the ability to work autonomously on the largest project which it makes sense to work on as an individual. Mathematics education in the better secondary schools has improved quite a lot over the last fifty years or so, in about the same time frame that foreign graduate students turned up. This means that science and engineering undergraduates tend to be further along, doing more advanced work. In effect, a good undergraduate science and engineering curriculum _is_ graduate school, even if it does not bear the name. When scientists and engineers try to conform to academic standards designed for humanists, the result tends to shade off into make-work. At best, a Ph.D. dissertation in science or engineering might be ten essentially unrelated articles, bound together as a book. At worst, it might be one article, padded out with large quantities of computer print-offs to bring it up to book length. One of the most notable things which has happened is that there are radically more opportunities for talented young people to simply go off and do stuff, rather than waiting until their elders and betters say that they can do stuff. The brighter American students won't sit still for a lot of the kind of things which academic scientists and engineers have to do in order to maintain their social status.

The kind of work which academic scientists and engineers do is not very different from what they would be doing in industry. The differences are rather less than those between scholarship and journalism. The differences are fairly subtle, and only someone of a fairly high caliber feels the need to choose whether to work in academia or industry on quasi-intrinsic grounds (does the idea of your work being patented please you or anger you?), as distinct from purely extrinsic grounds, such as which side pays more (industry, naturally). One of the things science and engineering graduate students have to do a lot of is teaching elementary math and science to American students (nonmajors), who were too dumb to learn the stuff in high school, and who will never learn it, no matter how hard one tries to teach them. This kind of remedial teaching is notoriously deadening, and, understandably, a lot of people simply don't want to do it. Foreign graduate students come in on student visas, and they don't have the same range of choices which American students have. They are obliged to be graduate students because there are no visas for "garage entrepreneurs."

A couple of personal anecdotes, from when I was in engineering school, in a branch of mechanical engineering, in the early 1980's:

1) My favorite professor, whom I was lucky enough to catch just before he retired, only had a masters degree, which he had gotten in the late 1940's. He taught "advanced computer programming," which in this time and context meant "wizard mode programming," knowing how the machine worked deep down, and taking advantage of it. It was a rather different approach from what they taught in the Computer Science department-- I went along and sampled that, the next year. The class in the engineering school was a very small class. I think there were four students one term, and six the next. For the qualified historians here, I would add that the actual intellectual level of the course, listed in the catalog as junior-senior level, was roughly comparable to a second-level graduate seminar ("Research Seminar," as distinct from "Studies" course). The professor was not primarily concerned with teaching us technical matter as such, because he knew we could learn that out of a book. What he was mostly concerned with was teaching us about the political context of the engineer, the kind of things you find in the writings of people like Samuel Florman. We learned all about the politics of college accreditation-- specifically, the accreditation of our college-- not to mention the grisly details of how people got engineering Ph.D.s. Like all "ticket punching," it's not particularly pretty up close. Of course, at the time and place, we were all very excited about computers, but our professor wisely made a point of reminding us to learn the old-style engineering as well.

2) Just before I graduated from engineering school, I took a sequence of courses by independent study from the man who eventually wrote one of my letters of recommendation. He sold me a copy of the textbook, which he had himself written, and gave me an intensive coaching in the fine art of writing requests for official permission to take independent study. It is immensely important to put all the pertinent facts on one sheet of paper so that a busy official can see them at a glance. Then I went away for a couple of months, and came back with a notebook full of solved problems, and a list of the typographical errors in the book, and got my A. Same business next term. We had reached the point where the professor was no longer trying to teach me technical matter, so much as "elementary grant proposal writing."

To: John Crocker:

In science and engineering, "C" students are not generally party boys, because the party boys don't go into science and engineering in the first place. The reasons for getting C's are generally a lot more complicated. I can illustrate this with two books which I smuggled into the back of a dull old-style engineering class, and read surreptitiously. One was Jean Gimpel's _The Medieval Machine_, probably the single best book of history of technology ever written. The other was an IBM manual for the PL/I computer programming language. I got a C in the class, not surprisingly. I cannot remember which of two courses it was, but one of the instructors was Indian and the other was Chinese, and I didn't think that I had much of anything to learn from either of them as an engineer. In particular, my recollection was that the Chinese man had a rather deficient moral sense about design factors of safety. He did not have any real sense of being responsible for the safety of people crossing his bridge.

John Charles Crocker - 7/5/2007

"You will find, years ago especially, that people who earned the most money did have the most brains, and further, gave their children the most advantages."
They were certainly in the position to give their children the most advantages and still are. Where is your evidence that they had/have the most brains?

Higher education in America is highly variable and is largely what is made of it. If you come out of any University, even an Ivy, with Cs you probably had fun but did not learn all that much. Those who make the most of their university education in America, even at a typical state school, can compete well on the world stage.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/4/2007

Thanks, Clare. You're on to something about the bad parents, which I think is partly a consequence of the fact the public schools have failed for more than a generation... And the continued pursuit of "multiculturism" is a good way to get us killed in our beds by maniacal Islamists.

Clare Lois Spark - 7/4/2007

I agree with every one of Hughes's comments. The public schools are a disaster for many of our students. Without discipline and obedience (to the teachers' requests for civility) no learning can take place. But the reasons for the breakdown are too many to list here. One or two points can be made,however: there is no consensus on the value of an education that would develop independent critical thought, for many children are hostages either to authoritarian parents or incompetent ones, indifferent or unable to participate in the reform of the public schools, let alone to help their children learn in an appropriate environment. Popular culture has gone bohemian since the second world war, and although suburban schools often turn out good students, able to compete with the better private ones, the current "multicultural" direction of curricula undermines the intellectual and moral development of everyone who succumbs, for it invalidates science and universal knowledge.
This is an issue that all historians should address, and the general indifference to the primary and secondary education system is nothing short of scandalous.
To clarify my position: I am not advocating unquestioning obedience to authority when the latter is arbitrary, but rather I refer to the obvious need for self-control and consideration for the rights of others to learn in a peaceful environment.
I can't believe I even had to say these things.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/3/2007

I had in mind "No Excuses" by the Thernstroms, in which they irrefutably describe exactly what is wrong with the schools today, i.e., the teachers. I didn't read "America in Black and White."

You will find, years ago especially, that people who earned the most money did have the most brains, and further, gave their children the most advantages.

Yes, I do contend that elite education has declined, at least in the humanitites if not in the sciences. Just think about all the grade inflation at Harvard recently, and the dead weight of all the courses in "schools of social research," and other PC claptrap.

What Murray was talking about, however, was not the elite, by which we should stipulate the top 1% or so. He was talking about legions of "skilled workers," and the mass of the best "college graduates." Twenty percent of our 40-odd million school children is over eight million people, vastly more than you can pack into the Ivy League slots... Some of the top 20% will be losing out to other nationals in overseas jobs, where the vaunted "American know-how" once ruled supreme, but has now gone by the boards. Others will be failing to design and run the world's best factories in the U.S.A. In fact, we won't even have the best bureaucracies. Already the government cannot process passports.

And why, pray tell, are so many of our elite graduate schools unable to find qualified American students, falling back instead on foreign students, wholesale? Is it the laziness of the American pupils, or the ineptitude of their teachers? Or, perhaps, is it our very affluence doing us in, because so few American students or teachers are allowed to fail any more? The foreign students have become the only ones with a wolf at the door.

Ronald Dale Karr - 7/3/2007

If by the Thernstroms you mean "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible," this would seem to undermine your argument, since they argue that conditions have improved for blacks (and everyone else) since the 19th century, not that our schools are worse today than they were a century ago.

If you are contending that elite education at our best schools has declined, do you really believe that today's freshmen at Yale and Harvard are intellectually inferior to the likes of George W. Bush (or Al Gore or John Kerry, for that matter)?

John Charles Crocker - 7/3/2007

"The Bell Curve" has several major flaws in its assumptions and questionable methodology. See Gould, Brace, Heckman, and Hout.

Putting that aside for the moment.
"Murray and his co-author contend the U.S. public schools today are performing better than ever for that 80% of children who have the lowest potential, and their failure is entirely contained in how the top 20% in ability are turning out--which will have profoundly adverse consequences for the nation's future."
This is hardly a problem that calls for a sweeping restructuring of the system. Magnet schools and reinvigorated AP programs can go a long way to addressing this issue.
It seems you would prefer our public schools fail the 80% in favor of the 20%. Do you really think it is better for our current society to focus only on educating the top 20% in ability. How would you go about identifying the lucky few? Maybe the way they did in the 19th century, as you clearly feel that is a better model.

"This also rebuts the argument by Mr. Karr above about 19th century schools only educating a fraction of the children, because they were generally those with the most potential."
This is only true if by most potential you mean most money and the right skin color.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/3/2007

I suggest you read the Thernstroms and Charles Murray for evidence. "The Bell Curve" has an excellent chapter on education, only tangentially about race. Murray and his co-author contend the U.S. public schools today are performing better than ever for that 80% of children who have the lowest potential, and their failure is entirely contained in how the top 20% in ability are turning out--which will have profoundly adverse consequences for the nation's future. This also rebuts the argument by Mr. Karr above about 19th century schools only educating a fraction of the children, because they were generally those with the most potential.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/3/2007

Your "only educating a fraction of the children" argument is reduced by the current peformance of parochial schools in inner cities, doing well with the same children the public schools are failing routinely. As for evidence as to achievement levels in the 19th century, the best might be that today's students can't even read the books they were using.

John Charles Crocker - 7/2/2007

Socrates said this over 2400 years ago and each generation since has been convinced that the generation following them was less disciplined and learned less.

You are once again long on assertion and short on evidence.

Ronald Dale Karr - 7/2/2007

"the fact those schools had enormously more discipline than the schools of today, and inculcated far more knowledge in the children."

Of course, they did this by only educating a fraction of all children. Before the 1870s attendance even in Massachusetts public schools (probably the best in the nation) was sporadic, and even after that most children dropped out long before completing high school. And most blacks before 1865 did not receive their discipline in school at all; in fact, it was a crime to teach them in some states.

Just out of curiosity, what do you cite as evidence to support your claim that 19th century schools "inculcated far more knowledge in the children" than public schools today? I don't think you know just how bad some 19th century public schools could be!

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/2/2007

Your anecdotal evidence about a few boys challenging discipline in 19th century schools does not gainsay the fact those schools had enormously more discipline than the schools of today, and inculcated far more knowledge in the children. You can trace a direct correlation between decline of discipline and decline of learning over the past century. Thomas comes out of a Catholic university background (Holy Cross), and those schools, high and low, have maintained more discipline than others--which is why they still generally out-perform the others. Thomas (and I) really don't think that proposition is even arguable. And how can you enlist Horace Mann in your argument? Or even Dewey? They would be appalled to see the dumbed-down textbooks of today. After all, those gentlemen did believe in academic achievement, unlike their epigones.