The Deterioration of American Education

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Our society is confronted with an educational problem that exceeds, in magnitude and difficulty, the educational problems which past societies have faced and solved.

Not only have we not solved the educational problem that confronts us. We have not yet turned our efforts toward trying to solve it. Most Americans do not know the shape this problem takes; and it would almost seem as if most American educators have deliberately tried to avoid recognizing it. Yet the problem is one of the most serious that our society faces; and with the changes that lie ahead, it will become even more so. If it remains unsolved, it will become the most serious threat to the future of our society — its safety, its sanity, its prosperity.

With few exceptions, American educators tend to be satisfied with the accomplishments of American education in the last fifty years. This is the clearest and surest indication that they do not understand the problem our country is called upon to solve; for if they did, they could not possibly deceive themselves about what has so far been achieved.

They would know that everything we have done in building the largest school system the world has ever seen amounts to no more than a bare first step toward the solution of the problem of giving liberal education, the best conceivable, to all the children whom that school system is intended to accommodate. They would frankly admit that no one at present knows how to solve this problem. They would recognize that the problem is so difficult that it may take us the next hundred years to solve. Above all, they would see that, until the problem is understood in all its difficulties and accepted as the most serious problem we face, the intelligence, energy, and wealth required to solve it will not be applied to the task.

I hope that what I have just said makes clear that this lecture has no solution to offer. Its only contribution is a statement of the problem itself, and a recognition of its difficulties. If most Americans — and most American educators — could be persuaded to accept the problem I am going to try to state, and were also fully persuaded of the need to solve it, we might then have some hope of solving it in the next hundred years.

*******************In all of the societies of the past, the end of education, in school and after, was the mental, moral, and spiritual growth of the person, with wisdom as the ultimate goal to be approached as a man reached the end of his life and approximated the ideal of an educated man. Since this end could not be achieved in school, it was understood that adult learning, throughout life, was a moral obligation, and one that any virtuous man of leisure regarded as his personal duty to discharge. But it was not merely a duty to his society and to himself. Learning throughout life was also an essential ingredient in a man’s pursuit of happiness, and the satisfaction of his deepest human desire — his desire to know.

As the immediate result of the quantitative changes produced by the democratic and industrial revolutions, American education, both in theory and practice, has declined in the following.

(1) The curriculum of the elementary and secondary schools, and even the so-called “liberal arts” colleges, has been diluted or watered down. The solid subjects have ceased to be required of all students, and many of them have disappeared from the course of study in our secondary schools, which deal with children at an age when they should receive rigorous training in the liberal arts and be given the solid substance of liberal schooling.

(2) Vocational courses of every conceivable kind — some of them almost inconceivable — have more and more replaced the solid substance of the liberal disciplines. Not only are such courses without any educational content, but what is worse, they are all directed to the wrong end — preparation for earning a living, instead of preparation for living well.

(3) Instead of giving all the students in our schools and colleges the same general and common preparation for the life of learning and leisure which all of them now have the opportunity to enjoy in their adult years, our schools have introduced more and more specialized and differentiated courses of study, supposedly adopted to the individual differences of students and with a view to preparing them, not for the same mode of life which is open to all free men, but for the different occupations into which they may go.

Instead of postponing such specialized study, where it is necessary, until after basic liberal schooling is completed, preprofessional and other forms of technical specialization have been introduced into the high school and the college. None of it should occur prior to the B.A. degree.

(4) Worst of all, the children are very early divided into sheep and goats. The goats are those whom the educators think are not up to the difficulties of truly liberal schooling, and they are shunted off into purely vocational, trivial, or other illiberal programs. The sheep, and they are comparatively few in number, are given the diluted and wholly inadequate schooling that now passes for training in the liberal arts and sciences.

(5) In our public schools and in many of our colleges, both the best and the worst, and those that pretend to be liberal as well as those that make no such pretense, the basic educational standards have been relaxed to the point where the average child is able to get by with very little work and the bright child goes completely unchallenged. This, by the way, is one of the many causes of juvenile delinquency on the part of the more intelligent and energetic youngsters, whose wits and energies our schools fail to command and harness.

(6) As the family and the community as a whole have become derelict in the performance of their educational responsibilities in the rearing of children — their physical care, their moral training, and their intellectual development — the schools have become burdened with extraneous tasks that schools were never intended to perform, and which they should not be expected to perform. In our delinquent community, the schools have become more and more burdened with concerns about the child’s physical and mental health, his recreational opportunities, his occupational future, his moral formation. All these things distract the school’s attention and divert its energies from the main business to which it should be devoted.

(7) In addition, the parents, instead of encouraging the schools to give homework and make the students work hard at their lessons, often oppose such policies because they no longer want to be bothered with helping their own children in the process of learning. Since the adult population in America spends more and more of its free time in play rather than leisure, they tend to think that “school-work” should also be more like play instead of leisure. The way in which the child’s parents misuse the time they have free for leisure creates an atmosphere in the home which is the very opposite of what is needed to encourage the child in the difficult and arduous tasks of learning.

(8) What most Americans call: “adult education” is either nothing but remedial schooling for those who did not have sufficient schooling in youth, or, worse, some form of avocational pursuit, such as folk-dancing or basket-weaving. As a consequence of this almost universal misunderstanding of the true meaning of adult education, as the absolutely necessary continuation of liberal learning in all the years that follow school, American parents and American educators misconceive schooling as if it were the whole, or even the main part of education when, in truth, schooling at its best is but the beginning of the life of learning. Both the content and methods of basic schooling are seriously deranged when the purpose of schooling is mistakenly thought to be the completion of education and the mastery of the fundamental things which should be learned.

(9) With the expansion of the school system and the phenomenal increase in the number of teachers and administrators required in it, the educational profession has become organized like a labor union or an industrial association and has come to use all the public pressures which its power commands in order to advance the interests of its members rather than the common good of public education. The “organized educators” of the country have, in the last one hundred years, worked to increase the number of schools, the number of teachers, the salaries and tenure of teachers, etc., but they have simultaneously opposed efforts to turn American education from the path it has followed to its present low state. The average American teacher, who has been certified for the classrooms of our public schools by a state normal school or college of education, is not himself or herself a liberally schooled individual; and those who do not themselves have the light of liberal learning can hardly be expected to lead others to it.

(10) Finally, while we progressively diluted the liberal substance of schooling, we have progressively extended the number of years it takes a boy or girl to finish the first phase of education with the attainment of a bachelor’s degree. We take more and more time — to do less and less. In addition to the serious educational failure this indicates, it also results in the prolongation of immaturity. In all past centuries, men and women began a mature life before the age of twenty, most of them much earlier, at sixteen or eighteen. Since many of our children remain in school long after that, they also remain immature for a much longer period of their lives, and this both delays and shortens the period of immaturity in which the most important learning that human beings can do must be done.

I would like to add a few brief comments to the foregoing bill of particulars against American education in this century.

I do not need to take your time to give you evidence for most of the charges I have just recited. Anyone who has children in the schools and colleges of this country has all the evidence he needs. I am sure you have heard your children, as I have heard mine, refer to “solids” as if they were a small part of the curriculum which any sensible youngster should avoid like the plague. It would be hard for them to imagine a school in which the whole curriculum consisted of “solids” and in which every student was required to work through a solid course of study. Yet such were the schools and the requirements in all the centuries prior to this one.

You know as well as I do the range of vocational or “lifeadjustment” courses which have been introduced into our schools and colleges, and how many children get nothing but such training after the elementary years in which they learn a little — very little — about how to read, write, talk, or listen. But you may not realize why vocational training and “life-adjustment” courses have been substituted for liberal education. You may think that the reason is the necessity to prepare most of our children for the occupations or trades they will engage in to earn a living.

If you think that, you forget that those of our ancestors who engaged in servile work did so successfully without the benefit of schooling, and those of our ancestors who entered into the liberal professions were trained for their vocations either in actual practice or in post-graduate schools, following the completion of liberal schooling.

You may also be unaware that vocational training in school is for the most part totally useless. In most of the trades or occupations into which our children go, the training has to be done all over again on the job; and nothing would be lost at all if the ineffective manner in which it is done in school were completely omitted. On the contrary, much would be gained, for all that wasted time could then be put to good use by the restoration of the solid substance of liberal learning.

The real reasons for the rampant vocationalism in our schools and colleges are twofold. The first is that vocational training provided an escape for the teachers. When, beginning in 1900, the teachers were faced with the expanding and ever more heterogeneous population in their classrooms, they discovered that they simply did not know how to give liberal schooling to all the children, half of whom were below the average intelligence for the population as a whole. Since all the children had to be kept in school, and kept there for more and more years, the teachers sought refuge from their inability to do what should be done by substituting for that something they found themselves able to do. Vocational training was an expedient for the teachers, not a necessity for the students.

But the teachers are not alone responsible for the ersatz schooling that resulted from vocationalism. The second reason for this degradation of American education lies in the attitude of American parents. You know as well as I do that most parents send their children through school and college — and often make great personal sacrifices to do so — for the wrong rather than the right reason. They want their children to get ahead in the world by beating their neighbors in the competition for jobs and salaries. There could be no worse reason than this for putting a child through school or college.

Unfortunately, this egregious misconception of the purpose of schooling is not limited to the parents. It is now shared by many educators themselves, and by almost all of the children. The reason given by the schools for offering so wide a variety of vocational courses, the reason given by parents for insisting upon them, and the reason given by the children for selecting them, is throughout the same misguided notion that the purpose of going to school is earning a good living, not learning to live well.

Nor do you need evidence from me about the progressive relaxation of the standards in our schools and colleges. You know how little homework your children are now required to do; and if you do not already know it, you can easily discover for yourself that most high school and college students do not spend forty hours a week studying, in class or out. It would not hurt them at that age if they were to spend forty-eight or fifty-six hours a week at the tasks of learning.

Since learning is a liberal, not servile, pursuit, and since it is the essence of leisure, there is no ground for reducing the time of study to the five-day week and the six-hour workday.

But even those of you who realize how little our children work, and how little is expected of them, may not be cognizant of all the reasons for the relaxation of educational standards. One of them, of course, is the fact that under our present system of extended, compulsory education, the standards must be set so low that no child need be expelled from school for failing to meet them. Nor, with the overcrowding of our classrooms, can any child be held back. They must all be promoted each year to make room for those one year behind them.

But these are not the only reasons for our current educational practices. In the last fifty years, the mental hygienists and psychiatrists have come into the picture and made concern about the emotional frustration of the child paramount above all educational considerations.

Children must not be allowed to compete for grades in order to prevent any of them from developing a sense of failure. Children must not be disciplined, for that might also lead to emotional disorders on their part. Above all, children must never be asked to do anything they cannot do easily and painlessly; they must learn effortlessly and with a euphoric sense of success in everything they undertake.

This may not prepare them for all the pains and difficulties, and often the failures, men must reckon with in the strenuous effort to lead the good life; but that does not matter, for the American ideal is not the good life anyway, but having a good time, full of assorted pleasures day after day.

Just as we cannot blame the vocationalism of our schools on the teachers, since we, the parents, are more responsible than they for making our schools nothing but a means to success as measured by money; so we cannot put the whole blame for the relaxation of standards on the psychiatrists. The American people as a whole is responsible for the inverted scale of values which dominates our schools, as it dominates American life. Instead of subordinating play as something which, in addition to being pleasant, serves the useful purpose of refreshing us for the arduous tasks of labor and leisure, we as a people think that work is for the sake of play, and that leisure is nothing but a round of diversions, amusements, and recreations.

We talk of the pursuit of happiness, which our forefathers understood to be the effort to achieve the highest excellence of which human life is capable; but what we really mean is the pursuit of pleasure. That is mainly what we want to use our wealth for; and that is how we use our free time. In the last hundred years, as the amount of free time has increased progressively with the amazing increase in our productivity, the two things that have followed the same path of accelerated growth are the school system and amusement industries. The growth of the one might conceivably have checked the growth of the other; but it appears to have done the very opposite.

We are not merely devoted to play but we are given to the adoration of childhood, probably because it is that part of human life which is least serious and most playful. Harboring a secret desire to be as carefree as children, we make every effort to see that our children remain as carefree as possible. With such sentiments or dreams about the idyllic world of childhood, we oppose those features of schooling which would make our children grow up more rapidly by suffering the pains and hardships, and having to surmount the difficulties, that are as inseparable from genuine learning as they are from all the other serious business of life itself.

Excepted from a lecture “Liberal Education in an Industrial Democracy”, a series for the Industrial Indemnity Insurance Company in San Francisco (1957).

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