There is much to love in George Packer’s essay on the culture wars and education in The Atlantic. He castigates both sides of the partisan aisle for their follies: the left’s support for school closures “far longer than either the science or welfare of children justified” and the right’s employment of overly-vague terminology in its attempts to constrain school curricula.
He also criticizes the hype over the latest pedagogical fads—I’m looking at you, “ungrading”—which often amount to educational experiments with children as the guinea pigs. And his paean to old books at the end of the essay makes this English teacher’s heart go pitter-pat.
That being said, both the means and ends that he proposes are flawed. Let me explain.
First, the ends. He envisions an education system wiped of any “partisan scrum,” one where democratic citizens “know how to make decisions together.” Appealing as it seems, this vision of a kumbaya system is unrealistic. He appears to conceive of democracy as a conflict-free zone in which we come together, talk, listen, compromise, and make decisions.
Traditionally understood, though, democracies are raucous, argumentative affairs. In Federalist 10, Madison acknowledged that the causes of factions and conflict “are sown into the nature of man.” Bring together farmers, artisans, businessmen, teachers, and countless other professions with varying religions, family structures, and values, and disagreement will arise. We get Thomas Jefferson calling John Adams a “hideous hermaphrodite” and Benjamin Franklin called him “a ruffian deserving the curses of mankind.” Why would we expect our institutions of public education to function differently?
For example, amid partisan squabbles over book lists, Packer suggests that our students ought to encounter both To Kill a Mockingbird and Beloved. Of course I think they should read both great works, yet reality often stomps on abstract ideals. And curricula can only include so much. It’s like space on your dinner plate. The inclusion of one book (or vegetable) necessitates the exclusion of another. Discussing one historical event means slighting another. Everyone can never get all that they want, and so disagreement, anger even, is inevitable.
To the founders, democracy looked less like graceful adjudication and more like boisterous townhalls. While we must condemn any excess—violence and threats, for example—when I see parents speaking before school boards, I see democracy at work. When I see competing editorials across publications, I again see democracy at work.
There are ways to tone down the heat. The local nature of U.S. public schooling helps. It’s easier to get a small community relatively pleased with a curriculum or instructional methodology than a nation of more than 300 million people.
Expanded school choice laws could also dampen the vitriol. When all members of a school share at least the outline of a vision—be it classical, progressive, critical, religious, or otherwise—there’s commonality of first principles. That facilitates compromise. Even so, if the average married couple occasionally disagrees over where to eat dinner, we should expect and even welcome civil—or even heated—disagreements over education.
And now, the means. To avoid the battles, Packer gestures at a sort of third way. Instead of bickering over what events to learn about or how to frame our history, he recommends that we instead teach our students how to think like historians, analyze documents, and apply the skills of criticism.
Intentionally or not, he thereby invokes the progressive education of John Dewey who argued that no content is in itself worth learning. To Dewey, content was only the means by which students master academic and intellectual skills. Politically, this is appealing, as it allows any polemicist to maintain a commitment to rigorous academic standards without getting into the muckiness of debating what students ought to learn. In a similar vein, Packer suggests that educators teach “the ability to read closely, think critically, evaluate sources, corroborate accounts, and back up their claims with evidence from original documents.” He emphasizes skills over content.
In reality, however, as we know from Willingham, Hirsch, and many more, content is essential. Every attempt to skirt around the tough content choices by constructing curricula with a skills-approach leaves our education vacuous. Consider the concept of “thinking like a historian.” What does that mean? When real historians encounter a new primary source document, they don’t necessarily bring to that text some occult set of expert skills. Rather, they bring to bear a wealth of prior historical knowledge: How does it compare to other texts of the era? Does it reveal any new information not already in the literature? What other events were going on at the time that might have influenced its writing?
Reading depends on knowledge. A student’s score on a reading test depends far more on their knowledge of the topic in question than their predetermined reading level. Give even a struggling reader a passage on something they know lots about—say, baseball—and they’ll outperform even the so-called “strongest” readers if the strongest readers know little about the sport. If a student wanted to read something like the 1619 Project with any meaningful comprehension or analysis, they need factual, historical knowledge. What are the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence? What do they say? What was chattel slavery and the Atlantic passage?
The literary texts, facts, historical events, and scientific theories that we place in our curricula are essential for learning. E.D. Hirsch has spent decades meticulously detailing the countless schools, districts, and even entire countries that built a successful education system upon a robust, knowledge-based, core curriculum. In reality, in trying to avoid the culture war with his skills-focused approach, Packer ends up recommending academic mediocrity in its stead.
Maybe instead of casting off this debate as just “culture warring” or politicking, perhaps we can see how it connects to a centuries-old debate. Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Locke, and countless others spent much ink in discussion of what and how our kids ought to learn. Debates over curriculum are not only inevitable; they are necessary.