The State of Education

This never fails to amaze me:

Popular education has always and everywhere afforded me an incomprehensible phenomenon. The people want education, and every separate individual unconsciously tends toward education. The more highly cultured class of people — society, the government — strive to transmit their knowledge and to educate the less educated masses. One would think that such a coincidence of necessities would satisfy both the class which furnishes the education and the one that receives it. But the very opposite takes place. The masses continually counteract the efforts made for their education by society or by the government, as the representatives of a more highly cultured class, and these efforts are frequently frustrated.

The writing feels a bit stilted, and it should: it was written in the late 1800’s.  But the sentiment is remarkably modern.  If everyone agrees that education is necessary, and desirable, then why can’t we figure it out?

Count Leo Tolstoy is best known for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but he also wrote a lot in the philosophical realm, including essays on religion and reason.  I have only recently begun reading his thoughts on education, but it is remarkable to me that he identifies many of the same issues that vex us today: compulsory education is shows diminishing returns the more it is implemented, and yet everyone from the elites to the lower classes (nobles and peasants in Tolstoy’s culture) recognize the positive influence of education in a general sense.

So what is the best way to teach the children?  I don’t have a clear answer (though I might propose several ideas), but the empirical evidence is clear: the more we have consolidated educational standards, the lower test scores drop.  If the huge push in the mid 20th century to consolidate education at the state level resulted in a less educated populace, how could we possibly expect that nationalizing education would improve the situation?

Nothing in the Constitution addresses education.  It is a serious overreach for the federal government to even try to influence how the states educate their children, much less set the curriculum for the entire nation.


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