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Is the Liberal Education Establishment Deliberately Dumbing Down America?


By William J. Dodwell     February 17, 2017


            Education in America used to be sacrosanct as a key to professional, social and national success.  Scholarship was respected and something to emulate. While this ethic still exists in certain elite quarters, it generally has deteriorated substantially in the last fifty years with serious implications for societal decline, employment, the culture, the body politic and America’s hegemony.  How and why has this happened and what are the prospects for the future?


The long decline


            Academia has long been a bastion of the political left.  As such, it is a target for infusing its increasingly intrusive agenda.  The origin of the malaise derives from the ideological and administrative politicization of public education.  Liberal elected officials and like-minded school administrators embrace identity politics and other forms of political correctness that alter academic content and teaching modalities.  At the college level, professors also promote the progressive agenda, which in turn, naïve brainwashed students help to propagate through protests.  In the primary and secondary schools, teachers might not be as ideologically motivated but are controlled by their left-leaning administrative authorities, that is, superintendents and principals. 


In addition, teachers are governed by their unions, chiefly the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which work in concert with state governments to optimize their salaries, benefits and work rules.  Moreover, the unions curry favor with federal, state and local politicians and the Democratic Party through dues-financed campaign contributions and lobbying efforts aimed at extracting legislation and government spending favorable to the membership that sustains them.  The unions also often hold sway over passive local school boards.  Because union power secures generous total compensation and accommodations for teachers independent of performance or student achievement, and ensures they cannot be fired, the quality of education suffers.


Academic dilution


The radical departure from traditional curricula and academic standards linked to the institution of political correctness in the schools and colleges raises serious questions as to educational purpose. Has the left deliberately diluted education in its self-interest?  Compounding the problem is a societal de-intellectualization engendered by technological distractions, such as email, smartphones and video games.  Although a godsend in some ways, these innovations suppress in-depth thought.  This creates a population unaccustomed to critical thinking and complex conceptualization which particularly undermines traditional education for the young.  Further cultural deterioration is reflected in a long popular obsession with sports and in artistic decadence promoted by the media that have contributed to an atmosphere inimical to educational excellence.


            Education authorities have curtailed or eliminated the teaching of civics and American history such that many children do not even know who George Washington was.  Daniel Henninger writes in The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2015, about the College Board’s revision of the Advance Placement examination for U.S. history.  The changes recast the subject in a framework of “different contexts of U.S. history, with special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities “. 


Indeed, in schools and colleges the works and achievements of so-called dead white males have become impolitic.  The left suppresses and revises history to fit its agenda that emphasizes oppression, including the transgressions of the forefathers, particularly on American Indians and Africans.  While concealing the atrocities and inequities of the early American settlers and the founders is dishonest, the teaching of history should be balanced to encompass the good and the bad.  Likewise, the lesser significance of minority figures should not be exaggerated for their own sake.  But liberal educators de-emphasize the nation’s founding and the freedoms and prosperity it spawned, while lionizing the global order.  They virtually ignore the U.S. Constitution or even dismiss it as extremist.  The education establishment embraces collectivism and downplays individual accomplishment lest it pose a challenge to its power.  There is little room for dissent.  Such homogeneous thinking invites tyranny, and educational manipulation sets the stage for that outcome.


Rigorous grammar study, including the diagramming of sentences and verb conjugation that foster clear communication, seem to have gone out with the typewriter.  Consider the common disregard for proper past participles, even among the well- educated?  Employers complain too many employees cannot write effectively.  The extent of foreign names in media bylines suggests a paucity of qualified American educated journalists.  A rote, checklist mentality in auditing substitutes for integrative analysis contributing to costly corporate failures.  Information in instruction pamphlets is poorly organized.  Note the declining literacy reflected in the many misspellings of basic words appearing in television news trailers and closed caption text (allowing for occasional typos while typing on the fly).  Schools invoke exaggerated touchy feely notions of self-esteem and personal uniqueness at the expense of objective academic standards.  And the American culture derides academic achievers as “nerds”.


Sports seem to trump scholarship in the schools, and even that is subverted by egalitarian zeal by which everyone gets a trophy, and keeping score on the ball field is prohibited.  Political correctness further pervades the atmosphere with an obsession about race, multiculturalism and the environment.  In fact, in Philadelphia there is a move to adopt Black Lives Matter as a curricular topic.  In addition, California assemblyman, Marc Levine, introduced a bill requiring the State Board of Education to teach in its curriculum and textbooks about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which the left claims invalidates President Trump’s victory.


Poor student performance


Street interviews that expose abysmal ignorance of history and current events, even among top school students, have become regular television entertainment.  SAT scores have fallen for decades despite easier test content.  And according to the 2015 global rankings of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) , the U.S. scored a below average 41st in math, 24th in reading, and 25th in science.  What’s more, only about one-third of 4th and 8th graders nationally in public and private schools performed at or above grade level proficiency in 2015, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 


This, despite average spending per student steadily rising above the inflation rate.  Such results disprove the oft-mentioned link between spending and educational quality the progressives claim.  As more educational control has shifted toward the federal government, spending has increased significantly without improved results.  According to Investor’s Business Daily, September 7, 2015, “... the Department of Education runs over 100 grant programs, spending over $100 billion a year.  And yet we’re not better off for it.”


In some cases bad teachers contribute to poor student performance.  Teachers are virtually immune from termination because their unions protect them to prevent dreaded membership reduction.  Instead, incompetent or misbehaving teachers are consigned to a so-called rubber room, often for years, where they do nothing while drawing full salary.  


According to The Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2016, Families for Excellent Schools reports “Black and Hispanic students who attend charters in New York City scored nearly three quarters higher than their counterparts at district-run schools.”   This contrast, common throughout the country, is proof positive of an incompetent or corrupt public school bureaucracy. 


Explanation for the abdication


Apathetic parents


Why has educational deterioration gone unchecked?  One reason is that recent generations of parents have fully acquiesced to the indoctrination of their children because they too endured it in school. What’s more, cultural changes abetted by mass media have democratized poor education such that reading is practically passé. Generations of academic standards erosion, cultural rot, and the aggression of teachers unions have produced docile parents.  They do not question academic decline because they themselves do not know what constitutes a quality education.  School boards populated by these parents and infiltrated by liberal political operatives offer little resistance.  Hence, there is little demand for excellence in education.  In fact, some boards are known to furtively ally themselves with the teachers unions and the teachers in a united front against parents and students as they rubber stamp union contracts and resist productive reform.


Political indoctrination


The left capitalizes on parental capitulation to indoctrinate students so they grow up less than truly educated, and therefore less intellectually capable of recognizing the harm of power hungry government and the liberal agenda.  Liberal operatives in the U.S. Department of Education and their counterparts in the states control textbook content and teaching modalities through politically motivated mandates.  School administrators as agents of the left implement its agenda, locally slanting and diluting curricula and conceding to weaker student performance standards in an egalitarian spirit.  Since when have scholarship and excellence been policy objectives in the public schools?  (To be sure, the better teachers decry this state of affairs.)


As mentioned, armed with billions of dollars of union dues, the teachers unions buy Democratic politicians with campaign donations in exchange for writing favorable legislation and directing budget appropriations their way.  In addition, the unions fight Republican opponents through negative ads at election time.  Fearing this power of the carrot and the stick, too many pols refrain from criticizing politicized curricula, poor student performance, and excessive concessions to teacher salaries, benefits and pensions.  At the same time, progressive Democratic politicians advance the liberal agenda writ large with the help of union campaign contributions that keep them in office.  Time was when teachers considered themselves professionals who scoffed at unionization as meant only for blue collar workers.  That was before politics and monetary interests supplanted academic excellence.  To be fair, the political left imposed unionization on the teachers in the 1960s.  The unions have had a hammer lock on the profession and the body politic ever since.


The welfare of students is purely ancillary to the power of the unions and school administrations in their quest for political control over formative minds at the behest of liberal politicians in Washington and the state capitals.  In fact, an industry joke has one union official saying, “We’ll care about the kids when they start paying dues.”  As a consequence, political indoctrination and diluted education ensure students will not challenge liberal orthodoxy as adults, and even embrace it by voting Democratic.  The huge achievement gap between public school students and their counterparts in charter schools and in other countries is testament to this fraud on children and, indeed, American civilization.


The Effects


A refuge from truth and reality


            The hijacking of education by the left has had many adverse effects.  On college campuses political correctness imposed by progressive operatives and abetted by the liberal group-think of the professoriate has infected impressionable students.  It has resulted in absurd majors and paper topics predicated on a notion of ultimate egalitarianism and identity politics.  The commandment not to offend, however unintentionally, has eradicated academic freedom, the hallmark of the traditional university. In addition, the mandate has engendered the hyper-parsing of language, such as avoiding gender specific pronouns, so not to invoke the remotest implication of differentiation, transgression, or microaggression.  Naïve, brainwashed students banish or shout down conservative speakers and vilify like-minded fellow students.  Witness the recent violent protests at the University of California, Berkley against a conservative speaker from Breitbart news in reaction to the activities of the new Trump administration.  The following day the same outrage transpired at New York University.


Students and professors call for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” to protect them from the trauma of dissent. Cowardly public college authorities cave to their demands for fear of losing their jobs or funding from leftist government sources.  Private schools also acquiesce to unruly denizens to avoid media opprobrium for political incorrectness.  Curricula are fraught with sops to political identity groups while much traditional intellectual inquiry has disappeared resulting in too many shallow indoctrinated students.  Even law schools have jettisoned much traditional legal instruction for leftist indoctrination, which is manifest in many court decisions.


            Primary and secondary schools engage in social promotion, even graduating illiterates.  They tolerate violent behavior, even assaults on teachers, citing disadvantaged upbringing and alternative cultures as excuses.  Yet, faux violence is condemned.  For example, a diner owner told me parents accompanied by children tell him not to show Fox News on the diner television because it exposes the young ones to violence.  What?  Might the teachers and administrators be behind this propaganda?  Meanwhile, test scores and graduation rates stagnate at grossly unsatisfactory levels.  In extreme cases of academic failure the state takes control of local schools.  Of course, these problems largely derive from the pathological backgrounds of the student populations mainly in the inner cities.  But academic and behavioral discipline could improve student performance as charter schools have demonstrated.  Nonetheless, education authorities dismiss this remedy as impolitic.


Government interference


Mandates, funding and propaganda


            A symbiosis between academia and government has produced a monolithic political force with far reaching social implications.  The Department of Education in Washington DC has become increasingly intrusive on local schools as it dictates pedagogy and curricula.  Notable examples are President Obama’s Common Core program and President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative which have yielded an unorthodox teaching-to-the test mentality.  In addition, federal and state authorities impose politically motivated mandates, including transgender restrooms. 


Schools and colleges depend on federal grants.  College students depend on federal loans and myriad repayment accommodation.  Graduates carry their indoctrination into the work force and the families they create, and vote accordingly.  Academia at large promotes the liberal agenda that celebrates government intervention, including many private colleges fraught with liberal professors.  As a result, education is shrouded by government influenced indoctrination that permeates the social order to the extent that students transfer it to their adult lives.  At the very least, the liberal group-think assures a lot of Democratic votes.


As a consequence, government grows bigger and more powerful on the backs of taxpayers and at the expense of individual freedoms.  Schools and colleges are obsessed with promoting unassailable diversity, environmentalism and the rest of the “progressive” canon in concert with the liberal political establishment and the media.  Education authorities even go along with the feminist left’s emasculation campaign that neutralizes gender in grammar schools and criminalizes college men for unsubstantiated sexual offenses arising from a faux rape epidemic. At the same time, the teachers unions push for pre-school programs to create more jobs for dues paying teachers.


            Ironically, the education that used to safeguard against government tyranny now accommodates it by creating a widespread predisposition to the liberal agenda.   Academic deterioration fostered by the body politic, media and the education establishment has harvested an apathetic citizenry and a gullible electorate that puts the nation’s liberty and prosperity at risk as America is dumbed down.


            Employers have to hire more qualified foreign workers, especially for high-skilled technology jobs, as too many American graduates cannot read, write and compute adequately.  Hence, the corporate demand for much higher H-1B visa caps established by the states.  (Cheaper labor accounts for this too.)  But to the satisfaction of the left, foreign hiring promotes diversity and holds back indigenous Americans making them more reliant on government largesse. 


Is the American education deficit a deliberate tactic of the left to garner allegiance?  Arguably, the less educated, marginalized by restricted employment opportunities and lower income, are more amenable to government assistance, and therefore more likely to support big government candidates at the ballot box.  As such, government encroachment on the private sector is not as objectionable to them.  Indeed, an academically limited student denied career aspiration more likely leads to a Democratic voter as an adult.


Escape routes


The charter school movement


            Short of reforming the public education system, the solution is to bypass it through school choice programs encompassing a voucher system, charter schools, and home schooling that do not involve teachers unions.  At the college level, conservative institutions, such as Hillsdale College and Liberty University which operate without any government funding, are excellent academic models.  Alternative education restores traditional curricula and performance standards and embraces civics, history and the humanities as constituted in the Great Books that capture the essence of Western culture.


Developing disaffection with failing public schools, even among once acquiescent parents, has created increasing political pressure in support of free public charter schools and vouchers to attend private institutions.  Inner city minority children as the primary victims of failed traditional public education are the greatest beneficiaries of alternative schooling.  Indeed, their parents covet precious few available charter school seats limited by the political clout of teachers unions over elected officials who determine their number.  Although regulation requires charter schools to admit students of all academic proficiencies and be accountable for performance, the absence of union influence gives them an advantage.  The unions fight fiercely to protect their turf from decimation caused by student transfers to charter schools.  Nonetheless, charter schools are growing.  In New Orleans 92% of students are enrolled in them. 


Political and union resistance to charter schools


But overall, the teachers unions still prevail even though charter schools usually produce eminently better results at a fraction of the cost, including dramatically higher SAT scores.  David Leonhardt in The New York Times, November 6, 2016, cites Paray Pathak, an M.I.T. professor who studies Boston’s charter schools.  He claims, “On average, Boston’s charters eliminate between one-third and one-half of the white-black test scores gap in a single year.”  School boards sometimes retaliate against the charters by withholding student bus service, for example, out of a concealed allegiance to, or fear of, the teachers union.


Migration away from regular public schools results in lower enrollment and therefore fewer dues paying teachers.  Theoretically, competition from charter schools should force public schools to improve and reverse the defections.  Yet, critics insist student transfers undermine the viability of the public school system.  But more importantly to them, they threaten the monopoly power of the teachers unions, a major source of campaign funding for liberal candidates running for public office.  The left will not let go of this bastion.  


The teachers unions are on the ropes, especially in urban areas where black parents demand the charter school alternative to woefully failing public schools.  And some of the better teachers are leaving the profession in disgust.  But Democrats in Congress, including black members, have long resisted this demonstrably successful path to better education.  That is because they are beholden to the teachers unions for political donations which help to sustain their tenure, and in turn, the liberal agenda through legislation and funding. 


Recently, the teachers unions called in all their chips to defeat President Trump’s Department of Education nominee, Betsy De Vos, a champion of charter schools.  In this fight, even some charter school advocates publicly opposed her in the fatuous hope of some relief from union opposition to their own schools in the future.  Notably, presidential aspirant Senator Cory Booker, who was a leading advocate for charter schools as Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, led the charge in the Senate to defeat Ms. De Vos.  Ironically, Newark public schools are so bad they were taken over by the state.  Fortunately, the Senate confirmed Ms. De Vos 51-50 including an unprecedented vote by vice president Pence to break the tie. 


What is the standard for a good education?


            What kind of education does one who escapes a bad public school hope for?  What is a good education?


Liberal arts


The model school and college require diverse curricula and strong performance standards that develop integrative and critical thinking skills through rigorous reading, writing and computing as exemplified by the aforementioned Great Books of yore.  As an enhancement, musical instruction for those inclined should be available.  Teachers unions need not apply.  Teaching certification should be available to exceptionally accomplished professionals in relevant fields without the requisite “education” credits.


Of course, at the college level the humanities raise the specter of the much maligned liberal arts program that employers have rejected in favor of commercial specialties having direct applications in business.  This transition started in the early 1970s in response to a plethora of baby boomer graduates, including women beginning to enter the work force en masse.  Employers sought to cull the herd by giving priority to business degrees which are putatively more amenable to a ready adaptation to commercial needs. 


But the ability to think holistically, communicate, and critique effectively, the hallmark of the liberal arts education, facilitates the acquisition of specialized knowledge in business.  These qualities also produce societal gentility and personal edification for a better civilization otherwise overpopulated by Philistines.  Indeed, even in college, a preoccupation with prospective employment income and return on investment can be misguided.  That said, given the cost of higher education and the desire for economic comfort, acquiring expertise based on commercial demand is an important practical consideration.  The disparaged well-educated server at Starbucks has become a metaphor for the dissenter.  Yet, perhaps most graduates have always worked in fields wholly unrelated to their college major.  Moreover, nearly half of new graduates work in jobs that do not require a degree, according to a 2014 report of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York cited by Jeffrey J. Selingo in The Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2016.


The education/employment nexus


So, where is the education-occupation intersection?  Students choose inappropriate degrees.  Employers apply inappropriate hiring criteria.  A paucity of qualified job candidates leave employers in the lurch.  Better coordination between schools and employers as to needed skills and knowledge might help at the vocational level.  In recent years, a concern for gainful employability consistent with employer needs sparked a new emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the schools, so-called STEM subjects.  Is the old liberal arts standard which says better thinkers are better on the job learners a better option after all?  That would require convincing employers.


            Parochial schools have been a good alternative to left-leaning, union dominated public schools for a long time.  But declining enrollment from a secular disaffection with religious affiliation, the priest scandals, and the attendant drop in financial resources have diminished their influence. To some extent, charter schools cannibalize the religious schools and move into their buildings after they shut down.


            Some support the federal Common Core program because it applies higher academic standards.  But many students and their parents opt out of it as too revolutionary.  For example, it teaches a more conceptualized approach to arithmetic in grammar school as an alternative to traditional times tables and long division.  In Common Core, one might think of 15 times 11as 15 times 10 equals 150, plus one more 15 yields 165.  Memorized times tables and rote carrying of units to an adjoining column are not necessary.  The problem is, while a valid technique, one develops this numerical facility only later with experience.  Better to teach the traditional method and expose the right students to the alternative as an optional supplement.   


For the less intellectually inclined, vocational training prepares students for a variety of occupations in great demand that make for fine livelihoods.  For-profit institutions fill this niche but they have a problematic history.  Many of these vocational schools have misled students about employment prospects and capitalize on government loans available to applicants. (Trump University comes to mind.)  In fact, the Obama administration was intent on shutting down the industry as predatory on the poor, including many returning veterans.  These schools should issue a standard caveat, prominently displayed, that applicants far exceed available jobs and that securing one is a virtual lottery.  Alternatively, for-profit schools should accept only referrals from employers who have expressed a need for the specialty provided.  Nonetheless, vocational training can crystalize one’s interest and provide a general knowledge of a market and industry structure that can help a student decide on a career and navigate a job search.  


In any case, there is no place for political indoctrination in any curriculum, including political correctness, unless advertised as such.  For example, the aforementioned Hillsdale College and Liberty University are openly dedicated to conservative teaching.  But a knowledge of the principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution and their application in history should be taught in every program.  In fact, it is essential to defeat the left and preserve the nation.  That is why the subject matter was dropped from so many public schools.


The Buffalo, New York Case


            Carl Paladino is a member of the Buffalo Public Schools Board of Education, and was the Republican New York State gubernatorial nominee in 2010.  He issued a telling report in January 2017 entitled, “How Union President Rumore Co-opted the Buffalo School Board and Rigged the Teacher’s Contract”.  While the dysfunction described here may not be typical, it is certainly symptomatic of what plagues secondary public education administratively. 


Administrative incompetence and corruption


Mr. Paladino discusses the collusion between the Board and the teachers union that pits them directly against the interests of parents and students.  The union gets the upper hand because of a less than 5% electorate turnout at Board elections held in May while teachers vote in large numbers for pro-union candidates.  The union finances friendly candidates for the Board and makes suspected payoffs for their cooperation in negotiations.  Diversity preferences and nepotism supersede merit in Board hiring, assigning and promoting, and the race card is at the ready when school and Board officials are challenged.  School principals fabricate grades and graduation rates. Student violence goes unpunished in deference to what is called “restorative justice”.  


The teachers union refuses to render any fiscal concession in negotiations despite the precariousness of the system’s finances with deficit budgets every year in what Mr. Paladino cites as the third poorest city in the country.  The union would not even agree to phase out over 30 years a lifetime private health care benefit for all administrators and teachers that is alternative to available Medicare.  Buffalo spends $27,000 per student for severe student underperformance while other schools in the area spend generally $12,000 - $15,000 with much better results.  What’s more, a Buffalo construction board official is under investigation by the FBI concerning a missing $450 million of a $1.5 billion school bond issue.


            Progressive ideology is destroying education, but so is incompetent and corrupt administration.




Is educational failure deliberate?  Some of the deterioration is ideological imposed by the Democratic Party through its federal, state and local operatives.  The Department of Education exercises control over funding to the states which may be contingent on certain political compliance.  It also influences curricula.  Political correctness and indoctrination combined with academic dilution are so pervasively extreme as to suggest a conspiratorial force in certain quarters.  How can there be such a performance disparity between public schools and their charter school and international counterparts, not to mention a longitudinal comparison, despite massively more spending?  It cannot all be teacher incompetence. 


More likely, the failure is founded on a withholding of academic content and standards.  To what end?  Why would authorities rewrite and suppress American history, for example, other than to undermine the underpinnings of the republic in favor of the Marxist globalist view, especially in the colleges?  As mentioned, the symbiosis between academia and the body politic, with a big assist from the media, diminishes the minds of America over generations as to defuse any challenge to what would be a new order.


            The education problem also has an administrative component controlled by the teachers unions which vigorously resist needed reform, effectively abetting the liberal sabotage in the schools.  The unions fund the Democratic Party and thereby promote its agenda.  In turn, the politicians protect union interests through legislation and government expenditures, including many cowardly Republicans fearing union retaliation.  In effect, the ideological and the administrative components come together.  


Fighting back


            As President Trump’s election showed, the power of the people still can win the day in this country.  That is what is needed to transform the institutional ideological and administrative malaise in schools and colleges that has undermined education.  Advanced technology and foreign competition in the marketplace and the workplace put a premium on quality education as a means of ensuring a good standard of living.  And continued automation restricts even those employment opportunities.  As such, these structural changes in the workplace probably will result in greater income inequality as the less educated are disadvantaged.  


But by defusing the leftist propaganda machine that is the public education system, and by restoring academic standards, there is hope for a return to traditional education.  That will help to ensure a body politic that will support a growing economy and attendant employment opportunities that would ameliorate the adverse effect of intractable structural change in the economy.  This means ending the liberal indoctrination perpetrated by professors, administrators and politicians, and dismantling entrenched union opposition to necessary reform.


Where regular schools fail to reform, Americans must strive for optimal school choice and hold elected officials accountable at the ballot box to ensure quality education that is codified in legislation.  And the locus of power must return to the states and local communities.  Charter schools have made enormous progress and the climate is amenable for more.  Academic freedom and rigorous curricula must be restored and executed in the schools.  One example of resistance at the college level is Turning Point USA which compiles a “Professor Watchlist” that publicly exposes college professors who discriminate against conservatives.  College alumni should withhold donations from schools that insist on propagating liberal orthodoxy and suppressing free speech.  Education traditionalists must populate school boards.  And ongoing public caterwauling is necessary to spur corrective action by the education establishment.  Silence is not golden.


Ideal reform would result in de-politicized classrooms, textbooks and campuses and the demise of the teachers unions, as well as the Department of Education.


                                                                                                        ©2017 William J. Dodwell