Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The White Rabbit and Education in America

In the opening chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice sees a fleeting and curious White Rabbit running by. Intrigued, she pursues White Rabbit, spending valuable resources to end up somewhere she never intended, experiencing a long series of dangerous and frustrating adventures along the way.

Education in America has become our White Rabbit. We are chasing a thing that we cannot readily identify, and we have no idea where it is taking us. As Americans, we are committed to the idea of education. We always have been. Many of our founders, including Jefferson and Franklin, understood that an educated citizen body was nothing short of essential for the survival of the republican form of government they created. Since that time, Americans have committed an ever-increasing amount of resources towards the goal of an educated citizenry. The U.S. ranks higher than all but three nations in annual expenditures per K-12 student. The proposed U.S. Department of Education budget for 2011 alone is $77.8 billion. The State of Idaho will spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion on public education in 2011, while states the size of California spend more in the range $60 billion a year. None of this includes what private citizens pay out of pocket for expenses like university and private school tuition, books and school supplies, homeschooling curriculum, and more. So what’s the net sum that Americans pay out for education? Trillions. For those of us that have a hard time with numbers, that is thousands of billions.

So there can be no doubt that we are chasing the idea of an educated society, and we are willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money to catch it. But what exactly is this White Rabbit that we are chasing? What is the purpose of an education? What is it that we are trying to accomplish? The original purpose of education to Jefferson, the father of the public education system, was “to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.” The republican system cannot survive without an educated electorate. But this does not seem to be the goal anymore. President Obama recently said his goal coming into office was to drive America to the top of the pack in math and science education, and to that end he wants to add 10,000 new science, technology, engineering, and math teachers to the payrolls, all in order to compete in the global economy. While I think that sounds like a fine idea, it is far removed from Jefferson’s original intent. And while I am not exactly sure what kind of teachers could prepare someone to judge for him or herself what might secure or endanger their freedom, I would put math, science, and engineers somewhere at the bottom of the list, behind political scientists, philosophers, historians, and rhetoricians.

But those disciplines that I just mentioned are scarcely treated at all in the public schools. Most high school students get a semester or two of government. History – particularly western civilization, the kind that we might really need to know something about – is often taught by the school’s coaching staff. And philosophy? If there is an elective on the curriculum somewhere you would be lucky. Why? Because these disciplines are not considered as important in order to go out into the world and secure a job, or to “compete in the global economy,” whatever that means. You see, our goal in educating the masses seems to be slowly shifting from its western civilization roots. The Greco-Romans sought to edify the entire being through education, what the poet Juvenal describe as Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano – “We should pray for a sound mind in a sound body.” But today Americans tend to care more about producing a student who can get a good job and less about producing a functional person with a sound mind in a sound body. You can see how the philosophy of materialism would get us to this point.

To prove my point, I recently took an entry-level teacher education class at the local university. During one of our lectures, our professor did a survey of the class and asked how many people thought that the proper goal of education was to produce a quality individual – call it a “good person,” so to speak – and how many people thought it was to prepare the person for a productive career. The “productive career” crowd outnumbered the “good person” crowd by about five to one. And this was a survey of the people that will be teaching our kids in the future. Again, note materialism rearing its ugly head.

At some point along this journey, we need to stop and evaluate – What is this White Rabbit that we are chasing, and where is it taking us? Otherwise, we run the risk of falling down the rabbit hole and ending up in a strange place. Many people wonder if we are not already there.


  1. Nice post. I like the "white rabbit" analogy. The "math and science" focus always causes me a little anxiety. Don't misunderstand me. Math and science are important disciplines, but I'm not sure that a student can apply them without more important disciplines like the ability to read, comprehend, and communicate. Teach a person to read, comprehend, and communicate and you give him/her the keys to knowledge. Day in and day out, I work with a whole slew of people that can barely express themselves cognitively in written forms of communication and it terrifies me. I'm afraid America's children will be able to work through a trigonometry problem but won't be able to articulate their ideas and progress won't be served.

  2. "For those of us that have a hard time with numbers, that is thousands of billions."

    No rant is complete without a little satire. :)

  3. it says The White Rabbit and Education in America, yet the figures are only for the united states, start by educating yourself, America is not a country it a continent.

  4. I suppose if you wanted to be technical, "America" isn't a continent. It is two: North America and South America. At least that's how we classify it here in "America."