The Mission Statement: just about every American public high school has one. They don't need one, nor does having one make any school better. They're all pretty formulaic. Quite a few put "diversity" and "a safe learning environment" in there somewhere, often something about "participation in a global economy," and "rigor" is, well, de rigueur. But the key word of the typical specimen is some form of "prepare," though a synonym like "develop" might be used instead. The standard indirect objects of said preparation are college, citizenship, and life. Now, "preparatory" was once the epithet of exclusive schools, usually private or selective public, whose graduates went on to prestigious four-year liberal arts colleges and thereafter joined a social, economic, and political elite. The term "prep school" used to be invidious; but every high school is a prep school now, every high schooler college-bound.
That academic preparation has been and continues to be understood as the acquisition of certain factual knowledge and actual abilities. And we hope that at home and in the house of worship, as well as in the school, certain virtues are also cultivated: honesty, integrity, courage, and so on. But I write to say what many already know or suspect: more and more, high school includes prior habituation to the very ideologies which the NAS was founded to combat on campus, those which usurp the dispassionate pursuit of fact and truth and which supplant real learning, debate, and free inquiry with advocacy for certain causes, the rectitude of which shall not be gainsaid. These attitudes are not always formed on the sun-dappled greensward of the quad. In American high schools, causeism-as-learning is more than vogue. High school faculty being generally progressive, many regard activism under the "social justice" banner not merely as one desired outcome of education but as its essential feature and highest purpose. Secondary students' involvement in just such causes is considered appropriate preparation for the campus, citizenship, and life.
There is another oft-occurring phrase in high school mission statements: "critical thinking." This is of some interest to the professoriate, for it also shows up frequently in the programmatic literature of these causes, where it does not bear its generally-accepted academic meaning.
Take for example a popular franchised course in schools: Facing History and Ourselves. Its directors' motives are noble and they seem quite sincere. Facing History courses require students to focus on modern genocides, the Holocaust in particular, as a means of self-examination -- not in the Socratic sense, but with particular regard to their own individual potential for bigotry, hatred, and violence. Lessons thus tend inward from enormous recent historical events to gay-bashing, hate speech, racism, bullying, date rape, any sort of offensive language, thought, or behavior. The hypothesis seems to be that, if we teach these inclinations out of our young people, they will become "change agents" who will "transform society," making the world a nicer place. It is thus a species of Eutopianism (Barzun's coinage). Facing History doesn't seek to teach history as part of a broad humanistic discipline, the study of Man as is, but rather uses slices of modern history to prepare young people to think in certain ways and take certain actions. To learn is to adopt a fixed stance and agitate for predetermined ends. It will therefore suffice to call it indoctrination.
The critical thinking this program encourages seems to be identical with the aforementioned self-scrutiny. Since Facing History tends to look in this single progressivist-pacifist direction, real critical thinking is not so evident. For instance, I can find in its curriculum no discussion of the necessity of a robust military and vigorous warfare in the prevention or ending of genocide and the promotion of liberty. Any student of modern political or military history will find this an extraordinary omission. Sure, it is grand to teach young people toleration and respect and gentle ways; yet we will not pound our swords into plowshares anytime soon. Facing that sad fact of history teaches a far more important – and undeniable – lesson: si vis pacem, bellum para (If you want peace, prepare for war).
There's a lot of critical thinking going on in schools these days. Consider the Children's Environmental Literacy Foundation, to which my school enthusiastically subscribes. As part of its plan of "Preparing Future Citizens and Leaders," CELF believes that "[e]ducation not only informs, it can stretch and reshape minds with new ideas. It has the power to transform students themselves into agents of change, helping to create a sustainable future for us all." This is the mystic language of revealed eschatology. It further holds that "[a]t the college level, many traditional fields of study have evolved to offer students the knowledge they’ll need to become part of the sustainability revolution" and that "sustainability education must begin earlier in students’ academic life."
To reach its goal of making "sustainability education an integral part of every school’s curricula and culture, from kindergarten through high school," CELF focuses "on K-12 as formative years for shaping thinking, attitudes, values and behaviors" -- what it calls "the critical thinking skills and intellectual framework" needed "to face the most critical issues of the 21st century." This is "essential for today’s students to make wise decisions for their own well-being and for the good of the planet and all its inhabitants." True disciples of Barry Commoner, CELF leaders "believe that it is as important for students to recognize the interconnectedness of natural and human-built systems as [it is] to learn reading, writing and arithmetic" so that they "grasp the connections between a stable economy, a healthy environment and equitable social systems, and their role as global citizens." Those traditional fields, the three Rs, have evolved; SE (sustainability education) is now their equivalent.
Now, what's not to like about programs that encourage kids to speak out against brutality and injustice, to put organic gardens up on the schoolhouse roof and gather every scrap of recyclable rubbish? Nothing, clearly. I myself happen to regard waste as a sin and, had I dirt to dig, I'd be an avid gardener. And I don't tolerate bullies, period. These are good lessons for young persons. But there are underlying issues which concern all of us in both secondary and higher education.
The core matter is what we mean by preparation. Such programs as Facing History and CELF have an overwhelmingly progressivist bias which tends to accustom students to the chilling speech codes that they will find already in place on many campuses, and they will be more inclined not only to acquiesce in but even to support them. The "critical thinking" practiced in these kinds of courses too readily becomes rigid dogma which will unprepare them to fully participate in real debate in the college classroom. Such students will be less ready to consider reasoned arguments against legalizing homosexual unions, for example, or for patriotism rather than "global citizenship." They will not consider the study of biology, ecology, and climatology necessary before accepting, without demur, theories of imminently disastrous man-made climate change. The evidence is in that, whether they describe themselves as liberal, conservative, or middle-of-the-roaders, a greater number of incoming freshmen are well-imbued in the kinds of notions that these programs inculcate. Minds have been stretched and reshaped with new ideas. Traditional fields of college study must therefore evolve. If a freshman knows of Washington chiefly that he was a slave-owner; if a likely lad has learned all about Martin Luther King Jr. but nothing at all about Martin Luther; if a coed bristles righteously at a well-formed argument against abortion; if a surprising number are convinced that all war can be ended by anti-bullying programs or that Hiss and Rosenberg were innocent victims of a fascist witch hunt, well: mission accomplished.
Secondary and tertiary faculty with any concern about this must find or make communication. If we do not converse, professors' work will surely become ever more difficult and less successful, just as much as when we send students on to college with inadequate English and math skills. I think it will be a very great mistake for us to resign ourselves to this condition at the secondary level and to say "We'll just have to try and fix this as best we can on campus." The NAS has extended its audience. I now see it as essential to actively promote the Association's work at the school level, to encourage secondary teachers to join their tertiary counterparts in such an undertaking. It will be hard going. School superintendents, school boards, principals and teachers too are thoroughly committed to causeism-as-learning. But they will have to be made aware how PC ideology learned in the schools is affecting the real college readiness of their pupils. And if the college and university are to be free of it, free to do what they have traditionally done so well, it will be necessary. Now to work out the means.
Peter Cohee teaches in the Classics program at Boston Latin School in Boston,