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How American K-12 education has become a cultural contradiction

In 1976, Daniel Bell dampened, as much as a sociologist could, the nation’s bicentennial celebration by postulating “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.” The system’s success, he said, undermines its cultural prerequisites. It produces affluence that subverts the virtues that capitalism requires — thrift, industriousness, deferral of gratification. Forty-five years later, with government conscripting much of society’s resources, and redistributing them to please clamorous factions and to slake a middle-class nation’s appetite for entitlements, Bell’s thesis looks prescient.

Now Kay S. Hymowitz warns about “the cultural contradictions of American education.” She is rightly, but insufficiently, alarmed.

Writing in National Affairs, she says America’s middle class demands K-12 education that cultivates and celebrates each child’s individuality. Yet the middle class also expects schools to instill this class’s values — accountability, diligence, civility, self-control — “that are often in direct tension with students’ autonomy and individuality.”

The fact that Dutch babies on average sleep through the night at earlier ages than American babies “illuminates a little-understood realm of American exceptionalism.” Dutch parents believe in “regularity and rest.” Middle-class American parents tend to think that babies “know” when they are tired, and how much sleep they need. “Dutch infants,” Hymowitz says, “at six months of age, get an average of two hours more sleep per day than do their self-regulating American counterparts.”

For most of human history, in most places, parents and the community collaborate in turning initially uncivilized children into capable citizens of societies that have rules and expectations. Hymowitz quotes a mother raising children in Paris as saying that French children are considered small human beings who need to be “formatted” by placing “disciplines such as manners and mathematics above creativity and expression.” French babies, too, sleep through the night earlier in life than American babies do.

“In other cultures, both East and West,” Hymowitz writes, “parents prize manners and ritualized courtesies over the child’s self-expression. The French teach their two-year-olds to say ‘bonjour, madame’ or ‘monsieur’ in every encounter.” Such “ritualized greetings strike Americans as artificial and a worrying sign of an overly programmed child.”

They are artificial. As is civilization.

A popular American child-rearing manual, “What to Expect: The Toddler Years,” warns that “children who are nagged about their manners or are punished for not saying ‘thank you’ or for not using a fork . . . won’t feel positive about manners.” Hymowitz is not saying that American parents are indifferent to manners, or that “American-style individualism” is “altogether noxious.” It does, however, underscore the cultural contradiction of U.S. education: What Hymowitz calls the “creativity craze” is in tension with the need to instill certain “soft skills” — habits and manners conducive to social cohesion.

U.S. employers increasingly complain about young workers “who have trouble getting to work on time, collaborating, communicating, and dealing with workplace discipline and authority,” Hymowitz says. Teachers who adopt the role of “guides on the side” flatter children (who are regularly flattered by their parents) but do not challenge what she calls the child’s “natural egotism and immaturity.” She says “personalized learning” is the newest departure from “the idea of education as a collective, social activity”“a structured transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.” When a classroom is “a teeming warehouse of options,” education becomes “a rummage sale of resources for enhancing individual meaning, identity, and creativity.”

This occupies educational space at the expense of such disciplines — the term is apposite — as history and mathematics, with their exacting chronologies and sequential mastery of increasingly complex material. As each student meanders down a “personalized learning path,” fake news and “alternative facts” flourish, and society frays.

Hymowitz wrote her essay long ago, in 2019, before the sudden permeation of K-12 education with politics in the form of an imposed racial orthodoxy (“systemic racism” and all that), with a dash of other progressive preoccupations (e.g., grade schoolers taught “gender fluidity”). These reductions of identity to group memberships are endorsed, and hence enforced in curriculum designs, and in teacher hiring and promotions. Similarly, when thousands of classrooms adopt the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which asserts that white supremacy is encoded in the nation’s DNA, such ideological pedagogy is necessarily presented not as a contestable interpretation but as an official orthodoxy.

So, there is a distinctively 2021 cultural contradiction of K-12 education: Pupils who are assumed to be unfolding flowers of spontaneous individuality are nevertheless treated as empty vessels into which government-approved political doctrines should be poured. In 2022, multitudes of parents are properly going to take their anger about all this to polling places.

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