In thinking about how valuable education is in cultivating the next generation of Americans, my mind took me back nearly twenty years to when I was a graduate student functioning as a substitute teacher at La Puente High School in Southern California. On one assignment, I was to cover a social studies class of some old-timer; he had written down in his instructions that since his classes were on a field trip, my sole duty was to show a movie at 6th period to those who did not attend. What I found that day opened my eyes.
In a dusty corner shelf of the room was a set of thirty-year-old textbooks from the mid-1960s, and although my memory cannot now relinquish their title, their contents burned themselves into my brain. As I flipped through the pages, I was astonished to find what I would now consider an upper-level college textbook under color of what in the high schools used to be termed “civics.” This text contained a very detailed understanding of political theory, constitutional law, macroeconomics, American history, and comparative political systems. I spent the rest of the day in slack-jawed amazement, perusing what a student in a working-class town was expected to know before the mavens of education began tinkering with the curricula of our schools.
When the instructor returned at the end of the day, I revealed my astonishment to him, and he informed me that he had used those texts when he first hired on. Now, however, could not do so, since they would be incomprehensible to nearly every student — especially considering that the nature of history and American government had been changed in the current texts. The teacher related to me that the current texts had been scaled down to what used to be a grammar-school understanding, and they carried within them a jaundiced view of America, preferring to accentuate the warts and blemishes rather than the achievements of our political system.
I then made it my business, when finding an older teacher, to ask if education had been “dumbed down.” To a person, I found that this question unleashed volatile diatribes on how dull children had become since the responders had begun as idealistic young men and women in the field. Algebra teachers informed me that every year they were forced to eliminate problem sets that previous years had mastered. English teachers who once taught Shakespeare and Dante were now reduced to leading seniors through Orwell’s Animal Farm or postmodern novels featuring teens in existential moral dilemmas. Moreover, the analysis of themes in book reports had been deconstructed into not what the author was attempting to portray, but what personal emotions were elicited in the reader.