The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools

Martin L. Gross
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999
291 pp., $25.00 hb

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

Martin Gross's The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools, as its fervent title implies, is a scathing indictment, from an unabashedly traditionalist perspective, of nearly every aspect of our present public education system. Author of a range of non-fiction books on various current political issues, and faculty member at the New School for Social Research, Gross isn't a thinker who suffers from any wishy-washy indulging of nuance and complexity. In a pop journalistic style replete with one-sentence paragraphs and passages italicized for added emphasis, Gross savages the public school curriculum, teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, education colleges, the teacher certification process, teachers' unions, school boards, PTA's, special education programs, grading standards, and just about anyone or anything else connected with public education except for the food served in the cafeteria.

Gross is certain who's entirely to blame for the disaster he perceives in American public education--i.e, an evil entity he labels the "Education Establishment." Enslaved to a benighted "progressive" pedagogy that stresses the importance of teaching students how to learn rather than filling their heads with hard facts, pushing a covert PC agenda, hopelessly corrupt and bent on protecting its power at all cost, hoodwinking naive parents while buying off cowed politicians, the Education Establishment has spawned a "conspiracy of ignorance" which ensures that our nation's stupefied students score hundreds of points lower on standardized tests than their peers from, say, Outer Mongolia, while claiming that Paris is located in Sub-Saharan Africa and the first president of the United States was Pee Wee Herman. Gross's solution to the "failure" of American public schools is as simple as his diagnosis of the problem--a hasty retreat into the past. The traditional American classroom--with its emphasis on rote memorization, constant testing, strict discipline, tons of homework, etc.--was, in Gross's eyes, a kind of educational Eden, until the serpent-like forces of "progressive education" slithered onto the scene.

Gross devotes about half of Conspiracy of Ignorance to a detailed attack on what he sees as the Education Establishment's abysmally poor training of would-be teachers, as well as the implementation by these teachers (aided by equally ill-equipped administrators) of a vapid, undemanding, pedagogically dubious curriculum. Teaching, Gross claims, tends to attract our worst students to begin with, who usually come "from the bottom third of high school and university graduates" (though Gross never explains why a profession he depicts as lavishly paid, outrageously secure and basking in such undeserved perks as lengthy vacations--thanks to the clout of teachers' unions--wouldn't attract brighter applicants) (14).

Once enrolled, Gross maintains, these second-rate students are benumbed even further by an undergraduate education degree that inanely focuses on how rather than what to teach--i.e., on debatable, jargon-ridden, "Mickey Mouse" courses in pedagogical theory, at the expense of giving teachers-in-training a solid grounding in their respective content areas. Gross notes that most undergraduates majoring in, say, math or English usually take far more courses in their areas of concentration than do typical education majors studying to be high school math or English teachers. After graduation, education majors then are certified to teach, in Gross's view, by a fraudulently lax process that fails to truly test their competency, while excluding potentially superior teachers who lack these vacuous education degrees.

As an example of the anarchy that's loosed once these miseducated, theory-mad teachers enter the classroom, Gross spends a chapter describing the massive illiteracy among students he argues was spawned by the replacement in the 1970s of the traditional methods of teaching reading and writing through an emphasis on "phonics," with a new "progressive" theory of literacy instruction called "whole language," which, in Gross's description, teaches students "to write as they [feel] and [hear], without the restraints of structure, grammar, or spelling" (75 & 77). Gross believes a second deplorable consequence of progressive education has been the evolution of what he calls the "psychologized classroom," where "teacher-therapists," enthralled by a "neo-Freudianism" also rampant in popular culture (and abetted by school guidance counselors, who subject students to regular, privacy-invading psychological testing) focus on students' "feelings," striving to raise their charges' allegedly fragile "self-esteems," rather than actually teaching them anything.

What are Gross's solutions to the crisis he sees in public education? The book's conclusion contains a list of nineteen predictably draconian "reforms." In sum, these proposals recommend: making K-12 curriculum far more rigorous, while significantly raising licensing exam standards for new teachers; eroding teachers' tenure protections while expanding evaluation procedures; regulating teachers' unions while abolishing PTA's (which Gross deems mere puppets of the NEA and AFT); cutting by a third school administrative and support personnel; paying high school teachers more than elementary school ones; instituting vouchers for students and alternative certification procedures for teachers; and closing all undergraduate schools of education, which Gross calls "a prime reform" (249).

Admittedly, Conspiracy of Ignorance makes a relatively strong case that our public schools today are filled with poorly qualified teachers and ill-informed students. But is this really news? Is there any disinterested participant in current educational debates, representing any position on the ideological spectrum, who is happy with the current state of public education? But the devil, as always, is in the details. By merely bashing the Education Establishment, Conspiracy of Ignorance fails to offer a convincing analysis of the complex causes of present problems in American public education. As for Gross so-called "reforms," I would argue that if educational leaders ever decided to adopt them (admittedly, an unlikely prospect), Gross's sweeping agenda would make an already bad situation in public schools even worse.

First of all, Gross's attack on "progressive" educational theories is simplistic and ill-informed. (In America, such progressive theories were formulated primarily by John Dewey, though Gross rarely mentions Dewey--or any educational theorist, for that matter--by name.) Gross claims such theories purport that "knowledge itself was valueless without the psychological insight that had to accompany it. Otherwise it was mere rote learning and did not enhance critical thinking, which was more psychological in dimension. Current educational theory comes down hard against facts, which many educators consider trivia. Instead, the new Establishment paradigm is learning to learn, as the jargon states but which is unclear in meaning" (57 & 59). He concludes that according to such pseudo-progressive poppycock, "ignorance is [not] an unfortunate by-product of a poor education system. contemporary education circles it may actually be a goal" (59). Discarding the ideas of Dewey, et. al, Gross touts instead the traditionalist educational line that "no one has ever been able to replace memorization, the retention of information, as the basic method of learning" (59).

Contrary to Gross's caricature, progressive educators such as Dewey never dismissed students acquiring information as a "trivial" intellectual activity. However, progressive educational theory certainly does object, with good reason, to students garnering such information purely through rote memorization. Such methods encourage only short-time learning; the data is memorized, regurgitated on the exam, and then promptly forgotten. In contrast, progressive educators encourage students to amass facts in terms of understanding concepts, formulating interpretations or seeking solutions to problems, so that these facts seem meaningful and are contextualized. Yes, progressive education teaches students "critical thinking," or "learning to learn" (which strikes me as a much less nebulous concept than Gross claims), but not in order to psychologically stroke their fragile egos, bur rather to provide students with intellectual skills that show them how to analyze a problem, dividing truth from falsehood and drawing substantial conclusions that must be revised should new, conflicting evidence appear. Rather than flaccidly boosting student "self-esteem," such "critical thinking" demands that students exercise considerable cognitive rigor--much more than memorizing, say, that Columbus "discovered" America in 1492 or that John Adam's was our nation's first vice-president. If some progressive educators are teaching critical thinking skills at the expense of providing students with facts, as Gross insists, then they are distorting these theories, not disproving the theories themselves. We shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath.

I am similarly skeptical about Gross's love-affair with standardized testing and uniform nationwide curriculum. In her recent book, One Size Fits All: The Folly of Educational Standards, Susan Ohanian labels proponents of such approaches "Standardistos," and Gross is clearly in their zealous company. He proposes increasing the difficulty of teacher certification tests (in an effort to weed out presumably incompetent teachers), subjecting students to more standardized tests, and then financially punishing schools whose students consistently score poorly, and, following the proposals of E.D. Hirsch, implementing a uniform curriculum for all public schools in an attempt to provide every graduating student with "cultural literacy." However, "Standardistos" like Gross pay insufficient attention to the danger of forcing teachers into a rigid mold that may be entirely unsuited to their particular interests and abilities. Yes, some attempt at standardizing the curriculum is desirable to ensure that all students graduate with a basic knowledge of core academic subjects. But curricula must also be flexible enough to take advantage of the talents and account for the needs of both teachers and students. An at least relatively individualized and "student-centered" curriculum has the potential to inspire teachers and students alike. In contrast, excessive rigidity in the classroom risks turning everyone off.

Moreover, if schools are going to be assessed according to the outcomes of standardized testing, that risks pressuring instructors to "teach for the test," rather than presenting the course material in the inherently best way. Gross also forgets or ignores that at least some very bright students just don't do well on standardized tests, and also that certain types of vital cognitive skills (especially involving creative and critical thinking) just can't be measured accurately by multiple-choice exams which are computer-graded. Gross derides teachers who, in response to such shortcomings of traditional tests and grades, substitute "portfolios" which gather and evaluate student work. But, in fact, such assessment tools are attempts to critique student progress in a way that measures those intangible yet vital intellectual abilities which can't be neatly quantified through tests and grades.

I also strongly disagree with Gross's recommendation (one of his nineteen proposed reforms) that "high school teachers deserve higher salaries than elementary grade teachers" (251). Not only is such a proposal divisive, pitting teachers against one another, but it also unfairly diminishes the crucial job done by elementary school teachers. Of course, learning basic reading and math isn't as complex or scholarly a process as studying classic literature or trigonometry. But the skills students acquire in the lower grades are the foundation on which more advanced study must be based. Moreover, it's during those early years that students are most impressionable and eager to learn. At times, I wonder if elementary school teachers shouldn't be paid more than teachers at other levels (including college).

Conspiracy of Ignorance also underrates the extent to which the failure of our educational system is attributable to larger negative social trends over which schools have little, if any, control. By my account, there is only one passage in all of Conspiracy of Ignorance where Gross grudgingly concedes (187) that "factors such as drugs, television and uninvolved parents are partly to blame" for school deficiencies (and even here Gross is merely approvingly quoting another journalist). But studies have shown that the number-one determinant of student success is the environment in the home. If students are watching TV for hours on end, rather than reading for pleasure or engaging in other intellectually stimulating activities, while their folks, also glued to the tube, aren't supervising their children's homework or generally inspiring their offspring with a love of the life of the mind, is it fair to only blame the school system if such children fail to learn? Other social factors, such as the rise of single-parent families and the attendant problem of "latch-key kids," the breakdown of close-knit communities in our increasingly mobile and fragmented society, the ever-growing violence and sensationalism of mass media, all contribute significantly to student's short attention spans, lack of discipline and resulting poor classroom performance. But Gross barely considers at all how societal pathologies impede learning in the classroom, I suspect because he fears doing so would weaken his attack against the iniquity of the Education Establishment.

If Gross is too harsh on the public education system today, he also, like many conservatives, idealizes public education in the past. The author regularly interrupts his jeremiad to fondly reminisce about the golden days he spent years ago at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. But Gross's presenting Stuyvesant High as an example of the past excellence of public schools is misleading, because Stuyvesant, though public, was an advanced institution that accepted only students who passed a rigorous entrance exam. As a result, the high academic standards Stuyvesant maintained were hardly representative of most public schools of the day.

Moreover, at times Gross's nostalgic panegyric to his alma mater inadvertently suggests real problems in past educational practice of which he seems utterly unaware. For example, Gross relates an anecdote about how his high school "English teacher played a trick on us that became my model for youthful scholarship and I believe changed my life" (192). At the start of the term, the English teacher asked that all the students "write the traditional composition about what we had done over the summer vacation" (192). Once the compositions had been submitted, the teacher ordered Gross, since he was "the smallest guy" in class, to come to the front of the room and rip up all the papers before the horrified students. "You used to be boys, but now you're men," the teacher explained. "Forget those childish essays. I want you to go to the 42nd Street library and get copies of professional journals in any of the sciences. Three weeks from now I want you to hand in a paper ready for publication in that journal, with bibliography and footnotes" (193). "To this day I offer my gratitude to that madman," Gross concludes, "who had never been to a school of education, where they teach age-appropriate learning" (193).

But how "grateful" should Gross and his classmates really have been? Gross says that as a result of the paper he wrote, on the weighty subject of "The Future of Atomic Energy," he "grew up in three weeks" (193). But he never mentions whether all his fellow students had a similarly transformative experience as a consequence of being forced to tackle an assignment well beyond the background and abilities of any era's high school freshmen. Rather than "growing up", could at least some of Gross's classmates have concluded in frustration that the scholarly life was beyond their capacities, because they'd been saddled with such an incredibly demanding assignment? Gross sneers at education colleges who "teach age-appropriate learning," but does he really believe that age-appropriate education should be discarded all-together? Should we have kindergartners building neutron microscopes, while first-graders write verse dramas modeled on Milton's Samson Agonistes? Surely one can support greater educational rigor and still recognize that age-appropriateness must play some role in determining curricula. But the absolutist rhetoric of Conspiracy of Ignorance pays no heed to such nuanced qualifications.

Gross also seems unaware of the problematic nature of his English teacher's evident belief (whether learned in an education school or not) in the virtue of teaching through humiliation. The teacher picks Gross to shred the papers because he's "the smallest guy" in class, thereby subjecting the other students to the shame of having their work destroyed by a puny weakling. "You used to be boys," the teacher says, "but now you're men," and Gross "gratefully" concurs that he "grew up" as a result of the assignment. This is education as macho rite of passage. Such pedagogical bullying may work well in a boot camp or fraternity hazing, but is it really the best way to teach in an academic setting? Certainly a teacher should challenge students, even pushing them to rethink cherished previous assumptions. But teachers should never try to humiliate students, not only because that is unkind, but also because such an approach (as boot camp and fraternities deliberately intend) breaks a student's individuality, inspiring conformity to the leader--just the opposite of inspiring the kind of independent thinking that is the hallmark of the intellectual life. As the blithe casualness of Gross's tone implies, such teaching through humiliation (whether it meant ripping up compositions or rapping misbehaving students on the knuckles with a ruler) was a common educational practice in Gross's allegedly utopian schools of old. Perhaps today's "psychologized classroom" has swung too far in the other direction by exhibiting too tender a regard for student "self-esteem," but such practices must be historically contextualized as a counter to the teacherly bullying that plagued education in the past. As proponents of psychologically-oriented educational theories realize, a child who is appreciated and respected has the potential to learn to think freely and imaginatively, while one who is bullied and humiliated will excel, if at all, only in rote learning.

As I've suggested, Conspiracy of Ignorance demonizes almost everyone involved with contemporary public education, from Clinton's Education Secretary Richard Riley on down to the lowliest kindergarten teacher, as fellow culprits in the spawning of a "conspiracy of ignorance" in our schools. Even if all Gross's charges were correct, such a wholesale attack is guaranteed to inspire teachers and administrators simply to circle the wagon trains in defensive anger, and thus become more obstinately opposed to change than ever. Even were it a good idea (and I don't think it is), e.g., to abolish all schools of education, can anyone imagine that those in a position to actually institute public educational reforms are going to seriously consider such "scorched earth" proposals?

If our public education system is ever to improve, what's required isn't zealots like Gross, but rather more moderate reformers, aware of the enormous difficulties our school system faces, and seeking to work with, rather than against, public educators in a collaborative enterprise. In a piece ["A Grand Alliance for Knowledge"] that follows from mine, my father, Irwin Gonshak, who's spent his entire career in the New York City Public School System--as a junior high school social studies teacher, educational radio scriptwriter and grants writer for the Board of Education--proposes some more temperate, collegial recommendations that might actually produce results.

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