As a product of public schools from kindergarten through college, I know how lackluster they can be. But a recent article in the digital magazine Democracy has me changing my tune on public schooling. Written by education reformist E.D. Hirsch Jr., the piece delves into the nature of American schools and why they were designed for much more than instilling the ability to count past ten without resorting to your toes.

Hirsch writes, “€œOur schools now exhibit a diminished sense, once widely held, that a central goal of American schooling is to foster national cohesion”€””€˜out of many, one.”€™”€ It is through the instilling of a common language, a common history, and a common way of life that schools once provided a sense of patriotism in their pupils.

So how was this lost? The cause was twofold. The rise of hyperindividualism after World War II infected school curriculums in the form of a philosophy called “€œteach the child, not the subject.”€ The mass immigration that followed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 put further stress on our sense of solidarity, deemphasizing national pride. The antinationalist mind-set of teachers combined with classrooms full of diverse cultural backgrounds led to an ethos Hirsch describes as “€œrespect the home ethnicity of the child; don”€™t impose an Anglo culture that is alien to his or her background and personality.”€

Does Emanuel’s plan address this key failing in public schools? No, but it does push back on American myopia while recognizing that the average 18-year-old, 21st-century American is not the same adult his parents or grandparents were last century. Students need more prodding to get their act together. You need only talk with a millennial for five minutes to see how nonplussed they are about the future.

Success is not usually determined by the school or the teacher. As the great economist Thomas Sowell has emphasized, it’s a decent home life replete with values that put achievement over social acceptance, honesty over treachery, the future over the present.

Chicago’s new graduation requirement is no salve for a sick school system, but anything that gets students considering the world beyond high school is probably a good thing.


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