This post reviews Gene V. Glass, Fertilizers, Pills, And Magnetic Strips: The Fate Of Public Education In America (Charlotte: Information Age Publishing, 2008).
Glass, a professor of education at Arizona State University and author of numerous studies related to empirical research in education, here provides a sweeping, almost epic account of the broad economic and social trends that have affected recent educational policy. While homeschooling is not a central theme of his book, it is for him one facet of a larger trend toward educational privatization that he tries to account for here.
First I’ll summarize Glass’ main argument and then discuss his section on homeschooling. Glass is trying to do for education policy what Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies did for technological progress–to offer a “cultural materialist” account for why things are the way they are. For Diamond, Western culture came to dominate the world largely through accidents of geography. For Glass educational privatization is increasingly fashionable largely because of “fertilizer, pills and magnetic strips.” Fertilizer and other technologies did away with much of the human labor needed to produce what America consumes, driving the population from the countryside to the cities and suburbs and killing both the family farm and, with the extension of machines and robotics, the labor unions that had been the backbone of the American middle class. Pills (especially the birth control pill) have lengthened life even as they have made it easier to separate sex and reproduction, leading to smaller families overall and an older population. Magnetic strips (as in credit cards) stand for the technologies that have transformed American life into one of mass consumption and debt.
The white middle class, historically the strongest supporter and financier of public education through taxation, is shrinking and aging and getting poorer. It is thus not surprising that it is looking for ways to cut costs in terms of education while still desiring good schools for its own children. Hence the popularity of school choice programs like vouchers, charter schools, and homeschooling.
A final point of analysis Glass emphasizes is the “browning” of the population, as immigration and high Hispanic birth rates lead to a shrinking of the white population, who, Glass opines, are less willing to spend tax dollars on public schools that educate children whose skin color and culture differs from their own.
But conservative education policy people don’t come right out and say that we white people don’t want to spend our money on you dark children. Instead, they talk about “choice” and “privatization” in free market economic terms, claiming (falsely) that public schools as currently constituted are both colossaly expensive and dismally ineffective. Behind the rhetoric of school choice, however, Glass finds old fashioned racial prejudice.
Parts of the book are really wonderful. When Glass sticks to statistics he presents fabulous charts and data documenting demographic changes, educational performance, and much else. His chapter documenting how school performance has actually improved modestly over the last few decades is particularly strong. But peppered throughout this impressive marshalling of evidence are assertions that have little or no documentation at all. It is much easier to document changes in birth rate than it is to prove people’s motivations for doing things. This is a problem for Glass throughout the book, and it shows itself clearly in his discussion of homeschooling.
Glass’ discussion of homeschooling is focused mostly on cybercharters, for they illustrate his larger theme–the self-interested push by middle class whites to privatize education so they can save money on taxes yet still get a good, free education for their own kids. Independent homeschooling (and private education generally) wouldn’t fit this analysis at all, for parents who engage in these options do so at considerable financial cost to themselves. But since Glass has determined at the outset that the motives driving privatization are fiscal and racial, the only homeschooling that matters is tax-supported homeschooling.
In a good review of the book on Amazon.com, Crimson Wife (who also made some of the same points in a blog post) rightly takes Glass to task for relying on the Rudner study for demographic information about homeschoolers. Not only was that study published back in 1999 but it was also done on a self-selecting group of homeschoolers using the Bob Jones curriculum! Crimsonwife points out that Glass could have used the more representative NCES data but chose to use Rudner’s because it better fit his “homeschoolers are all white” mindset. She’s absolutely right about this, for Glass does use the NCES data later in the chapter for other things. This is clearly a case of cherry picking your data to prove what you want to. Having said that, the 2003 NCES data did find that since 1999 African American homeschooling rates increased at a slower pace than white growth, and hispanic rates actually declined. I’m waiting eagerly for the latest figures from the 2007 study to be released to see what has happened in recent years with minority homeschooling rates.
Why would Glass sabotage his otherwise excellent and well documented study with shady assertions of motive? If I had to do my own shady motive analysis I’d suggest that his instincts here are a reflection of his generation. Glass is now a senior scholar, one of the large cohort of academics whose intellectual apparatus was formed in the 1960s. He received his doctorate in 1965. It has always seemed perfectly understandable to me how people who remember vividly the mobs of angry white mothers and fathers screaming in protest at young black children trying to integrate schools in the 1960s cannot but interpret contemporary politics through a racial lens. It is equally understandable to me how many younger Americans don’t get the older generation’s obsessive fixation on this issue.
In general I think Glass is right to see homeschooling (and not just cyberschooling) as part of a larger shift toward privatization in American life. It’s a point I make myself in my book, and race is certainly one of many reasons privatization has transpired. Glass’ emphasis on economic and technological developments is valuable as well. But there are other, equally important motivations and historical causes that Glass doesn’t mention, probably because they’re not a part of his own intellectual world. Chief among these is religion. We do homeschoolers and other advocates of educational privatization a disservice if we interpret their religious language and motivations simply as masks for economic self-interest and racial exclusivity. This was one of the problems of Marx’s original economic determinism–its reduction of ideas to the superstructural effects of material causes. Glass falls into the same trap here in this very interesting and readable book.