This post reviews Paul Theobald, Education Now: How Rethinking America’s Past Can Change Its Future (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009). [An article that summarizes many of the points made in the book is available here]
Theobald, Woods-Beals Chair of Urban and Rural Education at Buffalo State College and author of two other books on rural education and community revival, here presents a wide-ranging revisionist account of the economic, political, and educational history of Europe and the United States in an effort to suggest reforms that begin in schools and ultimately will transform the U.S. into a more populist and economically stable place. In this review I’ll summarize his main argument and then explain what it means for homeschooling.
Chapter one revisits the history of political thought. Theobald contrasts the dominant tradition of European thought, that of Hobbes and Locke, with the rejected and forgotten alternative vision of James Harrington and Gerrard Winstanley. Unlike Hobbes, Locke, and their American acolytes who framed the baleful and possibly illegal U.S. Constitution, Harrington and Winstanley did not reduce human beings to economic actors in a perpetual state of natural war against one another. On the contrary, they envisioned a cooperative natural state. Hence political deliberation, not economic activity, was the primary thing. Their views lived on in the thought of Montesquieu, whose impact on the United States was significant for a time but ultimately eclipsed by Lockean individualist economic reductivism.
Chapter two revisits the history of economic thought. Theobald contrasts the dominant tradition of European thought, that of Adam Smith, with the rejected and forgotten alternative vision of Francois Quesnay, Henry George, John Ruskin, and others. Smith’s economic reductivism and belief in the inevitability of industrial growth was accepted by subsequent thinkers like Mill and Marx, who disagreed only about the pace at which reform would and should unfold. But Theobald uncovers for us a third alternative to the poles of industrial laissez faire or industrial socialism. Illustrated by the many communal experiments of mid-19th century America, by Thomas Paine, and again by Gerrard Winstanley, who Theobald thinks should be listed “among the world’s great thinkers,” (62) agrarianism has always been available as a viable alternative to the human and environmental degradation that has followed from industrial “progress.” But the agrarian option has been suppressed and eclipsed by entrenched business interests and the ideology of Social Darwinism.
Chapter three revisits the history of educational thought. Here Theobald for the first time reverses things. It turns out that the winners in the world of education, at least at first, were the good guys. Jefferson’s egalitarian agrarianism provided the intellectual grounding for the common school movement. Its emphasis on universal, free education, organized and governed by local communities, is one of the great achievements of the brief agrarian or “communitarian moment” in mid-19th century America. But it was not to last. Business interests and Social Darwinism co-opted the common schools, re-defining them not as political but as economic engines that would sort and prepare students for future occupations. Yet this did not occur without a fight. Again, Theobald uncovers a tradition of dissent from the dominant trends. This time it’s Lester Frank Ward, John Dewey, George Counts, and Harold Rugg who tried but ultimately failed to rescue schooling from the economic reductivists. The economic view has now achieved overwhelming dominance, as illustrated in the absurd Nation At Risk report of 1983 and, most recently, No Child Left Behind.
Such is Theobald’s historical account. The last three chapters lay out a series of reform proposals that all in one way or another seek 1) to restore to public education a political dimension that will allow students to critique the media-industrial complex that seeks to control every aspect of life, and 2) to restore control of schooling, and ultimately the nation, to local communities. His reforms range from the plausible but unlikely (John Goodlad’s restructuring of grades), to the highly unlikely (randomly selected local citizens serving as a school’s Board of Assessors), to the wildly fantastical (a new constitutional convention that will completely revise our form of government). His basic idea is that since schools are historically the only beach-head for agrarian values, school reform is the best bet for eventually producing society-wide transformation.
Here’s what all of this means for homeschooling. Theobald’s historical claim is that the common schools of the mid 19th century were qualitatively different than the public schools that emerged in the 20th. It was of course these 20th century public schools against which critics both left and right railed in the 1960s and 70s, which critique led to the homeschooling movement. If Theobald’s efforts to return the country to a mid-19th century agrarian society where local communities ran their own schools were successful, there would be little need for homeschooling. It is interesting that in his three chapters dealing with school and social reform he never once mentions private education of any sort. Theobald doesn’t want his agrarianism to be a minority alternative movement. He wants it to take over the country.
There is an obvious problem with this communitarian utopianism. Theobald’s historical account that celebrates mid 19th century agrarian values does not come to terms with the racial exclusivism and religious bigotry that were pervasive in those days. Communal values work best when the population is homogeneous. To have communion you must excommunicate dissenters. This was the dilemma Robert Putnam never really solved in his famous book Bowling Alone, and it is not even addressed here. Theobald’s exclusive attention to the intellectual history of American economic, political, and educational life ignores the social side of things and masks the fact that one reason progressivism did what it did in all three domains was to replace the provincialism of local communities with expertise based on scientific knowledge. We may debate the degree to which this scientific expertise was actually non-partisan (in fact it proved in the early 20th century to be even more racist than the agrarian provincialism it replaced), but the ideal at least was to have objectivity rather than outright partisan bigotry. Were we to return to Theobald’s idealized 19th century, the same dynamic would be with us. Some locales would probably be homogeneous enough to create consensus for universal free schools for all. Others though would have significant minority populations who would probably have to turn to private schools or homeschooling to escape what they would take to be the oppression of majoritarian populism. Roman Catholics had to do this during the period Theobald celebrates. Others would have to do it today.
Theobald is something of a dreamer. What he really wants is a new country. He thinks the Constitution was illegally imposed on the nation and would have us go back to something more like the Articles of Confederation (but with changes–he lays out his proposals in the final chapter). A more realistic tack he might have taken but did not would be to seek to have his agrarian ideals realized in minority communities of the like-minded. Were he to make this switch he would probably find no Americans more open to his ideals than homeschoolers.