Genrich L. Krasko


To the memory of Dr. Paul Gagnon, a distinguished historian and educator, who was always in the
forefront of the war for better education for all Americans.

When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

Psalm 11:3


Recently, I came across an article on a Russian-language Israeli web site[1] titled Israel’s Main Strategic Threat.  The author, Ziv-Ami Liora, sees this threat as coming not from the outside: the Arab hostility, or the World’s rejection, or nuclear Iran, but rather from the inside: from the degradation of Israel’s educational system.  She writes:

No one is born either a soldier or a general, or an engineer, or a Prime Minister.  They are cultivated by the society, and the process begins at an early age. Accustom people to the childhood of laxity and you get a loose soldier and his commander. Deprive children of quality education from childhood and you will get an inadequate Prime Minister, a fool of a Minister of Defense and a mediocre Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Israel is a unique country where unfit solders and commanders and mediocre leaders may and, in fact do constitute a “strategic threat.”  The idea that education is of the utmost importance to a democracy is a truism.  In an authoritarian society the role of populace is negligible and it is only the educated, privileged – and ruling class – that matters.  In a democracy, every person counts.   All the people -- are responsible for electing their representatives from small town councils to parliaments, and eventually, the highest legislative and executive posts.  An ignorant nation sooner or later will bring to power an ignorant president with his or her ignorant tem. In Israel, as Ziv-Ami Liora claims, it is a real threat.  Is it also a threat to American democracy?

From countless sources we hear again and again that our education system is “sick.”  Why?  What is the sickness?  We do know that our children lag behind their overseas peers in many spheres of human personality development: mathematics, science, literature, history – you name it, and even in the ability to express themselves in any form.  We know that something must be done about it; it is urgent.

Actually, the problem has been urgent for quite a while.  Twenty-six years ago (1983), the Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a report, A Nation at Risk: An imperative for Educational Reform. In it there is a ruthless statement:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

A generation behind, and not much has happened or changed.  At least four former presidents attempted to make a difference: 1983, the mentioned Ronald Reagan’s National Commission; 1989, George H. W. Bush’s Charlottesville, VA, meeting with governors to launch a movement to set national standards; 1994, Bill Clinton’s legislation Goal 2000 (the establishment of two councils—the National Educational Goal Panel and the National Educational Standards and Implementation Council—were authorized); and George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative signed into law in 2002 as the culmination of the reformers’ efforts.  A break-through in our stagnant education is also on the agenda of President Barak Obama: His Race to the Top initiative will receive a stimulus fund of $4 billion (out of the $100 billion set aside for education in the economic stimulus package).

Everybody knows that a radical educational reform must be implemented. But why is it today more urgent than, say 15 or 25 years ago?  We are told that if our educational system undergoes no fundamental changes, in ten years most of our high school graduates will not be able to find jobs although the economy will desperately need workers. Graduates will be unqualified to fill the jobs the economy will require.

We are told that, in order to secure future jobs for our children, and to sustain and enhance the ability of our economy to compete in the globalized market, we must dramatically improve teaching our children the necessary practical skills.  That is where our main problem is, and that is where radical improvements in our education must be implemented.

Most Americans, and not only lay people but also the educational establishment, believe that the main objective of education is teaching “basic skills.”  This is where we must look for the roots of our problems, for this belief is wrong.

When we speak of education, we almost inevitably use the word training.  One was trained as a technician or a manager; a chemist or as a poet, as a physician, or—worst of all as a teacher. (Recently, in an article about a program for “retraining” teachers, the term coaching was used.)

Actually, using the term trained rather than educated, when referring to what is taught and how it is taught in America, is, in most cases, right.  Because what in this country is called education has, in fact, been training.


The Dilemma


That confusion – and unfortunately not only on the level of word meaning – has come so far that people have completely forgotten the difference between these two concepts.  However, one can open any dictionary to see what the difference is.  Here are the definitions that one can find in any Webster today:

Train: to make proficient by instruction and practice, as in some art, profession or work, to develop or form the habits, thoughts or behavior; to give the discipline and instruction, drill, practice, etc., designed to impart proficiency; to teach so as to make fit, qualified, or proficient.

Educate: to develop and cultivate mentally, morally or aesthetically; to expand, strengthen, and discipline, as the mind, a faculty, etc.

The difference between these two concepts is striking.  Education brings understanding of the world we live in; it tells us who we are, where we have come from, and where we may be heading.  It helps us understand ourselves; helps us to identify our place as individuals among other people.  Education makes us intellectually and morally strong.  It fills our souls with meaning.  All this is but developing the ultimate treasure of our personalities: intellectual and spiritual maturity.

Education allows us to deal with novel and complicated situations.  The variables it enables us to understand and confront are infinite.  And this understanding ranges from the most concrete to the most abstract. The educated person can thoughtfully discuss the natural or physical world, the social world, and the spiritual world.  The educated person can range the universe and construct questions appropriate to a member of any civilized society, especially in the 21st century.  The educated person can and should “rock the boat” of a democratic society and see that it remains democratic.  An educated person neither elevates the trivial to a position of importance nor lowers the important to a position of triviality.

As for training, it only helps us to acquire the necessary skills to find and do a job; it does not help us either to identify our place in world culture or understand who we are personally, or even to find the fortitude to do our job well if the job is challenging or requires a creative approach, re-evaluation of the operations involved or introducing possible innovations.  No doubt, good training directed at building skills is needed.  One acquires a profession, a source of income, and finds his or her place in society’s financial hierarchy.  But that is all it does. 

 Historically, America has been a slave of the pragmatic approach to education for a long time. Richard Hofstadter, in his 1963 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, writes:

During the nineteenth century when business criteria dominated American culture almost without challenge, and when most business and professional men attained eminence without much formal education, academic schooling was often said to be useless.  It was assumed that schooling existed not to cultivate certain distinctive qualities of mind but to make personal advancement possible.  For this purpose, an immediate engagement with the practical tasks of life was held to be more usefully educative, whereas intellectual and cultural pursuits were called unworldly, un-masculine and impractical...This skepticism about formally cultivated intellect lived on into the twentieth century.

Those are the historical causes of America’s anti-intellectual approach to education. However, why is it that in the 21st century America continues to live with an educational philosophy of a hundred and fifty years ago?  Why are the words I italicized are as valid now as they used to be then?  How has the American educational system reached what sometimes seems to be a point of no return?  Is this a result of unfavorable demographics, or a colossal mistake?


A Bit of History: Progressive Education

First, I would like to share with readers some facts of which most Americans are unaware.  Here is a quote from a website The School of Choice[2]

Nineteenth century farmers, educated at home or in one room schoolhouses, frequently read literature that challenges today's college students: e.g. novels by Charles Dickens and Walter Scott, science by Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin, philosophy by Emerson and the Federalist Papers. The Appleton School Reader challenged fifth graders to read the Bible, Thoreau, Emerson, Jefferson, Walter Scott and Shakespeare.

The anti-intellectual educational system did not emerge in America overnight.  At the end of the nineteenth century a fierce battle was raging between the advocates of pragmatic training-oriented education and their opponents.  Here are a few excerpts from history.

In 1893, The National Education Association’s Committee of Ten, comprised of distinguished educators under the chairmanship of Harvard University president Charles William Eliot, recommended that America’s secondary schools have “as a minimum, four years of English, four years of foreign language, three years of history, three years of mathematics, and three years of science.”[3]   The committee insisted that the proposed curriculum was not to be considered a preparation for college education.  They stressed that even if only an insignificant percentage of high school graduates should go on to colleges,

Every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be or at what point his education is to cease.

The majority of schools did not accept these recommendations.  By 1918, American public schools were completely “reformed,” and “liberated” from any ideas and practices having to do with broad academic education.

By the early 20s, a new so-called Progressive Movement in Education, began making an impact, and soon completely took over American education.  Its theory and practice have been dominating American education since.

Here are its basic maxims[4]:

• The entire educational process is “child-centered.”  The process of teaching and learning is determined not only by the teacher and the subject matter but mainly by the individual child.

• Children learn properly only when they can relate what has been learned to their own interests. 

• Learning through problem solving replaces deep penetration into subject matter.

• The teacher’s role is not to direct but to advise; the child’s own needs and desires should determine what the child learns.

• No absolute value or goal is acknowledged, unless it is social progress attained through individual freedom.  The school must reinterpret the basic values of Western civilization in the light of the scientific knowledge now at our disposal.

• Knowledge is a tool for managing experience in handling the various and changing situations in society.

Being child-centered, the system seems attractive and promising.  Yes, it would be fine if conditions were created that would enable a child to fully develop intellectually, spiritually and emotionally under the direction of thoughtful and highly qualified teachers.  The system, however, is rooted in liberal ideology directed at preparing the “underprivileged” for low-level societal functions.  As a result, and as a consequence of the rigid ideological infrastructure in schools, teaching colleges and academia, a child faces a weak and inadequate curriculum and poorly qualified teachers.  In addition – especially in rural areas and poor neighborhoods – there are often unsatisfactory teaching conditions resulting from insufficient funding: large classes, poorly maintained schools, etc.

Fifteen thousand public school districts in America are virtually independent.  Each of them has its own school curriculum, which, even within one school, is not unified and mandatory (because otherwise the teacher's "creativity" would be hampered).  Add the politically motivated policy of not letting poor or minority students feel "inferior" (which immediately results in biased grading and lowered requirements), and the lack of reasonable discipline and reasonable standards of dress and appearance in most schools, and quite a gloomy picture develops.

So far we have considered only the "how" of the teaching process.  As for "what" is taught, one of the practical results of the ideology described above was that “subject-based” education has given way to so-called “issue-based” education (and with it, examinations – to multiple-choice tests).  The former is believed to be unproductive if the school's objective is mostly to give practical skills-oriented training; besides, while studying “subjects,” the connection to child’s “social experience” is neglected.  On top of everything, studying subjects (in middle and high school) – as opposed to scattered “a little bit of this and a little bit of that” instructions – is too difficult to already intellectually under-developed teenagers.  Typically, subjects have no entertainment elements and therefore are "boring."

Issue-based education has dealt the severest blow also to our university curricula, having substituted numerous “studies” (like Women's Studies, Minority Studies, and Diversity Studies) for serious courses on the foundations of our civilization created by “Old Dead White Males.”

The progressive philosophy has also dealt a blow to the most important educational profession – the profession of teaching.  According to progressives, the teacher is not someone who actively participates in helping children to create strong spiritual cores, but is rather just an observer of how children develop.  As I have mentioned, progressives believe that children must not be forced to learn anything: Each child has his or her own innate drive for knowledge, and school has to allow this drive to achieve the best results.  Thus, a teacher does not have to be highly knowledgeable.  As a result, writes the late Dr. Paul Gagnon[5], who for many years had been fighting for reforming America's educational system, "our colleges will not soon prepare undergraduates who could pass French qualifying tests for teachers."

When one reads any of the articles and essays by progressive philosophers and educators and their followers, one can get a completely distorted impression.  It seems as if progressive education has liberated America from elitism and the educational deprivation of the poor.  Dr. Gagnon[6] writes:

We used to say – and too many educators still say – that we cannot compare our schools with those in other countries, because they educate only an elite and we try to educate everybody.  Untrue for thirty years, this is now the opposite of the truth.  They educate the many and we the few.  To our shame, a disadvantaged child has a better chance for an equal and rigorous education, and whatever advancement it may bring, in Paris or Copenhagen than in one of our big cities.

The dramatic story of the decline of American education can be found in many articles and books.[7] But even the above brief introduction to America’s educational problems may help explain the role that this crisis might have played in exacerbating the many social ills of American society.

It is not clear how the theory and practice of progressive education can be overcome.  Before discussing the principles of a future true educational reform – the reform that most unlikely will ever be implemented – I would like to share with the reader some profound thoughts on education as formulated by the late Viktor E. Frankl, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, founder of the so-called Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, and author of the internationally acclaimed book Man’s Search For Meaning.


A “Three-Dimensional” Human


According to Frankl’s Existential Psychology, humans exist in three “dimensions:” somatic (bodily), mental (psychic), and spiritual.  (In the mainstream “materialistic” psychologies the third dimension is absent: The humans are merely smart animals.)  The first two dimensions are obvious: we have bodies, and we have minds.  Animals also have them.  As for the third dimension, Frankl stresses that the term “spiritual” has no religious connotation: it is simply a specific quality that distinguishes humans from animals.

Each of the three dimensions requires its own “education.”  And, of course, a good educational system should facilitate people’s abilities to navigate through all three dimensions.

Even our children’s physical development is being neglected.  The increasing obesity of American children perfectly illustrates that we cannot deal with the least complicated of these dimensions. (By some twist of semantics, developing the body is called “physical education” in our schools, although it has nothing to do with true education.) 

The second – mental – dimension is what makes a living being function.  It is obvious that teaching skills that can enhance one’s ability to cope with performing some societal functions are a way of developing the ability to navigate the mental (or psychic) dimension.  It is easy to see that what in America is called education, is directed mostly at developing our children’s mental abilities.  And even this is not being done well; otherwise the educational reform movement in America would not exist, for, if it were, everybody – both educators and parents – would be satisfied.

However, as badly as we do in these first two dimensions, we do even more poorly in the third and most important human dimension: almost nothing is being done to help our children develop a strong spiritual core.

The importance of this development is stressed by Frankl (Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning) in the following words:

The spiritual core, and only the spiritual core, warrants and constitutes oneness and wholeness in man.  Wholeness in this context means the integration of somatic, psychic, and spiritual aspects.  It is not possible to overestimate that it is this threefold wholeness that makes man complete.  In no way are we justified in speaking of man as only a “somatic-psychic whole.”  Body and psyche may form a unity – a psychophysical unity – but this unity does not yet represent the wholeness of man.  Without the spiritual as its essential ground, this wholeness cannot exist.

Unfortunately, American schools did not come even close to accomplishing this difficult task of “the integration of somatic, psychic, and spiritual aspects.”  In no way do they help our children to achieve that wholeness.

No doubt, good training that is directed at building skills is needed.  However, important as they are, the skills acquired during all the years at school, do not help people to survive the existential vacuum (Frankl) that in our postmodern, information-saturated high-tech society, inevitably engulfs people’s lives in the absence of a strong spiritual foundation.

On the other hand, a true – broad – education deals, fundamentally, with the person’s spiritual core.  Having attained this core, having achieved the wholeness that Viktor Frankl stresses so passionately, an individual can survive anything – solitary confinement, a death camp, a debilitating illness – and still be happy and fulfilled, and even create masterpieces of science or art, out of sustenance from that spiritual core.  At the same time, for a well-educated individual, acquiring any practical skill is easier and using it professionally is more productive.

By denying our children a strong education, we actually deprive them of acquiring the oneness, the wholeness so important to becoming human beings.  The high spiritual level of a human being may not necessarily correlate with his or her job, wealth, or social status.  But it is necessary because a healthy democracy is impossible unless people’s intellect and culture are at a level well above the level of their jobs.  Our founding fathers did understand that.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”


A Future Educational reform


Recent decades have seen increased activity among would-be educational reformers.  Dr. Gagnon writes[5]:

 We could look abroad to see what school reform looks like.  But American educators' appetite for global consciousness falls off sharply when it comes to schooling.  We cannot imitate, they say, "cultures" unlike our own.  They find it especially true of Western Europe, not as wealthy as we but well ahead in matters un-American: health insurance, child care and parental leave, fair labor practices, slimmer income differences.  Now they outdo us in public education, notably in early childhood, which is vital to close the learning gaps between social classes.

A true school reform, notes Dr. Gagnon[6]

is what Europeans did a generation ago, to give all students, regardless of class and likely work, a common core of academic studies through high school.  It was not only to ready them for work in postwar economies, but for the two other aims of schooling we hear so little about: astute citizens and cultured people.

And it could have been implemented in America long ago:

Had we looked overseas after mid-century, we could have learned from our allies and our enemies in the Second World War.  But we did not and still do not.  Those most reluctant to look abroad are the promoters of giddy educational fixes that no foreign country would take seriously, from subjecting schools to the "free market" all the way to killing off academic disciplines in favor of "issue-based inquiry."

In his article, Dr. Gagnon suggests a step-by-step approach to educational reform.  Quoting from Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, he, in a few sentences, summarizes the main idea behind a true educational reform, from which America is still infinitely far away:

Americans tolerate a “marked inequity of opportunity in comparison with Germany, France, or Japan.”  Why do students work harder in those countries, with the same TV and pop culture to distract them?  Because their educators have decided what all students should know by the end of high school, Shanker says, and they have “worked back from these goals to figure out what children should learn by the time they are ages fourteen and nine.”  Standards are universal and known by everyone, so “few students are lost – and fewer teachers are lost.”

Universal standards seem to be the first requirement.  Some attempts to set such standards have been made in the past, but they have failed.  However, in 2009 the National Common Core State Standards Initiative was launched, led by two organizations: Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.  The drafts of two standards: in math and reading have already been published.  The initiative has been supported by 48 states (Texas and Alaska are still the holdouts).

Unfortunately, the standards are not mandatory. (Can non-mandatory standards be called standards at all?)  Nobody knows what role these standards will play in the Obama administration’s promised reform.  But accepting a set of national standards would be a huge leap forward.

Here I would like to mention the decades long passionate activity to move our stagnant education on a right track by Dr. E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (now a Professor Emeritus of University of Virginia).  In his recent book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our School, Hirsch summarizes both his ideas and experience as an educator.[8] In 1986 Dr. Hirsch started the Core Knowledge Foundation.  The foundation created a “Model Early Curriculum.”  In 1991, it was successfully implemented in two public schools.  Now, says Dr. Hirsch proudly, “there are more than a thousand Core Knowledge schools and pre-schools in forty eight states.”

One of the most important measures that Dr. Hirsch believes is necessary is developing and implementing a “nationwide core curriculum” – at least for the primary school.  Unfortunately this idea now meets resistance from both the Left and the Right.  However, it is compatible with the  – now nationwide – movement for unified standards; it is just a step forward.  Dr. Hirsch does understand that he and his followers are facing years of uphill struggle; the educational establishment – Ivy League strong – will not budge easily.

In March 2005, a month before his passing away, Paul Gagnon wrote[9] something that could serve as his farewell summons to future reformers.  In his view, we should stop inventing bicycles: Those who are in charge of our children’s education should

…look to other democracies for clues.  They could begin with “Old Europe,” which puts more of its young through high school then we do, from academic studies more common and more demanding than ours.  We are not likely to see progress until teams of working American teachers and scholars of each school subject (not generalists and theorists) are sent to study, in close details, the prior school and university educations of their counterparts abroad, to follow their day-by-day work and conditions, and how, unlike ourselves, they relate learning across all school levels from 3-year-olds to doctoral candidates.

In conclusion of this essay, a few words about the future.  What does it have in store for American education?


The Future


President Obama says: “The future belongs to the nation that best educated their citizens.”  What does he mean saying: educated?

Would he agree with the following statement?

Students today are still taught trigonometry and algebra instead of, say, basic medicine; they are taught ancient history and English literature.  They are not routinely taught basic business skills or human skills for parenting and marriage.  Advanced mathematics and memorization of facts are at the core of our high school education and its test-oriented system.

This was written two years ago by a distinguished journalist whose thoughtful nonpartisan editorials are often bursts of fresh air against the background of Right-Left political bickering. This is almost word-for-word echoing the claims of progressive educators of one hundred years ago.  Unfortunately, it is not a joke; many American educators are ready to "reform" our education in that direction. 

However, having all the above said about the importance of academic education that develops one’s spiritual core, what will a future of the “educated” America be?

When Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was published in 1987, it caused uproar in the educational establishment and among ideologues of progressive education.  Bloom was accused of attempting to force on America ”his own culture” (as they called it), and first of all of his insisting on necessity of broad liberal education.  His opponents did understand that it was not only the education that he had been discussing, but the foundations of our culture.

Knowing too well how quickly people forget, I was astonished that 25 years later, people still read Bloom.  Here is an excerpt from an on-line review:

If we frame this debate with Bloom, Neil Postman, Mark Edmundson, and Genrich Krasko all on one side, whom do we have on the other?  There are plenty of folks bemoaning the quality of liberal arts education in our schools.  But I think another argument can be made to suggest that what our schools prepare students for is what they really need to be prepared for to survive in the world as they find it.  Perhaps it is wrong to think very many people need a liberal education – a good one at least.  Imagine the task of working in Wal-Mart after receiving a good liberal education?  Wouldn't that be worse?

This is our Cultural Dilemma.  I am afraid that if a nation-wide discussion on what “education” in this country should be has been launched, the reviewer’s arguments would win. 

Suppose it does.

Even if we improve the training in our schools and colleges (and that is the limit of President Bush’s educational reform and, most probably Obama’s Race to the Top), we may be able to sustain for a while the high-tech development of our society.  But we will never be able to significantly improve our social climate.  Racial strife will continue to haunt our society.  The drug culture will flourish, moving into a new and perhaps more devastating phase of high-tech drugs. (We are finally beginning to understand that the drug problem is one of demand rather than supply.)  And, as its companions, social inequity, moral decay, and crime will increase. Even Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may become a reality.

Almost eighty years ago H. G. Wells wrote: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”  Today it is true more than ever before.  And here again comes that question: Is the degradation of education a threat to American Democracy?  I believe it is.  Hence the second dilemma of this essay’s subtitle: Yes, we are facing an Existential Dilemma.

Nobody can predict when and how the breakthrough in our stagnant educational system will happen. The reformers who press it will encounter resistance from many educators, parents, and students.  But we who feel responsible for the future of our children and grandchildren must realize that there is no time left for procrastination and wishful thinking.  If, in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, those who fought against this nation’s stagnant education aimed only for better schooling for more Americans, now it is a matter of the intellectual, cultural and spiritual survival of the nation.  What used to be just a “cold” is now a cancer slowly killing our society.

It is nave to believe that a broad education directed at creating an individual’s strong spiritual core would transform America into a nation of thinkers, a nation of people who have actualized their humanness to the highest extent.  But even a tiny step in the right direction could change our society dramatically.  We would then become a light unto nations, eliciting deep respect and emulation.


[3] The above-mentioned 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, among other things recommended that high school curricmatics and three years of science – exactly what the Eliot committee had recommended over a century earlier.  Comparing those requirements with the already existing curricula in most European countries (requiring four years each of math, science and social studies, plus arts, foreign language and in some cases philosophy – for all high school students!) one can see that our projected requirements were mockingly insufficient.  And yet, a quarter century later, we are still far from implementing them.  Dr. John Silber, a noted educator and former president of Boston University, wrote in his 1989 book Straight Shooting. What Is Wrong With America And How To Fix It: "At the present moment, I believe very few [American] college graduates could pass the A-Level examinations required in England of students who wish merely to enter the university."

[4]See Foundation of Education (ed. By G. K. Kneller), 1967, pp. 99-105, 113 (I have paraphrased here).

[5] Paul Gagnon, School Reform: Are We up to It? 2000, unpublished.

[6] Paul Gagnon, What Should Children Learn?  The Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1995.

[7]Two the most informative and comprehensive books are the recent E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s The Making of Americans. Democracy and Our Schools (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009), and Diane Ravich’s Left Back. A Century of Failed School Reform (Simon&Schuster, New York, 2000).

[8] For the list of Dr. Hirsch’s books, see

[9] Paul Gagnon. Educating Democracy: Are We Up to It? National Council for History Education, Occasional Papers, March 2005.

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