The scariest thing about the education deform debate is that it almost a carbon copy redux of the debate we had 100 years ago. At it's core, the debate is about what education is for. Is it simply to supply a labor force for industry, or to provide thinking, productive citizens? In early 1900, two progressive heroes stood on opposite sides of the debate, just as progressives stand on opposite sides today. In the 1900's, the wrong side won and we have been trying to recover ever since.
The following is somewhat of an oversimplification of very, very complex issues, but it is an attempt at a snap shot of the day. We had just come out of the Civil War. Labor was no longer free. The industrial revolution still required cheap, if not free labor. The great industrial powers of the country pushed for a vocational bent to public education. They had an ally in one of our heroes, Booker T. Washington.
Washington, believed in incremental improvement of freed slaves, now in the labor force and world of education. Today, you will find many of his kindred spirits in the reform movement. You will hear things like we need to have more vocational schools. An electrician or plumber can make twice as much as a teacher, at least, we need to steer our underprivileged towards these fields as a stepping stones.
100 years ago, that was the stance Booker T.Washington took. Advancement of black and poor prosperity was best achieved by becoming economically self sufficient first. The industrial powers were all too happy to co-opt this progressive hero in order to advance their desire for a vocational philosophy.
The stage was set. The poor and the brown were given a rudimentary education, meant to best prepare them for an industrial work force. Meanwhile, the privileged of this country have also gotten a broader based education grounded in critical thinking and problem solving. The vocational jobs, respectable, honorable, and admirable as they were, did not produce our next generation of leaders. The system guaranteed that the white, privileged folks who wrote the first curriculum for the poor and the brown, would be the same people that write the curriculum for every generation.
On the other side of the equation we had W.E.B DuBois. He knew that limiting education to only advancement of economic status meant limiting a persons ultimate human potential. Those first architects of education had Washington's face to hide behind as they intentionally limited the human potential of generations of students.
We have to realize it is this century of history we have to overcome. We cannot fall back into the trap of "back to the basics" and just give them a vocational education so they can make good money. Public education has to create our next generation of leaders. Public education has to create our next generation of curriculum writers. We are letting the Booker T. Washington's of the world win again, and start the 100 year struggle all over again. In his day, the wealthiest men and most powerful politicians poured funds and influence into Washington's cause of black accommodation. It is eery how similar it is today.