National Standards are Latent Poison
How Ancient Rome Demonstrates that
Centralized Education is Undermining Our Future
There are many historic and cultural parallels between ancient Rome and the West today, and the United States, in particular. The Roman Empire was a huge centralized government operation which eventually swallowed up everything else. As is often the case, it began in the political realm but quickly radiated throughout the culture. In doing so it robbed the Roman people of creativity and manly vigor, bleeding away the old noble Roman republican character until, in the end, it tore down the entire edifice.
Consider this brief excerpt from Gibbon’s influential Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
“It was scarcely possible that the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public felicity the latent causes of decay and corruption. This long peace, and the uniform government of the Romans, introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated. […] Their personal valour remained, but they no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honour, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army. The posterity of their boldest leaders was contented with the rank of citizens and subjects. The most aspiring spirits resorted to the court or standard of the emperors; and the deserted provinces, deprived of political strength or union, insensibly sunk into the languid indifference of private life.” (from Chapter 2)
“They didn’t even know it was happening. They had gotten so used to a big, centralized government that the people couldn’t much think for themselves anymore. The smart kids had been dumbed down over time. They got used to the government doing everything, paying for everything, and making all the decisions so that they became lazy and indolent and self-indulgent and wussified. Even the most ambitious people were not especially motivated and were generally content to take cushy government jobs or just join the army. People no longer cared about civic duty or responsibility, but mostly they became selfish, looking to “get theirs,” reminding everyone of their rights. And, since public life had become irrelevant, people now focused almost exclusively on their private lives, living in as much opulence as they could manage, indifferent and callous to the plight of their neighbor.”
The lesson here is that centralized government leads to a deficiency of character in subsequent generations. In olden times, at the heart of the Roman identity had been independence, civic duty, risk-taking, self-reliance, thriftiness, martial valor, and moral virtue. But over time, the pressure to conform to the Empire’s centralized standards had tragic consequences. It ensured that later generations either did not wish to exceed those standards, or no longer knew how, or no longer even remembered that life had ever been otherwise. Deprived of the practice of making hard decisions they soon lost the capacity and wisdom needed to make such decisions. Worse, they seemed to have abandoned even a desire to make them. They grew lethargic, apathetic, and dull.
Let us, then, draw out the obvious educational application for our own day.
Today we are living in an age of centralization and uniformity. Governments state and federal have usurped local autonomy and self-determination at every opportunity. Nowhere is this clearer than in our nation’s schools. The local school is dead. There is not even any longer something like a public school – but merely government schools. Some of this has been achieved formally through laws and court rulings. Some of this has been realized informally through the use of standardized tests, a cartelized textbook industry, carefully managed teacher certification programs, and criterion-referenced school accreditation regimes, amongst others. These have acted in concert to ensure that today’s schools are virtually indistinguishable from one place to another or from one school to another. Schools in the Carolinas are nearly identical to schools in the Dakotas. Only the demographic makeup of the student body changes, not the educational program.
Neither do charter or for-profit schools escape this centralizing gravity. Most of these schools hire teachers trained from the same pool; teachers who have been credentialed in programs which all share a centralized set of bureaucratic standards, at colleges which have all been accredited by the same agencies. In some states these schools are legally obligated to the same standards either on the front end (same curriculum) or the back end (same mandated state achievement testing) or both. Therefore, their allegedly distinctive qualities are often superficial.
In those cases where charter school admission is determined by lottery, the so-called “educational choice” is hardly a meaningful one, and by no means competitive. Indeed, the would-be innovation in these schools has been deliberately thwarted by the centralized government expressly to ensure that there is no innovation. Such schools are sycophants, competing for government favor and subsidy just like the “most ambitious” of those Roman dullards two millennia ago.
Private and religious schools are not exempted from such critique either. While they may have more autonomy in principle, in fact the curricular programs of most private schools align to the same centralized standards and so-called “best practices” as their public counterparts. Their students generally must satisfy the same criteria set forth by state governments to graduate and/or gain certain eligibilities or funding. To be sure, there are advantages private and religious schools have retained (for the moment), but if the Roman parallel holds, will not retain indefinitely. They, too, are ingesting the poison.
To illustrate this, take a few examples drawn from real life.
Today Western Civilization classes are nearly extinct in the high school. By simply deleting them from state board catalogs, such courses have literally disappeared. You cannot even find such a course if you look for it. Now such a class fails to satisfy the graduation requirement. Now it is excluded from computation for state-funded scholarship programs. Now state universities have no way to accept such a course because it deviates from the approved list. Now only a more inclusive and politicized World History will do. Anything else will encounter institutional friction.
Technically a school could still require that Western Civ class, but such a school – if it is to fulfill its other many compliance obligations – will face a serious fiduciary hurdle. After all, how do we justify paying faculty to teach a class which does not help its students graduate or get into college or get scholarships? What students could be found to take this now-elective class?
These are, however, the wrong questions, for they are derivative questions. The primary questions – and thus the right questions – would ask whether students ought to learn it. Does it speak to the central values of our civilization? Does it make them more humane or virtuous? Does it fulfill the educational mission of the local school or district?
Take the additional example of the centralizing pressures introduced by the SAT® test or the AP® or IB® programs. If these were but a few in a vibrant and competitive marketplace of educational ideas, then this would be less concerning. But as it stands, they are a near monopoly. We have watched them adjust their programs and tests to reflect the prevailing group-think about education by increasingly aligning their courses to centralized standards. Whether they are Common Core in name – or merely in spirit – the outcome is the same. Only those schools with deep philanthropy or endowed chairs will truly have the freedom to stick to principle. For the rest, the pressures to capitulate will be almost insurmountable.
But, then, that is the whole point. Governments increase their gravity through centralization. Gravity may be resisted temporarily, usually at great effort and expense, but never fully overcome. The gravity well of a black hole captures everything, and all is invariably crushed. It doesn't matter that some particular school would want to do otherwise if left to itself; it will face increasing pressures to comply. It is unavoidable.
This is, in part, why it is increasingly rare to find a school with a genuinely unique mission statement. Instead, today nearly every school’s mission seems to be the same: to teach all children…yadda yadda…in the same way and to the same extent and in the same classroom, regardless of circumstance or inclination, whether they want to participate or not. When these promises conflict with reality and human nature, the outcomes are simply adjusted. The kid who did not work passes, the kid who did all the work passes, the kid who cheated passes, the truant kid passes. The remedial reader takes honors classes, the honors student kills time in study hall. Punitive paperwork and potentially negative performance evaluations ensure nobody fails. Everybody is ready for college.
To maintain such an irrational system many schools have become militarized zones, closed to public scrutiny, inwardly focused on Stalinesque five-year plans, outwardly focused on satisfying bureaucratic paperwork and testing requirements. This is all a very far cry from Plato’s Academy or the monastery school or the Renaissance university or even the entrance tests once required by America’s high schools (which, somewhat shamelessly, yet predictably, few teachers today could pass themselves). We are Romans, five centralized generations on, and it shows.
A caveat: we are not saying that a school shouldn’t have any standards. No educational program is likely to be successful without a coherent educational philosophy (by which we mean a reasonably consistent pedagogy and corresponding content). If nothing else, the practical interests of sensible lesson planning and a school’s curricular coherence demand something like a set of standards. But such standards should be a natural outgrowth of civilizational values, the particular mission of the school, and local community sensibilities. Moreover, those communities should be defined demographically or by their educational brand or product, not by compulsory gerrymandered school districting - which is itself a crucial instrument in the centralizing process.
Should this exclude all efforts at "national standards," as they are frequently called? Of course not. Academic competition welcomes all-comers. But, if there is to be an adoption of some outside set of national standards, let it be because some particular school or local district agrees it reflects an educational franchise which accurately describes their desired educational outcomes. On the private side, Montessori schools have such a national program. The issue here is government coercion. If schools are left alone to adopt the educational program of their choice, then they would be free to identify with whatever available pedagogy or curricular approach or student demographic or faith system suits to their needs. But this is not what we have today. Instead, schools are forced back again and again to the unitary system, maintained and enforced by state coercion and by a cartelized educational marketplace which depends upon government largess for its bread-and-butter.
Perhaps you may think that all educational institutions being made to look nearly identical is a good thing and seems like a reasonable way to “fix” our educational or political difficulties. It is not uncommon for folks today to think that schools should be aligned to a common set of educational criteria across the country. But this belief is an outgrowth of socialist principles, where the outcomes of all students are expected to be the same. This is why today vocational, technical, and creative arts programs are few, and mechanized college-prep-oriented programs are many - regardless of suitability. That is why mainstreamed classrooms are increasingly common - regardless of whether the student has the physical, emotional, or cognitive capacities to be successful in that environment. That's why the system is increasingly irrational.
If the civilizational illness be misdiagnosed, the medicine is poison. The result is decay and corruption and the loss of all cultural vigor. As Gibbon wrote of Roman education in those days:
“A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste…which debased their sentiments, enervated their courage, and depressed their talents.”
By the time the Romans realized they needed an educational revival, their minds, “fettered by the prejudices and habits of servitude” were unable to expand themselves again. Or, put more prophetically, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
A study of ancient Rome teaches many things, amongst them how the centralization of the state and of education, whether through standards or some other means, is corrosive both to the individual and civilization. Ironically, it is even corrosive to the state itself. It undermines the ideals and founding values of a people, reducing them from citizen to subservient, from man to child, from virtue to vice, from vigorous to vapid.
It is a latent poison. And it’s killing us.