In the first three parts of this series, I answered the question of where “success” and “failure” as ideas came from. I identified and described three core values–individualism, equal opportunity, and community–that are inherent to the American character as far back as colonial times. Part 3 and this final section describe how those values are spread through distinctive American institution such as advertising and sports. This part deal with schools as a public vehicle for communicating and inculcating these values.
Establishing public schools to instill highly prized values in the young is a political decision. For centuries, newly formed nations concerned about replicating themselves have decided again and again to build patriotic, literate citizens who could protect the country against internal and external enemies (e.g., France, Britain, and the U.S in the 19th century, Soviet Union, China, Cuba in the 20thcentury).
Over two centuries ago, first in New England then in the Midwest and eventually the South and West, communities established tax-supported schools—called Common Schools–to nurture those core values in each generation. Recall the quote from historian James Truslow Adams in Part 1 about how the American Dream unfolded “imperfectly” meaning that ethnic and racial groups were initially segregated from white children into poorly resourced schools. Nonetheless, creating public schools is a political act done to insure that children and youth not only absorb but also display those values in what they say and do as adults.
Historically, then, public schools seek to mold the character of the young— being individualistic, expressing concern for community and prizing equal opportunity. Such political decisions then and now declare that these institutions are critical to forming literate, patriotic, self-sustaining, and community-minded citizens who in their daily actions within families and community display the core values essential to sustain the U.S.
And since the mid-19th century, school structures, curriculum, and pedagogy have not only mirrored those values but also worked to instill them in the next generation. For example, the age-graded organization promoted individualism, competitiveness, and winners and losers. Success and failure in age-graded schools was there for every single teacher and student to see.
In the age-graded school’s definition of normal progress—children of an age complete the content and skills for that grade in so many months or will be held back for another school year—right-and-wrong rules for behavior, moral lessons taught explicitly to build character, and passing end-of-year achievement tests socialize the young into accepting individual performance and competing against others as essential as obeying rules.
The school curriculum required certain content and skills to be learned weekly. Language arts, math, science, social studies, foreign language, art, physical education were what students studied in elementary schools. In age-graded secondary schools the content of these subjects was more complex and harder to learn.
Late-19th and 20th century schools ran on daily schedules with 45-60 minute periods. For students to graduate they had to take so many years of each subject. Again, success and failure were tied to grade-point-averages, test scores, and the hardest subjects students took. Academic and behavioral performance was everything. Every year, a certain percentage of students dropped out of school—the failures. And a certain percentage of students became valedictorians—the successes. And other students who didn’t fit in or with disabilities or not yet attaining fluency in English were in the gray area between success and failure–call it mediocrity.
In each self-contained classroom and across the school with its age-graded curriculum, time schedule, and periodic tests, individual students succeeded, partially absorbed, failed to imbibe these values. Every year, winners and losers in competition for grades and teachers’ attention became clear.
How Teachers Teach
How teachers teach and have taught also reflect the larger American culture and character. As the authority in the classroom, the teacher evaluates and judges how and what individual students learn and how they behave. They can praise academic success and penalize failure; they are arbiters of fairness in dispensing rewards and sanctions; they can eject a student from a classroom and appoint hallway monitors. They also have the power to determine which students can move to the next grade.
Over the past century classroom pedagogy has shifted from total reliance on teacher-directed lessons heavy on recitation and lecture to ones where students participate far more in lessons and teachers orchestrate student learning in small groups and individually. Hybrids of both traditional and progressive ways of teaching have evolved in classrooms over the past century.
Teachers from the early 19th century also taught character through McGuffey readers and didactic lessons on honesty, respect for authority, helping others, etc. Academic content contained pointers for students on how to behave as Americans.
By mid-20th century and in ensuing decades, progressive teachers saw the connection between developing in students cooperative behavior and good will, creating a small community within the classroom, and encouraging students to learn from each other and the teacher. Many teachers, then and now, prized creating collaboration and community in classrooms.
Schools were society’s vehicles for making the next generation into adults who practiced the core values prized by Americans.
Schools as Societal Problem Solvers
But tax-supported public schools, basically political institutions geared to socializing the young, were expected to do more than instill values in children and youth through age-graded schools, curricula, and teacher-directed pedagogy. Again and again, political, business, and civic leaders faced social, political, and economic issues they found too hard to directly solve by working on and altering those national and state structures actually creating the problems. Instead, these leaders often turned to schools to indirectly solve those pressing issues by putting it on the next generation.
Adults using too much alcohol, tobacco, and drug use became part of early 20th century school courses. Students had to learn to drink and smoke less and avoid addictive drugs. Too many deaths from car accidents on highways turned into schools establishing driver education classes throughout most of the 20th century. Too few mathematicians and scientists during the Cold War with the Soviet Union produced pumped up graduation requirements in these subjects.
And since the late-1970s, a floundering economy with too few skilled workers and automated technologies reducing manufacturing and other industrial jobs led to increased vocationalism in the nation’s schools. Everyone goes to college or enters a career, the slogans ran. Again and again, policy elites handed the baton to schools to solve the nation’s problems. U.S. problems became “educationalized.”
So schools in mirroring the contents and discontents of the larger society ever since the 1800s have also the primary task of socializing the core values of American society into the young. While they receive much help from other social institutions such as media, corporate advertising, sports, religion, and the workplace in reinforcing individualism, community, and equal opportunity–school goals, structures and ways of working with children and youth that yield school-based definitions of “success” and “failure” mirror societal ways of seeing these oh-so American values.
In short, “success” and “failure” are hard-wired into the democratic, market-driven society called America. Of course, the strength and vigor of these values play out differently among Americans depending on geography, social class, ethnicity, race, religion, and personal preferences. But they are in the DNA of the American character.
Notions of “success” and “failure” in schools, then, are deeply enmeshed in the core values that have characterized Americans as Americans since the founding of the nation.