The New Illiteracy

Christopher Lasch

[Christopher Lasch (b. 1932) was educated at Harvard and Columbia and has taught history at a number of universities since 1957, including the University of Iowa, Northwestern, and currently the University of Rochester. Among his many books on American history, culture, and politics are The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963, Haven in a Heartless Wodd: The Family Besieged, and The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979), from which the following essay is taken.]

The extension of formal schooling to groups formerly excluded from it is one of the most striking developments in modern history. The experience of Western Europe and the United States in the last 200 years suggests that mass education provides one of the principal foundations of economic development, and modernizers throughout the rest of the world have tried to duplicate the achievement of the West in bringing education to the masses. Faith in the wonder-working powers of education has proven to be one of the most durable components of liberal ideology, easily assimilated by ideologies hostile to the rest of liberalism. Yet the democratization of education has accomplished little to justify this faith.

Conservative and radical critics of the education system agree on a central contention -- that intellectual standards are inherently elitist. Radicals attack the school system on the grounds that it perpetuates an obsolescent literary culture, the "linear" culture of the written word, and imposes it on the masses. Efforts to uphold standards of literary expression and logical coherence, according to this view, serve only to keep the masses in their place. Educational radicalism unwittingly echoes the conservatism that assumes that common people cannot hope to master the art of reasoning or achieve clarity of expression, and that forcibly exposing them to high culture ends, inevitably, in abandonment of academic rigor.

Forced to choose between these positions, those who believe in critical thought as an indispensable precondition of social or political progress might well renounce the very possibility of progress and side with the conservatives, who at least recognize intellectual deterioration when they see it and do not attempt to disguise it as liberation. But the conservative interpretation of the collapse of standards is much too simple. Standards are deteriorating even at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. A faculty committee at Harvard reports, "The Harvard faculty does not care about teaching." According to a study of general education at Columbia, teachers have lost "their common sense of what kind of ignorance is unacceptable." As a result, "Students reading Rabelais's description of civil disturbances ascribe them to the French Revolution. A class of twenty-five had never heard of the Oedipus complex -- or of Oedipus. Only one student in a class of fifteen could date the Russian Revolution within a decade."

Mass education, which began as a promising attempt to democratize the higher culture of the privileged classes, has ended by stupefying the privileged themselves. Modern society has achieved unprecedented rates of formal literacy, but at the same time it has produced new forms of illiteracy.

In 1966, high school seniors scored an average of 467 points on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test -- hardly cause for celebration. Ten years later they scored only 429. Scores on the mathematical part of the test dropped from an average of 495 to 470. Many publishers have simplified textbooks in response to complaints that a new generation of students raised on television, movies and what one educator calls "the antilanguage assumptions of our culture" finds existing textbooks unintelligible. The decline of intellectual competence cannot be accounted for, as some observers would have it, on the reactionary assumption that more students from minority and low-income groups are taking tests, going to college and thus dragging down the scores. The proportion of these students has remained unchanged over the last ten years; meanwhile the decline of academic achievement has extended to elite schools as well as to community colleges, junior colleges and public high schools. Every year, 40 to 60 percent of the students at the University of California find themselves required to enroll in remedial English. At Stanford, only a quarter of the students in the class entering in 1975 managed to pass the university's English placement test, even though these students had achieved high scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. At private high schools, average test scores in math and English dropped by eight and ten points in a single year, between 1974 and 1975.

Even at the top schools in the country, students' ability to use their own language, their knowledge of foreign languages, their reasoning powers, their stock of historical information and their knowledge of the major literary classics have all undergone a relentless process of deterioration. Nor is this functional illiteracy confined to freshmen and sophomores. Scores on the Graduate Record Examination have also declined.

In view of all this evidence, it should not surprise us that Americans are becoming increasingly ignorant about their own rights as citizens. According to a recent survey 47 percent of a sample of 17-year-olds, on the verge of becoming eligible voters, did not know the simple fact that each state elects two United States senators. More than half of the 17-year-olds and more than three-fourths of the 13-year-olds in the survey could not explain the significance of the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. One of every eight 17-year-olds believed that the President does not have to obey the law, and one of every two students at both ages believed that the President appoints members of Congress. Half the 13-year-olds thought that the law forbids anyone to start a new political party. Hardly any of the students in either group could explain what steps the Constitution entitles Congress to take in order to stop a President from fighting a war without Congressional approval. If an educated electorate is the best defense against arbitrary government, the survival of political freedom appears uncertain at best. Large numbers of Americans now believe that the Constitution sanctions arbitrary executive power, and recent political history, with its steady growth of presidential power, can only have reinforced such an assumption. What has become of the early republican dream?

The common school system grew out of the democratic revolution, which created a new type of citizenship based on equality before the law and limited government -- a "government of laws, not men." The model citizen of early republican theory knew what his rights were and defended them from infringement by his fellow citizens and by the state. He could not be fooled by demagogues or overawed by the learned obfuscations of professional wise men. Appeals to authority left him unimpressed. Always on the alert for forgery, he had, moreover, enough worldly wisdom about men's motives, understanding of the principles of critical reasoning and skill in the use of language to detect intellectual fraud in whatever form it presented itself.

Training such exemplary citizens obviously required a new system of education -- though far more important, in the minds of early republican theorists, was the consideration that it presupposed a nation of small property holders and a fairly equal distribution of wealth. Republican education had as its object, in Jefferson's words, "to diffuse knowledge more generally through the mass of the people." It stressed what the 18th century would have called useful knowledge, especially ancient and modern history, which Jefferson hoped might teach the young to judge "the actions and designs of men, to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views."

Beginning with the Irish in the 1840s, the immigration of politically backward elements, as they were commonly regarded, sharpened the fear, already an undercurrent in American social thought, that the United States would regress to a hated old-world pattern of class conflict, hereditary poverty and political despotism. In the climate of such anxieties, educational reformers like Horace Mann and Henry Barnard won a hearing for proposals to set up a national system of compulsory education and to broaden the curriculum beyond the purely intellectual training envisioned by earlier reformers. From this time on, the problem of acculturating the immigrant population never wandered far from the center of the American educational enterprise. Because the task of initiation presented itself in this form, the American school, in contrast to the European, placed heavy emphasis on the nonacademic side of the curriculum. The democratic aim of bringing the fruits of modern culture to the masses gave way in practice to a concern with education as a form of social control. Even in the 1830s, the common school already commended itself, in part, as a means of subtly discouraging the masses from aspiring to "culture."

The differences between American and European systems of public education should not be exaggerated. Both systems from the beginning combined democratic and undemocratic features; as the political objective of public education gave way to a growing preoccupation with industrial objectives, the undemocratic features became more and more pronounced.

At first, 19th-century students of society saw a close connection between political and economic "initiation." They conceived of industrial training as an extension of the training required for republican citizenship. The same habits of mind that made good citizens-self-reliance, self-respect, versatility-appeared to be essential to good workmanship. By bringing modern culture to the masses, the school system would also inculcate industrial discipline in the broadest sense of the term. What industrial discipline meant to an earlier and now almost extinct democratic tradition was best expressed by one of its last exponents, Veblen, who believed that modern industry nourished in the producing classes "iconoclastic" habits of mind-skepticism, a critical attitude toward authority and tradition, a "materialistic" and scientific outlook and a development of the "instinct of workmanship" beyond anything possible in earlier forms of society.

During the period around the turn of the century -- the same period in which "Americanization" became the semiofficial slogan of American educators -- a second and much cruder form of industrial education, stressing manual training and vocational education, crept into the public schools under the watchword of "efficiency." George Eastman, after complaining that black people were "densely ignorant," concluded that "the only hope of the Negro race and the settlement of this problem is through proper education of the Hampton-Tuskegee type, which is directed almost wholly toward making them useful citizens through education on industrial lines." In 1908, a group of businessmen urged the National Education Association to introduce more courses in commercial and industrial subjects into the elementary curriculum. Seventy percent of the pupils in elementary schools, they pointed out, never went on to high school, and the best training for these students was "utilitarian first, and cultural afterward."

In response to a public outcry about the high rate of academic failure in the schools, an outcry that swelled to a chorus around 1910, educators introduced systems of testing and tracking that had the effect of relegating academic "failures" to programs of manual and industrial training (where many of them continued to fail). Protests against genteel culture, overemphasis on academic subjects, "gentleman's education" and the "cultured ease in the classroom, of drawing room quiet and refinement" frequently coincided with an insistence that higher education and "culture" should not in any case be "desired by the mob." The progressive period thus saw the full flowering of the school as a major agency of industrial recruitment, selection and certification.

Down into the thirties and forties, those groups with a cultural tradition that valued formal learning, notably the Jews, managed to make use of the system, even a a system increasingly geared to the purpose of industrial recruitment, as a lever of collective self-advancement. Under favorable conditions, the school's emphasis on "Americanism" and its promotion of universal norms had a liberating effect, helping individuals to make a fruitful break with parochial ethnic traditions. When Randolph Bourne (a favorite of radical historians, who believe his critique of education anticipates their own) extolled cultural pluralism, he had in mind as a model not the intact immigrant cultures of the ghettos but the culture of the twice-uprooted immigrant intellectuals he met at Columbia.

The reforms of the progressive period gave rise to an unimaginative educational bureaucracy and a system of industrial recruitment that eventually undermined the ability of the school to serve as an agency of intellectual emancipation; but it was a long time before the bad effects of these changes became pervasive. As educators convinced themselves, with the help of intelligence tests, that most of the students could never master an academic curriculum, they found it necessary to devise other ways of keeping them busy. The introduction of courses in homemaking, health, citizenship and other nonacademic subjects, together with the proliferation of athletic programs and extracurricular activities, reflected the dogma that schools had to educate the "whole child"; but it also reflected the practical need to fill up the students' time and to keep them reasonably contented.

Educational reformers brought the family's work into the school in the hope of making the school an instrument not merely of education but of socialization as well. Dimly recognizing that in many areas-precisely those that lie outside the formal curriculum-experience teaches more than books, educators then proceeded to do away with books: to import experience into the academic setting, to re-create the modes of learning formerly associated with the family, to encourage students to "learn by doing." Having imposed a deadening academic curriculum on every phase of the child's experience, they demanded, too late, that education be brought into contact with "life."

In practice, this advice dictated a continuing search for undemanding programs of study. The search reached new heights in the forties, when the educational establishment introduced another in a series of panaceas -- education for "life adjustment." In Illinois, proponents of life adjustment urged schools to give more attention to such "problems of high school youth" as "improving one's personal appearance," "selecting a family dentist" and "developing and maintaining wholesome boy-girl relationships." Elsewhere, observers reported hearing classroom discussions on such topics as "How can I be popular?" "Why are my parents so strict?" "Should I follow my crowd or obey my parents' wishes?"

Given the underlying American commitment to the integral high school -- the refusal to specialize college preparation and technical training in separate institutions -- make-work programs, athletics, extracurricular activities and the pervasive student emphasis on sociability corrupted not merely the vocational and life-adjustment programs but the college preparatory course as well. The concept of industrial discipline deteriorated to the point where intellectual and even manual training became incidental to the inculcation of orderly habits. The more closely education approximated this empty ideal, however, the more effectively it discouraged ambition of any sort, except perhaps the ambition to get away from school by one expedient or another.

By the fifties, two groups of critics emerged. The first, led by Arthur Bestor, Albert Lynd, Mortimer Smith and the Council for Basic Education, denied that the school should socialize the "whole child," assume the functions of the family and the church or serve as an agency of industrial recruitment. They argued that the school's only responsibility was to provide basic intellectual training and to extend this training to everyone. They deplored anti-intellectualism but also condemned the tracking system.

A second group of critics-reformers like Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant and Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover -- attacked American education not because it was both anti-intellectual and undemocratic but because it failed to turn out enough scientists and high-level technicians. After the Russians launched a space capsule in 1957, this kind of criticism forced educators to institute new methods of training in science and mathematics, which stressed assimilation of basic concepts rather than memorization of facts. Although they called for a return to basics, they did not question the school's function as an instrument of military and industrial recruitment; they merely sought to make the selection process more efficient.

Under the Selective Service Act of 1951, passed at the height of the Korean War, military service became a universal obligation except for those who managed to qualify for academic exemption. The system of academic deferment, when combined with educational reforms designed to recruit a scientific and technical elite, created a national system of manpower selection in which minorities and the poor provided recruits for a vast peacetime army, while the middle class, eager to escape military service, attended college in unprecedented numbers.

The National Defense Education Act of 1958, designed to speed up production of engineers and scientists, gave added impetus to the boom in higher education, which lasted until the early 1970s. Meanwhile, the schools devoted increasing attention to the identification of able students and the discouragement of others. More efficient systems of tracking, together with increased emphasis on math and science, recruited growing numbers of college students but did little to improve their training. Efforts to extend techniques first perfected by teachers of the "new math" into the social sciences and humanities produced students deficient in factual knowledge and intolerant of instruction that did not address their need for "creativity" and "self-expression."

Institutions of cultural transmission (school, church, family), which might have been expected to counter the narcissistic trend of our culture, have instead been shaped in its image, while a growing body of progressive theory justifies this capitulation on the ground that such institutions best serve society when they provide a mirror reflection of it.

In the sixties, spokesmen for the civil rights movement and later for black power attacked the gross injustice of the educational system. The disparity in the academic performance of black and white schoolchildren dramatized the failure of American education more clearly than any other issue. Precisely for this reason, educators had always attempted to explain it away either on the grounds of racial inferiority or, when racism became scientifically unacceptable, on the grounds of "cultural deprivation." As Kenneth B. Clark pointed out, "Social scientists and educators, in the use and practice of the concept of cultural deprivation, have unintentionally provided an educational establishment that was already resistant to change . . . with a justification for continued inefficiency, much more respectable and much more acceptable in the middle of the twentieth century than racism.

The struggle over desegregation brought to the surface the inherent contradiction between the American commitment to universal education on the one hand and the realities of a class society on the other.

Conflicts over educational policy in the fifties had made it clear that the country faced a choice between basic education for all and a complicated educational bureaucracy that functioned as an agency of manpower selection. The same issue, often clouded by overheated rhetoric, underlay the more bitter struggles of the sixties and seventies. For black people, especially for upwardly mobile blacks in whom the passion for education burns as brightly as it ever did in descendants of the Puritans or in Jewish immigrants, desegregation represented the promise of equal education in the basic subjects indispensable to economic survival, even in an otherwise illiterate modern society: reading, writing and arithmetic. Black parents, it would seem, clung to what seems today an old-fashioned-from the point of view of educational "innovators," a hopelessly reactionary -- conception of education.

Thoroughly middle-class in its ideological derivation, the movement for equal education nevertheless embodied demands that could not be met without a radical overhaul of the entire educational system -- and of much else besides. It flew in the face of long-established educational practice. It contained implications unpalatable not merely to entrenched educational bureaucrats but to progressives, who believed that education had to be tailored to the "needs" of the young, that overemphasis on academic subjects inhibited "creativity" and that too much stress on academic competition encouraged individualism at the expense of cooperation. The attempt to revive basic education, on the part of blacks and other minorities, cut across the grain of educational experimentation-the open classroom, the school without walls, the attempt to promote spontaneity and to undermine the authoritarianism allegedly rampant in the classroom.

In the late sixties, as the civil rights movement gave way to the movement for black power, radicals in the educational world began to identify themselves with a new theory of black culture, an inverted version of the theory of cultural deprivation, which upheld the ghetto subculture as a functional adaptation to ghetto life, indeed as an attractive alternative to the white middle-class culture of competitive achievement. Radicals now criticized the school for imposing white culture on the poor. Black-power spokesmen, eager to exploit white-liberal guilt, joined the attack, demanding separate programs of black studies, an end to the tyranny of the written word, instruction in English as a second language.

The educational radicalism of the late sixties, for all its revolutionary militance, left the status quo intact and even reinforced it. In default of radical criticism, it remained for moderates like Kenneth Clark to make the genuinely radical point that "black children or any other group of children can't develop pride by just saying they have it, by singing a song about it, or by saying I'm black and beautiful or I'm white and superior." Racial pride, Clark insisted, comes from "demonstrable achievement." Against the "self-righteous, positive sentimentalism" of school reformers like Jonathan Kozol and Herbert Kohl, veterans of the civil rights movement argued that teachers do not need to love their students as long as they demand good work from them. In upholding standards and asking everybody to meet them, teachers convey more respect for their students, according to these spokesmen for the much maligned Negro middle class, than they convey when they patronize the culture of the ghetto and seek, as Hylan Lewis put it, to "gild a noisome lily."

The whole problem of American education comes down to this: In American society, almost everyone identifies intellectual excellence with elitism. This attitude not only guarantees the monopolization of educational advantages by the few; it lowers the quality of elite education itself and threatens to bring about a reign of universal ignorance.

Recent developments in higher education have progressively diluted its content and reproduced, at a higher level, the conditions that prevail in the public schools. The collapse of general education; the abolition of any serious effort to instruct students in foreign languages; the introduction of many programs in black studies, women's studies and other forms of consciousness raising for no other purpose than to head off political discontent; the ubiquitous inflation of grades-all have lowered the value of a university education at the same time that rising tuitions place it beyond reach of all but the affluent.

What precipitated the crisis of the sixties was not simply the pressure of unprecedented numbers of students (many of whom would gladly have spent their youth elsewhere) but a fatal conjuncture of historical changes: the emergence of a new social conscience among students activated by the moral rhetoric of the New Frontier and by the civil rights movement, and the simultaneous collapse of the university's claims to moral and intellectual legitimacy. Instead of offering a rounded program of humane learning, the university now frankly served as a cafeteria from which students had to select so many "credits." Instead of diffusing peace and enlightenment, it allied itself with the war machine. Eventually, even its claim to provide better jobs became suspect.

At the same time, the student movement embodied a militant anti-intellectualism of its own, which corrupted and eventually absorbed it. Demand for the abolition of grades, although defended on grounds of high pedagogical principle, turned out in practice -- as revealed by experiments with ungraded courses and pass-fail options -- to reflect a desire for less work and a wish to avoid judgment on its quality. The demand for more "relevant" courses often boiled down to a desire for an intellectually undemanding curriculum, in which students could win academic credits for political activism, self-expression, transcendental meditation, encounter therapy and the study and practice of witchcraft. Even when seriously advanced in opposition to sterile academic pedantry, the slogan of relevance embodied an underlying antagonism to education itself-an inability to take an interest in anything beyond immediate experience.

In the seventies, the most common criticism of higher education revolves around the charge of cultural elitism. Two contributors to a Carnegie Commission report on education condemn the idea that "there are certain works that should be familiar to all educated men" as inherently an "elitist notion." The Carnegie Commission contributors argue that since the United States is a pluralist society, "adherence exclusively to the doctrines of any one school . . . would cause higher education to be in great dissonance with society."

Given the prevalence of these attitudes among teachers and educators, it is not surprising that students at all levels of the educational system have so little knowledge of the classics of world literature. At a high school "without walls" in New Orleans, students can receive English credits for working as a disc jockey at a radio station and reading How to Become a Radio Disc Jockey and Radio Programming in Action. In San Marino, California, the high school English department increased its enrollments by offering electives in "Great American Love Stories," "Myths and Folklore," "Science Fiction" and "The Human Condition."

Those who teach college students today see at first hand the effect of these practices, not merely in the students' reduced ability to read and write but in the diminished store of their knowledge about the cultural traditions they are supposed to inherit. With the collapse of religion, biblical references, which formerly penetrated deep into everyday awareness, have become incomprehensible, and the same thing is now happening to the literature and mythology of antiquity -- indeed, to the entire literary tradition of the West, which has always drawn so heavily on biblical and classical sources. In the space of two or three generations, enormous stretches of the "Judaeo-Christian tradition," so often invoked by educators but so seldom taught in any form, have passed into oblivion. The effective loss of cultural traditions on such a scale makes talk of a new Dark Age far from frivolous. Yet this loss coincides with an information glut, with the recovery of the past by specialists and with an unprecedented explosion of knowledge -- none of which, however, impinges on everyday experience or shapes popular culture.

The resulting split between general knowledge and the specialized knowledge of the experts, embedded in obscure journals and written in language or mathematical symbols unintelligible to the layman, has given rise to a growing body of criticism and exhortation. The ideal of general education in the university, however, has suffered the same fate as basic education in the lower schools. Even those college teachers who praise general education in theory find that its practice drains energy from their specialized research and thus interferes with academic advancement. Administrators have little use for general education, since it does not attract foundation grants and large-scale government support. Students object to the reintroduction of requirements in general education because the work demands too much of them and seldom leads to lucrative employment.

Under these conditions, the university remains a diffuse, shapeless and permissive institution that has absorbed the major currents of cultural modernism and reduced them to a watery blend, a mind-emptying ideology of cultural revolution, personal fulfillment and creative alienation. Donald Barthelme's parody of higher learning in Snow White -- like all parody in an age of absurdities -- so closely resembles reality as to become unrecognizable as parody.

Beaver College is where she got her education. She studied Modern Woman, Her Privileges and Responsibilities: the nature and nurture of women and what they stand for, in evolution and in history, including household, upbringing, peacekeeping, healing and devotion, and how these contribute to the rehumanizing of today's world. Then she studied Classical Guitar I, utilizing the methods and techniques of Sor, Tarrega, Segovia, etc. Then she studied English Romantic Poets II: Shelley, Byron, Keats. Then she studied Theoretical Foundations of Psychology: mind, consciousness, unconscious mind, personality, the sell, interpersonal relations, psychosexual norms, social games, groups, adjustment, conflict, authority, individuation, integration and mental health. Then she studied Oil Painting I, bringing to the first class, as instructed, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Cadmium Red Light, Alizarine Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Viridian, Ivory Black, Raw Umber, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, White. Then she studied Personal Resources I and II: self-evaluation, developing the courage to respond to the environment, opening and using the mind, individual experience, training, the use of time, mature redefinition of goals, action projects. Then she studied Realism and Idealism in the Contemporary Italian Novel: Palazzeschi, Brancati, Bilenchi, Pratolini, Moravia, Pavese, Levi, Silone, Berto, Cassola, Ginzburg, Malaparte, Calvino, Gadda, Bassani, Landolfi. Then she studied

-- A latter-day Madame Bovary, Snow White is a typical victim of mass culture, the culture of commodities and consumerism with its suggestive message that experiences formerly reserved for those of high birth, deep understanding or much practical acquaintance of life can be enjoyed by all without effort, on purchase of the appropriate commodity. Snow White's education is itself a commodity, the consumption of which promises to "fulfill her creative potential," in the jargon of pseudo-emancipation.

Snow White's instructors assume that higher learning ideally includes everything, assimilates all of life. And it is true that no aspect of contemporary thought has proved immune to educationalization. The university has boiled all experience down into "courses" of study-a culinary image appropriate to the underlying ideal of enlightened consumption.