The Vacuousness of American Education

In this modern day of jet airplanes, microwave ovens, and X-Box 360’s, many Americans tend to look with derision on the Founders of our country. Certainly we are more intelligent than were they, we kid ourselves. In a way, we have become drunken by our technology, wrongly assuming that because we have more of it that we are more intelligent than all of those who had less. We can scarcely see the reality, though, that the founding men and women of America, uninhibited by the information age, had a much better understanding of the information at their disposal. They were able to convert their information into wisdom. We, however, reject such mental gymnastics, preferring the mental atrophy of ceaseless entertainment. Lazily we trust our education elites to give us the education we need, and we turn our heads back toward our television sets rather than notice and admit their failure.

We have ignored our Founders' grand governmental insight—that that government is best which governs least---at our peril. It’s probably not surprising then that a large number of our population feel that the federal government has any hope at all of fostering a healthy educational environment. But where has the chief purveyor of the least common educational denominator gotten us so far? Not very, and the leading lights of early America never expected it to.

The Constitution of the United States is eminently simple. Only the congress (the legislative branch) can legislate (or make law). And that legislature is allowed by the Constitution to act in only 18 areas. Margaret Spelling, President George W. Bush’s current Secretary of Education, was recently asked to identify under which of those 18 points the department of education was allowed to lawfully operate. Her first attempt at an answer was cheaper than evasive:
“I think we had come to an understanding..of the reality of Washington and…that the Department of Education was not going to be abolished.”
When pressed to give an actual answer to the question, she surrendered. “I can’t point to it one way or the other. I’m not a constitutional scholar.” Mrs. Spelling—it does not take a constitutional scholar, but rather a person of integrity to give a concise and non-dissimulating answer to a simple question. “There is none.” I think that Margaret Spelling is a woman of integrity, but that out of fear she could not say what she really knows to be true.

About ten years ago, the Republican party championed federal non-intervention in education as a point of Constitutional fact. In 1996, its party platform said:
“The federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula… This is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end federal meddling in our schools, and promote family choice in all levels of learning.”
The Constitution has not changed in the intervening years, so something (or someone) must have. Reading those words makes one melancholy for the days of yesteryear, when real men and women occupied the upper echelons of the Republican party. Now, by contrast, mere skeletons of virtue carve with the same knife from the same vacuous federal pie as their erstwhile liberal opponents. Consequently, our education system—along with every other facet of our government for which there is no constitutional basis—spirals ever nearer to ignominy.

As of late, so-called champions of our failing federal education frenzy have adopted a seemingly new tack for the salvation of our children’s minds. After all, the United States continues to fall further and further behind other nations in our educational prowess, so, they say, we must look beyond our borders for answers. Their idea is not new, however. It is simply one that has been tried for much longer than they care to admit, is a “solution” that has failed no less than exactly every time it has been tried, and is the exclusive cause of our present failures—to wit, too much government.

As with health care—another object of manic rage whose problem is sure in bureaucrats' opinions to be solved by the bludgeoning of even more excessive government—lifelong bureaucrats claim that the solutions to our educational problems can be found in greater government control. They hold up the nations of Europe as examples to buttress their claims. This is no indication of success, however. It is only a comparative indication that we are much further behind in our educational potential than we even thought we were.

What America does, it always does well. That is the American tradition, due to the unyielding American spirit of excellence. Ironically, this is why we can never afford to choose as a nation to do the wrong thing—because we will not fail to perform that task “well” either. When we choose the wrong national path, our tradition and spirit is hijacked in a direction opposite of that which we intended.

As it is a function of both improper direction and greater speed than our European friends, our educational emulation of Europe only ensures that we will fall further behind. While our European idols, through their satisfaction with mediocrity, remain mediocre in their intellectual setbacks, we Americans will continue to pursue the same ends with much greater alacrity, and our result will be to arrive much further in the same wrong direction.

Our country’s founders were much wiser than we are nowadays accustomed to think. In fact, they were much wiser than we. If we want our education to improve, we must return to the forms of simplicity that established and signaled their wisdom. Abolishing federal control of our education system will return such wisdom to it.

Only then can the genius of American tradition and spirit propel us quickly back to the pinnacle of educational excellence—where we once were, and where only the lack of adherence to fundamental constitutional principles is keeping us from returning.

Then, as well, everyone from the least to the greatest will be able to answer simple constitutional questions, not with evasiveness, but with simple integrity.


  1. Supporters of Big Government argue that the general welfare clause of the Constitution ("promote the general Welfare", see here) pretty much encompasses anything that a majority of legislators might construe to be generally 'good' for Americans. A great body of legislators and justices apparently agree with this interpretation.

    I completely disagree with this broad interpretation of the general welfare clause. The clauses in the Preamble of the Constitution are broad goals, the pursuit of which are constrained by th enumeration of powers contained in the body of the document, as amended. (See this CATO book review for more on this.)

    Our Founders intended the Constitution to be readily understandable by the average American. They did not intend it to be used to justify any purpose that a majority of citizens or their representatives think would be 'good' for government to perform.

    The GOP currently seems to want to expand government control at a somewhat slower pace than the Democrats. The GOP dropped its desire to dump the Education Dept. because that push polled badly with certain voting blocs. Neither party seems to care one iota what the Constitution says.

  2. It seems the Mormon church has had to learn the same lessons that we are learning as a nation. Centralization of efforts always has good intentions but undesirable side effects. Here is a quote from the working draft of the most recent biography of President Spencer Kimball. (ch. 27, pg. 5)

    On one occasion President Kimball saw a display of the vast array of lesson books, manuals, handbooks, guides, and report forms printed by the Church and expressed dismay. "This is a shocking thing to me... to come to a realization of what we have been attempting to do, all with the best of intentions," he said, but it was simply too much. The typical headquarters solution to each perceived problem was more programs, more scheduled interviews, more assessments and reports. President Kimball reportedly said, "This is a perilous problem and must be solved."

  3. When the Supreme Court finds the right to an abortion to be constitutionally protected the question "What authority does Congress have?" is really no longer a constitutional one but one of who gets appointed to the court.

    However, despite the creation of a Federal Department of Education, it appears the DOE is unable to exercise any authority but what the states voluntarily cede to it.

  4. That's why it's been good that Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito have made it to the Supreme Court, because now there's a greater likelihood that the Constitution will mean what it says rather that what the justices say it says.

    If that's the case (that the feds get only what's ceded from the states), then we need to remove the states' federal crutch and make them responsible for educating children.

  5. I'm all for removing the crutch but suggest it might be easier to get individual states to not take the money. Utah rattled a saber but didn't quite wean itself:

  6. Dave,

    Excellent point. I completely agree. In fact, I have advocated that very thing on the pages of Simple Utah Mormon Politics.


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