Apologists for the public schools continue to blame the achievement gap between groups on social pathologies and shortcomings in the innate abilities of entire groups. But if social or IQ determinism were true, then the closing of the achievement gap between social and racial groups in liberal democracies such as France would have been impossible to achieve. Those nations have never subscribed to the romantic emphasis on process over content that has dominated our public schools since the 1950s.
If school integration had fulfilled its promise, as it might have done, academic achievement would now be more randomly distributed among social groups. There would be far less need for affirmative action in college admissions. It is one of the tragic ironies of the past half century that the desegregation of public schools occurred just when, after many decades of teacher indoctrination, progressivism successfully abolished an emphasis on traditional academic content. By the 1970s and 1980s the public schools into which black and white first graders were integrated were places where the cultural lore necessary to full participation in society was inconsistently taught. Some children were exposed to the necessary vocabulary and knowledge at home. Those who lacked exposure to literate culture outside school received it nowhere. At the moment of highest hope, the triumph of antiacademic romanticism foreclosed the chance that school integration would equalize academic achievement and foster social justice.
For Jefferson, Mann, and Du Bois, the animating purpose of democratic education was to make everyone’s life chances independent of who one’s parents were. They knew only one way to do this—through the device of the "common school" with a common curriculum. Each child in a grade must learn what he or she needs to know in order to be ready to learn the lessons of the next grade. Education is a slow and cumulative process. Knowledge builds upon knowledge, skill upon skill. With an effective curriculum and hard work, the children of the poor can catch up with the children of the rich.
Du Bois was himself the product of the New England common school and would have scorned the sentimental notion that each child should have his or her own special curriculum suited to his or her personality. Yet a recent issue of the widely read professional magazine Educational Leadership once again attacks such commonality in favor of the romantic ideal of "personalized learning." All innocent of the irony, the editors have placed on the cover a photograph of a young African-American boy. "Common learning" would have been a better theme. The re-creation of the common school is the chief unfinished business of the civil rights movement. Public education in a democracy has no more right to segregated knowledge than to segregated schools.