“America’s Achilles’ heel is its schools,” I typed when I started this article. Then I deleted the line. I realized that the meaning of the phrase “Achilles’ heel” is fading in the United States. Too few Americans have heard of Achilles, or Troy, for the image to be much but a snobby irrelevancy.
My struggle with the phrase tells a lot about what is wrong with American schools. Every year, thousands of 18-year-olds who know nothing about Achilles graduate from American grammar schools and high schools. Neither can they figure percentages or write a grammatical paragraph, let alone script Java. There is a school of thought that says this dumbing down does not matter, that technology and the marvelously flexible American economy will always compensate. Why would a supermarket worker need to know how to type numbers, when bar codes do the job?
But this is a form of social injustice, for innumerate and illiterate workers are locked into a low-wage future. U.S. companies outsource their better jobs to workers in Dublin or New Delhi or import professional trainees. Regardless of whether these workers know their ancient Greek, they can spell and calculate. So they, and not the Americans, win the chance to share in America’s growth miracle.
For decades lawmakers have thrown money at this problem, so that America now spends more per pupil than most other developed nations. Yet American students still perform worse on standard tests than English, Germans, or Singaporeans. Somehow, despite this embarrassment, the country resists taking a step that would improve results: restoring traditional curricula that impart useful knowledge.
What makes America so resistant? The answer is not political correctness, vacuous as some politically correct curricula may be. The problem is an older one: America’s love affair with progressive education. Progressive education, by which I mean forsaking content for utility and a child-centered focus on creativity, also has a strong tradition in Britain. A. S. Neill, the famous progressive educator, founded Summerhill, the progressive school, in Suffolk, England, not Suffolk County, New York. But the progressive movement has not touched most British schools to anything like the degree it has penetrated in America. As Diane Ravitch, the academic and former assistant secretary of education, points out in Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, a history of progressive education, America is now a nation of Summerhills. Most American teachers and principals frown on traditional schooling. Rote learning is out, as are American and European history and demanding math. Instead educators impart things they find fun or politically appealing. The attitude has become so ingrained that anyone challenging it risks being labeled elitist, even un-American. The New World, the message is, has never liked or needed Old World–style learning.
Allowing teenagers to graduate from high school without a real education is a form of social injustice.
This, as Ms. Ravitch shows, is a myth. American schools were not always anti-intellectual. As recently as 1910, half of those in high school studied Latin—even though many were immigrants who were also learning English. As recently as the 1930s, eight-year-olds in Philadelphia’s public schools routinely memorized biographies of Alfred the Great, William Tell, and Florence Nightingale. Grammar schools demanded that small children demonstrate a skill today not required of even Ivy-bound 18-year-olds—to answer questions such as “A harness was sold for three-quarters of four-fifths of what it cost. What was the percentage loss?”
Such knowledge was then deemed the best weapon to abolish class. “The famous simile of the educational ladder, with its foot in the gutter and its top in the university,” wrote one educator, “is a fact many times verified in the knowledge of every intelligent adult.”
Then, though, came the progressives, who argued that children needed living knowledge, not dead artifacts. They started small, by throwing out the Greeks and Romans, and worked from there. By the 1940s the schools in Battle Creek, Michigan, had halved the share of students enrolled in college prep classes, while introducing health studies and “basic living” courses. Schools replaced mythology and history with the more amorphous social studies.
The youth-centered 1960s gave the trend fresh life. Now old-fashioned, content-oriented education was deemed not merely useless but dangerously authoritarian. Schools sought to cater to children and offered, as one Michigan scholar wrote, “an endless list of subjects to attract and interest students, such as Girl Talk and What’s Happening.” The schools, the scholar noted, had “simply given up on any attempt to exert any moral authority relative to education.” By 1970, Neill’s book Summerhill, which promoted his experimental methods, was required reading at 600 universities, selling 200,000 copies. What had started as a tiny war against Homer and Herodotus had turned into a siege, a watering down of every part of the curriculum for all ages. Today even basic math skills such as long division and the division of fractions are under assault. Teachers explicitly dismiss them as outdated and hand out calculators to children in the first grade.
But recognition is dawning that exclusively progressive schooling hurts children—particularly the more needy ones it purports to serve. “Upper-middle-class children in experimental schools will always do fine—their parents teach them,” says Ms. Ravitch. “But poor kids need teaching.” Parents are rallying, and dozens of states are now laying down tougher graduation requirements. Still, the tragedy of the undereducated American persists, an object lesson in the damage a fad can wreak.