Testing academic authority

October 03, 1997|By John Brain

THE DEBATE over national educational testing goes to the roots of American society.

Few quarrel with the president's position that all American students should meet uniform high educational standards.

And most parents want to know whether their children are receiving an education that will equip them to meet the challenges of the future. So why is the opposition to national educational standards so deeply rooted?

One group of opponents the "states' rights" group believes education is absolutely a state and local responsibility and resent the incursion of "federal bureaucrats" into local affairs. Most of these are conservatives who would like to eliminate the federal department of education as meddlesome and an unnecessary tax burden.

On the other side of the political spectrum are those representing minorities who most often test poorly in standardized tests. They fear national tests would be used to justify further discrimination against them and reinforce negative stereotypes

But the most vocal group believes parents have the primary responsibility for educating their children, and parents have greater influence over local school boards than they do over administrators in Washington. Most school boards in the Bible Belt, for instance, oppose and resent the Supreme Court's ruling on prayer in public schools.

Those with a political/religious agenda, such as the Christian Coalition, regard taking back control of the public schools as an important part of their strategy. No longer are they disposed to merely withdraw their children from public schools and send them to Christian academies.

Their aim is to take over school boards and impose curricula that defy the federal government. The religious right remains a significant player in Republican politics, so it is no surprise a Republican House voted against national educational standards.

What is at stake is the old question whether the United States is really a nation or a loose confederation of states; and whether each state is a loose confederation of local authorities immediately responsible to local voters.

The debate, which so polarized the Founding Fathers, has been ongoing throughout American history. During the 20th century, the power of central government was steadily increasing, buttressed by crucial Supreme Court decisions limiting states' rights.

But with the rise of the New Right, the Reagan presidency and the Gingrich Revolution, the tide has turned and power is being systematically returned to state and local governments and their grass roots voters.

Attractive as this may seem even to conservatives, it could spell disaster for America as a nation. The world of learning has never been a democracy dominated by the largest number of votes. All the advanced western nations have highly respected institutions which their governments defer: their academies of arts and sciences and their professional associations of doctors, geologists, mathematicians, physicists.

They have close ties to the universities and form an intellectual establishment which, though its members may differ on cutting-edge issues, provides a solid base for the education of the nation.

Only in America are there public schools where "Creationism" is taught alongside evolution as respectable science. In many ways, regional America is more akin to the repressive regimes of Islamic fundamentalism than to the other advanced nations.

To say so is not, of course, to question American achievements in science and technology. Rather, to point out that these advances have been achieved in spite of a democratic mind-set that allows ignorant school boards to control the nation's schools while challenging the nation's intellectual establishment, with the tacit approval of Congress.


Most of us agree that parents have important responsibilities to their children, but society also has an obligation to ensure that its future citizens are not disabled by misguided parents.

What is taught in schools should reflect "the best that is known and thought in the world," to use Matthew Arnold's phrase, and this is determined by the academic societies and the universities, not only of America, but of the entire world.

The current national educational standards debate is really about authority, not primarily that of the federal government, but of the professional and academic societies that together constitute the nation's academic establishment.

The resulting debacle makes America the laughing stock of the intellectual world, as did the Scopes "monkey trial" almost a century ago.

Increasingly, educational standards are international. There is no German Science or Russian Science or American Science, and all the academic journals have an international scope.


Increasingly, students as well as scholars are going abroad to study and to teach, speaking the same "international language" of the arts and sciences. Fortunately, one president was himself an international Rhodes scholar who knows that standards of scholarship are truly international, not determined by school boards and parents in Arkansas.

He also knows that in America today there are students who are being excluded from the world of international scholarship: those raised illiterate in inner city schools and those indoctrinated in phony science in fundamentalist academies. They won't be included, and America will be the worse for it.

John Brain is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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