How Predatory Reformers Are Destroying Education and Profiting at Our Children's Expense
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Between the 1820s and the 1970s, the Midwest was home to at least three waves of educational expansion and innovation. First was the establishment of scores of small colleges, then thousands of high schools, and finally hundreds of community and technical colleges. The founding of so many new educational institutions, over an extended period of time, scattered over a massive region today home to roughly 100 million people, created social change of such scale and longevity that it has become part of the fabric of the nation, so engrained it has largely escaped notice.
Beginning in the 1820s, the Midwest generated a critical mass of new colleges—Oberlin and Ohio Wesleyan in Ohio, Grinnell in Iowa, Knox and Wheaton in Illinois, Beloit and Lawrence in Wisconsin, Earlham and Butler (née North West Christian) in Indiana, Alfred in Western New York, and many more. Towns competed with one another to attract new colleges the way modern communities vie for a new casino, a state-of-the-art prison, or the next superstore. These were denominational schools, with strong religious ties. Theological and moral education and discussion were common. In their early years, many of the colleges included a commitment to manual labor as part of the curriculum. Far ahead of the Ivy League schools in the east, these embraced co-education. If they are remembered as a group at all, these schools are thought of, as Kenneth Wheeler has written in his fine book, Cultivating Regionalism (2011), as hotbeds of progressivism.
What’s forgotten, or minimized, and what Wheeler reminds us of, is that the region also “emphasized productivity and usefulness . . . and valued creativity and new ideas.” This culture “led naturally to a career choice of science, with . . . its emphasis on experimentation and receptivity to new possibilities, and its propensity toward usefulness.” One son of a Congregationalist minister, Grinnell graduate Robert Noyce, went on to found both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel Corporation and to launch a new business culture in a place we now call Silicon Valley. The impact of the Midwestern culture of usefulness was sustained well into the early and even middle part of the 20th Century and captured in a single sentence by Marilynne Robinson in her novel Gilead: “To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear.”
The second wave, the “high school movement,” gained strength while the first wave was still rolling forward. “The supply of educated Americans increased greatly and almost unceasingly from 1900 to around 1980,” Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz write in The Race Between Education and Technology (2008). “The towns of the Midwest, especially the tiny towns, were wellsprings of social capital and thus of schools and human capital.”
The enormous increase in educational attainment in the early part of the twentieth century came primarily from a grass-roots movement that propelled the building and staffing of public high schools. It was not due to a top-down mandate or pressure from the federal government, nor did it result from powerful local interest groups or arise because of legal compulsion.
In 1910, only 19 percent of Americans of high school age were enrolled in a school and not quite 9 percent graduated nationwide. By 1970, approximately 96 percent were enrolled and nearly 78 percent graduated. This was a national phenomenon, not just a Midwest trend, but it was very much a fact of Midwest life during this period. “In some parts—such as the Northeast, the West, and much of the central part of the nation—high schools spread like wildfire and youth flocked to them in droves.” While this expansion was deeply connected to local communities and local leaders, people understood that what they were doing was a massive and unique educational experiment, historic in both scope and scale.