With all the reading I'm doing for my book proposal, there is one person who I think deeply got the various dysfunctions of the American school system and, more importantly, the American cultural conception of education itself: Richard Hofstader. If you haven't already, you should really read Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It is one of those eerie experiences where you feel the work could have been written today–Penn State scandal!–but it dates to 1963:
A host of educational problems have arisen from indifference—underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else—the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of academically gifted children. At times the schools of the country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media, and these extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma, who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud. Certainly some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans. At great effort and expense they send an extraordinary proportion of their young to colleges and universities, but their young, when they get there, do not seem to care even to read.
On a side note, Hofstadter was one of many New Deal-generation liberal thinkers put-off by the theatrics of the 1960s student protest movements and by hippyism more generally. I must have some kind of subconscious attraction toward these types, because when I was profiling Diane Ravtich, a similar period of her life fascinated me, though she is much younger. A lot of these folks moved right for a period of time, and it's interesting to wonder how Hofstadter's thinking might have evolved had he lived to complete the three-part, comprehensive American social history he planned to write.
I just ordered this biography on Kindle, so perhaps I will have more to say about Hofstadter soon. In the meantime, happy weekend.