How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the School Board

 

Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education , by Alan Ryan. Hill and Wang, 199 pages, $22.

Who would have thought that when the dust settled from the culture wars, the big winner would be Rudolph Giuliani. Forget teacher sensitivity training, single-sex schools and multicultural curriculums; forget vouchers, national standards and starched uniforms. What whips schools into shape is the Mayor’s pride: safe streets. (The prospect of a job after graduation helps, too.)

This, anyway, according to Alan Ryan, Warden of New College, Oxford, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the author of scholarly tomes on John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey. Mr. Ryan was a professor of political philosophy at Princeton University for eight years. He is not Mr. Giuliani’s natural ally. And yet in the midst of the high-flying arguments and historical reminders that make up the bulk of Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education , we find a hymn to the achievements of the Giuliani administration.

“When progress is made [at inner-city schools],” Mr. Ryan writes, “it is by exceedingly indirect means. A policy of zero tolerance toward minor infractions reduces the level of more serious crime; a reduction in crime encourages shopkeepers to stay in the area. The existence of shops and services encourages the individuals and agencies who have funds to rehabilitate local housing…. In the past three years there seems to have been such an upward spiral in the South Bronx, and it has benefited the schools and the children who attend them. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s rows with the chancellors of the New York City school system have made headlines, and have done nothing to improve the schools; but it may be that the mayor’s policing policies have done good for the education system in unintended ways.”

These off-the-cuff comments chime with the central argument advanced by Mr. Ryan, which is that our hysterical battles over education policy are symptoms of displaced anxiety. Education is not the problem, though it could be, under favorable conditions, part of the solution. Our anxiety, Mr. Ryan explains, is an updated edition of the anxiety that has haunted the architects of liberalism since the early 19th century. It comes in a three-part package: We worry about the “underclass”; about the transmission of spiritual values in a secular society; and about democracy degenerating into mob rule and dictatorship. To soothe this tripartite anxiety we turn to our schools. And panic.

A brief detour: “Liberal,” in these pages, doesn’t mean “tax-and-spend Democrat.” To a political philosopher who contributes frequently to the New York Review of Books , liberals are folk who believe in individual liberty and gradual social progress-in other words, most sentient Americans. Here’s the litmus test: If the three-pronged liberal angst identified by Mr. Ryan (a brutalized underclass; the disenchantment rife in secular societies; democracy’s decay) makes you feel scared or angry, you may be a conservative or a revolutionary. In either case, this book is not for you.

Actually, this book is for you only if you are very patient and, like me, foolishly hoping that somebody will someday say something that will stop you from seesawing back and forth about the state of higher education in America.

In his final chapter, “Is Higher Education a Fraud?,” Mr. Ryan sums up the “sharpest complaints about liberal education,” a litany familiar to anyone who’s been listening with even half an ear: “Today, all manner of unqualified persons, assisted by dubious schemes of affirmative action, attend institutions that charge excessive amounts of money for the inattentive and reluctant efforts of professors who construct eccentric courses, based on no visible principle beyond the accommodation of assorted culturally separatist groups ranging from angry lesbians to angry African Americans.” Mr. Ryan refutes these charges, but he concedes that “American education at every level needs change, and some of the change must be dramatic.”

Careful, moderate, balanced, always in touch with historical precedent, playing sage referee in a four-way contest between Matthew Arnold, Mill, Russell and Dewey, Mr. Ryan sounds like he’s right, as though his elegant intelligence and his imposing cache of knowledge have led him to the reasonable center. Where, I trust, his feet are securely planted. Why, then, am I still adrift?

Maybe because Mr. Ryan isn’t giving out practical answers. His self-appointed task is to widen our perspective, to account for the sense of crisis and explain why the arguments are so heated. In fact, if you buy his premise, there will never be a resolution to school-related debates so long as we remain anxious about the liberal state. So long as we’re bothered by economic inequality, social decay and technological unemployment, education will remain a battleground. I buy that premise-who wouldn’t? And I know that thinkers and doers often benefit from a sharp division of labor. But I still think there’s something essentially slippery about a guy who can explain the heck out of a problem and then declare blithely that solutions are not his department.

Here, anyway, are some valuable items (plus one or two knickknacks) I plundered from Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education . First, there’s the splendid ivory-tower attitude, which amounts to cultivating your cool and thinking deeply about each issue until it expands into an enduring conundrum. Why get hot and bothered about an enduring conundrum? “If shouting could improve American education,” Mr. Ryan notes with wry detachment, “our young people would be geniuses.”

He is particularly sane about multiculturalism, that bugaboo of the right (and of the anxious left, too). “Multiculturalism,” he proclaims, “is not a threat to the unity of the American republic but a reflection of the facts of life.” Its excesses, which he calls “indefensible,” he dismisses as a “rearguard attempt to protect cherished beliefs by forbidding one’s children, one’s ethnic group, or one’s co-cultists to discover that there are alternatives to the local prejudices.”

He decries the “wickedness of grade inflation” on the grounds that it encourages young people to believe that “nothing ought to be difficult.” But in general, he maintains, “wickedness is much less prevalent than critics suppose; dullness rather more so.”

He calls for more vocational schools, but with the proviso that vocational education must give young people the “free run” of the culture-the basics in science, history, literature and art. He writes, “The inculcation of general knowledge about a mobile society may be one of the best vocational skills we could pass on.” The rapidly changing job markets of a “mobile” society call for workers equipped with “social fluency and imaginativeness.” He considers narrow vocational education of the sort now commonly administered, along with the ubiquitous “business studies,” to be what actually “most threatens” American liberal education. A new and tedious twist to the culture wars!

There’s another little something we can learn from Mr. Ryan: his patronizing way of citing the accomplishments of others. He refers to Thomas Kuhn’s “devastating little book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions “; Robert Maynard Hutchins’ “splendid little tract … The Higher Learning in America “; Stanley Fish’s “entertaining and duplicitous little tract There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech (And It’s a Good Thing, Too) “; and Bliss Carnochan’s “engaging little book The Battleground of the Curriculum .”

It’s a wonder he didn’t congratulate Mayor Giuliani on the increasingly safe streets of his little city.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the School Board