Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Universal preschool mandate: Lincoln and Hitler vie for control of Obama's soul

Abraham Lincoln, speaking in 1832:
Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance...
Adolf Hitler, speaking some 100+years later (circa 1932):
As surely as everything we have discussed here today must be kept from burdening the mind of the ordinary party member, equally surely must we put an end to what is known as universal education. Universal education is the most corroding and disintegrating poison that liberalism has ever invented for its own destruction.
As frequent readers of this blog will know, I'm quick to question the legitimacy of quotes, particularly those attributed to critical historical figures. Both Lincoln and Hitler have their fair share of false attributions in the land of the internet, but the above two quotes are not of such a variety.

Lincoln's remarks on the importance of education were published in the Sangamo Journal--a Springfield, Illinois newspaper--as a part of a statement made by a then-23-year-old Lincoln running for the Illinois state assembly (he lost). He noted the critical nature of education with respect to citizenship as a part of a general platform of polices and positions, which included a staunch opposition to usury and a quite conservative approach to law-making. But his brief remarks on the subject of education have been summoned up again and again, due their succinct clarity and obvious truth.

In contrast, the quote from Hitler comes from privates conversations recorded by Hermann Rauschning and published in his tome The Voice of Destruction. The authenticity of the quotes Rauschning attributed to Hitler has been called into question a number of times, both by Nazi sycophants and serious scholars. A search on the internet will find various pages insisting that the quotes from this work are fraudulent. But the basis for such arguments is a misunderstanding of what Hitler is saying and ignorance of the full context of the quote, by and large. For instance, the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review says the following about the above quote:
Another fraudulent Hitler remark in this same spirit and from this same source, likewise cited by the supposedly authoritative Seldes, is this: "Universal education is the most corroding and disintegrating poison that liberalism ever invented for its own destruction."  
These remarks misrepresent Hitler's real views. In fact, National Socialist Germany was a world leader in science, learning, technology and medicine. Hitler was admired by some of the leading intellectuals of the age, including Knut Hamsun, Ezra Pound, Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Martin Heidegger.
The blatant Nazi hero-worshiping aside, the suggestion here is that Hitler was all for open education. And he was. But only with regard to the people who were entitled to it. The quote reads as quite genuine, fully consistent with Hitler's world-view. Arguments that it is somehow contrived ring hollow, to say the least.

If one reads the quote in full context, it is clear that Hitler is speaking of what he calls the "Herren-class," the lesser peoples of those regions he is intent on conquering. His point is that Marxism is wholly wrong in its idea of a classless society, that there are and must be classes. Always. And while education is a good thing, access to it must be limited, based on class. As he says just after the above quote (my boldface):
There must be only one possible education for each class, for each subdivision of a class. Complete freedom of choice in education is the privilege of the elite and of those whom they have specially admitted. The whole of science must be subject to continual control and selection. Knowledge is an aid to life, not its central aim. We must therefore be consistent, and allow the great mass of the lowest order the blessings of illiteracy. We ourselves, on the other hand, shall shake off all humane and scientific prejudices. This is why, in the Junker schools I shall found for the future members of our Herren-class, I shall allow the gospel of the free man to be preached— the man who is master of life and death, of human fear and superstition, who has learnt to control his body, his muscles and his nerves but remains at the same time impervious to the temptations of the mind and of sciences alleged to be free.
Thus for Hitler, there are two kinds of education: the unlimited access to knowledge that is the privilege of the elites, the Aryan master-race, and the controlled, selected knowledge the lower classes are allowed to receive, just enough of it to convince them that they are free men (when of course they are no such thing).

For decades, the U.S. educational system has been one that evinces an attempt to fulfill the basic criteria of Lincoln: everyone should have--or have access to--a moderate education, at a minimum. This is a necessity of the modern world, a basic level of literacy, a grasp of mathematics, and an understanding of the fundamental tenets of science. At the same time, there has been--again, for quite some time--an ordered nature to education, based on age and conditioned by socio-economic class. Some have made much of the Prussian influence on the U.S. education system and while there is much to be said in this regard, sometimes there is an unjustified leap made from "Prussian" to "Nazi."

True enough, there was an indoctrination aspect to the Prussian system, but it was the efficiency of it that appealed to outsiders, that led to the spread of its basic mechanisms. This is no mean point: the raison d'etre of the Prussian monarchy in creating a system of universal education was very much service to the state, but it was done as a means to counter local cultures, to establish consistency, especially with regard to language.

Such a goal has both pros and cons, no doubt. Lincoln, in the above quote, had no specific system in mind to deliver his "moderate education" but it seems logical to assume he would have seen the need to acclimate all future citizens to their nation, necessarily requiring a consistent language, along with knowledge of how the government, itself, functions. But he would most certainly have recognized the limits of the same: a "moderate" education means exactly what it says. Moderation, as in so many other things, remains critical. The state cannot be all things to everyone.

But now, year after year, there seems to be no recognition of such a moderate standard. The champions of universal education demand more and more and more. Access to primary schools was insufficient: compulsory attendance has been demanded. Ditto for secondary schools. And it would seem post-secondary schools are falling into the same pattern.

The latest move, however, is the expansion of preschool programs. President Obama, in his February State of the Union Address, called for universal, state-funded preschool for every child in America. In the past decade, many States already embarked on such a path; Obama's proposal to broaden the effort with Federal dollars--and mandated curricula--was met with unadulterated joy from education professionals and the like throughout the land.

But coupled with the expansion of Common Core Standards, this kind if initiative suggests an approach less consistent with Lincoln and more consistent with the original basis of the Prussian system. At the same time, these standards--if viewed for what they are, a concise limiting and directing of education for the typical, non-elite student--call to mind Hitler's views on the nature of universal education, far more so than Lincoln's.

Obama, following his State of the Union Address, gave a speech in Decatur, Georgia wherein he said (mirroring claims made in the SOTU speech):
Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for the poor children who need it the most, the lack of access to a great preschool education can have an impact on their entire lives. And we all pay a price for that. And as I said, this is not speculation. Study after study shows the achievement gap starts off very young. Kids who, when they go into kindergarten, their first day, if they already have a lot fewer vocabulary words, they don’t know their numbers and their shapes and have the capacity for focus, they’re going to be behind that first day. And it’s very hard for them to catch up over time. …

Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on — boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, reducing violent crime. In states like Georgia that have made it a priority to educate our youngest children, states like Oklahoma, students don’t just show up in kindergarten and first grade more prepared to learn, they’re also more likely to grow up reading and doing math at grade level, graduating from high school, holding a job, even forming more stable families.
As FactCheck.org notes, the plan--as specifically laid out--is all about children in low-income areas; they're the only ones who might see a net benefit, thus the whole "middle class" angle is pointless. But even more importantly, the "studies" Obama claims to be representing do not back up his general claims in the least:
But in his State of the Union address, Obama exaggerated the effects of universal preschool by comparing results from small, expensive programs targeted to disadvantaged youth to a universal program for which such results are unproven.
The mindset of the President--shared by so many others--is still an easy one to grasp, however. The idea that preschool must be a Good Thing, must represent a net positive for children is a consequence of an over-arching view of education itself as always a good thing and state-sponsored education even moreso (somehow automatically superior to home-based education at any level).

But we're not talking about high school or college here, we're talking about four-year-old children who are mostly just learning how to process the things they are experiencing. Is a structured curriculum taught in a group environment better for them as a matter of course? No study can make an absolute finding on this, one way or the other, because there are simply too many variables.

And when that structured curriculum is mandated from on high, the added issue arises of indoctrination, whether such is intended or not. But more significantly, the purpose of education becomes exactly what Obama says it is above: a means to an end or ends. Whether it's "reducing teen pregnancy," "reducing violent crime," or other supposed social goods, the expansion of education is undertaken to achieve society-wide goals, not under the rubric of education for its own sake.

For such a rubric necessarily eschews mandated structures which can limit the pursuit of knowledge; it invites questioning of any and all assumptions and facts. And it is inconsistent with attempts to modify society as a whole since it is based on learning at the level of the individual, not the group.

Step back and consider these two divergent paradigms and ask yourself which sounds like Abraham Lincoln and which sounds like Adolf Hitler. Seems pretty obvious to me. So why the push for universal preschool?

Cheers, all.

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