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April 30, 2012

Education and American Self-Culture

Education has been a bulwark for America since colonial days. John Adams said it was as easy to find a hen’s tooth as to find someone in Massachusetts who could not read. It was education that allowed America to transform itself from an agrarian economy in 1800s century into a world power.

There are probably now more people employed in American education than in any other single activity. Yet with the massive investment our children lag farther and farther behind other industrial nations. Test scores of American children in grades 1-12 are not much better than those in the third world. Although standard tests were not available in the 1800s, based on extant exams from that time, I suggest that those students would have scored better than today’s students. Many believe that decline in education will be followed by the decline of America’s exceptionalism and decline as a world power. Where has American education gone astray; can it be rectified?

Annette Lareau in “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life” reports that interviews with students and parents revealed that home life and the level of education of the parents have a major impact on the child’s self-confidence and sense of self-worth.

I suggest that one must look deeper; we must look at self-motivation of youth then and now to identify the failures of today.

Daniel Walker Howe’s Making the American Self" reminds us self-motivation was found widely in nineteenth century America. He calls it “faculty psychology”; faculties being an individual’s abilities. The model gives the highest motivation as truth and reason; the second, self-interest; the third, passion. Howe describes how eight famous Americans employed faculty psychology to become important contributors to our culture. The process is described as fitting of one’s faculties to a hierarchy of motivations. A similar model was used much earlier by James Freeman Clarke in “American Self-Culture” (1880). Clarke fits the model within a Christian framework. According to Clarke, each individual is a unique creation and has been given a purpose. Identifying and fulfilling one’s purpose contributes to society and leads to personal satisfaction. This rubric is quite different from that taught in today’s public schools and in many homes where children are taught individual freedom with few tethers or mores. Schools tend to deemphasize personal responsibility in favor of government dependency. Young people are taught that they are a protoplasmic product of evolution. Without a higher power, the schools develop the youth’s behavior and motivations. In the best of times the government can provide that which is sufficient to avoid financial worry but is unable to provide self-worth and hence any need to learn. It leads to a life without gratification or self-worth. The result is a divided populace with children from parents able to inculcate self-worth and personal motivation and children from situations that do not motivate and encourage children. The former group of children will develop into the ones who lead the nation. With few exceptions, the latter group of children will be, for the most part, relegated to a life of government dependency without schools that motivate youth to develop their faculties for a purpose.

In search of a group of present-day students that might be subject to faculty psychology, I turned to a large, but not statistically designed, study of homeschooled children. It seem reasonable to assume that children with parents willing to spend thousands of hours teaching would inculcate a sense of self-worth. Such a study for grades 1-12 was found in “The Scholastic Achievement of Home School Students, ERIC/AE Digest, 1999” by Lawrence M. Rudner. It compares test results of over 20 thousand home schooled children from about 13 thousand American homes to similar test scores of American children from public and private schools. Too extensive to report in detail here, interested readers may find it at The homeschoolers tended to be biased toward white, Christian, two-parent families with above average incomes. The comparison is stark and concerning. The first number in each set shown below is the school grade of the comparison. The number in the parentheses is the percentile of the public school scores where the 50 percentile for the homeschoolers lie. In Grade 4, for example, fifty percent of the homeschoolers were at the point above which only 24 percent of the public school students fell. Data are shown for the grades with the highest and lowest percentile differences. The mean score for the homeschooled children exceeded those for public schooled children in every grade in every subject.

There was little difference between the scores of homeschooled children with one or both parents with a teaching certificate from children whose parents had no teaching certificate.

A comparison of scores of children sorted by level of parental education is given for Grades 1-10. The mean score (50 percentile) of homeschoolers is compared to the percentile (%til) of public school students at that score. For example, the mean score of homeschoolers in Grade 3 having both parents with college degrees lies at the 89 percentile of public school children. This means that the average score of homeschoolers exceeds the score of 89 percent of Grade 3 public school children.

Clearly, a college educated parent improved results. However the average for children in all grades was above the mean for public schooled children. Data not presented shows that even children with parents with less than a high school education score above the mean for public school students. This data indicate that when children are properly motivated they achieve scores above those of the average public school children. Something is missing in public school education.

Based on extant school exams from the 1800s, more was expected from American children than is expected from today’s students. Why were American children a hundred and fifty years ago doing so well when only about 5 percent of Americans had a college degree and today the percent is about six times that? There was something they had then and something homeschoolers seem to have today that seems to be missing in today’s public schools.

Review of the primers of the nineteenth century shows that self-culture was inculcated through the literature. The children learned that they were important individuals and their actions were significant and had consequences. The stories and poetry they studied revealed the satisfaction to be derived from individual responsibility. Learning was their responsibility; it was inculcated into them. The beliefs of families then were generally consistent with the primers. They had, in many cases, studied from the same books. The data here suggest that education as measured by standard test scores would be improved if schools emphasized traditional American mores of personal responsibility and well developed consciences that give purpose to their lives. Student’s happiness might be improved when they become more useful by developing his/her God given faculties.

Ancient Greek emphasized the importance of the state over the individual; their mores failed them, as have other similarly modeled societies and they will fail America. American self-culture succeeded until it was rejected in the name of progressivism which is becoming a flaming failure. When an educational approach was found to work for a century, it should not be discarded simply because it was out of step with post-modernism. Today, many homes are consistent with faculty psychology of the nineteenth century; many of these families home school. Other homes allow the schools to take on education without much home help. The result is a bifurcated education system. I know of no data to ascertain that schools can fulfill the needs of children without assistance from the family. But the future of the next generation and therefore our society depends on it.

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