In town hall meetings and the Internet people address fellow citizens with whom they disagree as though they were dangerous creatures from another planet. The animosities on display have an almost tribal flavor — Hutus versus Tutsis, white versus black, Democrats versus Republicans.
“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?” Rodney King, a man whose beating by the police became a flashpoint in U. S. race relations achieved with those words a place in national memory. Coming at a moment of tension and resentment, they resonated with Americans’ deep desire for comity – just as we now wish for greater civility at health-care town hall meetings and more cooperation among members of Congress.
Quasi-tribal domestic hostilities constitute a mortal danger to our nation that the founders of the United States were anxious to overcome. They believed that the deepest threats to any republic were the two F’s: faction and fanaticism. When Ben Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a lady asked him: “Well, Doctor, what have we got?” To which he replied: “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.” His remark reflected a worry shared by other delegates to the convention, including George Washington and James Madison. Washington bequeathed part of his estate to the creation of a system of schooling that would “do away local attachments and state prejudices.” And Madison acknowledged in the Federalist Papers that we need to develop a new kind of citizen through our schools: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust; So there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.” Unless we could educate citizens and leaders who could rise above personal ambition and special interest to seek the common good, our new republic would fail as had all prior republics in history.
Throughout the nineteenth century, American schools deliberately fostered a sense of commonality with other Americans. It was the great era of the common school movement which featured a benign conspiracy among the writers of schoolbooks to teach many of the same things across all subjects in the early grades, and especially in American history. As one early textbook author put it, the aim was “to exhibit in a strong light the principles of religious and political freedom which our forefathers professed . . . and to record the numerous examples of fortitude, courage, and patriotism which have rendered them illustrious.” During the 19th century, American politics were as hardnosed as now, but compromise in Congress and civility in the public sphere were greater then. During the 19th century the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville reported that the schools of the United States were being far more successful in the effort at citizen-making and allegiance to the common good than the schools of Europe.
Today, our schools are failing to raise the language proficiencies of high school students. We see clear evidence in disappointing scores on college entrance exams like the SAT. It is no coincidence that we are seeing a rise in public incivility along with this decline in verbal skills. The key point in understanding the profound connection between the two is that language proficiency is chiefly based on wide knowledge, and more specifically on knowledge that is silently shared by every competent member of a speech community. This tacitly shared knowledge constitutes the public sphere — the commons upon which civic discourse takes place. The key to being a good speaker, reader, and writer is the possession of the broad unspoken knowledge that is shared by other effective speakers, readers, and writers within a nation.
Space won’t permit an elaboration of the strong scientific consensus that explains the connection between shared, unspoken knowledge and effective communication. I’ve done that at length in various books, most recently in The Making of Americans. Here I’ll simply assume that basic point about communication and make a further point about the decline of civility. The shared knowledge that enables communication in the public sphere also induces a sense of community, and helps overcome tribal antipathies. Horace Mann, often described as the father of public education, said: “The spread of education, by enlarging the cultivated class or caste, will open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand; and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.”
Mann, and education pioneers like Noah Webster, as well as our brilliant founders understood that shared knowledge and loyalty to the common good could only be fostered through a common elementary education – a shared core curriculum in the early grades. By 1950, that insight became neglected and, indeed, aggressively rejected in our schools. The subsequent fragmentation of the elementary-school curriculum is the root cause of our students’ low verbal scores, and of the wide gap in verbal proficiency between our low-scoring white students and far lower-scoring black and Hispanic students. We will recover verbal proficiency, economic justice, and social comity only if we institute more coherent substance and greater commonality in our elementary schools.