Recent town-hall meetings on health care were contentious and none too civil. Yet there was a bright spot beneath the rancor. Some participants managed to communicate effectively in grammatical sentences, using standard pronunciation, vocabulary, and common allusions like "the bully pulpit." They showed themselves proficient in the language conventions of the American public sphere, and so were able to participate actively in political life.
But what of the mute, unseen people off-screen who cannot wield the conventions of knowledge and language needed to participate in the American public sphere? Brecht described them memorably: "But you see only those in the light/Those in the darkness you don't see."
Too many Americans are in the linguistic shadows now—possibly close to a majority. Despite intense efforts driven by the No Child Left Behind Act, the language abilities of our 17-year-olds have remained stuck at the steeply declined levels of the 1970s, while the language gap between white students on one side and black and Hispanic students on the other remains distressingly and immovably large.
This language gap represents more than a civic disability that prevents full participation in a democracy. It also represents a bar to general prosperity and social justice. According to studies by the University of Virginia economist William R. Johnson and others, the large wage gaps among demographic groups narrow significantly when scores on a language-comprehension test are factored in. I use the word "language gap" because the usual term, "reading gap," is far too narrow. Our schools have made progress in imparting technical decoding skills in the early grades, but that improvement in early technical facility has not been followed by improvement in language comprehension in the later grades.
A principal cause of this catastrophic educational failure has been the dominance within the school world of a faulty how-to theory of language mastery. Full membership in any speech community and in any democracy involves mastery not just of grammar and pronunciation, but also of commonly shared knowledge—often unspoken and unwritten—that is equally essential to communication. All effective writers and speakers have learned the convention of tacit knowledge. They know that a baseball metaphor like "he struck out" can be confidently used, but a cricket metaphor like "he was leg before" cannot. Their audience will know the name Franklin D. Roosevelt, but not necessarily Harold L. Ickes.
We cannot assume that such needed knowledge will come to everyone through the pores. Demonstrably, it has not done so. Yet the chief effort in the teaching of "reading" in the schools has been to drill students in how-to exercises like "finding the main idea" and "questioning the author" while neglecting systematic instruction in the background knowledge required for participation in the American public sphere.
During my many years in the educational trenches, I have been haunted by Keynes's insight that theories are "more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else." Inadequate theories and slogans, long dominant in our schools of education, lie behind the current inability of our schools to raise the language abilities of students. The dominant ed-school idea that a preset, "one size fits all" curriculum is in conflict with "child centered" education has ensured that no coherent, grade-by-grade buildup of knowledge is offered in our elementary schools.
More than 40 years ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter observed that it was unsound to assume that the individual development of every child must coincide, through a kind of established harmony, with the development of a good society. The anti-set-curriculum idea and the equally unsound how-to conception of learning are two of the guiding ideas in American colleges and schools of education. Together they form an ideological double whammy against a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum in elementary schools—against, that is, the thing most needed to enhance language ability and overcome the language-comprehension gap.
Mastery of the knowledge assumed within the American speech community is not just a technical prerequisite for proficiency in the standard language. It is also a prerequisite to something equally profound in a democracy—a sense of community and solidarity within the nation. Such a sense of unity was one of the chief educational ambitions of the founders. "A popular Government," said Madison, "without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy." The cohesion of the nation and the willingness of citizens to temper their private and local interests with allegiance to the common good could be obtained only through commonality in the school curriculum. Such commonality was the explicit subject of an important early essay on schooling, "Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic," written in 1786 by Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Our most important and influential early schoolmaster, Noah Webster, was our chief maker of both dictionaries and schoolbooks. He correctly connected the two projects, believing that a common public language plus a common school curriculum were needed to sustain a loyalty to the common good.
The tempering of factionalism through a common education is thus the emotional parallel to the technical need for shared background knowledge within a speech community. Among early schoolbook writers there was a benign conspiracy to celebrate both patriotism and Enlightenment cosmopolitanism and, as one wrote, to "exhibit in a strong light the principles of political and religious freedom which our forefathers professed … and to record the numerous examples of fortitude, courage and patriotism which have rendered them illustrious."
Already by the early 19th century, as de Tocqueville noted, the American educational experiment was highly successful in creating loyal, patriotic citizens ready to participate in the public sphere. Horace Mann, a great proponent of the "common school" in the 19th century, explained how this creation of an emotional bond could overcome resentments of class and tribe: "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."
Yet it is of great practical importance not to overstress the principle of commonality in the elementary-school curriculum. That is a sure way to kill off critically needed reform. Webster and the schoolmasters who followed him consciously tried to create in their schoolbooks a new kind of quite limited national public sphere that explicitly denied the superiority of any particular tribal or religious allegiance. Ours was to be the first deliberately cosmopolitan, live-and-let-live system of nation building and of schooling. As Rush explained in his 1786 essay, our schools must rise above national likes and dislikes, because the country would have to embrace people who came from all nations. His own state of Pennsylvania was full of Germans, as Franklin had notably complained. They and all others would have to be accommodated in a public sphere that was founded less on blood and soil than on a common language and on the principle of toleration that protected all possible liberties of private and local life.
That meant that the American public sphere, as created by public schools, was to be modest in its extent. The common, federal principle was to lie at the core of schooling, but American schools must also offer free rein to each state, locality, and individual. Such a delicate balance between the national and the local, public and private, commonality and diversity, was to reflect in schooling the same delicate balance that formed the Constitution itself.
This conscious separation of the public and private realms of life was thus essential to American schooling and politics from the start. The American public sphere was to be self-limiting. Its aim was to secure the blessings of liberty. The federation existed to make secure all the multifarious local and private spheres of the republic, and to enable them to flourish freely so long as they did not impinge on the freedom and security of others.
Despite the strong early emphasis on commonality among the founders of American schooling, the public sphere that it was meant to create and sustain was never conceived to be a fully adequate community but rather a necessary enabling context that would allow diverse communities to thrive—a "social union of social unions," in the late John Rawls's phrase.
Hence those who vigorously oppose widespread commonality of subject matter in American schools mistakenly conflate two distinct American traditions that need to be kept distinct—the protection of the private and local on the one hand, and the need for a national public sphere on the other. As our forefathers realized, the chief duty of the public schools lies in the national sphere—that of commonality. We implicitly recognize this duty when we agree that our schools need to teach our children how to read and write and speak the English language.
For American English is not a purely formal system. Proficiency in its use requires possession of widely shared background knowledge. Critics of commonality in the early curriculum are among the many victims of the how-to theory of language proficiency, supposing that the successful teaching of reading and writing can be accomplished without explicit instruction in the silently shared background knowledge that is indispensable to communication in the American public sphere.
They are also misled if they think that we have unlimited freedom in deciding what those common elements should be. Undoubtedly, we can consciously change some of the school-taught knowledge that makes public discourse possible. Such changes are happening on a small scale all the time. But a large body of the taken-for-granted knowledge in American public discourse is very slow to change. That more-stable knowledge can be inventoried and made the vital center that all American children are taught.
The task of enabling our students to participate in the public sphere —the traditional and primary duty of American elementary schools—is a task that need not take up more than half of classroom time. But if we want to bring all our students out of the linguistic shadows, we shall need to teach this enabling knowledge systematically, through a limited but common core curriculum in the early grades.