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February 11, 2015

Language and Scientific Inquiry Lesson Plan/Activity

A longstanding and as of yet unresolved question in science is whether or not other species use complex language to communicate.  So far, some humans take great pride in thinking that they are the only ones who use complex language.  Many approaches have been used to answer this question from trying to teach apes sign language to training dogs and pigeons to recognize hundreds and thousands of symbols and commands to recording and playing back modulated songs to birds to see their response.  But as of yet, there is no conclusive evidence that other species use language as complex as say English or Chinese.  Science is fairly certain that dolphins and whales know and call one another by name.  Many small mammals and birds have specific warning calls that they give that identify different predators to the rest of their communities.  Some songbirds know and sing over 200 unique songs and it has also been shown in songbirds that within the same species there are dialects.  In the south sparrows might sing with a twang whereas in the New England they sound more academic and snobbish (maybe I need to look up my sources again!)  It has also been shown in songbirds that within 30 years, their songs can evolve quite rapidly indicating that their songs are just as much learned as they are genetic.  Some parrots and crows and dogs can say human words and sentences, but are they really using language or are they just mimicking human voices?  (Sometimes the way some people talk I have to wonder if the same question can't be asked there as well!)

In a minute I'm going to guide you through a scientific inquiry about whether or not a robin in a youtube video is using language, but first let's start on a historical note about a dead language that took 2000 years to decode:  Cuneiform.

Cuneiform originated in Sumer (Southern Iraq) and is the earliest known system of written language, dating back to around 6000-5500 years ago.  It was used for nearly 3000 years before it went extinct around the year 150 C.E.  At that time all speakers and all of those who knew how to read it were dead.  It wasn't until the 1800s before people began to fully decipher it although Greeks, Romans, Persians and Arabs had noticed it and wondered about it when they traveled to the region and saw it on monuments and clay tablets. In fact, Medieval Persian and Arab scholars were the first known people to try to systematically decipher Cuneiform and although they were largely unsuccessful they did figure out some things.

Cuneiform began as a pictogram, accounting system for keeping track of trade transactions, but over thousands of years became a complex written language.  The characters started out as symbols for objects and words, but gradually morphed into a hodgepodge of that as well as characters that represented phonetic syllables much like our alphabet.  Below is an image that shows the evolution of the character for head over 3000 years.

Evolution of the cuneiform sign SAG "head", 3000–1000 B.C.E.

Deciphering Cuneiform was a process that can help us appreciate the difficulty of scientific inquiry as a process.  This is because it often takes many minds working over many generations to make progress on difficult questions.  The question people faced when they saw Cuneiform was, "what is this?  Is it meaningful?"  At first, when nothing was known about Cuneiform because all of its speakers and scribes were dead, it was a hypothesis that it was a written language.  It very well could have been just so many scribbles or it could have been a system of numbers with no words.  When you first looked at the stone tablet above, if you had known nothing about Cuneiform, would you have guessed that it was a language?  Considering the evidence, that it was found on clay tablets, monuments and temple and building walls, it seems a good hypothesis that Cuneiform was a language and that's what people ran with.

 Pietro Della Valle, an Italian who had traveled to the Near East in the early 1600s, hypothesized after seeing many examples of Cuneiform that it must be read left-to-right.  This was an important contribution, though his only contribution, to the decipherment of the dead language. 

Sir Thomas Herbert in 1634 England, after seeing many examples of Cuneiform, hypothesized, correctly, that it wasn't an alphabet, but a written system of words and symbols.  He guessed this because it would be highly unlikely that there would be an alphabet of over 1000 letters (Cuneiform had about this many characters), because many examples are continuous without breaks as one would expect to separate words, and because some of the inscriptions were quite short.

"Bishop Friedich Munter discovered that the words in the Persian inscriptions were divided from one another by an oblique wedge and that the monuments must belong to the age of Cyrus and his successors. One word, which occurs without any variation towards the beginning of each inscription, he correctly inferred to signify "king." By 1802 Georg Friedrich Grotefend had determined that two king's names mentioned were Darius and Xerxes (but in their native Old Persian forms, which were unknown at the time and therefore had to be conjectured), and had been able to assign correct alphabetic values to the cuneiform characters which composed the two names." (1)

"In 1836, the eminent French scholar Eugène Burnouf discovered that the first of the inscriptions published by Niebuhr contained a list of the provinces of the Persian Empire. With this clue in his hand, he identified and published an alphabet of thirty letters, most of which he had correctly deciphered." (1)

In 1835, Henry Rawlinson found the Rosetta Stone of Cuneiform.  An inscription that had the same statement in Old Persian Cuneiform, Elamite and Babylonian.  This inscription led to the complete decipherment of Cuneiform.

Figuring out how the language was spoken and with what accent was done through comparison of it to other related scripts and languages.  Today there are several hundred scholars who are both fluent in writing and speaking Cuneiform.

The history of the decipherment of Cuneiform tells us something about how science works.  People hypothesize about a problem they are faced with and then seek evidence that upholds or disproves it.  To solve a difficult problem often requires contributions from many minds in many different fields.  People have to collaborate, sharing their perspectives, insights, and using their creativity.  In order to decipher the dead language people had to study many hundreds and thousands of examples of it to find patterns that might give context to otherwise incomprehensible symbols.  The process of science can be frustrating because some problems are just too difficult for one person or one generation to figure out and sometimes the best that can be done is to make progress on understanding without ever coming to any absolute truth.  Luckily in the case of Cuneiform, the researchers were dealing with a human language with many examples of the writing in existence thus giving many angles for discovering patterns and giving context to those patterns.  Also, they were lucky in finding an inscription that contained two known languages as well as the Cuneiform. But despite, these breakthroughs, it still was a 2000 year process, since the extinction of the language to bring it back to life.

What happens though when we deal with an even harder problem?  Such as trying to figure out whether or not other animals use sophisticated language.  In this case, there are no known examples besides human language, that we can use to help us decipher these languages, and we are stuck in an even harder spot because we don't even know if other animals are just making sounds or actually using a systematized language in the first place.  But if we hypothesize that some animals indeed are using language, how can we go about finding evidence to support or disprove it?  Just like in the case of deciphering Cuneiform we have to go back to looking for perspectives, insights, patterns and contexts that will help our understanding.

I found an interesting video of an American Robin singing that I'd like to use to guide us on our scientific inquiry.  First of all just watch the video once or twice and think/question about what you think the bird is doing by singing and pay special attention to the way it sings.  Write down your observations and thoughts.

Have a discussion with people about what they think the bird is doing by singing as well as what they notice about its vocalizations.  Is it just talking to itself?  Is it talking gibberish?  Is it meaningful?  Is it language?  Is it just expressing itself through music?  Is it just a vocal instinctual fixed-action-pattern?  Did you notice how songs of a similar pattern are sung and then separated by a pause?  Is each song sung the same?  Does the number of chirps per song vary?  Do the pitches of notes change from song to song.  Etc.

Now, how can we go beyond just mere conjecture and find evidence about whether or not the bird is speaking a language?  It might be best to begin by allowing everyone to come up with their own method of collecting evidence that the bird is or isn't speaking a language and then playing the video once or twice more.  After showing the video again, let everyone share what they came up with and then let people collaborate, adapting their approaches or adopting someone else's, just as it happens in science.  Then show the video again once or twice more and repeat the process a few times to see how far people get.  Part of what should dawn on people is that 1) we all have unique perspectives and ways of applying our creativity to problems.  This is good and other people's ideas should be embraced when they prove to be useful.  2) Real world scientific inquiries are often frustrating and difficult.  This is why people have to learn to collaborate and adapt their approaches according to progress that others have made.  It should be emphasized from the history of Cuneiform decipherment that many scientific problems take a long time to solve if they are solved and making progress on understanding, sometimes, is the most that can be hoped for, although this can still be very rewarding.

My approach for gaining insight into the bird's songs can be done as follows:
1) Number 1 - 15 on a piece of paper (this is the number of discrete songs the bird sings in the video)
2) Then listen to the video once or twice, having everyone take a tally of how many chirps occur in each song.  The numbers will likely vary from person-to-person because the bird sings slurs that sound like two notes as well as notes with two quick beats compared to most other notes sung that have just one beat. 

When I'm just tallying beats I get the following numbers:
1) 8
2) 9
3) 5
4) 2
5) 11
6) 5
7) 8
8) 5
9) 8
10) 6
11) 6
12) 7
13) 12
14) 6
15) 6

Have people compare their results and then discuss if any patterns emerged and what might be done to improve their methods.  Are there numbers that occur more frequently?  Do combinations of numbers always show up together?  Etc.  What can this tell us about whether or not the bird is using language?

The next time that I listened to the video I used a tally for a regular note, a V for quick double notes, and a dot (I'm typing as an "o" here for convenience) for high pitch notes and got the following results.  You could have people do the same.  This is the process of refining our methods in science so that we obtain better data and observations.  With better data and observations we can make better inferences and conclusions about what is going on.

3) IIIIo
4) II
6) IIVIo
12) IIIIIo

Again, have people compare their results, discuss their interpretations of and observations about the results and then offer suggestions about how to improve their methods even further.  It isn't a problem if they only have pencil and paper and no other instrumentation for it exemplifies the common dilemma in science where we often have questions and methods we want to try that go far beyond our current technological and technical capability.  When we lack technology we have to apply our creativity to use what we have to get better results, when we lack technical ability we have to train ourselves and increase our knowledge or find and learn how to collaborate with the people who have the skills and knowledge in demand.

End by having people recommend what things could be done to get better results, what other experiments, knowledge and observations would be useful to shed further light on the issue of whether or not robins or any other species are using language besides humans.

This activity is meant to help people come to understand how science really works.  It should make them appreciate that science can be very difficult, slow to progress and frustrating, but also that it can be very exciting and rewarding as well as a playground for the maximum application of creativity because many problems/phenomena have no known answer and many problems/phenomena haven't even been identified yet.

What I found interesting, just by tallying the chirps of the robin's song, is that meaningful patterns began to emerge.  For instance, high notes tended to occur as the fifth and eighth note of the songs.  The number of notes in the songs varied, but there was occasional repetition.  This all highlights something that I've experienced when doing scientific research; oftentimes meaningful patterns emerge when we take the time to make careful observations and to think about what those observations might mean.

Discoveries are rewarding because they further shed light on the nature of existence and our context in the universe as humans.  And what's more, one need not be a professor at an elitist university to make discoveries; anyone who is willing to apply their creativity can take part in the excitement of discovery and furthering the process of understanding our universe known as science. 

-Seth Commichaux

1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuneiform
2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0omo_-InUuE

January 5, 2015

Dogen and Me: Person, Perspective, Purpose and Place

Hello friends!
Seth has written another exciting blog that looks at poetry derived from Zen practice and its ability to help us connect to the world and each other. This is a great topic! Forging personal and deep connections to both the human and non-human world is a very big piece of the environmental education puzzle.

We would love to hear from you on your own thoughts about how poetry and other forms of art cultivate a sense of place and connection! Please add your comments in the comment box.

USEE Staff

Lately I've been reading some of the poems and sayings of Dōgen.

He lived from 1200 to 1253 in the modern era.  Thought to be born an illegitimate child of a noble family, he was given up to a Buddhist monastery (which acted like orphanages, back then, for unwanted children in many cases) after his mother died at 7 years old.  He was influential in establishing the Soto school of Zen in Japan after studying it under master Rujing in China.

One thing I really like about Dōgen (as well as many other Zen poets) is that he practiced extracting symbolic profundity from any place and any moment by just being aware of what was outside and inside himself, thereby dissolving the boundary between self and world until there were no distinctions.  Oftentimes, making connections between seemingly unconnected things leads to thought-provoking insights.
When my mind is free--
I listen to the rain
Dripping from the eaves,
And the drops become
One with me.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Steven Heine

Trying to observe the world and his thoughts as with a mirror, Dōgen captured the world in the art of poetry.  With just a few well-chosen words he expressed that the real world was mystical and mysterious because relationships could be found between all things, beings and times.

To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane's bill.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Steven Heine

Oftentimes, when I get bored with life it is because I have lost awareness of the things and beings around me and the relationships I share with them.  I have lost sight of the mysticism and mystery of just existing.  Dōgen and the Zen poets help my awareness extend beyond myself reawakening a sense of wonder that has a healing affect on my mind.  I don't know how such simple observations/insights captured in such few words can have this effect.
The migrating bird
leaves no trace behind
and needs no guide.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), translated by Robert Bly

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
It does not get wet nor can its image be broken.
Although the moon's light is wide and great,
it is even reflected in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Reawakened with a sense of place, I realize all of the amazing things in the environment around me.

"When snow falls,
a heron
uses its whiteness
to disappear."
--poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

"Do not ask where I am going,
For everywhere I step in this world,
I am home."
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Sometimes, we're so caught up in the reel of our own lives, we forget just how amazing, complex and vast the world and universe beyond really are and we forget just how many other beings on Earth and beyond are navigating their own lives in their own little bubbles.  How often do we live right pass one another?  Sometimes loneliness, fear, paranoia, hatred, and insecurity kill the realization of connectedness, interrelatedness and wonder; our perception shrinks to hardline dichotomies like self and other, good and evil, us and them.  We only see strong distinctions everywhere, our judgments become severe, we become disinterested in learning about our differences (losing opportunities to build bridges, losing the insights that come with different perspectives), we cease to believe that everyone and everything has something to teach us, we forget that we too are not perfect and have blind spots.

I won't even stop
at the valley's brook
for fear that
my shadow
might flow into the world.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator
In the spring wind
peach blossoms
begin to fall.
Doubt will not grow
branches and leaves.
-poem by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

But if we can re-center ourselves and reconnect with the moment, place and beings that we are sharing existence with, perhaps the world will seem less threatening, the differences that divide seem less alien, and the potential to transform it all in a constructive way will be greater than when all seems divided, antagonistic and in disarray.

"A fool sees himself and no other.  A wise man sees others in himself and himself in others."
-by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

Life is opportunity, but many opportunities can only be realized by seeing the world as it is rather than as we wish it to be.  Dōgen was just a human being, but his unique way of seeing and approaching the world was a great contribution to the collective perspective.  His flavor of Zen tries to connect a person with the world as it is, believing that such a connection will lead to many insights and truths.

"If you cannot find truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?"
-by Dōgen (1200-1253), unknown translator

I do not know if Dōgen is right in any absolute sense, but knowledge does not necessarily need to settle any questions of universal significance in order to help us learn and grow.  It is amazing enough that his art, after so many centuries, has helped me and others become more aware of the connection we have with the beings, things and time surrounding. 

With this deeper awareness comes the realization that if all beings are interconnected then so are their destinies.  Therefore a sense of responsibility grows that I work to better myself so that I can make my best contribution and that I help others maximize their potential so that they can make their greatest contribution, all working together towards a mutually better world.

Dōgen, seeking to discover a sense of place and connectedness through art led me to attempt the same.  Here is my Zen poem.  I encourage you to write yours.

When the cosmic wind loses its mind in a kaleidoscope tantrum
it blows a dust storm of time across the universe.

The trees on the side of the ever rising Mountain of Life,
keep pulling themselves higher by the root.

They hold fast to the underground network that sustains them.

Each one only perceives
their will against the world.....

Their focus solely on the stars,
who seem reachable in moments of inspiration,

but hopelessly far away
when in doubt........

How close must hardship bring us before we recognize that we are not alone?

=Seth Commichaux

December 15, 2014

The Search For Intelligent Life? Let's Think About This...

Recently, I was watching a series of lectures about the search for life in the universe. It kept my attention while talking about the 800+ new-found solar systems around other stars beyond our own. It seems likely that solar systems are very common in the universe, thus the question arises does life exist in those systems or is our solar system unique?

Actual photograph of planets around a star beyond our sun

Where the series lost me was when the presenter got to the subject of searching for intelligent life in the universe. He made it seem as though us humans were the only intelligence on Earth and perhaps the only intelligence in the universe. Of course, we humans assume we are the most intelligent because we exercise a lot of power on Earth, but this isn't much different than the monarchy thinking they must be smarter than all the peasants because of the power they have over the peasants (it's funny because when I think of all of the great thinkers, artists and scientist over the ages, hardly one was a king or queen). Power doesn't necessarily equate with intelligence and there's a certain arrogance about humanity that has left a trail of disproven claims that should be remembered when ever we make great claims about our superiority. Claims such as the universe was specially created for humans, we must be at the center of the universe, must be the center of the solar system, humans must have the biggest genome with the most genes, we must have the biggest brains, the biggest brain to body ratio, the most neurons, the most brain folds, must be the only tool users, the only language users, the only species with culture, the only species that can learn, the only species that has a sense of self, the only species with emotions, the only rational/non-instinctual species, the only species with a soul. All of these claims have been disproven, but we still hang on to the idea that humans must be superior to all other living things in some way. And so we stare out into the universe looking for "intelligent" life as though, besides humans, the world was just plain full of dummies! I would contend that "intelligent" life is not as rare or elusive as we might think and our search for it in the universe need not lead us far.

What the search for "intelligent" life needs is a reformation over what "intelligent" means. Einstein might have been a brilliant physicist, but he wasn't a gifted farmer. And in order for there to be people who can spend their whole lives thinking about what happens to objects when they're travelling near the speed of light, there must be people who perfect agriculture to the point that they can grow enough produce for teachers to teach children math and science, professors to teach adults higher level math and science, researchers who do the experiments, mechanics and engineers who build the equipment to perform the experiments, and theorists to guide the direction of experimentation, etc., etc., etc. In other words, in order for scientists to perform at their most intelligent level, you need farmers to perform at their most intelligent level. By this configuration, Einstein's genius is worthless without there being genius farmers to support his thinking lifestyle. If Einstein had to grow his own food, it's unlikely he would've come up with Relativity. Thus, intelligence, too, is relative and multiple intelligences are necessary for everyone to maximize their potential.

Extrapolating this argument to the search for "intelligent" life besides humans, we must remember that most of the processes that make Earth a habitable place are not performed by humans. The production of oxygen for us to breathe, for one example, is done by plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria.

Cyanobacteria: photosynthetic bacteria.

If humans went extinct, those plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria would live on just fine without us, but if they went extinct we'd go extinct right alongside them. So what's necessary isn't for all organisms to aspire for human-like intelligence, but for each organism to become more intelligent in its own way. If the whole body was a brain it would die. The brain requires the work of the heart, lungs, immune system, digestive system, legs, arms, etc., etc., etc., in order to be specialized in receiving information, interpreting signals, and sending out commands. Thus, it isn't possible that the brain is the superior organ, for it is only as effective as the rest of the body.

Einstein's physics intelligence isn't superior to farmer's intelligence. Farmers would much more readily survive without physicists than physicists would survive without farmers. So what's really necessary is for all members of society to become more intelligent in their own way and better at what they do, so less people are forced to labor where they have the least to offer. Is the world better when everyone is forced to be a subsistence farmer or is it better when farm intelligence makes it possible for only a few to farm, and the rest are freed up to pursue other work?  Societies are not built with the intelligence of one occupation or one individual, but the collective interrelating of many kinds of intelligence.

In terms of the environment, humans can only be as effective as the rest of the beings on Earth make the environment conducive for what humans do. If bees, other insects, bats, and birds, ceased to pollinate our crops and we had to pollinate every flower ourselves to eat.....we'd starve.  If earthworms, fungi and other decomposers weren't constantly at work breaking down corpses and carcasses, the world would become a heap of bodies with no soil for plants to grow in and no free nutrients for bacteria to reintroduce in usable forms into the biosphere.

So rather than considering ourselves superior to the world, using it like a stepping stone to some fairy tale encounter with extraterrestrial "intelligent" life, condescendingly looking for "intelligent" life at great distances while ignoring all the intelligent life that surrounds us on Earth, maybe we had better realize that if humanity is to survive, it will require the collective intelligence of all beings working towards a sustainable planet. Maybe humanity is the frontal cortex of the world, but without a smart and effective rest of the body, the whole person dies.

Maybe we should be grateful that there are bacteria who are intelligent in a bacteria-kind-of-way, and plants who are intelligent with a plant-specific-intelligence, etc., because it is a diverse, collective intelligence that makes Earth a habitable planet. Humans by themselves, would be like a brain in a jar. It takes a body, with trillions of cells who know what they need to do, and trillions of cells who perform all of the essential functions of the body, in order for the brain to maximize its potential in the form of a person who works on and wonders at the world.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, it takes many species, great and small, all with their own roles, and all of them striving to fulfill those roles in order for the world to be the place of learning and living that it is.  So perhaps rather than searching for "intelligent" life elsewhere, maybe we should work on recognizing and respecting the diverse kinds of intelligence that already surround us everywhere on this spaceship planet spinning through the cosmos.

-Seth Commichaux

November 19, 2014

Part I: The Evolution of Public Education in the United States

Hello USEE blog readers! We hope you enjoy this new blog from our dedicated volunteer writer, Seth Commichaux. In this post, Seth explores the origins of public education in our country. Though this is not a direct discussion on environmental education, we find this relevant to the larger discussion of education!

The founding fathers of the United States might have been progressives and intellectuals for their time, but the average American at the birth of the new nation was illiterate and few foresaw the importance and value educating the masses would come to have in the coming centuries.  As a result, education (much less a free and publicly paid for education) was never listed as a fundamental right in the constitution of the United States and as such a battle has been waged ever since over who should be educated, what should be allowed to be taught and who should be able to teach that information. 

Pre-Revolution the average person in the United States would never receive an education.  Save for living in a few progressive and large cities who mandated free education for white boys, the only real chance they had at getting a good education was by being born to wealthy and powerful parents.  Elites, realizing the power over people and access to the world (and thus to greater opportunity) that came with being able to read and write, readily had private schools with good teachers built in their towns for their children to go to or hired qualified tutors to teach their children at home, but for the average person in the United States a life of farming, manual labor or domestic labor was their only future.  In other words, realizing that knowledge was power, education was reserved by the elites for elites to preserve the status quo. 

But after the Revolutionary War, politicians began to see the necessity for building a unified culture, with national ideals, and an American story that would make the separation from Old Europe complete.  School was seen as a forum for making patriots and a new culture.  Thomas Jefferson, perhaps motivated by more of a social conscience, felt that the United States needed to lead a crusade against ignorance to fulfill its promise of freedom through democracy.  He said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be........The future of a democracy depends on the education of its people."  He felt that genius was not just a product of aristocracy and that a democracy's survival hinged upon an educated public who were free to make informed decisions on their own.  It was his belief that each American had a stake in the course of a democracy and thus each citizen should be willing to invest in the education of all of its citizens (save women and minorities, of course).  Shedding light on the nature of the times, Thomas Jefferson thrice introduced a bill that would guarantee just 3 years of free, public education and thrice it was voted down, many claiming it was too much of a tax burden.  An insightful critic noted something nearly as true then as it is today, "People have more feeling for canals and roads than for education."

It would take over a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson would get his way, but in the meantime the seeds of public education were planted in the United States and it has been evolving ever since. 

Early public schools were more like local army barracks for small people rather than places of personal development and centers of knowledge for the young and growing.  Often it was nothing more than a small wood building with a dirt floor where kids aged 5-15 were brow-beaten by a single teacher into memorizing passages from the bible.  In the early 1800s, teachers were most often men and discipline, morality and hygiene were bigger topics of study than were math, science and literature.  It wasn't unusual for teachers to have as little as a 5th grade education themselves.  But, beginnings are beginnings.  At least when you start you create a baseline from which you can learn and progress.  And public education has seen a lot of progress since its birth. 

Slowly, but surely states began to better fund and create the infrastructure for public education and more children started to go to school.  In the 1840s after a series of debates in New York City over whether religious schools should be funded with public money, public education began to take a more secular path as it was realized that there wasn't enough money to go around to fund every single religion's separate school and agenda, nor was it democratic to fund institutions with public money that professed ideologies that not all taxpayers adhered to.  In addition, strong arguments resonated about the divisiveness of religion in the public sphere due to the vitriolic conflicts between Catholics, Protestants, Jews and other religious groups who felt their children shouldn't have to endure the evils of a secular education.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, on the side of secularists, made the case for a more secular morality, saying, "The heart needs something to rest upon.  And if it is not God, it will be the world." 

Around the same time, strong voices like that of Horace Mann began arguing that education was the means by which a fairer society with a leveler playing field could be created.  Education, especially a free, public education was the key to freedom, excellence, social mobility and a guard against the rise of elitism, nobility, and the bourgeoisie.  He also felt that public schools should be the place that civic virtue was taught and a sense of civic duty instilled as well as a place where people could build character if their family upbringing was lacking in such training.  Travelling to every school in the state of Massachusetts while secretary on the first ever created school board of education, he saw the great discrepancies in funds, number of teachers to students as well as level of experience and expertise, school supplies, etc.  As a result of seeing such great discrepancies in the administration of public education he called for there to be a common curriculum to better ensure that everyone was receiving a quality education.  He also called for teaching as an occupation to professionalize by requiring teachers to receive more rigorous training.  In addition, he fought for there to be a wider curriculum, better teacher pay to attract individuals of higher quality, and for better social conditions for he believed that poverty and prejudice prevented public education from being as effective as it could be.

With the coming and going of the Civil War, education became a symbol of freedom especially because denying people the right to an education was a key element in maintaining their bondage.  Important figures like Frederick Douglass articulated that it was knowledge that brought the realization of the absolute immorality of slavery upon them.  It was an education that made them aware of the in-humaneness and manipulations of others and gave them the courage to fight injustice.  Frederick Douglass, a man who ran to freedom pre-Civil War said, "Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.......once you learn to read you shall forever be free."  In his autobiography he talked about the time he finally realized that education was the key to empowerment and freedom.  Ironically, it was the man who was exploiting him who revealed the power of ignorance in controlling people, "Learning would spoil the best [expletive] in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that [expletive] (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. (6.3)

With some progress made, post-Civil War,for some minority groups in America, yet another oppressed class began to find its voice......women.  Catharine Beecher and many other women and supporters of women's rights began to take on the prejudiced views that held that women were intellectually inferior to men and incapable of being employed in any serious occupation because of their fragile, emotional natures.  Beecher went to school, but was mostly taught domestic arts and manners rather than any intellectual subjects.  Undeterred she taught herself math, latin and philosophy and became determined for life that women should receive a more intellectually rigorous education.  Catharine Beecher paved the way, against great opposition, for women to gain access to an occupation traditionally held by men, teaching.   Arguing that men were too harsh and prone to corporal punishment to be effective communicators of information, and that because women were mothers they were the most qualified to be the nurturers and teachers of the next generation.  Her efforts to raise awareness for the need for educators in the frontiers, and that women could best fill those positions, led to the archetypal woman teacher arriving in some small western town to exorcise it of ignorance.  This allowed many women to escape the trap of unwanted marriages and to attain some level of autonomy and respect within their communities as single women or working women.  Additionally, the women's rights movement of the late 1800s also advocated for and won many more public dollars for the education of girls and women in public schools

In 1870, the USA had 7.6 million students enrolled in public schools and taxpayers spent $63 million a year on them.  In 1890, there were 12.7 million enrolled with a public expenditure of $141 million.  At this point America had more children in school and spent more money on education than any other country in the world (probably contributed to the rise of America's power, don't ya think?).

With the constant evolution of public education to incorporate disenfranchised groups and the greater belief in the mass's ability to be educated, the theory of public education also evolved a more powerful rationale.  Alfred Adler argued that public schools should help people overcome their backgrounds and equalize access to opportunity.  One's family, culture, sex, appearance, socioeconomic status, etc. should not be the pre-determinants of one's future.  Public education became a symbol for creating a utopian meritocracy where one's destiny was not determined by their past, but by their efforts.  It was argued that taxpayers should not just take an interest in the welfare and future of their own children, but in the welfare and future of all of society's children.

By 1900, about 50% of children aged 5-18 were in public schools and they received an average of 5 years of schooling.  It was around this time that Thomas Jefferson's wish was finally granted and compulsory, publicly-funded, primary school became law in the United States.  It coincided with the Progressive Era when sentiment was running high to abolish many forms of child labor.  In many ways, compulsory education replaced child labor.  John Dewey advocated around this time for a more child-centered education, believing that every child had talents that could make a meaningful contribution to society.  He was also a big believer in the capacity of science to enlighten and experimentally-based education to help people be more reality-based in their world outlook and approach to problems.  On education he remarked, ""education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction".  Dewey strongly felt that education should be interactive....not passive.  And that public schools should be centers for raising social awareness and letting people experiment with movements.

Because the late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of great industrial development in the United States and also a time that saw great unrest and protest amongst exploited laborers, it was also a time during which there was the definite influence of the worker's movement in the curriculum.  It was thought that public education should make scholars out of workers and workers out of scholars.  It also became more common for public schools to focus more on training people to get a job rather than on educating them to more intellectual pursuits.  This correlated with the introduction en masse of intelligence tests that were often misused as ways to fast track people to their "career."  If your IQ was low, you were on the fast track to becoming a tradesman.  If your IQ was high, you were on your way to becoming an engineer.  This IQ railroading introduced an intellectual caste system where people of "high intelligence" deserved the best pay and to become doctors and lawyers, whereas those of "low intelligence" deserved low pay and to work in the more dangerous arenas of unskilled or skilled manual labor.  Such simplistic diagnostics that determined the fate of individuals so early on didn't seem to trouble enough people for attitudes to change about the legitimacy of such test results for decades to come.  And there was a definite undertone of racism about the results which tended to fast track many minorities to low pay, manual labor jobs, not because of lower intelligence, but because of language and cultural barriers as well having to start from a position of disadvantage in American society because of prejudice, socioeconomics and a general lack of opportunity, exposure and support.  It was around this time that progressive educators began to realize that factors such as low self-esteem due to the effects of social stereotypes and prejudices as well as coming from the stressful background of poverty and disempowerment could result in lower performance without necessarily having any bearing on the true intelligence of the individual.

In 1900, only 6% of people had a high school diploma.  In 1940, about 40% did.  In 1950, only 28% of people with disabilities were enrolled in school.  The slow evolution of public education continued.  It got a boost in terms of support and funding with the start of the Cold War and the Eisenhower administration's National Defense Education Act which prioritized the need for a well educated public as essential for National Defense.  But it was really the Civil Rights Movement that saw the next dramatic shift in the aims and philosophy of public education.  For too long, in a country that espoused freedom and equal opportunity as it ideals, there were great inequities in access to education and opportunity and thus freedom and quality of life enjoyed.  Public education was segregated, not equitably administered and was not the equalizing factor that it had set out to be.  The poor, the disabled, the disenfranchised, minorities and women were still waiting and fighting for their chance to fulfill their potential. 

The Civil Rights Movement was a stride forward for all people in terms of quality of life, equality of treatment and access to opportunity as well as public education.  The Civil Rights Movement also changed the curriculum towards a more socially aware and culturally diverse one where people of all kinds, shapes and colors were recognized for their contributions and achievements.  In 1950, only 13.7% of African Americans received high school diplomas.  By 1980, about 51.4% did.  In 1950, only 0.0095% of medical and law degrees were awarded to women.  By 1980, 30% were.  In 1950, the average adult in the USA had 9 years of education (8th grade).  By 1980, it was 12.5 years, almost all school-aged children were enrolled and there was an 80% high school graduation rate.

The Civil Rights Movement was the culmination of a 100 years of struggle for rights since the Civil War and one of its major achievements was the passing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which was the strongest and most sweeping legislation yet passed to promote taxpayer funded education for everyone.  It was a statement that all people in a society have a stake in the future of everyone's children because the it a well-educated public that promotes a just and fair democracy that ends up improving everyone's quality of life.  The bill established the federal government's role in funding primary and secondary education for everyone, especially the disadvantaged.  It aimed to shorten achievement gaps by providing fair and equal opportunities to achieve an exceptional education.  It provided funding for the disabled, minorities and the poor.  It provided funding for bilingual education programs which helped children who didn't speak English as their first language not get railroaded to manual labor jobs against their will.  Too often these children were considered non-intelligent and unfit for any occupation but low-wage, unskilled labor, when the real issue was the cultural and language gap......not a lack of intelligence.  Acknowledging that student achievement decreases as school poverty increases and that poverty in general leads to lower student achievement, the bill sought, through taxpayer funding, to overcome these disadvantages by allocating more funds and materials to fulfill the American promise of equal access to opportunity.

Starting with the 1980s there was a move away from public education towards homeschooling, charter schools and private schools.  The people of the world were becoming connected, motivations were becoming more business-driven/profit-driven; education began to see more pressure from the bottom line; concerns moved toward the economy and away from social progress; competition became an ideal and the marketplace was crowned king.  Due to the perceived, overriding importance of economics, the Ronald Reagan administration began to emphasize the importance of standardized testing for measuring the quality of education going on at public schools nationwide.  Such grading of public school performance by standardized testing, resulted in the federal government being able to  withhold funds if there wasn't improvement.  Of course, this gave a mixed results as schools began teaching students "to the test" so as to avoid financial hardship.  This logic was counter to that as found in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act because it sought to punish failing schools with more austerity rather than to provide more funding so that struggling schools could invest in better material and teachers.  Financial punishment for not performing has led to less funds, the lay off of teachers and the reduced capacity to invest in materials for many schools who would benefit from such investments. There was also the rise of the school voucher system which supported "choice" in the education market with more private schools, charter schools and homeschooling. 
In 2002, the number of students in public schools was at 47.8 million, but the percent of children enrolled in public schools had fallen to ~90%.  Today there are about 98,817 public schools, 6,187 charter schools, 7,110 catholic schools and 33,366 private schools in the United States.  There are about 3.3 million full-time, public school, primary and secondary level teachers, 72,000 charter school teachers and about 0.4 million, full-time, private school, primary and secondary level teachers.  There are about 54,876,000 students enrolled in K-12.  49,484,181 attend public schools; 1,941,831 attend charter schools; 1,508,000 are home schooled; 2,031,455 attend catholic schools; and 5,488,000 attend private schools.  The total funding of public education costs about $597,485,869,000 with the following breakdown.
  • Federal: $75.99 billion (12.7% of total)
  • State: $259.8 billion (43.5% of total)
  • Local: $261.7 billion (43.8% of total)
I hope to have shown that the public education system has greatly progressed since the illiterate pre-Revolution America.  It has not always been a perfect nor ideal evolution, but to lose faith in public education is to desecrate the enormous strides that have been made and dishonors the enormous efforts, in the face of stiff opposition, many educators have made so that ALL Americans could be better educated and thus freer, more empowered, and standing on nearer-to-equal ground to access opportunity.  The question now is where we will take this great project of public education in the future.

Soon, I hope to write another installment of this blog, talking about more modern issues and debates surrounding public education using the historical backdrop I've outlined here. 

-Seth Commichaux

Sources Cited:
School: The Story of American Public Education.  Film Series.  Films for the Humanities.  Sarah Mondale and Sarah Patton.
The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession.  Dana Goldstein.  2014.