The Common School and the Public Good

Commencement Address by President Anthony W. Marx

May 25, 2008

President Anthony W. Marx delivers the Commencement Address

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Congratulations to the Amazing Class of 2008:

You are now the heirs to the finest undergraduate education.  In you, the College celebrates being the most selective and the most diverse, qualities distinctly American and distinctly ours.  You have learned from the great Amherst College faculty and also from each other.  We do not create a Utopia here on this hilltop—that is not what we are here to do.  So you will have also learned about the flaws of our society here as well.    

But here at Amherst you have been shown a glimmering possibility: of a learned  community, engaging across social differences of all kinds.  We criticize ourselves, we debate how we might do better, even as we do better.  We are proud to see you work hard.  We hope you see the college as an example of right aspirations.  

Amherst, your college, began as a secondary school.  In 1815, the townsfolk here in the wilderness established Amherst Academy.  Then they decided to transform the academy into a college.  To return the favor, the college established what in this country then were called "common schools," which would become the public schools of our town.  At our founding, we understood we could not be a great college without great schools for all.

We also then dedicated ourselves to providing the finest education and to ensuring access to it, declaring it our purpose and in our charter to educate "indigent young men of piety and talents" for the service of their era.  Even then, we knew we had to develop talent from throughout society.    

Such a purpose connects to a deeply American belief.  In the words of John Adams: "A memorable change must be made in the system of education, and knowledge must become so general, as to raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher.  The education of a nation, instead of being confined to a few schools and universities, for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense, for the formation of the many."

A nation rises or falls on the discernment of its peoples.  We understand our democracy depends on fair participation by all, for which a common schooling provides the only foundation.  Our economy prospers only to the degree that people can develop their ability to be part of it. The American belief  in a better society through opportunity requires education.  And so, our schools determine our fate.  

What do we see when we look at our nation’s schools today?  Albert Shanker, an outspoken education leader, once said that the purpose of public schools is "to teach what it means to be an American."  Do our schools show that we believe in democracy?

How we allocate the nearly $600 billion per year we spend on education in this country answers that question.  In schools, more than anywhere else, how we treat people matters as much as what we tell them.  And so the lessons we teach about justice and opportunity lie in how much of a chance we actually provide to each child who comes in the door.  Our future is shaped by the values our children learn from us directly through the ways we treat them at school.  As Charles Sumner put it in 1849, arguing against segregation, "the school is the little world in which the child is trained for the larger world of life, beginning there those relations of equality which the constitution and the laws promise to all."

None of us want an unjust school system.  How to envision a just system, that maximizes the talent available to our society, is for me the easier question here.  Consider the perspective offered by American political philosopher John Rawls, in his  renowned book, A Theory of Justice.  Rawls proposes that we support only that society we would want if you and I were to enter it behind a "veil of ignorance"—unaware of our own gender, race, heritage, economic status, or even of whether we bear any disability.  Rawls envisions a society wherein the accident of birth does not limit that society's capacity to benefit from what each of us has to offer.  We must be satisfied only with a society in which any one of us might begin with that advantage.

In education, I think this implies two principles:  everyone must get a strong foundation, providing a running start for college.  And those who prove most talented should get opportunities to excel, providing leadership for our democratic economy.  

But a trap is embedded in these Rawlsian principles of justice.  When we fail to provide a basic education for all, then we fail to ensure that those of the greatest ability get the right opportunities.  The trap is sprung when we who do succeed, we fortunate few, falsely and self-servingly assume our success means that all is working, all is just.

America has, I fear, fallen away from its distinctive origins in the "common schools," which aspired to the Rawlsian ideal.  Instead, our nation's school system today has reduced itself more to Darwinian principles:  make it if you can, those already advantaged stand first in line, and we will accept widespread failure of basic opportunities as mere collateral damage.

But we have already seen how such unequal competition is not natural, does not spark our economy, does not advance our culture.  In 1966, James Coleman produced a landmark study of student achievement in American public schools.  Coleman found that student success depended not merely on adequate school funding.  That, and teachers, do matter.  But also, he found, so do peers. When poorer children are integrated into schools attended by middle-class students, rather than left segregated among other students of predominantly low-income families, then all students do well, and the schools as a whole succeed.  

Yet, since then, our nation seems to have decided that more investment in schools will not redress stubborn inequalities and enable more productive citizens.  We seem purposefully, and tellingly, to have instead focused on Coleman's findings as to the limits of our intervention.  We have lost sight of his stirring conclusion: social progress is uniquely possible through education, and thus it is essential.

The effect of our myopia is this: American public schools do not get enough funding to do their job.  It is as simple and as embarrassing as that.  Granted, money alone isn't enough and some is  surely ill spent.  But our classes are way too big, our teachers are severely underpaid, and the innovators among them go without additional reward.  This is a crime we commit against ourselves.  As a result of this catastrophe, fully half of our public school teachers quit the profession within just five years of starting out.  

The funding for our K through 12 system is by design regressive.  We base it on property taxes.  Schools nearest the wealthy get far more resources than those in poorer neighborhoods, which instead often need more, not less, to bring their students up to speed.  In America today we spend six times as much per student in the best funded schools as in the least.   This is an astonishing indictment and a violation of Rawls’ and America’s ideals.

But that is not all.  We also fail to create any national expectation of a minimum requirement for our school curriculum.  We are still stuck in the local, even as we become subject to global demands requiring national action.  And so local bureaucracy explodes, as is often the case when society really isn't sure what to do.  Teachers unions become more defensive.  And divergent state standards distort the efforts to compare achievement across states.  As scholar and activist Diane Ravitch described here on campus recently, what we have today is a false impression of progress based on a fascination with fake testing standards.  As we cheat ourselves in measuring results, we cheat our children out of adequate instruction.

The result is that America today is seeing a drop in educational quality.  Graduation from high schools is down.  Our schools have re-segregated by race, by class, and by outcomes.

But we have seen America rouse herself before.  To some extent, we cannot but change now as the ground beneath us moves.  The global economy requires that we do better.  A demographic shift reducing the number of those entering the workforce will require that more people learn to the best of  their abilities.  More people also are moving toward  urban centers, reversing America's suburbanization.  This will  force new thinking about how we pay for and organize our schools. Barriers of gender and race, of class, continue to be breached.

And so, especially in this year of pivotal national elections, we look for our political leaders to move beyond the cynical panderings and the accustomed divisions.  Public education often presents solutions, indeed, demands solutions, that do not lend themselves to such facile political categories.

Among innovative school districts across the land, possible models for progress in public education have emerged.  We do not yet know for sure which ones will work best.  But I am sure that parents' involvement in their children's schools will remain critical.  Let us tap that human impulse collectively, not selfishly.  School funding will have to be grown, spent more on actual instruction and spread more equitably.  Our economy will depend ever more on this.
And so, necessity, as well as Rawls's articulation of principles, America's founding principles, Amherst’s founding principles will compel us to better educate the nearly quarter of our children still living in poverty.  Coleman saw this too, stating succinctly that our schools succeed "only insofar as they reduce the dependence of the child's opportunities upon his social origins."  

Although we know we must do more than just improve how we fund our schools, the findings of Coleman and the scholars and activists who have followed him do offer new ideas and practices.  For instance, the work of Richard Kahlenberg shows how educational quality for all improves through the expansion of choice among quality magnet schools in poorer neighborhoods that attract middle class children.  One of our own honorands today, Geoff Canada, has shown us in the Harlem children's zone that a proactive, multi-service approach can turn young lives around.  Such studies and programs show how we can lead the changes we seek.

As solutions emerge, America's great colleges must also act.  For close to a century,  Amherst and our peer institutions have assumed we could skim the cream of the best students and ignore the decay of the broader educational system below.  No longer.  We must reach out.  We must help create those better schools we need.

Amherst faculty and students already do this to a strong extent.  Many of you have worked in local schools.  In the years ahead, many more will.  We anticipate paying for more Amherst students to intern in public schools.  Let work-study be work to help others study, as we learn also from teaching.  That will be truly historic, and set the pace for other colleges.  We will also continue to enable our faculty to work closely with teachers, for our mutual betterment.  

But our most significant contribution, the continued repayment for our founding as an institution, is now also you, our alumni, whether you go out to work in schools or work to improve them as part of your communities.  You follow thus in the footsteps of our very first student at Amherst College, Ebenezer Snell, who studied at the Amherst Academy, then at the college, returned to teach at the academy and then at the college.

When Amherst leads in this way, we do so partly from self-interest.  We cannot ensure the finest undergraduate education if we do not continue to bring here the best students from the widest possible array among the nation's schools.  We require this greater breadth to provide society with those leaders essential to the more complex, interdependent world ahead that you now enter.  No longer can we afford to perfect the top of the educational pyramid to the neglect of furnishing the base.

Ultimately, this call is simply a return to the vision of our founders.  They saw the college, the school from which it grew, and its society, as all of a piece.  Access to the best education is in our bones here at Amherst.  It is who we are.  George Harris, the seventh Amherst College president said a century ago, "This college is fatal to favoritism, for its principles are freedom and justice, the principles of fair play, the principles of democracy."

Graduates, carry forward this vision:  of expanded opportunity; of a deep appreciation, which you have obtained here, of all those quarters of life from which our leaders must arise.  

We expect you to create lasting changes.  As you grow in accomplishment, you will exert great influence.  As you become experts in your fields, you will inspire and guide companies, schools, teachers, students, the communities in which you prosper.

The new mission statement of Amherst College is not humble.  Perhaps some of you have never read it.  Better late than never, let me quote to you from it now:

"Amherst is committed to expanding the realm of knowledge.  Its graduates link learning with leadership, in service to the college, to their communities, and to the world beyond…. [so that you may] lead principled lives of consequence."

That is no small charge, class of 2008. If you hadn't learned it before, you have it here. You have it from us who look out at you now, proud to have been your teachers, even as you have inspired the pursuit of our mission.  You have it from the example of old Ebenezer Snell, the spirit of Amherst past and future.  So take a deep breath. Get ready. Go forth.

You are all teachers now.  Terras irradient.