What it takes to build a culture of learning in America

logoby Gerard Robinson

 Every great nation has a deep appreciation for a culture of learning. It was true for ancient civilizations in Greece, Africa, Asia, and Mexico. It was true during the Italian Renaissance, as well as the Enlightenment movements in Europe and Scotland, both of which influenced a generation of revolutionary colonists to throw off the chains of English rule in favor of political freedom and, more importantly, ideological independence.

For more than 200 years America has remained the world’s most successful experiment in republican democracy partly because of its culture of learning. But our experiment in freedom is susceptible to decline, as it is with any great nation, if we lose our culture of learning. How do we keep it strong?

According to Kevin Chavous, one of the nation’s leading thinkers and education reform advocates, we need a new American revolution. The battlefields are not in Concord or Lexington but in classrooms from Compton to the District of Columbia.

In his new book, “Building A Learning Culture in America“, Chavous lays the groundwork for his manifesto:

We need an education revolution in our country. One that is designed to truly put the learning interests of children first. A revolution that makes it clear that most of the education issues being discussed are, at best, ancillary to ensuring that there are high-quality learning opportunities available for each and every American child.

Few would argue against the claim that all students deserve access to a high-quality education. Nevertheless, arguments about what it takes to deliver that high-quality education abound. Chavous knows these arguments intimately — partly from his tenure on the D.C. City Council from 1993 to 2005, but also as a founding member of Democrats for Education and Reform and as a board member of the American Federation for Children, a right-of-center reform group.

His call is more radical than this because he believes the central problem in American education lies beyond the process of delivering education to children.

Chavous knows reform literature and politics well, which is why his push for an education revolution requires us to do more than talk about reform in terms of school choice, more money, or better teachers. His call is more radical than this because he believes the central problem in American education lies beyond the process of delivering education to children. In his words, “the core of our problem lies with us—our values, our priorities, our culture, or rather, the lack thereof.” Chavous goes one step further by saying, “We need to change our culture before a true revolution can emerge.”

Any call to “change our culture” is met with hesitation. Why? Because the term “culture” has multiple connotations in American education history, mostly negative. One reason is because culture has become synonymous with race. This is particularly true for Native Americans. During the 1860s, for instance, the disgraceful “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” motto fueled an education reform movement that snatched thousands of Native American children away from their parents and placed them in boarding schools with the hope of instilling “better” cultural values.

Similar nationalist-inspired priorities fueled anti-Catholic bigotry that resulted in the enactment of Blaine Amendments in the 1870s that restricted the use of public funds to religious schools, and also targeted the children of Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants for “cultural improvement” in the early twentieth century. Of course, these are not the types of cultural revolutions Chavous has in mind.

For Chavous, a culture of learning is more philosophical than nationalistic. He believes parents and educators must first recognize and emphasize that all students can learn and thrive in a rich learning environment where high expectations matter and where resources are invested wisely. This mindset changes the culture of expectations for children. Are there examples of this mindset today? Yes. In fact, Chavous’ home city of D.C. is replete with examples of traditional, charter, choice and home schools that support a culture of learning. However, room for improvement remains.

Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). @gerard_924

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