“The establishment of graduate schools of education and escalation within the education profession resulted in educationists gaining control of the schools. Before this happened it was believed that a teacher was someone who could understand those not very good at explaining and explain to those not very good at understanding. Today the educationist is someone who can take an easy subject and make it difficult.

“When educationists gained dominance of the schools they convinced the teachers that their promotion policy was psychologically unsound. The educationists favored a plan called social promotion, in which the competent as well as the incompetent were promoted. Standards declined. Remedial reading courses became a necessity in universities and ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ became a top-rated television program.”

— Laurence J. Peter, “The Peter Prescription” (1973)

Laurence J. Peter is much better known for “The Peter Principle” than for his criticism of public education in America. (The Peter Principle says, in brief, that members of a hierarchy tend to be promoted to a level consistent with their own incompetence. Proof of this would seem to be a given were one to consider the performance of those currently serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and perhaps more particularly in the White House. But this is another story for another time.)

Everyone must surely know that public education in America is a national disgrace, despite the fact that more money is spent on it here than anywhere else in the world. Somewhere along the line our education establishment has gone astray. That this is so is reflected in the poor standing of our schools relative to those in other developed lands that spend far less per pupil on public education.

U.S. public schools once ranked first. Now, especially in math and science, they rank near the bottom. Why is this so? Why have we permitted this to happen? It would take a book, a large one, to craft definitive answers to these questions, and were they given they would assuredly step on a great many toes and anger many who will not accept the fact that policies and programs they have built careers promoting simply do not work very well.

But let me make a start by suggesting just a few reasons why a country that for many years took inordinate pride in its universities, its colleges, its scientific and artistic achievement, its leadership in so many fields of endeavor, should now almost in the same breath be forced to acknowledge that America is failing to properly educate its children.

If I were to point to just one thing that stands out above all others for the failure of public education today, it would be the failure to ensure classroom discipline, discipline imposed at the hands of those to whom it traditionally belonged — the teacher. I have written before on these pages about my own experience many years ago in a one-room country school, and the remarkable woman who taught 30 or more students in grades one through eight in that one room.

How did she do it? Well, to start with, she didn’t put up with any disruption in the classroom. None. When necessary (it was seldom necessary more than once with any one child), she disciplined malefactors when they needed it, shaking little ones and cuffing behind the ears the others.

Today that teacher would not last a week. Lawyers and aggrieved parents would descend on her like a cloud of locusts. The educational process in that one-room country school would be forever altered. And, believe me, not for the better.

A second thing I think inherently destructive of public education in our country is the near disappearance of neighborhood schools. We now see huge complexes — “campuses” school administrators call them — springing up in their place.

These are incredibly expensive to build and operate. They often require children to get up in the dark to ride buses to schools many miles away from their homes. Sure, these schools provide many things the old neighborhood schools never did — breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner. Wonderful recreational facilities, labs, computers, etc. Everything I suspect except that which they are meant to provide — adequate preparation for life after graduation.

One last thing I think worth considering. We read and hear so much these days about the failure of public schools to give students a good education in math and science. We live in an age when science and technology are changing so fast that what is being taught in these fields almost certainly will be obsolescent long before those being taught it move on to higher education or employment.

What is the most valuable thing graduates should take with them when leaving the public schools?

My take on that is what they need most are disciplined brains that have been taught to think and solve problems, brains capable of reacting to changed circumstances and challenges in the new world they are about to enter. Equally valuable, however, is a knowledge of the old world they are leaving.

A solid grounding in the liberal arts, a Shakespeare sonnet committed to memory, a sure grasp of U.S. and world history — these are the things that are forever. Everything else is subject to change.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.