We have forgotten that the proper function of the school is to transmit the cultural heritage of one generation to the next generation, and so to make them capable of absorbing ancient learning and applying it to the problem of its own day.– Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative, “Some Notes on Education”
Senator Goldwater expressed many points of view in The Conscience of a Conservative which I approach from a very different perspective, yet perhaps none as concisely as this one. He wrote this passage in the context of arguing that the federal government should divest itself entirely of involvement in education, leaving the matter instead to states and local school districts.
The transmission of cultural heritage from generation to generation happens naturally and effectively in the home, at religious and social gatherings, and as young folks interact with their communities. The unique value offered by a school is the opportunity for children and young adults to learn ideas and techniques which were unavailable to their parents. A child sent to boarding school in the 1820s might return as the first person in the history of the family who could read. A young man in 1870 who went off to a land grant college could return home two to four years later and teach his father and their neighbors newly developed techniques in farming. In 1900, a student could leave a town without electricity and pursue a degree as an electrical engineer, learning things in his senior year which were not known to the world when he arrived as a freshman. And in the 1980s and 1990s, my generation played with computers in our public school classrooms and went on to teach our parents, with varying levels of success, how to use the most crucial tool of the modern age.
Goldwater makes clear that he is arguing against John Dewey and progressive education:
Subscribing to the egalitarian notion that every child must have the same education, we have neglected to provide an educational system which will tax the talents and stir the ambitions of our best students and which will thus insure us the kind of leaders we will need in the future.Earlier in the book, Goldwater said that he was in favor of school integration (
In our desire to make sure that our children learn to “adjust” to their environment, we have given them insufficient opportunity to acquire the knowledge that will enable them to master their environment.
I believe that it is both wise and just for negro children to attend the same schools as whites, and that to deny them this opportunity carries with it strong implications of inferiority) but he didn't think the federal government should bring it about (
I believe that the problem of race relations… is best handled by the people directly concerned.). The belief that integration is desirable, yet it's fine if entrenched state political interests deny it, can be easily understood when Goldwater explains that his interest in schools is for the development of future leaders–and the unspoken conclusion that black children in the South would not be the future leaders of those states.
In the intervening half century the Dewey educational position, particularly the emphasis on adaptation to a changing world rather than mastering a static one, has been held widely in colleges and universities. Deans and chancellors are likely to craft mottoes like “preparing students for the challenges of tomorrow” and liberal arts departments emphasize that they teach critical thinking, not just classic knowledge. Yet in many locales primary school (which answers much more directly to local and state political pressure) is shifting away from a path where each generation knows more than their parents, requiring instead that children be taught the same misconceptions that their parents believe. The designated future leaders, of course, are still afforded access to accurate facts through private schools, thanks to their parents’ ability to succeed, whether through a privileged position or personal skill. One of the biggest failings of public education in the last two generations is that it’s funded and run at the local level while the rich and middle class have fled integrated areas, taking their tax revenue and school board engagement away from areas with poverty and students of color and into suburbs with higher school ratings. (There's a great two part piece from This American Life on this topic.)
 I’m using male pronouns in this discussion because secondary education was at that time overwhelmingly meant for men, another major failing of the traditional approach of schools whose goals were to educate a pre-screened set of future leaders.