I've been getting copies of this meme a lot lately, and regret that if anyone needs to don a dunce cap, it's mostly the people who endorse this view. Here's why:
No one has ever been able to find where Sobran (1946-2010), a former Buckley protege at National Review, said or wrote this, so we can't back up to his 100-year mark with precision. But we can see that, before America entered World War I, only about 20% of American kids 15-18 were in high school, and only 10% graduated. You didn't need Greek or Latin if you'd already entered the labor market's biggest employers, farms and mills. The classics were the reserve of the elites.
In “From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present” (2000), Jacques Barzun confirms the point. Discussing the reform campaigns of Horace Mann, he wrote: “In any event, Mann’s conception should be judged in light of the social and political conditions of the 1840s. Children were counted on to help the farmer, who saw little good in book-learning, and public money for schools was not popular with legislators.” Even today we cling to a farm-season school calendar and basic school funding drawn from the crochets and whimsies of school boards and legislators. This, Sobran said, is as it should be. If you live in a state that wants to pay for a crap public school system, the Founders left that up to you. If you can’t get your fellow citizens to pony up more, well, tough.
Nor have the feds any business trying to level things out from state to state. This annoys conservatives to no end. “As a matter of fact, none of the delegated powers of Congress — and delegated is always the key word — covers Social Security, or Medicaid, or Medicare, or federal aid to education..,: Sobran declared.
Nor should we forget that, in Sobran’s golden age, black people barely got an education at all.
I don’t know what the data said back when Sobran didn’t write the meme, and I doubt Sobran knew, either, or cared, but in 2014 twice as many college students were put in remedial math courses than in ones for deficiencies in English. That doesn’t seem to say much about the loss of Greek or Latin.
Nor does his “quote” say anything about how many remedial English students today are ESL students. In 1910, 23% or about 3 million out of the 13 million foreign-born individuals 10 years of age or older were unable to speak English (compare with 7% in 2000). Were those students learning English by way of the Greek and Roman classics? No: the law simply provided that no language was to be spoken or taught in school but English. Students were submersed in English-only classrooms without any accommodations. Newcomers were often placed in 1st grade classrooms regardless of their age, causing many early dropouts. Intelligence testing in English led to the disproportionate placement of immigrant children in special education classes. It was not until after World War II, when there was universal agreement the amends for uprooting tens of millions of Americans and placing them in uniform was giving them an education when they came home, that education standards moved from the private, elite learning for the elites, and catch-as-catch-can for everyone else.
Once that premise was accepted, as part of the adjustment of new realities in new times, how would one rationalize not adapting to newer realities in more recent times? If assistance with mastering college level English is needed, is it cheaper, and more consistent with American values- to provide it, or reject those students, risking the increased probabilities of reduced success in later life, and more dependence?
On a related point, how do you quantify Sobran’s “quote” to give it meaning? Should we regret the passing of dead language instruction because it had universal value and, where once all got it, none now do? How much remedial instruction goes on in colleges today? And since remediation courses are non-credit, what does it say about the overall quality of a college education except that it has the potential to enhance it?
Sobran was not a fan of public education. He called himself “a typical victim” of it. In one of his Sobran’s Monthly articles, he declared, “Our ancestral voices have come to sound alien to us, and therefore our own moral and political language is impoverished. It’s as if the people of England could no longer understand Shakespeare.”
Never mind that in 1997, Sobran published a book “proving” all of Shakespeare’s work was really the work of the Earl of Oxford.
Sobran started as a "paleoconservative", railing against government ever doing anything for the first time; stood for an isolationism that makes Rand Paul look like Lindsey Graham, and demanded a level of keyhole-peering and moral regulation to delight Savonarola.
He segued through an Ayn Randian phase (her atheist bushwah, somehow, send a thrill up his very Catholic leg). Sobran managed to go so far off the deep end in his antipathy to Israel that Buckley fired him (Sobran insisted it was nothing personal: "Nobody has ever accused me of the slightest personal indecency to a Jew"). While insisting he was not a Holocaust denier, he spoke at events organized by one of the leaders of the movement, David Irving.
He came to believe that virtually every act of the US government after 1865 was illegal, and argued that the Constitution itself was the rules of order for criminal syndicate. The Articles of Confederation he could live with, but only until 2002, when he declared himself an anarchist. He died in 2010.
Ann Coulter has called Sobran the world's greatest writer; Patrick J. Buchanan was more stinting, reserving himself some laurels when he called Sobran one of the greatest columnists of his generation.
In our time, the 19th century view of public education seems to be coming back into vogue. Conservatives have, for decades, railed against schools and public education. They have vested interests in seeing it fail. In the South, they were happy to deny it to everyone to avoid integration; more recently they have resorted to defunding it- turning teachers into medicant props for corporations in school supply sales ad campaigns. As class sizes grow, and teachers aids are eliminated, results suffer. See! See? cry the naysayers. Public schools are a fail! Let’s shift tax money to charter schools and private academies. They can provide smaller classes and more student attention with the money we took away from public schools to show that they could not provide those helpful elements.
In election years, they can head-fake some interest in education: Thom Tillis, right after leading the charge to slash teacher funding, took credit for a 2014 teacher pay increase in his run for higher office. In 2015 the cuts picked right up where they were left. But one must remember these are conservatives who were all over common standards- teaching to the tests- as a guarantor of a populace at least well-enough educated to go work in a factory (Knowledge-based workers are to be avoided. They think too much, and vote wrongly.) When not even test-based education could get enough kids over the admittedly low bar common core plans set, they turned on it as a Washington-imposed mandate.
Teachers observe sound conservative economics: they leave states where they can’t get a decent salary for ones where they can, and where they- just maybe- will get a little less grief as a class from politicians who want to see them fail.
Moral of the story: when we pass along critiques of education without seeing if they are true, we call our own into question. And people may wonder if coming out as a Joe Sobran groupie means we buy into some of his other, verifiably held, and must less savory, ideas.