Millions of American children are headed back to school even as a legion of students now descends on America's college and university campuses. The "back to school" season is now a familiar part of family life and an important marker in the business cycle. By any measure, education is big business, employing millions of teachers and administrators and representing a large segment of America's public investment. But, even as the new academic year begins, the edifice of American public education is showing its cracks all over again.  In reality, the system is largely in shambles.  How did this happen?

Until late in the last century, most Americans shared a clear understanding of the educational task. Students were expected to learn and to master basic skills including reading, composition, speech, mathematics, civics, history, and related disciplines. Accordingly, educational expectations focused on student performance as measured by tests, essays, term papers, and similar instruments. Teaching focused on the subject matter and its content. Students were expected to memorize when necessary, acquire a defined body of knowledge, and demonstrate the skills based in that knowledge.

Of course, the teacher was the authority in the classroom. Possessing the credibility of age, experience, knowledge, and expertise, the teacher's authority was unrivaled, and students were required to bring their expectations in line with the teacher's, not vice versa. The expectations of parents and the larger community reinforced the authority of the teacher, and the entire educational structure was designed in order to produce students who had acquired basic skills, basic knowledge, and were now prepared for greater challenges ahead.

All that has changed. Now, students often set the expectations in the classroom, and the teacher has been deposed as authority. Parents now treat teachers as hirelings who are expected to "facilitate" the "educational process." Education has been largely redefined in terms of an experience rather than student performance. This process-focused concept of education has largely eliminated attention to the classical disciplines of learning. In some school systems, this philosophy has now produced teachers who are instructed not to correct grammatical or spelling mistakes, because such correction would reinforce a "majoritarian" intolerance and might hurt the fragile self-esteem of their young charges.

Accordingly, the educational culture has been largely bureaucratized, with an army of assorted administrators focusing on minutiae and handing down dictates, far removed from classroom experience.

The erosion of authority in the classroom, the demotion of the teacher to a functionary, the replacement of process for performance, and the emergence of a vast educational bureaucracy are all matters of urgent concern. Nevertheless, all of these pale in consideration of a far more dangerous trend-the politicization of education itself.

During the last half of the twentieth century, the public schools were transformed from agents of education to agents of social change. The roots of this development go back into the early decades of the century, when the philosophy of John Dewey began to shape the education schools and teacher colleges. Dewey, a militant atheist and humanist philosopher, was one of the most influential proponents of pragmatism as the American philosophy. In Dewey's view, the schools should become the great engines for producing American citizens.

But Dewey's conception of citizenship was directly at odds with the values held by the vast majority of Americans, and certainly those held by America's parents. Dewey believed that the American experience in democracy--as understood through his radical vision--required that children be stripped of particularity and melded into the great monoculture he and his elitist colleagues would create. At least part of their concern was directed at ethnicity, with successive waves of immigration bringing children into the public school classrooms. Dewey wanted to make these students into his conception of Americans, leaving behind their identity as Irish, Italian, German, or Polish. But Dewey's vision did not end with the issue of ethnicity, for he also understood that students must be liberated from parental worldviews, prejudices, and expectations if the new democratic culture he envisioned was to emerge.