Cultural Splintering and Education

The notion that every child ought to attend a school based on their ZIP code has always struck me as running against the cultural grain.

In no other area of American life are most people simply expected to accept a lack of alternatives. Even in politics, where people bemoan facing a “binary choice,” at the very least there are usually two choices, sometimes more.

Education as a monolith feels even more anachronistic given the cultural issues driving so much public angst, from critical race theory to sexualized literature in school libraries. Finding a satisfactory consensus over such issues would be difficult even if our culture hadn’t become so splintered during the past few decades. But it has.

One illustration of that splintering is in what we watch. In 1983, the final episode of “M*A*S*H” drew almost 106 million viewers, nearly half the nation’s population at the time. No TV program besides the Super Bowl has come close since. Consider the three most-watched series finales aired after “M*A*S*H”: The last episode of “Cheers” 10 years later just cleared 80 million; “Seinfeld” five years after that topped 76 million; “Friends” in 2004 hit 52.5 million.

Those three all had enjoyed at least one season as TV’s top-rated show, unlike “M*A*S*H,” and the country had added 60 million people by the time “Friends” ended its run. Yet their viewership was smaller. What happened along the way was the proliferation of cable TV (choices) followed by streaming (even more choices).

I mentioned the Super Bowl. A chart recently made the rounds on social media, showing 75 of the 100 most-watched TV shows last year were NFL games. A regular-season contest between the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – a blowout that wasn’t even played in primetime – beat out every network sit-com, drama or news program.

Most commenters interpreted the chart as NFL dominance. But most games on the list drew smaller audiences than leading sit-coms routinely attracted a few decades ago. Perhaps it’s just that no other cultural offerings galvanize Americans with any success.

Now, what does this cultural splintering tell us about education?

First, it reflects the popularity of niche offerings. There’s a show for everyone on Netflix, Prime TV, Apple TV Plus and other streaming services, not to mention dozens of cable channels for those who haven’t cut the cord. But not everyone is watching the same thing, nor do they want to.

Similarly, there are lots of different approaches to education, and not only when it comes to the controversies. Reading, math and other basics can be taught in different ways. Some schools go heavy on technology, while others shun it. No one would put up with watching whatever Netflix happened to play when they turned on their television – or, to emphasize the point, their phone or tablet. Why should education be any different?

Second, it tells us people probably aren’t approaching the controversial topics with even the same set of facts, much less the same attitudes. A couple of colleagues who 35 years ago could have shared a laugh at the watercooler about Cliff and Clair Huxtable’s latest escapade will have to find some other common ground when one of them is binging “Ted Lasso” and the other “Bridgerton.”

Now extrapolate that cultural splintering to what people read, the podcasts they listen to, and so on. Is it any surprise one group thinks critical race theory is about ensuring students learn about slavery, and another understands it as warmed-over Marxism pitting “oppressor” against “oppressed”? Should we really expect the side that doesn’t get its way to merely put their protest signs away and move on?
The splintering of our culture – in art, religion, entertainment and so many other ways – demands a pluralism that allows various factions to co-exist. With the culture wars very much active in education, we shouldn’t expect it to work out any other way. An approach that allows families to choose the best option for them is our best bet.

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