In chapters 12-14, Hofstadter is moving into the history of American education. I find it rather heartening to know that since at least the Founding, if not even earlier, Americans have fiercely held to 4 uncomfortably juxtaposed notions:
1) Education is an absolutely critical tool for the advancement of our country. It wasn't always viewed as a tool for economic advancement and class mobility, but whether viewed as a means to republican virtue in the Founding era, technological superiority in the Sputnik era, or class mobility in the present, Americans have always believed that education will save this country.
On balance, that reverence for learning is a good thing, even if it does lead to unrealistic expectations.
2) Our education system is failing to accomplish its task. Students are dullards, they lack intellectual curiosity, they are ignorant of the world, etc. Today we lament that they don't know where Mexico is on a map; in an earlier era we lamented that they didn't know where the Austro-Hungarian Empire was. (Answer: Austria and Hungary. Duh!)
When you expect an educational system to groom the masses for the salvation of the country, I suppose it's inevitable that you'll be disappointed. Teachers have always had less ability to shape their charges than they (or anyone else) would like to admit. (Though if you read enough dystopian novels you might be somewhat glad that public school teachers are unable to mold the youth...)
3) Teachers are incompetent dolts of low character and little intellectual curiosity. Any idiot could do a better job than them. Laments about teacher quality are as old as public schools.
(To be fair, anytime I grade a freshman assignment I find myself ranting about the defects of k-12 teachers. I'm not saying that it's right, but when the frustration is raw and vivid...)
4) Paying teachers more and/or according them more markers of status and respect will not improve the schools. Then we wonder why the profession is (allegedly) full of incompetent dolts.
To be sure, there are reasonable arguments to be made that better pay is not the answer, but when you find yourself asking "Why are the smart people (allegedly) not going into this job?" you might well ask "What is the cost of talent?"
I actually find it reassuring to know that if things aren't any better than the past they at least aren't any worse. All of this has happened before and will happen again. So say we all.