Be True to Your School
Ernest L. Boyer, High School, A Report on Secondary Education in America; Harper & Row; New York.
by Carlisle G. Packard
In 1955, two-thirds of Americans asked by a Gallup poll indicated that they would be willing to pay more taxes if the increase were applied to raising teachers’ salaries. In 1980, only 30 percent indicated such a willingness. Why? One reason is that Americans are more heavily taxed today than they were 25 years ago. The principal reason, however, is the decline in the quality of American education. As a result of this decline, standardized test scores for high school students have fallen steadily over the last two decades. Between 1963 and 1980 average verbal scores on the SAT dropped over 50 points and average math scores dropped nearly 40 points. High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America gives recommendations; for the reform of American education and thus attempts to reverse the decline in standards of contemporary schooling. Written by Dr. Ernest L. Boyer, a former U.S. Commissioner of Education, and funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, this volume is informative and invaluable for educators and citizens who are interested in educational reform. Dr. Boyer’s work is a complement to the National Commission on Excellence in Education report, A Nation at Risk.
The political activities of the 1960’s spawned two influential ideas about schooling. The first was opposition to “elitism,” which resulted in a refusal to define the attributes of an educated person. Who was to say that the sociology of sex roles was not as vital to understanding as the study of British literature or that John Milton was superior to Norman Mailer? This antipathy to elitism caused a crisis of resolve and undermined the standards of liberal education. Then there was the insistence on relevance, which eliminated much that was in the school curriculum and replaced it with contemporary trash which students could “relate to.” High School rejects these follies and defines a minimum high school education for all students, (college-bound and vocational), including English every year and at least two years each of math and a foreign language. This recommended curriculum is based on the premise that language is central to a decent education and a productive life.
While it is true that some students are better suited to a liberal education than others, this division should not be made too early. Literature is undoubtedly the best way to teach both literacy and morals, but it might be assumed that its appeal would be limited, especially with regard to impoverished, vocation oriented, and uninterested students. High School, however, provides examples that show that secondary education can be attained regardless of the student’s social background. This has been accomplished in some inner-city schools, written off by many, because principals have had the imagination to overcome parental apathy and teachers have had the courage to insist on high standards.
Some problems will not be readily overcome, especially those associated with money. Some of the recommendations in High School are very costly. For example, Dr. Boyer recommends pay increases of 25 percent beyond inflation over the next three years for teachers, and that they should have only four formal class meetings per day. Further, those who teach writing should have no more than 20 students per class as well as a reduced load so that they can feel free to assign much writing and have time to grade it. The list could go on. These are desirable conditions but, considering the present state of public funding, they are highly unrealistic.
Also troubling are the author’s repeated recommendations for Federal funding. He admits that “the impact of federal legislation and the courts on the daily operations of schools has been immense. Many districts have felt overwhelmed by the seemingly endless specifications, regulations, and detail.” Washington attaches many strings to its beneficence and is little afraid to direct the schools to be used as social laboratories, resulting in the degradation of the neighborhood school ideal.
Mr. Packard is a graduate student in Provo, UT.
Erika Holzer: Double Crossing; G. P. Putnam’s Sons; New York.
On a fairly regular basis, presumably provoked by historical necessity, the leaders of the Soviet Union see to it that tractor trailers are hooked up, tanks fueled up, and jets sent up. The objective is to regale the Soviet people—and the rest of the world—with the might of the ABM-1B Galosh antiballistic missile, the FROG missile, the Tupolev strategic manned bombers, and so on, as the weapons parade on and above Main Street, U.S.S.R. Given the facts that one Galosh weighs some 32,700 kilograms—or 72,000 pounds—and that military tank treads are harder on paved surfaces than the tire chains that are all but outlawed on U.S. roads, on might imagine that there are quite a few potholes along Moscow’s center strip. The Politburo leaders don’t seem to mind: it’s the price one pay to brag. The people probably don’t mind too much, either: after all, not too many of them go crushing around downtown Moscow in the cars that they don’t own, anyway. Besides that, which of them would complain? The roads in Siberia are ice-hard.
The Soviet parades of power don’t hide the fact that the ultimate recipients of the tons of steel, titanium, and uranium are not Afghan rebels, uppity China-persons, nor dissenting Poles; the payloads will be delivered in the U.S. Subtlety is not the Society’s long suit when it comes to pumping military iron. When they’re not singing praises about the parades, Pravda, Tass, and the other Cusinards of truth are accusing the U.S. of all manner of nastiness. If the U.S. was responsible for even half of the things that it is accused of being behind, then the American state would be omnipotent and the Soviets wouldn’t have a chance, Galoshes notwithstanding.
In the U.S., one dares not utter any remark that could be construed as indicating a sense of bellicosity against our Soviet foes (oops!). This is especially the case for elected officials. If Ronald Reagan pulled off a Tony Lama boot in the privacy of his own ranch house and pounded a table with it while muttering something about applying reverse archaeology to the Soviets, an abominable journalist like, say, Mr. Seymour Hersh would find out about it, and impeachment proceedings would be initiated, post haste. And while the “official news agency” in the Soviet Union can invent all kinds of bizarre stories about the CIA, FBI, etc., even writers of potboiler fiction in the U.S. seem compelled to be benign to the enemy in their novels. As soon as an Ivan or a Boris shows up, the reader can be certain to find a melodramatic rendering of a tough childhood on the tundra and a fulfillment of potential through service for the KGB. The American agent, contrariwise, will, even if he is the putative hero, tends to be the product of a spoiled upbringing.
An exception to this novelistic, tacit, party line comes from Erika Holzer in her Double Crossing. While her prose style, the plotting, characterization, and other formal elements are ordinary, her thesis is extraordinary—no, not her thesis, but her willingness to state a fact that everyone, both in the West and in the East, knows full well: that the Berlin Wall wasn’t built and subsequently fortified, on a regular basis, with offensive weapons pointing eastward—not westward—in order to halt the movement of lovers of the people’s utopia from heading into the German Democratic Republic and points beyond. To underline this fact, Holzer places one such starry-eyed dreamer behind the barbed wire, mines, attack dogs, and other deadly impediments and shows how anxious he is to get out. Moreover, the KGB agent and the DDR security colonel are shown to be psychological misfits; those who struggle for freedom are characterized as being normal. Ms. Holzer won’t win any writing awards for Double Crossing, but she at least deserves a medal for bravery.
Of Doughnuts and Decadence
Bernard Semmel: John Stuart Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue; Yale University Press; New Haven, CT.
Freedom is like a doughnut, characterized both by what is there, the cake, and by what is not, the hole. The hole in freedom is the freedom from—from persecution, from coercion, from imprisonment. The cake is the freedom for—for religion, for artistry, for family life, for education. For over two centuries, the dual dimensions of the American doughnut have made it the best in the world, enjoyed—generally with coffee—in churches, studios, bungalows, and schools. Over the past two decades, however, the doughnut most visible on the American scene has been mostly hole, defiant rebels have declared their freedom from practically everything—bourgeois morality, orderliness, tradition, courtesy, hygiene—without ever defining exactly what they were free for, other than VD, obscene slogans, and drug abuse. Though highly priced and loudly touted, this airy new pastry has demonstrated real disadvantages over its predecessors: for one thing, trying to dunk the new version is terribly frustrating because the hole is far bigger than most java mugs and the rim of cake falls into rancid crumbs at the slightest touch. Worst of all, household pets who eat the leavings that hit the floor end up very sick.
As a Victorian Britisher, John Stuart Mill was more accustomed to tea and crumpets than coffee and doughnuts. Nonetheless, those who have so perfidiously altered the character of the once-satisfying American paradigm have often claimed they got their recipe from him. Certainly the author of On Liberty never underestimated the importance of freedom from. However, Bernard Semmel convincingly demonstrates in his new study of Mill’s thought that Mill was actually a whole doughnut man, not a doughnut holer. By showing that Mill was fully committed to freedom for the self-cultivation of virtue, Semmel proves that he was “distinctly more conservative than he has generally been depicted” by those who remember only the negative part of his vision of ideal freedom. But as any lover of genuine freedom or good doughnuts knows, empty space should serve only to provide a grip for fingers holding on to better things. (BC)
Bud Shuster: Believing in America; William Morrow; New York.
Officially, the early-19th-century doctrine of Manifest Destiny, whereby the United States was divinely destined to expand triumphantly in geography, wealth, and influence, is very much out of intellectual favor. However, during the last two decades something like the mirror image of this doctrine has been popular among leading academics, journalists, and commentators, who fee; that because of its alleged racism, imperialism, and economic inequities America is inexorably fated to suffer international humiliation and domestic turmoil. Our victory in the Mexican-American War in the last century and our ignominious defeat in Vietnam ten years ago suggest that either version of this doctrine, if widely accepted, may fulfill itself as historical reality.
Having seen quite enough of neo-Manifest Destiny, Congressman Bud Shuster persuasively reminds us of the just and humane reasons for believing in something closer to the original formulation. Answering “the drumbeats of the negativists and nihilists,” he marshals hard evidence to demonstrate that in economics, in social mobility, in education, and in freedom, America is still the global leader, providing unprecedented opportunities for its own citizens and precious hope for all the peoples of the world. Nonetheless, future progress will require Americans to reserve some dangerous tendencies in government spending, in public education, in defense posture, and in cultural attitudes. Congressman Shuster’s emphasis on patriotic confidence as the key to all of these problems may make his book seem overly simplistic and therefore inferior to heavily footnoted works written from a different perspective. But too much intelligence informs this former computer expert’s fervor to dismiss it as mere sloganeering. Though the pedants promoting a destiny of decay try to obscure the fact, every analysis of the American ethos and its future, no matter how scholarly or rigorous, necessarily rests on unprovable premises requiring some leap of faith. Congressman Shuster would have Americans leap to yet higher ground; others would prefer that we all plunge into the abyss.
Of Marriage and Monticello
Jay Lewis: The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson’s Virginia; Cambridge University Press; New York.
What did Jefferson have in mind when he added “the pursuit of happiness” to the Declaration of Independence’s short list of inalienable rights? Critics such as George Will have charted a host of dire consequences arising from this peculiar, seemingly hedonistic phrase. Yet Jan Lewis, a historian at Rutgers University with a passion for old Virginia diaries, suggests instead that Jefferson may have been groping toward identifying and understanding a new sentimentality then taking root in America. In the four decades after the American Revolution, she argues, the pursuit of happiness led American men and woman home. Dying out was the old patriarchal family, focused on lineage and characterized by a rigid formality in parent-child relationships. Replacing it was a new domestic model, focused on love, the home, and children, where “family” became the central forum in which individual live found meaning.
Even among erstwhile Southern gentry, Lewis declares, new and recognizably middle-class values took root. As she writes:
Virginians who rhapsodized about the family were creating and reinforcing an article of faith for their society, a belief perhaps more central to their lives than any other. Surely, their ideal of family partook of myth …. Nonetheless, Virginians often found that the ideal of the perfect family was in fact the image of their own family.
The Americans so engaged joined with other inhabitants of the North Atlantic world “in refashioning the family for the modern age.” Men gave more attention to their wives and children. The new importance attached to the domestic sphere “necessarily enhanced the position of women.” The distinctive American family—that institution which so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville during 130’s—had been born.
In an age which sometimes rhapsodizes over the “strength” of “single parent,” “communal,” and “gay” families, this little volume reminds us just how far we have fallen. (AC)