“A motive fair to Learning’s imps he gave. . . . “
—William Shenstone

American education has never been in very good shape, so criticizing it now would be a redundancy, except for the fact that we are facing an increasing teacher shortage across the curricula and across all grade levels which shows no signs of abating. Concurrently, we are stuck in a legal impasse which nationwide keeps incompetents, frauds, and persons of questionable character in the classrooms with our children under the double ruses of tenure and academic freedom. Simultaneously, the starting salary of a teacher is about one-third that of a lawyer. Yet we claim to be interested in the educational future of the country.

Curiously, the top players in the Federal educational establishment today belong to the counterestablishment—they are antibusing, pro-classics, and antibilingual education. Their views are well represented by the educational writers here assembled.

Diane Ravitch, an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, traces the troubled history of American education since World War II, a not-so-arbitrary date at which education at every level became available to more and more people. “In 1945,” she writes, “American education had the strengths and weaknesses of a highly decentralized, pyramidal system. Everyone could go to school, but the difference in quality between the best schools and the worst schools were enormous. . . . One’s educational chances were limited by the accident of birth and by the color of one’s skin.” Her scholarly look at educational history describes more than it proscribes. She finds that the failure of the so-called “progressive education” movement was the result of self-implosion. Progressives, she writes, were blind to the “explosive racial issue” and apparently did not understand the full meaning of their separating students into academic, general, and vocational curricula. Progressive education, she notes, had strayed far from what she terms “the humane, pragmatic, open-minded approach advocated by John Dewey.”

Ravitch, in a chapter on McCarthyism in education, argues that the times demanded teachers hostile to both Communism and McCarthyism; after listing many who unequivocally denounced the various calls for loyalty oaths for teachers, she finds in the tensions of this period the fragile emergence of “academic freedom” as a concept which would stand between educator and government. After an excursus into the ramifications of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, she returns to survey more recent American educational history “From Berkeley to Kent State.” It is at the former institution she first finds academic freedom again under attack, “not by external forces of reaction but by student ideologues and their campus sympathizers.” Education in this decade apparently devolved into a series of protests, book burnings, marches, and teach-ins. It can be fairly asserted that warm weather and pending final examinations were the chief causes of political and social activism among a handful of students at a handful of schools. The Columbia and Berkeley riots, takeovers, sit-ins, and the like may have been mimicked at smaller, less volatile schools, but they were propelled by a force Ms. Ravitch does not consider: the media.

Still, this book is an accurate, often maddening, look at the past 35 years of classroom tinkering by the Congress, the do-gooders, the radicals, the reformers, the progressives, the U.S. Office of Education (now elevated to the status of Department), and others still trying to reinvent the wheel. In his foreword to this volume, William J. Bennett as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities writes: “The educational role of NEH, and indeed of the entire federal government, is important, but it is supportive at best. We can prod, urge, initiate, and sponsor; but we cannot and should not seek to direct the discussion or implementation of programs nationwide. Effective teaching of the humanities in the schools depends a good deal less on what is done at NEH, or even the Department of Education, than on what is done by parents, local school boards, and state and local officials.”

What follows is 14 essays by 15 authors arguing for the humanities as disciplines which will educate students to clear and critical thinking while infusing in them some modicum of understanding of our cultural heritage. But it is former Columbia Dean, now Amherst President Peter R. Pouncey, who sorts out the prescription from among the proscriptions: “Teachers should be fully educated persons in the broadest sense.” It is as simple as that. Overwhelmingly, those asked will immediately agree that teachers should be competent, but mere competency belies the deeper meaning of teaching and ignores the other qualities which presumably are garnered by those “fully educated persons in the broadest sense” who have our children in their charge. This assumes that persons properly trained in the humanities—that broad range of disciplines which encompasses and includes literature, philosophy, religion, languages, history, and the arts—will have garnered methods of thinking which can engender belief in meaningful morality and caring professionalism, without which no teacher ought step into a classroom.

The several essays which complain of “mediocrity” are at times just frustrated hashing over the depressing educational statistics, the “dumbing-down” of textbooks, the inability of many elementary and secondary schoolteachers to pass basic competency examinations administered by their states or districts. While there are recommendations for a brighter future, the recognition must be made that poor teachers produce poorer teachers. As University of Wisconsin Professor Jon Moline points out, a teacher must know the subject matter he is teaching well enough to catch errors in a textbook, and relatively few states require even an undergraduate major in a particular area in order to be certified in it.

In The Schools We Deserve: Reflections on the Educational Crisis of Our Times, a collection of her essays on education, Diane Ravitch examines some of the major topics of discussion among educational critics, including the use and misuse of tests, the tuition tax credit controversy, the place of humanities in the curriculum, desegregation, bilingual education, and the general debate about the quality of American education. She complains about high-school diplomas awarded simply because of attendance and reports that “professors complain about students who arrive at college with strong convictions but not enough knowledge to argue persuasively for their beliefs. Having opinions without knowledge is not of much value; not knowing the difference between them is a positive indicator of ignorance.”

Ultimately, Ravitch concludes, we will get the sort of schools we deserve; if we do not have a national commitment to excellence, we will get whatever else we have been committed to in its stead. She recognizes the possible implosion due to special-interest pleadings which might fragment the seeming impetus already underway to improve our schools and our teaching by improving our curricula, our teacher preparation, and our teacher pay, but she approvingly notes the single distinction of American schools in their ability to inspire free inquiry and debate.

And such debate continues over, if not in, the heads of the nation’s students. Beatrice and Ronald Gross’s The Great School Debate proclaims itself “The First Authoritative Source Book on the Controversy Over the Quality of Our Schools.” The essayists within include Chester E. Finn Jr., Ernest Boyer, Harold Howe II, Diane Ravitch, and Albert Shanker. Not a scholarly book, its editors plead “readability” as their excuse for deleting footnotes and citations. Such is perhaps the most telling commentary on American education. This uneven collection, part academic papers and part op-ed commentary, is probably useful at schools of education, where they teach courses named “Current Educational Trends” and “Educational Reality in the Inner-City Environment” and “The Psychology of Public Opinion Toward Education/’ What the authors have to say is predictable to the point of parody, but the work is maddeningly oversimplified and, like most of American education, without focus.

These four books represent 40 more, equally careful or careless, equally righteous or right-minded, which crawl across desks and bookshelves in a poor attempt to recover ground lost to harebrained schemes and wavering social expectations. Underneath it all there is a simple refrain, the only one which honest teachers hear: To teach is to teach. The implications of the verb are staggering, yet too many who do not accept the implications daily stand in front of our children spouting half-truths, misinformation, and value-free “morality.” In the classroom, however, there is no time for sham. This is the only chance our children get, and we have no right to ruin it for them.


[The Troubled Crusade, by Diane Ravitch (New York: Basic Books) $8.95]

[Against Mediocrity: The Humanities in America’s High Schools, edited by Chester E. Finn Jr., Diane Ravitch, and Robert Fancher; New York: Holmes & Meier]

[The Schools We Deserve: Reflections on the Educational Crisis of Our Times, by Diane Ravitch (New York: Basic Books) $19.95]

[The Great School Debate, edited by Beatrice and Ronald Gross (New York: Simon & Schuster) $9.95]