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The New Education

The New Curricula

edited by Robert W. Heath
Harper & Row, 292 pp., $5.95

One thinks of the schools as one might think of a baffled dinosaur, up to its hips in the mud, a bundle of dying reflexes. Its efforts to extricate its foreparts only drive its hindquarters more deeply into the ooze, its grave, beyond praise or blame. Watching it die, one suspects that it had no chance to survive in the first place: one of nature’s endless errors in its search for a more persistent organism.

No shoring up or patching, hauling and pulling, no encouraging words or angry shouts will get this beast up out of its swamp onto firmer ground; nor would it be safe to have it there; nor would it survive. The time has come for higher, more agile and adaptable forms. But the process is slow and who knows how much time is left? Even so, one watches at the margins, and when one or another fresh-born mutant reaches out for shore one still feels the residual joy far beneath the accumulated layers of skepticism and despair. Will it live? And if it does will it turn out to be still another slouching monster, as miserable as the last? In such a case, since it is a question of the children, one must give the benefit of the doubt.

Since the late 1950s and increasingly in the last few years we have been hearing about reforms within the traditional curricula—especially the new programs in physics and math: new forms of life perhaps and surely worth wondering about. The fourteen contributors to the present volume attempt to explain these developments, not only in the physical sciences but in the social studies and literature too. But to anyone who has not already learned something about these matters from other sources, the essays collected here are likely to confuse the picture still more. Not that some of the contributions—Professor Beberman’s on math or Professor Glass’s on biology or the essay by Jerrold Zacharias and Stephen White on physics are not clear enough in themselves, but that such a collection as this, concentrating on curriculum alone, provides too little context to see what is really going on and what can really be done. No one here talks about the schools themselves or about the larger society which produced them and which now wants to change them, and so one gets from this collection only the most fragmentary sense of how these reforms are expected to take place or of the likely impact that they may have on the students, on their schools, and on the society itself.

The aims of the new curricula are obvious enough and perfectly commendable: to produce a generation of scientists and mathematicians who will know how to use their language with grace, force, and meaning; who will know how the past operates on the present and who will understand that science and the other arts are keys to the liberation of the spirit. For less capable students, the new curricula will provide at least the basis for an understanding of contemporary math and physics, a functional grasp of the language and history, and an opportunity to find a more or less useful place in the world. The aims of the new curricula, in other words, are to produce, at considerable federal expense, a future meritocracy, much as the vocational training of the past century aimed to produce craftsmen for the farms and factories and as the progressivism of the Thirties and Forties aimed to produce solid citizens for the growing suburbs.

For this reason it is a pity that the present collection pays hardly any attention to the interesting developments in primary education, nor does it say anything of the recent proposals for the pre-primary schools in which capable young citizens from no matter what economic class can be encouraged and then selected to take part in the sophisticated secondary school programs which will ultimately propel the happy few on to high places in our technological society. The new curriculum is nothing if not egalitarian: it aims to uncover talent wherever it can, to look behind every tree and under every stone to uncover those talents which will undoubtedly prove more valuable than gold to the future technocracy. The trouble, however, is that the new curriculum, so far as one can tell, is interested in nothing but talent, and talent of the sort which reveals itself neither in secret ways nor in its own good time, but precisely on schedule. In this sense it is egalitarian, but it is hardly equitable. For youngsters who are not academically inclined or whose talents take them in unlooked-for directions, or for the majority who are likely to have no useful talents at all, the new curriculum offers little more than the present one does. But it does forecast the needs of the new technology: a handful of masters, a cadre of capable servants, and a world of consumers whose degree of enlightenment is not of any great consequence. The poets and prophets will, as always, have to get by on their own.

The reforms which the present volume describes began to take definite shape in the spring of 1956 when Professor Zacharias, an enterprising physicist at MIT, having completed his work on a system of radar defenses, attached himself to the still more ambitious scheme of revising the study of physics in American high schools. In 1956 the case was desperate if not hopeless. The teachers were badly trained, if they were trained at all, and the course itself was concerned mainly with classical mechanics (levers and pulleys and inclined planes) and had little if anything to do with questions of quantum and the atom which preoccupied professional physicists and were indispensable to anyone who wanted to understand modern science. To say that Zacharias was inspired by Sputnik and the Cold War would be quite wrong: it was the logic of the technology itself that stimulated his reforms. Today nearly a third of the students in high school physics are taking Zacharias’s course and his original Physical Sciences Study Committee, under its new name, Educational Services Incorporated, has become an enterprise whose budget last year was $6 million (mainly from the National Science Foundation—a project of the federal government). Its interests have spread to the socal sciences while its example has inspired similar efforts in math, biology, chemistry, and English.

The New Curricula is, in effect, a survey of Zacharias’s innovation. It does not attempt to consider all the programs and experiments currently under way. It largely ignores not only the interesting work on the primary and pre-primary levels, but it says nothing about the work in foreign languages, or the experiments with filmstrips or programming or the tutorial methods that now and then seem promising. Even so, those who can muster the patience to read this book will be rewarded not only by accounts of a number of interesting projects, but by the discovery that at the bottom of it all there lies, partly hidden, a beautiful, if perennial, pedagogical theory: that the students are to begin with the elements of a subject—the primary documents of historical research, for example, or the number system—and through their own inferences end by discovering the organized disciplines which constitute the wisdom of the race. The student, in other words, will discover in himself and in his dialogues with teachers and fellow students the rules and principles which heretofore he had found in his textbooks. His path to these rules and principles will begin in the structure of his own thoughts, as they organize the relevant data; a structure which, according to the Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, whose book, The Process of Education has recently summarized this theory, corresponds to the structures of the disciplines themselves.

To see this hypothesis in action—in some of the experimental programs in the social sciences currently in progress at Zacharias’s workshop or in the new programs in elementary mathematics—can be exalting. One glimpses a future society of great beauty. The bother of course is that one has seen it many times before in Socrates, in Rousseau, in Emerson, and in Dewey. The strength of the hypothesis is that it speaks for mankind’s unending ambition to free itself of received ideas. Its weakness is that it fails to acknowledge, as Emerson, for example, did in his own formulation of the idea, that “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” The problem, in other words, is political as well as pedagogical.

As much as one admires the aims and achievements of the curriculum reformers, one can sense this conspiracy in action even within the present volume. One senses it partly in one’s uneasy feeling that the promising young scientists, in their stimulating new courses, may have little choice but to end up as functionaries of an enveloping technocracy rather than as individuals in private pursuit of unsuspected truths. One senses it too when one reads in the contribution by Mr. Turner of the American Council of Learned Societies that the social scientists are concerned “that a child may unduly personalize matters that are presented in psychology or sociology,” as if the point were not to discover, as Bruner and his colleagues urge, the ways in which these disciplines emerge from the personal experiences of the students but to recruit, while they are still children, future members of the American Psychological Association. But the worst case, as one might suspect, is in those essays on the teaching of literature and composition, for here selfreliance is at the very center of things: writing is one’s way of making sense of one’s own experience. Good prose is an index of psychological strength. Professor Sauer of the University of Chicago is perfectly aware of this in his essay on College Preparatory English, but he is not quite aware, I suspect, of how literally the point has to be taken. At any rate, neither he nor Dr. Ianni of the U.S. Office of Education, who also discusses the matter, raises the relevant question: Just what is the experience of an American adolescent? And how free is he to express it, not only to his teachers but to himself? That the confusion of values and motives that characterize the modern age has intensified the crisis of adolescence—has made the problem of growing up the particular problem of our times for the drop-out as well as for the future physicist—seems, by now, obvious. Neither Mr. Sauer nor Dr. Ianni confronts this question, but each of them, when he discusses the syllabus in literature for the secondary schools, indirectly answers it. For they both assume—as who does not?—that the typical themes of modern literature as well as the modern interpretations of traditional literature are out of bounds in American high schools. Who would expect a serious discussion of the Oedipus Complex in 11B, especially as it reflected the personal experiences of the students themselves, to say nothing of its relevance to Hamlet, or of Proust’s idea that social appearances not only in Paris, but in Winnetka and the Bronx too, are often disastrously misleading? Yet such themes as these are more than the preoccupations of modern literature; they are the substance of the modern sensibility, a sensibility in which all of us—high school students as well as atomic physicists—must sooner or later find the meanings of our lives if those meanings are to be found at all.

Learning to write is not primarily a matter of rhetoric or grammar, to say nothing of structural linguistics, which is the current vogue in advanced American high schools—but a matter of psychology. One cannot write if one cannot think with force and clarity, but one can hardly think at all if one’s instinctive sense of what is true is from childhood onward arbitrarily blocked. But the genteel syllabus in literature described by Ianni and Sauer denies the main components of modern experience. One can no more expect the students, under such circumstances, to write clearly than one can expect the basketball team to play well with a deflated ball. The point here is not that modern writers are too difficult for American high school students, for if Bruner is correct that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development,” then the main themes of modern experience can be introduced in some form as early as kindergarten, through the fairy tales and myths for example, in which critics have discovered that certain of these themes reveal themselves. Emerson, at any rate, seemed to think that these preoccupations existed within the children themselves, that it was less a matter of introducing great truths than of allowing them to emerge unblocked from the growing children themselves. But he also saw the difficulty, that to speak with the voice of childhood, “unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted… would sink like darts into the ear of men and put them in fear.”

No one—no school teacher or principal certainly—wants a dart in his ear. So the children are made to look away. If Emerson and the founders of the new curricula are right, the great themes of literature, as much as the principles of math and physics, are there within the children from the start: the process of education is to cultivate these potentialities and to make them articulate. But the process of education as the children experience it is often to blind them, or so one would guess by the results. The syllabus that Mr. Sauer and Dr. Ianni describe might, with luck, produce a few hacks for the daily papers doing what they are told. To hope for more from children who are expected to find nature reflected in A Tale of Two Cities and Silas Marner or The Catcher in the Rye and The Lord of the Flies, estimable as these books are, is as unfair as to expect them to discover the principles of quantum physics from the course in classical mechanics that moved Zacharias to reform the curriculum in the first place. Luckily, as everyone knows, the bright and curious students find their real syllabus in the libraries and bookstores, often with the help of their teachers. But the effect of such outside reading must be to make the assigned syllabus seem all the less relevant to the real world.

The legitimate aim of the new curriculum—of any curriculum—is to reconstruct society, and to bring new meanings to the lives of its members. Obviously this is what Zacharias and his colleagues intend. What else could motivate them? But it is hard to see how their ambitions will materialize—though it is not so hard to see how they might be perverted—if the present society, the unreconstructed society, intervenes, as it insists it must, from the very beginning of school. The answer seems to be that curriculum reform is not enough. Somehow the schools themselves must be reconstructed first, in relative isolation from the damaged society that now owns and smothers them. In New York and other cities there has been talk of programs to place slum children in all day pre-primary schools as a way of protecting them from the worst brutality of their environment. It is not, I think, absurd to suggest that we might now try to think of ways to do as much for the children of the middle class.

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