Hard Marker

American Education—A National Failure

by Admiral H.G. Rickover
Dutton, 502 pp., $3.50

This ought to have been an important book. For one thing, American education is a national failure, and it deserves ruthless criticism. For another, Admiral Rickover has both the wit and the position to offer such criticism and suggest alternatives. And for a third, the comparison of American with European education, which is Rickover’s avocation, has in the past been an effective device for raising basic questions about the amorphous American system. Nevertheless, Rickover’s new book is a poor one, whether viewed as polemic or analysis.

As polemic, the trouble with the book is the editing. It lacks any coherent internal organization, rambling and repeating itself for 500 pages when it should have been 300. Originally a transcript of Rickover’s meandering testimony on the comparative merits of English and American education before the House Appropriations Committee, it was then embellished by a number of appendices quoting liberally from magazine articles, examination results, and statistical tables. It became a “book” when the Admiral tacked a 96-page essay on American education to the front of the potpourri.

Poor organization is not, however, the only editorial difficulty. The book is intensely argumentative, and a good deal of space is devoted to attacking follies which hardly deserve so much attention. In the course of these attacks Rickover’s pen often gets away from him. There are oversimplifications (“Class differences have no significance for genuine education; they are artificial differences that do not touch upon a person’s ability to learn”) and inconsistencies (on page 75 a “tough” academic program would reduce the dropout rate in U.S. schools; on page 152 English schools, which are said to have a tough program, also have many dropouts—about whom “nothing much can be done”). There are also banalities aplenty, both absurd (“In the long run you get only what you earn”) and improbable (“Questionnaire sociologists are in a fair way of transforming our free society into a ‘manipulative’ society where clumsy testers probe the inner recesses of the mind and personality of children and adults alike.”)

Finally, and most serious, Rickover’s polemical style involves a combination of innuendo and exaggeration which is ultimately misleading. For example, Rickover is a vehement opponent of the American comprehensive high school and junior high school. He wants the U.S. to establish separate secondary schools for the academically gifted, and he wants the best teachers assigned to these schools. There is much to be said for both sides of this proposal, but are any of the following comments enlightening?

The undifferentiated “common” or comprehensive school has long been an important item in European socialist and Communist party platforms.

For purely political reasons [some English communities have adopted comprehensive schools]. It was done for no other reason than to placate those who confound intellectual excellence with upper class privilege.

The failure of the public schools [in America] to set up separate secondary education [for the academically gifted] cannot be justified on any sane and fair ground.

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