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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.

Reading such statements (admittedly not consecutive in Rickover’s text), the reader would conclude that the debate over segregating the gifted had long since since been settled in academic circles, and that the only obstacle was political. Yet the fact is, as Rickover himself ought to know, that there is bitter debate in both English and American academic circles over whether separate schools produce more or less “intellectual excellence” than comprehensive schools. The evidence is ambiguous. Take, for example, Anglesey and the Isle of Man, the only two areas of England which enroll all pupils in comprehensive secondary schools. In these areas the performance of children is well above the average for systems segregated according to ability. This fact alone does not, of course, “prove” that comprehensive schools are better than separate schools. But it certainly has to be recognized and discussed in any book which purports to demonstrate the superiority of separate schools. Rickover ignores it.

This kind of omission will make Rickover’s book an easy target for critics. Nevertheless, the book must also be judged on another, non-polemical, level: as an analysis of American education and a prescription for its improvement. Rickover believes that American education ought to be reconstructed along the lines of English, Swiss, and Soviet education, all of which he sees as having many common features America sorely lacks. His argument ought not to be dismissed simply because he presents it badly.

According to Rickover the great virtue of European (this includes English) education is that children learn faster. They spend more hours a day in school, do more homework, have a longer school year, often start school earlier, and in consequence move ahead faster. (Some American educators deny this, but the overwhelming weight of evidence and informal opinion supports Rickover here.)

Having established that Europeans move ahead faster Rickover jumps quickly to the conclusion that European children end up with a better education than Americans. But the conclusion does not follow. Let me explain. In England a skilled craftsman normally spends ten years in school before beginning an apprenticeship; his American counterpart has twelve years of school to reach the same level of academic proficiency. An American doctor spends twenty years in school, against about eighteen years in England. In many other occupations the average difference is three or four years. In order to show that American children are less well educated than European children, then, Rickover cannot merely show that they learn less in their first six, ten or sixteen years; he must show that Americans learn so much less each year that even their extra years in school do not enable them to catch up with Europeans. Rickover cites only a few instances to prove that this is in fact the case. In particular, he says that European teachers and diplomats are better educated than their American counterparts. This is probably true, but unfortunately the comparatively higher status in Europe than the U.S. and draw better recruits. What about European doctors or businessmen or chemists? or longshoremen or secretaries? So far as I know there is no systematic evidence about the academic skills of these groups. Certainly Rickover presents none.

Indeed, in much of his discussion Rickover does not seem primarily concerned with the end product of the school system, but rather with the way this product is created. His real complaint against the American school is that it allows its children too much leisure. (Indeed, his complaint against Americans generally is that they do not drive themselves so hard as he does.)

Rickover is not, of course, alone in his opposition to making American life more leisurely than it was in the past—and more leisurely than in other less affluent countries such as England. The question of leisure is, however, far more complex than he suggests. One could certainly argue on psychological grounds, for example, that the pace of American education is too slow. By stretching formal classroom instruction over such a lengthy period, our system frustrates the late adolescent’s impulse to act like (and to be treated as) a responsible adult. Precocious sexuality and early marriage can be regarded as a reaction against such prolonged adolescence. Or, one could argue on economic grounds that even a society as rich as America cannot afford to give children as much leisure as they now have. We haven’t enough teachers to keep children in school as long as we do, and we haven’t enough tax funds to keep education on this scale free for all. (If we were to accelerate the pace perhaps we could provide free higher education for those who need it. Not only would accelerated education require fewer teachers and classrooms, but it would give the average adult more productive years of employment.)

In answer to such arguments a defender of juvenile leisure could maintain that the frenetic pace of European education makes it very difficult to channel pupils into the right school. In England, for example, the decision whether or not to send a child to an academically demanding school must be made when the child is only eleven. In America this decision is delayed until thirteen or fourteen, when a choice is made between a “college preparatory,” “general,” “vocational,” or “commercial” high school curriculum. Even then it is not irrevocable. Similarly, in England the decision whether to prepare a child for a top professional or executive job must be made at sixteen, when the child decides either to stay on for “sixth form” and higher education or else to drop out. In America this decision is made in two stages: at seventeen when the student chooses (and is chosen by) a college, and at twenty-one when the student decides whether and where to attend graduate school. Given the limits of psychological tests as predictors of human performance, how can one oppose such delays? For one thing they allow the child to play a more active and responsible role in making decisions for himself.

If Rickover wished to begin a serious debate about the proper pace for bringing up the young in America, he would have had to discuss these and other problems as well. He has not done so. Indeed, I get the impression from this book that it never occurred to Rickover that such a debate was necessary or desirable. Which is too bad, for the pace of American education is accelerating, and the consequences of this deserve far more attention than they are getting.

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