Education and Ecstasy
Who Can Be Educated?
These books, taken together, are as depressing in their implications for American education as any set of documents could be. This is not because their authors are pessimistic. They are sturdily optimistic; Leonard is even joyful. What is unpleasant about them is not primarily their tone but their relationship to the reality they discuss. All are by influential people. Mario Fantini (Ed.D. Harvard University) is Program Officer of Public Education for the Ford Foundation, in which capacity he serves, in his own words, as a “Change Agent” and a “power source.” George Leonard is Senior Editor and West Coast Editorial Manager for Look, which heralded Education and Ecstasy in a cover story. Milton Schwebel is Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. While it cannot be said that what these men urge will come to pass—for Leonard’s vision of the future differs markedly from that of his fellow authors—it will certainly command attention.
The three books contrast sharply with the recent and by now familiar works of Herndon, Holt, Kohl, and Kozol in that their books were all based on the authors’ own experiences as classroom teachers. While Schwebel and Weinstein have taught in public schools and Leonard, according to the dust jacket, “has received more national awards for education writing than anyone in the history of magazine journalism,” none of these books is a concrete record of what public school teaching has meant—or done—to a particular individual. They are therefore less vivid than their precursors, though Leonard’s has a sheen of its own.
They are no less critical of current school practice than Kozol and the others were; but the fact that their works all make specific recommendations for improvement of the schools commits them to a fundamental acceptance of the American educational system. To compare Kozol and Fantini on schools is like comparing the views of Jonah and the managing director of Marineland on whales. Kozol knows he was lucky to get out again alive; Fantini makes his career by exhibiting an improved specimen each year. Leonard is much more original in his constructions for the future. He is willing even to forego the school as a building and a set of routines altogether and to take the students and their teachers into the streets. This is a very promising suggestion, as are most of Leonard’s concrete proposals. But where Schwebel and Fantini and Weinstein accept the basic social structure and its conventional liberal goals implicitly, so that their programs for the disadvantaged stress more effective techniques for incorporating them within it on slightly more favorable terms than it now gives them, Leonard ignores the structure and distribution of power in American society and the ways in which its present schools support that structure, and gushes out in great springs of sentimentality. This glimpse of life in the Kennedy School of Santa Fe, New Mexico on “Visiting Day, 2001 A.D.” illustrates his tone:
“We couldn’t go on,” Johnny says softly, handing me a history-drama script, thin pages of opaque plastic bound by spiral wire. Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian Wars.
Nodding, I say, “I know what you mean.”
“We tried to become Athenians. We tried to stay in character. But look…”
He hands me the script, pointing out a passage in “The Melian Dialogue.”
Tears start streaming down his face. “We tried to act out the Melian section yesterday afternoon, but we didn’t do too well. And then this morning we were in the Athenian Assembly making the decision to invade Sicily, and—in some ways they were such beautiful people—most of us know how it’s going to come out—we all broke down and couldn’t go on. We can’t get anyone to play the part of Alcibiades. I don’t know if we’ll ever finish.”
Overhearing Johnny’s words, several children began sobbing audibly. Two little girls crawl into my wife’s arms.
“Don’t worry about it, Johnny,” I say. “Anyone who can relieve the Peloponnesian Wars—or any war without crying is some-how defective. Something’s lacking.”
“Yes, but isn’t it true that people used to be able to read about wars without crying? That seems so sad. It seems kind of—crazy, or something.”
“It would seem crazy to you. But I must remind you that even your grandmothers and grand-fathers approached the subject that way…”
“But why? How? How did they do it?”
“They were uneducated. It’s as simple as that. You know, Johnny, until recently education was mostly nothing more than the ‘teaching’ of facts and concepts. Even as late as the 1960s people could go completely through school and remain what might be called, in the words of those days, not only emotional imbeciles, but sensory ignoramuses and somatic dumbells.”
In calling Leonard’s picture of future education sentimental, I am not of course putting down his conception that education is concerned as much with emotional as with intellectual development, or that the two are and should be inextricably linked. This, I agree, should be the heart of any reform in schooling, for the schools of today are as profoundly alienating as Leonard says they are. What is sentimental is his depiction of the necessary improvements as changes in the techniques and attitudes of educators rather than in the society that supports them and its goals. How will students as appropriately lachrymose as those in Leonard’s dream manage to take their place in the military-industrial complex? It will certainly not tolerate schools which render the young unfit for its service; so that if the schools are to educate feeling people, the system itself must be changed—and not by T-groups and the Esalen Institute (to which Leonard, as Vice-President, devotes an admiring chapter) but by basic changes in the allocation of power and the functioning of the economy.
In its efforts to avoid confronting these not-very-mysterious determinants of American educational policy Leonard’s book turns gimmicky, and wanders into neural physiology, genetics, and computer technology illustrated by snippet references to the thought of Harold Taylor, Marshall McLuhan, J. Bronowski, and a host of other less familiar names—even an old chemistry professor of mine at Stanford, now emeritus, who objects to air pollution. The irony of his dream reveals itself in the name he gives his school of the future. The Kennedy School, indeed! All America is a Kennedy School, to which has now been added the Onassis Institute for Advanced Study.
Still it is true, as Leonard observes, that “Education’s new domain is not bound in by the conceptual, the factual, the symbolic. It includes every aspect of human existence that is relevant to the new age…. Experimenters all around the US and in some other nations as well already have established beachheads in the new domain…. Powerful and respected institutions have begun to show strong interest in helping education break out of the old subject-matter entrapment. A Ford Foundation official has become an authority on what he calls ‘affective education’ (as opposed to ‘cognitive education’).” Whether Mr. Fantini is that official, Mr. Leonard does not say, though public education is Fantini’s domain. His and Mr. Weinstein’s study, The Disadvantaged, is surely the most important of the books reviewed here; and its limitations make it the most disturbing.
The Disadvantaged is, in many respects, the most sophisticated of the various recent books which are designed to induce the schools to improve instruction for disadvantaged children; and it takes an unusually broad view of who the disadvantaged are. The authors stress that middle-class children, too, are disadvantaged by their limited experience of life and lack of empathy for those less sheltered. While this is essentially the view that leads some English teachers to see Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf as more limited than Genet and Tom Wolfe, which is silly (I would certainly have liked to hear these ladies’ appraisal of the Chicago convention, and wish Esquire could have sent them there), there is merit in the view when applied to the middle-class ethnocentricity of the schools.
There is a similar merit in the authors’ emphasis on what they call, rather sententiously, “the hidden curriculum,” by which they mean what the child learns about life from living it. What “the disadvantaged” learn in this way is certainly different from what the schools try, unsuccessfully, to teach them; and much of Fantini and Weinstein’s book is devoted to devising ways of reducing this dissonance. But the value of the concept is largely vitiated by the fact that they are either unaware of or indifferent to the presence and function of “the hidden curriculum” in the school itself. The school is an excellent place to learn what life is like, especially for the disadvantaged, and especially if one does not listen to what it says—as they do not—but attend to what it does and what it is. The whole point of Fantini and Weinstein’s book is that school should be something different and better for them; and they make concrete suggestions for bringing this about.
But here they find themselves in much the same bind as Leonard found himself in. They do not really want to change the underlying social structure that supports the school; they want to make the school a more effective device for incorporating, rather than excluding, “the disadvantaged.” Their book is really about the dropout problem and how to solve it; and the methods proposed add up to a monument of bad faith. One reviewer has praised the book for its honesty—a better word would be brazenness. In consequence, though they have a chapter complaining of “The Phoney School,” the reforms they propose would make the schools even phonier. In order to bring about change, they advocate introducing people called “change agents”—if possible funded by two or more outside “power sources”—into the school. “It is probably wise,” they observe,
for the change agent to obscure his real role as reformer at the beginning, although gradual exposure of this role will inevitably occur during later stages of development…. His first reforms should be of the most accepted and familiar variety, such as those which have received widespread publicity, and they should be chosen for their ability to relieve the needs which the school staff perceive to be greatest…. The wise agent realizes that, although such solutions are superficial and yield only limited benefits to learning, these concerns are vital to teachers, administrators, and parents [not pupils]; and, if he can satisfy these needs, he can later ask them to consider more radical and fundamental departures from the status quo…. As we have said, it is well for the change agent to conceal his true role from school personnel until he has their full confidence and support. By no means should this be construed as a cue for the change agent to alter his true role, but rather that he should disguise his position in such a way that his explicit role is immediately acceptable to school personnel. This leads the change agent to assume a kind of double identity, in which he can accomplish two or more objectives simultaneously. For example, an instructional change agent might be introduced officially as a Helping Teacher.
A bit further on, Fantini and Weinstein tell how they developed this program further so that by reaming, the change agents were afforded maximum confrontation with the two main levels of the educational hierarchy. The administrative agent, to whom we shall refer as Agent A, and the instructional agent (Agent B) worked closely together—and on parallel levels with respect to one another—toward common objectives.” As they describe the games of Agent A and Agent B further, I saw that the Ford Foundation must think of itself as The Cat in the Hat, and that Agents A and B are really Things, turned loose in the school to make it more fun on a rainy day.
Dr. Seuss, however, is funny without being vulgar; this is not true of Fantini and Weinstein. Since they emphasize the need to alter the language of the school so that what they call “restricted-code” users will not feel put down or off by “elaborate-code” speakers, their conception of both elegant and gutter speech becomes a central issue in the book. Thus, they suggest:
Contrast the words of the restricted-code’ mother speaking of the past to her child—“Things were different then, not so messed up”—with those used by the school-teacher, an elaborate-code user—“During the colonial period the pilgrims had a tendency to engage in outdoor activities.” The child raised in an elaborated language may respond to the latter, while the child with a restricted language code may be unable to recognize the clues of “during, colonial, period, engage, tendency, and activities.”
But whatever the consequences of being “raised in an elaborated language” may be—one, perhaps, is that it makes you write like Fantini and Weinstein—a child reared in a cultivated home would respond to the teacher’s statement by recognizing it as the usual dreary nonsense—what specific pathology is meant by “a tendency to engage in outdoor activities”? Or, consider the following small but juicy triumph:
One of the first assignments given to a group of urban teaching trainees was a “Pupils” Culture Survey. As part of this assignment, each trainee was to list some of his pupil’s most often-used slang expressions with illustrations of their usage. One trainee listed “bustin’ suds,” which, when translated, means “washing dishes.” Such esoteric knowledge can often be utilized later, as illustrated by the following report from this trainee:
“The sixth-grade class had just returned from lunch, and the teacher expended a considerable amount of energy in getting the pupils settled down. Then, one of her ‘troublemakers’ walked in late. ‘Why are you late for class?’ she asked.
” ‘I was bustin’ suds,’ was the reply from the latecomer. The rest of the class became interested in the outcome of this exchange.
” ‘Well,’ the trainee said, ‘I’m sorry you had to wash the dishes but still that’s no excuse for coming to class late. Now sit down and start your work.’
“The boy’s expression changed from amusement to surprise. ‘How did you know what “bustin’ suds” meant?’
” ‘Oh, I get around,’ she replied smugly. ‘Now take your seat.’
“He did and the class continued its work.”
It was a small victory for the trainee, but every new teacher will testify to the importance of such victories in developing control of a new class.
Fantini and Weinstein certainly do. Four bizarre pages of a chapter on “The Teacher: Strength with Sensitivity” are devoted to a precise, detailed, and approving account of a martinet named Miss Tyler in the process of intimidating her class into bewildered submission the first day. Not every young teacher will possess—or desire—all of Miss Tyler’s skills, as the following brief excerpt shows:
Before the pupils reached the end of the hall, the teacher said, “Stop.” Everyone seemed to freeze in place. The teacher again walked by and said, “One person was not in order.” She did not indicate who this was, but expressed shock through her voice as she looked at each person. Again, mainly through her eyes, and after what seemed to be another very long pause, she said, “Proceed.”
This sort of thing is probably easier with contact lenses.
I suspect that Fantini and Weinstein derive both their writing styles and their appalling examples from practicing what they preach; as Change Agents they are trying to win the confidence of school personnel by offering familiar-sounding approaches to problems of real concern to them, like keeping children quiet. Keeping children quiet does facilitate teaching, if not learning; and these authors are interested in improving that, too. But their book really shows how little capacity for improvement they attribute to the schools; and how determined they are, nevertheless, to get the disadvantaged into them and keep them there, until they become more like the rest of us. Knowing the grim realities better, they are less inclined than Leonard is to rhapsodize beneath the fantastic Basic Dome of the Kennedy School of the Future. But both authors are equally disinclined to ask what the function of the schools, and of the disadvantaged, in America really is. Leonard proposes that the schools teach people to be human, which would destroy the usefulness of the schools—and perhaps of the people—to American society. Fantini and Weinstein propose that the schools do a more effective job of helping the disadvantaged to realize their potential in society through the schools; they then demonstrate by every word they write how sad and banal a task that will prove to be, even if it can be accomplished. None of them proposes a basically different society in which different schools would be used differently by a society with quite different power-arrangements and purposes—as Paul Goodman, for example, has done. Leonard clearly believes that more humane education would lead to the development of people who would desire and build a better society; but in practice the process works the other way round, if it works at all.
It would be a pleasure to report that Dean Schwebel has contributed a deeper analysis of the failure of the schools with the disadvantaged, which is the social group that concerns him. But he has not. His book is more sharply focused than either of the others on a particular, and quite important, issue: the bias that consistently leads school and society to underestimate the educability of the disadvantaged. He analyzes very thoroughly the various forms this bias takes. It is evident in the limitations and irrelevancies of intelligence testing and the homogeneous grouping that is based on the test results; in the sheer biological deprivation of the poor who are then said to be incapable of achievements they have not the energy to undertake; in the definition of achievement according to patterns of expression and social participation which are appropriate only to, and reinforced only by, the middle-class life-style. This last factor, of course, is also what Fantini and Weinstein emphasize; and, indeed, it is what is usually meant when middle-class bias is attributed to the schools.
But Schwebel’s book is mainly directed against the notion that the disadvantaged are really less capable of educational achievement than the more privileged. He is less concerned than Fantini and Weinstein, and far less concerned than Leonard, about the poor quality of the goals themselves, even for those capable of achieving them. Sometimes this leads him into a ludicrous circularity:
How many years ago was it (post-Second World War) that educators were still declaring that only 15 or 20 percent of our youth could profit from higher education! How recent history has begun to belie them with increasing college enrollments! More than 53 percent of the 1965 high-school graduates entered college, and they represented almost 40 percent of their age group. To those who assert that many of the new crop of college students are not benefiting, the answer is twofold. How many, one must ask in response, even of the elite families of America “profited” from their education twenty, thirty, and forty years ago? More affirmatively, one must point to the claims of that awakening giant, the educationally conscious college student body, that the college and university are failing the student, drowning him in irrelevancies, stultifying him with formalism and disciplines that remain immaculately removed from the harsh realities of a dying, addicted, sex-obsessed, hypocritical world bent on destroying its youth in war and its principles in continued deprivation of dignity and equality for millions of its citizens…. And if only 9.1 percent of the population twenty-five years and older (in 1964) has completed four or more years of college when it suffers from such shortcomings, imagine to what heights the figures might soar if education in the elementary and secondary schools as well as the colleges improved to meet the needs of contemporary life.
Imagine! Not only was the food terrible, as the old lady complained of her Catskill resort; but the portions were so small! Yet, in this passage, he raises—though he does not pursue—the issue that might have taken him to the heart of the matter that concerns him. How many people “profit” from their education under any circumstances; and what distinguishes them from people who do not? The answer to these questions determines whether bias can be eliminated from the educative process. It also helps in understanding what happens when we try to eliminate it.
Education, after all, is nothing but a set of institutionalized, planned experiences. As Fantini and Weinstein note, it does not teach people any better than the “hidden curriculum” does. In fact, it is much less effective, because people learn from experience by selecting from it what has meaning for them; while in school the personnel try to induce them to attend to symbols and events which may or may not have meaning for them or anybody else. Most curricula at any time or place have little effect on students; though college attendance today does confer one very real benefit—the 2S deferment, without which enrollments would probably fall very rapidly. Education, at any level, appears to be most effective and seems most satisfactory to students on precisely those occasions when its effects are least distinguishable from those of “the hidden curriculum.” That is, parents and students are convinced that the schools are doing a good job, and teachers find them agreeable to work in, when curriculum and school routines are congruent with life at home and in the social class they are accustomed to. Under these conditions, students naturally seem to achieve more because what they are asked to achieve, though possibly of very little value in itself, is reinforced by all the students’ experiences and serves as a basis for social cohesion between himself and his peers.
One can, of course, argue, as Schwebel does, that this means that intelligence tests are biased, and homogeneous grouping unfair, because they legitimate and rigidify social class differences that are unrelated to potential learning ability. Of course they are, but they are very much related to the present capacity to share experiences meaningfully; and this too is of basic importance to education. Instead of calling the tests biased, and the grouping undemocratic, one could just as truly declare that the tests identify and reward a common perspective which makes it possible for the people who share it to work together more effectively and enjoy one another less defensively. Even then, it is hard to prove that what they learn in school apart from the protracted experience of being there makes much difference—but the experience of being there makes all the difference, and is very different in quality if one is not forced to accommodate continually to routines which one finds bewildering or degrading, and people—teachers or students—who seem frightening, overbearing, or detestable.
To provide optimal educative experiences for children now judged “disadvantaged,” what is needed may well be the very contrary of what Schwebel seeks; and much more nearly what the dissenting black communities of New York City demand—education that means something to them now and for the rest of their lives. The kind of teaching that would help them most is surely not the seductive invasion of their language and life-style that Fantini and Weinstein seem to advocate, but the cool acceptance of that life-style and, with it, of the students’ capacity to generate their own kind of order and meaning that James Herndon records so beautifully in The Way It Spozed To Be. His classwork, despite the initial handicap of a particularly asinine system of homogeneous grouping, is what I should call genuinely free of bias, and genuinely constructive in its approach to “the disadvantaged” in that it permitted them the opportunity to form as much of a community as their severe sense of degradation permitted; and to recover from that sense, albeit slowly, as Herndon continued to accept them and work with them for what they were.
The difficulty, as Herndon’s readers will recall, is that his seemingly very practical approach proved as visionary as Leonard’s most glittering proposals; his principal and colleagues could not accept an approach to the “disadvantaged” that respected them without regarding them as a challenge, a menace, or a problem to be solved. This, finally, is what any good teacher must do; and it is what the schools cannot tolerate—if they did, they would fail in their function of socializing the “disadvantaged.” For socialization really means inducing them to abandon their old, developing selves as their price of admission to the opportunities afforded by the dominant social system the schools represent. It is this process which, it seems to me, the measures proposed by Schwebel and Fantini and Weinstein promise to facilitate. But acceptance of self is something else; and something that I do not think the schools of our society are likely to foster among those deemed “disadvantaged” within it, however ingenious they may become in dealing with such students.
Education Now April 24, 1969