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Education Now

In response to:

Sentimental Education from the November 21, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

Edgar Z. Friedenberg’s review of my book, Who Can Be Educated? (November 21, 1968), missed the central theme and contained a grave error that is not uncommon among astute and liberal-minded writers, especially those who suffer from the ahistorical character of the behavioral sciences. His review is an example of how men of good will sometimes come up with solutions that are hardly different from those of their enemies. So strong are the subtle social influences to retain practices that favor the established order, that they must be unmasked in any analysis of human ability and education.

There are at least two ways of perpetuating the status quo in education in the guise of radical change, and Dr. Friedenberg employed both of them. One is to insist that goal-setting is an indispensable prelude to change in social institutions, when in fact institutions change as new groups enter them and gain power; and when in fact goals have meaning at all only as labels given to the direction in which social-historical forces are moving an institution. Goals based on wish and desire are ideals; they are the wonderful stuff of which dreams are made. What educator with body still warm would not identify with the goal of making all students “independent creative thinkers”? Who but the historically untutored is going to believe that our system in the foreseeable future at least could tolerate a population of such character? Revolutions in education we need; but anyone who knows the dynamics of change understands that the school system is not going to undergo such transformations except in the context of broad social upheavals. To make major goal change the central plank in the educational platform today is to divert attention from the demands of those who want not a change in goals but a fair share of education, 3 R’s and all, the good and the bad—and who in the process of entering it, help to change its very nature.

No one in the educational establishment feels threatened by idealists who, in answer to the crying need for educational opportunity, demand that goals be changed, because leaders have no fear of modern-day Joshuas no matter how loud their horn. The establishment, in the form of one or another professional association, does in fact welcome the enfants terribles at national meetings to excite the membership and insure high attendance, and the impact on the beliefs and the behavior of the professional doesn’t survive the hospitality hour that follows the lecture in the grand ballroom.

No, it’s not the idealist who is feared but those like many blacks (and their allies in the academic community) who are demanding a greater share of the nation’s wealth for their education and for other benefits, and demanding it now. They want the money and a voice on how it is to be spent. They want no pie in the sky; they want education now. They want their children to learn to read.

And learn to read they will. They value this ability and well they might for it is to their advantage and the benefit of the educational system that they enter it and compel it to assimilate them, a process which, as has been the case with the entry of other formerly alien groups, changes the system for the better.

To Friedenberg (and other idealists) the schools, being essentially socialization agents, demand of children in return for success the giving up of their “developing selves.” How right he is (as I elaborated repeatedly) that our schools stifle curiosity and individuality, that they have many basic faults—but they also have the power to offer or deny the opportunity to learn those things that give individuals the power to read, to understand and change the system and even to recover a measure of what has been taken from them. And the black people today—like others before them—are insisting on that kind of opportunity for their children. No matter the shortcomings, they want it, and in their demanding and fighting for it, they are changing the schools, just as the struggles of the Berkeley and Howard students are inexorably, though all too slowly, altering the universities. Had Friedenberg taken note of the historical interpretation in the book, he would have understood what I meant when I said that much of the irrelevance and sterility in education was due to the need to exclude from the classroom those large realms of knowledge and human experience that explain the very inequalities in the schools and the larger society; and as black Americans change their status, they change—yes, too slowly—even the substance of education.

Those in America who have been oppressed—those now and in the past—haven’t asked for isolation and alienation. And the black people didn’t ask for it today. They were given no choice, and that is why they demand their own schools. They wanted integrated schools and were denied them. Compelled now to have segregated schools, they want them to be their own. Very likely their own schools will soon take on some of the undesirable attributes of the others, if they don’t already have them, but the people in the community will at least be able to see to it that the children have the chance to learn what others do and to become as others do, and it is no man’s right in old paternalistic fashion to “protect” them from those evils. Segregated or integrated, all the people in the community have a right to more education even if this education is far from being as good as it could and ought to be, and even if it has harmful effects. That the schools participate in the alienating and dehumanizing processes of our society is a regrettable fact and good reason to attack the social-economic conditions that produce alienation. It most certainly is not good reason to decry, as Friedenberg did, this educator’s prediction that higher education will be open to far more students “especially as the elementary and secondary schools as well as the colleges improve to meet the needs of contemporary life.”

The second way of perpetuating the old system under the guise of advocating change is to equivocate about the only theoretical modification—that about educability—that could materially influence the behavior of all people involved in the education of children, including the parents and children themselves. I examined the long-functioning theory of mental ability that pervades our society and our schools, showed the historical role it has played, and gave evidence to the effect that an open-ended theory of ability is scientifically a more viable one and essential to achieve the objectives that all the oppressed people are or will be setting for us.

My reviewer is guilty of projection: he has ascribed to me his chief concern. I did not ask how many people “profit” from their education under any circumstances, nor was my book “mainly directed against the notion that the disadvantaged are really less capable of educational achievement than the more privileged.” My aim was to help free the schools from the shackles of the prevailing closed theory which by definition precludes universal education.

Dr. Friedenberg’s alternative to my opposition to homogeneous ability grouping and the use made of intelligence tests sounds very much like that taken by the opponents of integration. Southern whites have long said something like “…a common perspective…makes it possible for the people who share it to work together more effectively and enjoy one another less defensively.” They said it before the Supreme Court. Of course, Dr. Friedenberg meant a common perspective as reflected in test scores but this, as many of us have pointed out, means social and racial separation.

The have-nots in education have a right to insist that teachers and educators be held accountable to see that their children get what others get. They have the right to demand it, and we the obligation to provide it. Our responsibility is to do everything possible to achieve that, and while the question of goals for education in general is a related issue, the first (new opportunity) is not dependent on the second (goal change) and, in fact, achievement of the first will lead to some positive changes in the second. However, the qualities in our educational system that are abominable are part of the fabric of our large system, and only the naive believe that one can establish ideological islands. That is why I wrote the following about big changes in a passage that Dr. Friedenberg seemed to have missed: “As to when this will come about, history’s tentative answer is not a pleasant one. It will come after much travail and many wasted years, after more of what we have witnessed in the past few years in exacerbated form.” In the meantime, those who strive to improve our schools will have to guard against the advice of our idealist friends, those stout defenders of individualism who like an overstuffed banker-type character in a Gropper cartoon of the Thirties luxuriously ensconced in his favorite chair at the club, brandy in one hand and thick cigar in the other, declaims about the need to protect the masses from the evils of overindulgence and idleness.

Milton Schwebel

Dean, Graduate School of Education

Rutgers University

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