The Wasteland of American Education

To those who follow the news about education, the present state of American schools and colleges must seem vastly different from that which I described in my book Teacher in America when it first appeared. Thirty-six years have passed, true; but the normal drift of things will not account for the great chasm. The once proud and efficient public school system of the United States—especially its unique free high school for all—has turned into a wasteland where violence and vice share the time with ignorance and idleness, besides serving as battleground for vested interests, social, political, and economic.

The new product of that debased system, the functional illiterate, is numbered in millions, while various forms of deceit have become accepted as inevitable—“social promotion” or passing incompetents to the next grade to save face; “graduating” from “high school” with eighth-grade reading ability; “equivalence of credits” or photography as good as physics; “certificates of achievement” for those who fail the “minimum competency” test; and most lately, “bilingual education,” by which the rudiments are supposedly taught in over ninety languages other than English. The old plan and purpose of teaching the young what they truly need to know survives only in the private sector, itself hard-pressed and shrinking in size.

Meantime, colleges and universities have undergone a comparable devastation. The great postwar rush to college for a share in upward mobility and professional success was soon encouraged and enlarged by public money under the GI bills and the National Defense Education Act. Under this pressure higher education changed in quality and tone. The flood of students caused many once modest local colleges and deplorable teachers’ colleges to suddenly dub themselves universities and attempt what they were not fit for. State university systems threw out branches in cities already well provided with private, municipal, or denominational institutions; and new creations—junior colleges and community colleges—entered the competition for the student moneys and other grants coming out of the public purse. The purpose and manner of higher education were left behind.

No doubt some of the novelties were beneficial. The junior and community colleges, with their self-regarding concern for good teaching, often awakened talent in students overlooked in the scramble for admission to better-known places. But at all institutions, old and new, the increase in numbers requiring expansion—wholesale building, increase of staff, proliferation of courses, complex administration, year-round instruction—brought on a state of mind unsuited to teaching and learning. In their place, the bustle became a processing and a being processed.

This deep alteration went unnoticed in the excitement of change and growth. But other influences soon made it clear that the idea of college and university as seats of learning was being lost. Because of its evident social usefulness in war and peace, the academic profession after 1945 enjoyed two decades of high repute. The public no longer regarded “the professor” with distant respect for remote activities, but gave cordial admiration as between men of the world.

The …

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Letters

Plight of the University March 4, 1982