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Flunking the Schools

In response to:

The Schools Flunk Out from the April 12, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of recent books about schooling in America, Andrew Hacker laments the absence in this literature of the vision that “commanding figures like John Dewey and Robert Hutchins” had of “something that could be called the good life” for an educated citizenry.

Perhaps I may be allowed to point out that these two figures, along with Horace Mann, are the ones to whom The Paideia Proposal and its sequel, Paideia Problems and Possibilities, which appeared only last fall, and in which a proposal for the reform of basic schooling in the United States is set forth, are dedicated. These two books, written by Mortimer J. Adler and for the Paideia Group, of which both Ernest Boyer and Theodore Sizer, whose own books are among those that Professor Hacker reviews, are members, as I am myself, do contain such a vision as he notes, on the theory that the need to live a good human life, and to have the means of doing so, are among the chief justifications for basic schooling in a democratic society.

I should add that in view of Professor Hacker’s apparent acceptance of this need it is strange to find him asking whether “we really want to try to teach everyone subjects [such as mathematics] that only some need to know,” and implying, with the help of a quotation from George Gilder, that we don’t. Professor Hacker says “we have no evidence that factory workers who have taken high school physics are more effective at their jobs or show more concern for the quality of their product” than those who do not—that, on the contrary, “the opposite may be the case.” But job effectiveness and a sense of product quality are only one measure of schooling as Dewey and Hutchins conceived it. Other indications are intelligent citizenship and the ability to lead a good human life—both of which, while they may not be directly served by high school physics in particular, certainly require schooling beyond what, in Mr. Gilder’s terms, “some need to know.” What they require is, in fact, something like the schooling which at least the Paideia books, among those on the subject which have recently appeared, endeavor to define. It is true, this schooling would tend to create a population dissatisfied with the drone-like existence that Mr. Gilder seems to think is proper for the producing masses. But I cannot believe Professor Hacker himself would object to such a result.

John Van Doren

Institute for Philosophical Research

Chicago, Illinois

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