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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 insightful review of the recent reports on education, Andrew Hacker almost discerns the missing ingredient in the current reform movement, an aspect alluded to in the several reports but never fully stated. Mr. Hacker aptly analyzes important dimensions of the reports but just misses the mark in his conclusions and fails to suggest what the proper ends of education should be.

Mr. Hacker writes “today’s youngsters differ markedly, in character and constitution, from their counterparts in earlier generations…no one really knows how far classroom education contributes to the kind of people we ultimately become.”

He continues, “at no point do they [the reports] hold parents responsible for their children’s poor performance.” While our report does not blame parents (or anyone directly, as the consensus viewpoint was that it was nonproductive to lay blame), A Nation at Risk does speak directly to the parents, saying, “You are your child’s first and most influential teacher…you bear a responsibility to participate actively in your children’s education.” The report also speaks directly to students telling them that “even with your parents’ best example and your teachers’ best efforts, it is your work which will determine how much and how well you will learn.”

Mr. Hacker claims that “the commissioners are in fact indicting an entire generation,” considering them “a lost generation indulged by their parents and spoon-fed by the schools.” This is a correct assessment.

As the youngest member of our Commission, at age forty-one, I am still liable to that indictment. Yes, all of us did go through a “more rigorous academic regimen.” Could this be why we now affirm the value of such a regimen to our subsequent growth as persons? It is true that one does not usually recall all the specifics of the subject matter one mastered in school. What does remain is the self-discipline and openness to ideas—marks of any decent system of education.

What we learn at school may not have actual impact on our later life, Mr. Hacker tends to think. The way we learned certainly did have an impact however; the expectation that assignments would be completed, that order would be maintained in the classroom, that loafers would fail and that honesty was an essential part of the process. My favorite line in our report, one I frequently quote to our four daughters, is “History is not kind to idlers.”

While conceding the importance of training students to compete in world markets, Mr. Hacker rightly questions whether we wish to desert the idea that learning may be pursued for its own sake.

He laments the loss of leaders who will uphold as a goal of education, however nebulous the phrase, the “good life,” by which I think he means an interesting and more thoughtful life. But perhaps at this stage of reform we must be more precise.

It seems especially important at the dawn of our Information Age, when the multitude of facts threatens to overwhelm us and it becomes difficult to sort the timely from the trivial, that we recognize the need to develop persons with a philosophical habit of mind, reflective individuals who will take long views and, having a sense of history also, will be better able to make decisions for our day.

I think Mr. Hacker would agree that at the highest levels of learning, there must be an idea of what education is ultimately about—beyond providing capable workers to enable our country to better compete in industry, trade and technology, beyond even personal prosperity, national security, and literacy.

I wish Mr. Hacker had taken his concern for learning as an end in itself, and for the kind of people we ultimately become, a step farther, to affirm that the final ends of education are wisdom and virtue. Taught by Plato and held to be true for centuries, those ends are as relevant to our day as they ever were to any age.

In our high-tech, high-touch society, T.S. Eliot’s lines seem especially appropriate,

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Annette Y. Kirk

National Commission on Excellence

in Education

Washington, DC

Andrew Hacker replies:

As these letters make clear, we have no lack of ideas on improving education. Needless to say, the prescriptions vary, ranging from Rudolf Flesch’s phonics to Ronald Gross’s focus on adult learning. Still, so far as I can see, none of the correspondents evidence a feeling for what goes on in the classrooms, where our 44 million children spend so much of their lives. Most of my review dealt with what teachers have to teach, students are asked to learn, and under what conditions. Before brandishing proposals, I would suggest a year of full-time teaching, preferably with fifteen-year-olds in an average public school.

This is why, if I may respond to John Van Doren, I did not cite Mortimer Adler’s “Paideia” program, let alone endow it with Dewey’s or Hutchins’s mantle. Adler would have a single nationwide curriculum, with its instructional methods minutely specified. He would ban special classes. Comparable innovations have been known to succeed in model settings. (Others, like the “New Math,” wasted the time and energies of an entire generation.) If it can be shown that youngsters take to the pudding, I am sure the recipe will be passed around. But let it be based on classroom experience, not glossy exhortations.

It saddened me to hear that Annette Kirk, at forty-one, was the youngest member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. I wonder how their report would have read had she been the eldest.

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