The Primal Scene of Education

It is said that American prosperity is fading in a bleach of educational incompetence, and that a large proportion of our incoming work force can neither adjust to new technologies nor perform high-level communicative tasks. “In math and science,” the education researcher John Chubb recently observed, “U.S. students rank dead last in any comparison with students from the nations that are our leading competitors.” Last October, an editorial in The Washington Post commented on

the education-linked difficulty facing the large number of workers in this country who, not that long ago, could qualify for a wide range of entry-level, decently paying jobs without sophisticated technical skills or in many cases a high school diploma. As we constantly hear, these jobs are mostly gone, replaced by more technically demanding and autonomous jobs that need employees with higher-order skills. Many employers, especially urban employers in cities with troubled school systems, say they cannot fill these jobs with the available high school graduates.

Current public concern over filling jobs and competing with other nations offers a historic opportunity to improve all dimensions of American education. Today, more than in any earlier time in our history, purely utilitarian aims happen to coincide with the highest humanistic and civic purposes of schooling, such as promoting a more just and harmonious society, creating an informed citizenry, and teaching our children to understand and appreciate the worlds of nature, culture, and history. These aims coincide today with those of economic utility because the information age has made purely vocational training obsolete. Vocations change their character so rapidly that the most appropriate preparation for today’s workplace is an ability to adapt to new kinds of jobs that may not have existed when one was in school. The best possible vocational training is to cultivate general abilities to communicate and learn—abilities that can only be gained through a broad humanistic and scientific education.

At a conference of college deans this fall, I heard a chorus of anecdotes about the declining knowledge and abilities of entering freshmen. To these administrators, the debate over Stanford University’s required courses seemed interesting but less than momentous compared with the problem of preparing students to participate intelligently in any university-level curriculum. American colleges and universities at their best are still among the finest in the world. But in many of them the educational level of incoming students is so low that the first and second years of college must be largely devoted to remedial work. In the American school system, it is mainly those who start well who finish well. Elementary-school teachers have told me sadly that among their third and fourth graders they are able to identify future dropouts with great accuracy, because they know that the school system will not overcome the initial academic lag of poor minority children. Business leaders and the general public are coming to recognize that the gravest, most recalcitrant problems of American education can be traced back to secondary and, above …

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