Commentary Magazine

Crisis in the Classroom, by Charles Silberman

The School Problem


Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education.
by Charles E. Silberman.
Random House. 553 pp. $10.00.

Charles E. Silberman’s big book has been received with pretty general cries of hosanna. For a number of reasons—its prestige as “the $300,000 Carnegie study,” its serialization in the Atlantic under the febrile rubric “Murder in the Classroom,” and its even more per-fervid pre-publication publicity (“Genocide in Our Schools”)—it is likely to be influential. Despite Silberman’s own reservations about John Holt and other “romantic” (as he calls them) critics of the schools, such critics are already citing his work as an Establishment diagnosis requiring their own radical nostrums. And, on the other side, Albert Shanker of the United Federation of Teachers has endorsed Silberman’s main recommendation in a generally sympathetic review of the book.

The Carnegie study began as a look into the education of teachers, but Silberman early became convinced that the eventual environment of a practicing teacher was crucial to his preparation, and turned to an examination of the schools in general. The raison d’être of the study thus winds up as a sort of coda placed at the end of the more general survey.

While the account of the way we make teachers does not add a great deal—beyond updating current experimentation—to the work of such distinguished voces clamantes in deserto as Albert Lynd, James D. Koerner, and James B. Conant, its wide currency is certainly going to let a little more light in under all those flat rocks covering the schools of education: by gnashing his teeth and rending his garments in a larger marketplace, Silberman may end up lamenting to greater effect.

But considering the putative depth and breadth of Silberman’s research, there are some curious omissions in the report. He barely alludes to what has been a promising development in the training of teachers, the rise of the essentially non-educationist Master of Arts in Teaching programs, whereby a number of colleges and universities have offered students with strong liberal-arts degrees the chance to perfect disciplinary competence while gaining teacher’s certification through education courses entirely different from the idiocies which so often keep the brightest undergraduates from minoring in education. The life and hard times of these programs, which have been salvaging some very good teachers from the pool of prospects initially driven away by the normal education offerings, are most pointedly relevant to Silberman’s entirely correct claim that the arts faculties have shamefully neglected the education of teachers. That he should have nothing to say about a major attempt to remedy what he identifies as a major problem is surely puzzling, and raises serious doubts about the thoroughness of his survey.



Crisis in the Classroom begins with a motif which runs throughout the work, one which has attracted a good deal of attention: a revival of the Deweyan notion of educating the whole child, of teaching him to feel as well as to think; in sum, of education as moral education. Silberman, dissenting from Robert Hutchins’s definition of a human being as one who thinks, cites in evidence the now somewhat threadbare example of the German universities under Hitler. These institutions, he argues, show that something more than thought is needed to be human. Such a formulation profoundly mistakes the relation of head to heart in National Socialist dogma, the besetting sin of which was hardly a tendency to be frigidly intellectual. The fashionable anti-intellectual intellectual poses which Silberman rightly rejects as “sentimental foolishness” find their echo in Hitlerian injunctions like “Think with your blood” and in the educational theory of National Socialist educational bureaucrats like Hans Schemm:

The goal of our education is the formation of character. We don’t intend to educate our children into becoming miniature scholars. . . . Until now we have transmitted to them too much knowledge and too little of human nature.

We come up, then, against the inevitable question in any discussion of moral education: Whose morality?

If one assumes (as I take it Silberman does) that for the indefinite future education will continue to be modally public education, then the desire for moral education collides with the most elementary notions of democratic pluralism. Much as A may know the moral instruction he wants for his children, B in the same school district, no matter how enlightened A’s views, will be certain that A’s morality is a program for perdition. Unless one wishes to drive A or B or both into private schools, it seems there is considerable reason to leave moral education in the home.



With much of Silberman’s carefully specified list of defects in the schools, it is very difficult to disagree. Schools do indeed more often than not consider order as no more than lack of sound and motion, and regard this sort of order as a precondition for learning. The schools in fact trample on the most basic rights of students, and I must agree with Silberman that the sooner the whole humiliating and squalid nonsense of dress codes and rest-room passes can be swept away, the better. (He is distinguishable from the “romantics” by his willingness to believe that some of these practices are symptomatic rather than causal: that rest-room passes may be understandable in a school where the rest-rooms serve as depots for heroin.)

Silberman also presents a good deal of evidence that press releases crammed with fashionable rhetoric about personal freedom and critical intellect can be typed out by the dead hand of the bureaucracy; in this regard, his horrible examples are especially effective. But his critique of recent reform movements is less satisfactory. His fifth chapter, “The Failures of Educational Reform,” would carry more conviction under the title “The Failure of Educational Reforms to Be Panaceas.” He views everything which has been tried in the name of reform simply as having severally and singly failed to solve all problems; in doing so, he largely fails to distinguish the failure of educational gimmickry to do much of anything (a good deal of educational television, for example) from the qualitatively different failure of such substantive developments as the curriculum-reform movement to do everything. One can concede that the learning environment is crucial, that the schools very often furnish an environment positively hostile, and still believe that improved environments are compatible with the sort of advanced curriculum exemplified in the PSSC physics series. An absolute inability or unwillingness to separate issues of curriculum and environment easily leads the “romantics” to conclude that all learning is equally desirable. Silberman is aware of the fallacy of this notion, but his uniformly Jeremian view of the curricular reform movement may be misread as a call to throw out the curricular baby with the bathwater.

About the promise of technology in education, he is properly skeptical. But he relies heavily on Anthony Oettinger’s sardonic and stimulating Run, Computer, Run, too much preferring Oettinger the corrective pessimist to Oettinger the qualified optimist. While it is right to say that at present a computer which could comprehend everything a student might say to it lies well beyond the frontiers of linguistic and computer science, it is also true that computers do exist that are able to respond to restricted versions of English. (Reed College’s IBM 1130 has learned, under the tutoring of one of my students, to tell an interlocutor that dog bite mans is ungrammatical, while I had frozen meat is grammatical but syntactically ambiguous.) The possiblity that such a technology can be refined for certain limited instructional purposes probably is well this side of the frontier.

Having displayed all the inherent limitations of Computer Assisted Instruction, arguing that it is nonsense to believe that we are near being able to supply each student with a cybernon who will teach as well as Aristotle, Silberman then contends that even such tasks as can be performed by computers will be so performed at a cost perhaps ten times that of teachers. Well, perhaps. C. Victor Bunderson at the University of Texas has recently published a paper describing a CAI basic mathematics course using available hardware at a cost very substantially lower than traditional methods. Bunderson’s figures hardly in themselves disprove Silberman’s; but there is no sign that Silberman is aware of them, or of the real possibility that the state of the art may be advancing fast enough to render prediction a risky enterprise.



His critique of past reforms complete, Silberman turns to his own proposals. For the reshaping of elementary education, he offers a clear model: the “informal” schools of the United Kingdom. On the evidence, the model is an attractive one. As Silberman points out, the informal schools retain a good deal of structure, and are thus an alternative to the unskeletal experience offered by a great many “free” schools. What the informal schools get rid of is the assembly-line format which characterizes elementary education in this country. Since there seems to be agreement from quarters as diverse as historical practice and Paul Goodman that elementary and secondary education ought to be handled rather differently, the availability of a scheme which appears to work in another industrial country ought to lead to the widest experimentation here.

For secondary education, there is no equivalent model, there being thus far no radical environments containing anything like a traditional understanding of curriculum. Silberman cites the Parkway School (which appears to me to suffer at least in theory from the notion that whatever is worth studying can be found in Philadelphia, and in practice from its requisite urban setting), the Murray Road Annex of the Newton schools (which is committed to something like the conventional curriculum plus; the writing from its students is most impressive), and finally, the John Adams High School of Portland, Oregon.



Adams was apparently in its first weeks of operation when Silberman completed his account, and as he points out, much of what he says is based on its promise rather than its performance. Because Adams is attempting to grapple with high-school reform squarely within the system, its clear success would have the most profound implications for the rest of the country. Random jottings from a visit to Adams assure one that the promise is there. One observes that it is possible to remove the customary constraints on student movement and not generate chaos within the hallways. About the Adams General Education program it is a good deal less easy to be sure. Students participating in lively guerrilla theater on the topic of American culture are clearly enjoying themselves, but whether such experiences are a substitute for close analysis will be demonstrable only after the gathering of the evidence of several years’ practice. One does not guess from the relaxed atmosphere that the school has just weathered a potentially explosive racial crisis. One learns that the principal has recently effected a coup détat by memorandum, in which he has been forced to point out that a careful respect for student and faculty rights does not mean that the power in a high school ultimately lies anywhere else than in the principal’s office. Withal, one comes away still convinced of the promise, still unsure of the performance.

Crisis in the Classroom deserves much of its reputation: it does contain a great deal of striking report, and of recent critics of the school Silberman is among the more judicious. But the book is not the massively complete statement some of its supporters have made of it. And—in common with most critiques—it is longer on diagnosis than on prescription. Although it will probably provide underpinning for disparate and indeed conflicting schools of reform (some of them distinctly unhelpful), its possible misuse will render it no less useful to the discerning reader.


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