Commentary Magazine

How the Schools Were Ruined

During the last quarter-century, American sentiments concerning education have fallen and risen and fallen. In the heart of that period, circa 1960 to 1975, we witnessed what can only be called a frenzy of exalted expectations for the prospects of schooling. The present mood, by contrast, is despondent, and I suspect more so than ever before in our history, certainly more so than in the memory of most of us. A great many feel that we are not merely coming down from a high, but that the high is itself to be blamed for the depths in which we now find ourselves—that the reforms of the late 1960’s, undertaken thoughtlessly, giddily, produced the shallowness of learning and ennui of spirit we find so commonly in the schools.

The degree of disaffection amounts almost to disgust. The chancellor of a Southern university comments to the New York Times that “the quality of secondary education is just awful.” The political philosopher Allen Bloom begins a powerful essay on higher education by writing that “students in our best universities do not believe in anything, and those universities are doing nothing about it, nor can they.” A noted investment banker, interviewed on our country’s loss of economic competitiveness, mentions almost offhandedly that an important part of the problem is our educational system. Jacques Barzun, one of our most distinguished academicians, in a new preface to his classic book, Teacher in America, says: “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.” And as if to give all this an official seal of recognition, a bipartisan federal commission, concluding a two-year study of the schools, reported in April that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”

Part of us wants to believe that this is rhetorical excess, reflecting the disappointment of inflated hopes. Yet the data we now have on American school achievement tell us precisely the same thing. In a masterful analysis of these data, “American Education: How Are We Doing?” (Public Interest, Fall 1982), Barbara Lerner puts to rest any surviving complacency about our nation’s educational system. Her article concentrates on two types of comparisons, historical and international. As to the former, she marshals evidence from a number of studies showing a substantial decline in the competence of American students during the last quarter-century, especially at the high-school level. The decline of SAT scores is by now so well known as to have become a journalistic cliché; but Mrs. Lerner points out that this key finding is corroborated by almost every other reliable study of the performance of American students then and now. The international comparisons are equally dispiriting. “Out of nineteen tests, we were never ranked first or second; we came in last three times and, if comparisons are limited to other developed nations only, the U.S. ranked at the bottom seven times.”

The impression of widespread crime and violence in the schools receives similar empirical confirmation. The most recent large survey tells us that about 7 percent of all junior-high-school students report having been assaulted within the past month of the survey; a slightly higher number report having been robbed. Well over 10 percent of teachers report being victimized by thefts during that period.

The widespread disaffection with American schools is thus neither hyperbolic nor hysterical nor based on fancy, but is rooted in an accurate perception of what the schools—a great many of them—are like.

How shall we understand this apparent decline in both civility and competence? Is there some fault in the national temper? The economist Paul Samuelson believes we may be seeing a diminution of the American work ethic, as a response to more general economic changes in the country. There is a substantial body of opinion which holds that the country “has had it,” especially with respect to economic innovation and productivity; a corollary hypothesis is that the slackness often seen in the schools reflects a more general failure of will. We have caught the “English disease,” so it is said, and are now experiencing that loss of energy which laid low Great Britain’s economy. Economic enterprise, technical innovation, and intellectual drive must have behind them some stimulus to effort or to risk-taking; for various reasons, these motives have declined in force during the last quarter-century, and the schools have suffered accordingly.

Another version of this theme stresses cyclical variations, shifts from era to era in the emphasis placed on certain values. Daniel Bell has written of the “issue-attention cycle,” referring to the waxing and waning of values over time. In an essay published in 1972 he noted that a decade earlier, “excellence” had been at the center of national concern, but that it had receded and had been replaced by “equality.” A decade later, the wheel continues to turn, and we are seeing a renewed interest in excellence, and if not a dethronement of the rampant egalitarianism of a decade ago, at least some signs of a dialectic.

Whether one believes that long-range or short-range trends are at work, it is increasingly understood that the variables involved are ideological or, if you will, philosophical. One dubious American habit is to see our problems as concrete or “practical” and hence to search for technical solutions. That in fact has been a prominent feature of our thinking about the schools during the period in question. Now it has begun to dawn on us that at least some solutions are to be found in the realm of ideas and ideals, that we will be slow to recover past levels of achievement and decorum without giving some thought to transformations in the American sensibility. In what follows I will try to explore some ways in which “ideological” changes have influenced American education during the last twenty-five years.




Anyone who spends any time at all in the schools soon realizes that a great many of those persons nominally in authority have a sense of having lost it.

The sense of lost authority is felt most strongly at the secondary-school level, and its effects are seen most clearly in the area of discipline. The extraordinary growth of litigiousness, and of litigation, has meant that school administrations—and ultimately teachers and principals—have become gun-shy, fearing that a wrong move can land them in the courts, or on the front pages of the local press. Much of the time, of course, that fear is exaggerated, but there are enough instances of gratuitous litigation to reinforce anyone’s caution—or paranoia. In my own school district, for instance, a judge took it upon himself to overturn a standard disciplinary penalty meted out in a case of serious vandalism by a high-school student. That a case of this sort is taken to court, that a judge decides to accept it, and that he rules in favor of the defendant—all of that suggests a profound change in the atmosphere of education and in the authority of the schools.

In a recent article Gerald Grant has provided some illuminating—and depressing—reports stemming from his extensive survey of high schools. Some of his observations are worth quoting:

Jurisdiction is so narrowly defined that a student who comes to a school principal after lunch complaining of being beaten up is asked which side of the street he was standing on when the beating occurred. If he was across the street, it would be out of the school’s jurisdiction and hence of no concern to the principal. Often when students need help, teachers are afraid to intervene for fear of legal reprisals. One teacher, explaining why she hadn’t interfered with a girl who clawed another in her classroom, said, “You’ll only be after trouble if you physically handle them.” Another teacher was still shaking as she told us about a group of students who had verbally assaulted her and made sexually degrading comments about her in the hall. When we asked why she didn’t report the students, she responded, “Well, it wouldn’t have done any good.” “Why not?” we pressed. “I didn’t have any witnesses,” she replied.

These vignettes focus upon the helplessness of teachers, but we should also note the thuggishness of the students depicted. This loss of authority in the schools could not have come at a worse time for those deputed to run them. Many youngsters remained in the upper grades of high school who in an earlier era would have left; and among these a small but significant number were resentful and fractious. More important still, there was a rise in the number and proportion of anti-social adolescents—in fact, there was an astonishing increase in all indices of social pathology among the young during the last quarter-century, in assaults, suicides, homicides, drug use, out-of-wedlock pregnancy. There were also larger families, which meant a decrease in the number of intellectually able youngsters. Hence, in the postwar era, the schools confronted a horde of youngsters, a large percentage of whom were academically weak and/or anti-social. It was at that very moment that they found themselves stripped of their accustomed powers.

The weakened authority of teachers and principals also led to a weakening of academic demands. Teachers coping with unruly students could not give themselves fully to instruction; those coping unsuccessfully lost the esteem of all students. A demoralization often took hold which diminished the will to set and abide by high expectations. During the late 1960’s a sense of impotence overcame many of those managing and teaching in the schools, producing in turn an inanition of the purpose necessary for sustained academic effort.

In the universities, the crisis of authority did not so much involve discipline—except during moments of upheaval—as the erosion or collapse of academic standards. One hardly needs to belabor the matter, since the crisis in the universities was the most highly publicized set of events in education during the quarter-century we are considering. Academic faculties lost much of their control over curriculum, grading, intellectual standards, and above all the tacit definition of what the university ought to be. Those losses have not been made up.

One might argue, as Robert Nisbet and many others have done, that the faculties lost their authority because they did not have a strong definition of the university to begin with, that in particular the specifically pedagogical functions of higher education had been treated by many of them with derision or had at most been given lip-service. Hence there was an intellectual flaccidity, a confusion of inner purpose, which left the universities unable to defend themselves against the anti-intellectualism of the student movement. Be that as it may, the events of the late 1960’s had as their primary effect—and perhaps as one of their latent purposes—a serious decline in intellectual quality.

The social sciences were the most grievously affected, in my view, especially those disciplines, such as psychology and sociology, which proved particularly attractive to the youngsters of the 1970’s. Credit was given in courses where neither work nor attendance was required. In some cases instructors guaranteed an “A” grade to any student enrolling, as a protest either against the Vietnam war or merely against the competitiveness of academic life. Some courses in psychology became therapy groups, exercises in self-expression. In other instances the subject matter was entirely politicized; one of my sons, attending an Ivy League university, found that the introductory psychology course (and the only one given that year) consisted exclusively of denunciations of capitalism.

To be sure, these cases were in the minority, and the faculty as a whole, even in affected departments, did not participate or even approve. It was all seen as a kind of fever which could be left untreated, since it would ultimately run its course. The uninfected faculty thereupon retreated even further into research, or specialized graduate education, and withdrew even more decisively from the pedagogical missions of the university.



We now find that a blessed amnesia has begun to settle over us, and with it a tendency to minimize the impact of that period, on the ground that the consequences were limited. In fact, however, they were extensive, enduring, and have yet to be repaired. Consciously or otherwise, many teachers simply gave up requiring sustained effort from their students. In many instances this was done cynically, in others out of despair. Some teachers came to believe that the entire academic enterprise had been so compromised by the failure to resist student demands, that the game was no longer worth the candle. In other instances, a mood of manic zeal persuaded some teachers that they were living in a Golden Age of student achievement. College authorities told anyone who would listen that they were privileged to be teaching the most talented group of students the planet had ever seen; many students solemnly agreed.

That self-gratulation produced—or perhaps merely rationalized—the notorious grade inflation which dominated higher education, and which persists. Each year grade-point averages (GPA’s) rose, ultimately to dizzying heights. In some universities the average GPA was at a level once reserved for the highest academic honors, and this forced a change in long-standing criteria for the awarding of such honors. One saw the same phenomenon, less concretely but far more vividly, in the letters of recommendation written by university teachers about students applying to graduate and professional schools. Where a few years before these letters had on the whole been positive but measured, they were now uniformly euphoric. One might read three such intoxicated letters regarding an applicant who could not compose a coherent complex sentence, and whose transcript showed that there had been no college-level instruction in mathematics or science or language or philosophy or history.

For this was the inevitable and inherent counterpart to the inflation of grades: a devalued curriculum and debased standards of achievement. There was a general retreat from required courses, or sequences of courses, and from the ideal of a general liberal education. What was most troubling was that the liberalization of the curriculum seemed to have nothing behind it, aside from the pious notion that coercion deadens enthusiasm which in turn inhibits learning. Those in favor of a core curriculum seemed too disheartened or confused to argue their case persuasively. Perhaps the most depressing experience I can remember from that period was listening to a general faculty discussion on whether we ought to institute a new bachelor’s degree, the only purpose of which seemed to be to enable some students to escape requirements they found noxious, especially languages. Listening to that listless discussion made it clear that many of the faculty could no longer “remember the answers” (in Nathan Glazer’s phrase), that the vision of a liberal education had been eclipsed.

The colleges not only offered junk courses of their own, but by lowering admission standards, they encouraged high schools to use junk courses for admission to the university. Or was it the other way around? Each, in any event, pulled the other down, and despite some grumbling here and there, neither objected too vehemently to the pulling down. In all likelihood, both secondary and higher education were being responsive to the same obscure but compelling forces in American life, a peculiar mixture of inflated self-esteem on the one hand and exhaustion of will on the other.




The American zeal for education also provides the energy for programs of innovation and reform. It is hard, indeed, to think of another country where so many proposals are put forward for the improvement of schooling.

The zest for reform was evident throughout the postwar period and, as always, reflected larger social and ideological preoccupations. The Conant Report of 1948 was one of the most influential documents in this century’s history of education, in helping to establish the normative idea of a consolidated high school able to offer all students an abundance of opportunities. A second landmark event was the Sputnik “crisis,” which led to substantial improvements in the scientific curricula, and an infusion of federal money into mathematics, science, and technological education.

These were establishment ventures, whose intention was to strengthen the existing system rather than to overturn it. In no sense were the aims utopian; they were within reach, given sufficient energy and effort. In both cases the goals were readily achieved, and became an enduring part of the American pattern of education.

The movements for reform which succeeded these—let us place them in time from about 1960 to about 1975—are not so briskly characterized, since they have moved in many different directions. But they can be discussed under two general categories, which we will call “technological” and “liberationist.”

The technological category encompassed a wide variety of proposals, some narrow, some quite far-reaching, wherein we found some effort to manipulate the materials or specific processes of learning. The simplest examples involved exploiting for the classroom technical devices originally developed for other purposes. The use of cassette tapes for language and other instruction was one obvious example, as was the use of closed-circuit television in the classroom. In most instances these techniques were meant to hasten learning or extend it, but did not aim at any radical transformation of the teaching process. Although their introduction was often announced by inventors and early enthusiasts as “revolutionary,” they generally survived as ancillary methods woven into the quotidian activities of the classroom.

There were other modes of technology which were—potentially—more ambitious and even radical in intention. The microcomputer was one such device, in that it might have the capacity to transform the very processes of learning, though whether it would do so remained to be seen. Another “technological” approach was programmed learning, through the systematic use of reinforcers (àla Skinner), and its close cousin, “contract teaching.” Though neither of these necessarily involved mechanical or electronic devices, their aim was to rearrange and rationalize the learning process itself, basing themselves upon a technology of response acquisition.

The Skinnerian and other behavioral approaches to education were at their inception utopian, promising not merely the transformation of the classroom, but a remaking of human behavior in society itself. These approaches, however, proved themselves adaptable, in that they could be borrowed from piecemeal. It is my impression that the Skinnerian emphasis these days is seen in a more deliberate effort on the part of classroom teachers to reward students, both in general and as they acquire specific skills.

It was the second direction of reform—the liberationist—which had the more profound initial impact on education. These movements defined themselves as radical. They saw a major aim of education as the undoing of the constraints imposed by excessive socialization. They believed that conventional child-rearing chained the “true self,” and with it creativity and the capacity to learn easily and joyously. Conventional education then reinforced that enchainment; it merely completed what traditional child-rearing had left undone. Liberationist writing posited—at times merely implied—a “true self” which was essentially virtuous; and it was this optimism about human nature, this tacit denial of original sin, which was part of its attraction in an era marked by political utopianism.

Liberationist writing was a bold attempt to redefine the purpose and practice of education, in part by redefinitions of human psychology. The student was to be seen not as recalcitrant, but as avid (under the correct circumstances) and the teacher was to be seen not as a drill master so much as a partner or inspirational leader. Subject matter was to take second place to the perfection of the self—the cultivation of sensitivity, creativity, and the like.

Revolutionary movements tend to be both totalistic and sectarian. That is, on the one hand they aim to produce conversion, to enlist others totally in the cause, and on the other hand a sense of exclusivity develops within the movement itself. For these reasons, the new progressivism did not take over American schooling; far from it. It proved to be self-limiting. In those few communities where it enjoyed a large constituency, there might be some effort to satisfy it by offering special programs, or by setting aside one or two special schools. But it rarely went beyond that, since the more radical the program proposed, the more certain there was to be community resistance.

Yet the liberationist movements were hardly without effect; to the contrary, they were deeply influential. They were able to give credence and respectability to the idea that the cultivation of “the total personality” was as important a goal as the acquisition of subject matter and of cognitive skills. Hence it became easier to establish course work on such topics as “family living” and “personal adjustment” in lieu of conventional offerings in history and the social sciences.



By far the major impact of liberation-ism had to do with the adversary stance it took to the existing system of public education, and to those who taught and managed that system. The messages of the movement were these: the schools were extremely dull places for the young; teachers were rigid and unimaginative, and could not engage the enthusiasm of their students; the secondary schools had as their essential but unspoken assumption keeping youngsters out of the labor market; hence they functioned as prisons, in that they contained an energetic population resentful of its confinement.

Yet even this fairly blunt paraphrase does not quite capture the contempt expressed toward schools and schoolteachers. One has to reread these writings to recall the tonalities (here again I think most of us suffer from some amnesia). The depiction of the ordinary school and the ordinary teacher was supercilious and at times scurrilous: these were held to be mean-spirited people servicing mean institutions. If the writer was himself a teacher often he would offer himself as exemplary, though of course with the usual moues of humility or self-irony. The author’s students were said to learn more, to be more creative, to be suffused with the joy of learning, and to love their teacher almost beyond words.

These writers were generally young and viewed themselves as mavericks. But precisely the same attitudes could be seen in establishment figures such as Charles Silberman who, in an extremely influential book, Crisis in the Classroom (1970), took a position which Barbara Lerner quite correctly later characterized as extremist in rhetoric and messianic in claims.

When the liberationist movement was in full flower, the climate of the times was such that its diagnoses of American education proved persuasive to elite opinion, soon found their way into the mass media, became conventional wisdom, and ultimately were enshrined in the teaching of the schools of education. There was little countervailing argument. If you look through the holdings of a good public library, or a good used bookstore, you will find, abundantly, books by Silberman, John Holt, Herbert Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, Paul Goodman, James Herndon, George Leonard. You will find hardly anything from that era by writers representing a contrary position. If you survey the journals of opinion of that time, you find little attention given to problems of primary and secondary education, and the little there is, is sympathetic to the “reform” outlook. Most such journals limited their attention to the universities, or to the political problems in the primary and secondary schools, especially integration and busing.1

This disdainful depiction of the American schoolteacher did grievous damage to the self-esteem of many who were already uncertain about themselves and their value—a group which was not seen as “professional,” or as “intellectual,” or as successful in worldly terms. That loss of self-regard made it especially difficult for them to demand a disciplined effort from their students. Being portrayed as drones or jailers made many yearn to be seen as the opposite, as charismatic figures or laid-back adolescents. Young teachers in particular were tempted to embrace and exemplify the new values, and to serve as role models for advanced thinking. Here is a report by Fred Bloom, a young psychiatrist living in rural Maine:

A teacher, a woman with twenty years’ teaching experience, resigned recently from the new community school in our town because she was expected to go on the “team” weekend encounter of the social-studies faculty. On the weekend, she told me, the faculty members play therapy games. Among other games, they lie on the ground and roll back and forth over one another’s bodies to develop “closeness” and “trust” among the team. “I went on it last year,” she said, “and besides, I can’t see why, after twenty years, I have to be shown how to get along. But really, you can’t get along at that school unless you go in for that kind of thing.”

The liberationist movement has lost influence, at least for the moment. One suspects its success would not be repeated today—not only because of obvious changes in the political climate, but also because we would now insist that some evidence be provided for its claims. Instead, a whole new body of empirical literature has shown how much truth there is in the beliefs which the liberationist writers opposed—that learning tends to flourish in schools governed by a strong and unified leadership, that it requires an orderly environment, that mastery of a subject is in large part a function of the time spent in learning it, and that homework is important. All of these findings are “new” in that they are quite recent, but they coincide, of course, with beliefs that are quite old, not to say commonplace.

As it happens, we did know and do know many of the answers, even if we did not remember them and even if it remains unclear whether we will be able to put into practice what we know. But we were led away from these rather trite truths by the dominant intellectual writings of the 1960’s. One movement of reform was, as we have seen, overly preoccupied with technique. The other movement did not see the school for what it was, or what it might realistically become, but as a simulacrum of a despised society. Both these approaches elided what we now see as central to sustained academic achievement—the internal morale marked by effort, drive, and persistence supported by purposeful leadership. Although both positions are now in some decline, they are by no means eclipsed. They draw upon two of the deepest and most enduring themes in American thinking—the love of technique and the idea of perfectibility—and one can expect that sooner or later, in one form or another, and for better or worse, they will once again be felt in the American theory of education.




“Equality” has been so obsessive a theme during the postwar era that we are liable to think of it as a permanent feature of our political landscape. Yet it has been a central issue—politically and intellectually—only at certain moments of our history. It gained vigor and attention in the 1950’s, with the explosive growth of the civil-rights movement. During that period, equality came to mean racial equality—the end of systematic discrimination against blacks, particularly in the areas of electoral rights, in schools, and public facilities. These struggles having been won, indeed with surprising ease, the quest for equality moved ahead, toward the achievement of equal opportunity in such areas as housing and work, and to the extension of equality to other putatively disadvantaged groups, primarily women.

These extensions of equality enjoyed widespread and enthusiastic assent, certainly among the educated and among political liberals. But in the late 1960’s we began to see not so much an extension as a transformation of the earlier idea of equality. Though that transformation drew upon some of the most ancient utopian ideals, it represented a startling new departure in the American political context and generated a bitter and continuing struggle among intellectuals.

The earlier notion of equality of opportunity involved what the late Charles Frankel termed “corrective egalitarianism”—the idea that a primary aim of social policy was to remove or modify those circumstances that disadvantaged some classes of citizens. That mode gave way to what Frankel called “redemptive egalitarianism.” Whereas in the earlier understanding, one sought to give each player a more or less equal chance to succeed, in the newest conception, the fact of inequality itself was seen as unjust, in that it derived from external circumstances that favored one player over another, or from the presence of internal qualities—intelligence and drive—which the player had not “earned,” or because it was itself capricious, the result of good luck and little more. That being the case, one could not say that a given person was morally more deserving of good fortune than another; and that being the case, the aim of social policy should be to minimize differences in fortune or privilege stemming from differences in achievement. The shorthand formula is now familiar: from equality of opportunity to equality of result.

The new position on equality was stated elegantly in one of the few philosophical books of our era to become famous, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), which was—as all commentators have agreed—a book of remarkable originality. As Frankel said, the author’s purpose—“which is nothing less than to overturn two centuries of empirical, utilitarian, and positivistic philosophies”—was “breathtaking.” Yet the popularity of the book among the educated, the quickness with which it seized the attention of intellectuals, had less to do with its originality than with the way it centered upon the ideal of equality. In a long and withering critique of the book, Robert Nisbet argued that the “passion for equality, first vivid at the time of the Puritan revolution, has been the essential mark of every major revolution in the West” and has in particular been the “mainspring of radicalism.” Hence in an era such as the late 1960’s, in which a great many intellectuals deemed themselves revolutionary, one might have expected that a book celebrating a revolutionary idea of equality should itself become celebrated.

Rawls’s new doctrine did not long escape scrutiny. By drawing such considerable attention, it evoked almost immediately some brilliant displays of contra-egalitarian writing, the best known being Robert Nozick’s prize-winning Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) which, roughly speaking, did for libertarianism what Rawls had done for egalitarianism. However, the main thrust of the response to Rawls came not from the libertarian movement but from the intellectuals commonly categorized as neoconservative, those associated with COMMENTARY and the Public Interest—Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Charles Frankel, Robert Nisbet, to mention only a few. The major intellectual debate of the early 1970’s pitted these writers against the egalitarians. The issues debated were pivotal in the fission between intellectuals in the postwar era, entirely comparable in gravity and scope to the debate about the cold war in the late 1940’s. And as we might expect, the debate about equality involved, as a leading issue, a fierce argument about education.

In the traditional understanding of equality, it was posited that economic and other disadvantages acted to constrain the appearance and expression of talent. Jefferson’s “natural aristocrats,” ordinarily lost to the world by the accidents of privation, were to be uncovered by universal education. Schooling for all was to serve two aims—raising the level of literacy and competence in the general population, and bringing into cultivation those talents that would otherwise have lain fallow. The infusion of federal money into higher education after World War II served both goals: college training was made available to large numbers of young men, and an elite education was offered to those who qualified by virtue of intellectual merit.



Soon after the war ended, the prestigious private colleges and universities began to give up the exclusion of students by religion, ethnicity, and social background. Much the same happened at the graduate and professional level and in the recruitment of college faculty. That change took place quickly and for the most part silently—without litigation, protest, or government intervention, as though an agreement had been arrived at tacitly, based on a sense of social justice and a reckoning of the nation’s needs. The example of Nazi Germany was a sufficient warning of the long-range effects of social bigotry. And beyond that, the country became aware—as did other nations—that its technical progress would depend upon the cultivation of intelligence, and that the great universities could no longer be enclaves restricted by class and caste.

The effect of that tacit decision was to open the great universities to groups previously excluded or restricted—the Jews most visibly, but also that majority of the American population which had not been so much excluded as discouraged. Access was determined by accomplishment rather than by membership in favored social groups; and accomplishment (or its potential) was determined by objective and universalistic means.

The opening of our universities proved to be a major reason for the extraordinary vitality which marked American intellectual, scientific, and artistic life during the postwar period. This country achieved leadership in many of the arts and humanities, and in almost all of the natural and social sciences. It did so, much of the time, by a seemingly effortless succession of European émigrés by native talent. And if we look closely at our indigenous “second generation” of extraordinary achievement—Nobel laureates, for example—we find that it is made up in significant degree of the previously excluded and’ discouraged, the ethnics and provincials.

Nevertheless, the hegemony of merit proved to be surprisingly brief. Not that it was abandoned—it is hard to imagine that happening entirely in any technological society, or for any length of time. Yet it did lose its primacy, that unspoken assent previously given by all significant strata of the society. The term “meritocracy” soon became current—a term used pejoratively, or dismissively, certainly without much loving-kindness. The meritocracy, it was implied, was composed not of the meritorious but of those who had the knack of taking tests, or making the right moves in school, or ingratiating themselves with selection committees. Furthermore, the tests themselves were suspect, in that there was said to be no clear relationship between doing well on them and doing well later in life. Nor was there much relationship between doing well in school and later success. Perhaps success was a matter of luck, no more than a roll of the dice. The idea that social mobility was fortuitous was the theme of one of the most influential books of the period, Christopher Jencks’s Inequality (1973).

These critiques might not have had so powerful an influence had it not been for race. What would otherwise have remained an argument about social class and social mobility became an argument about race, and in the process it inherited our country’s complex historical legacy of racial division and bitterness. The conflation produced, among many other things, a fierce attack on intelligence testing, largely because of the false assumption that most psychometricians held blacks to be genetically inferior in intelligence. Hostility to IQ testing—much of it ignorant, or uninformed, or based on the inflation of half-truths—was then generalized to other forms of aptitude and achievement testing. That hostility soon extended to the very idea of intelligence as a measurable attribute.

A dogmatic environmentalism came to dominate most discourse on these matters among social scientists, and among much of the educated public. Differences among individuals, especially in capacity, were held to be due to socialization alone, unless proved otherwise—and the conditions for proving otherwise were essentially impossible to meet. With the passage of time, the rhetorical ante was raised, and the arguments for equality became ever more shrill. The elegant moral reasoning of a Rawls and the intricate analyses of a Jencks gave way to the vulgarity of William Ryan’s Equality (1981), which held that measured variations in intelligence were a scam devised by the “very rich” to swindle the rest of us.

It was a climate in which the idea of merit could not survive, at least not the belief that native gifts, cultivated by learning and effort, would produce achievement and reward, the fruits of which would ultimately add to the common good. Instead the following propositions became commonplace: Achievement has little to do with talent, or with effort, or with schooling. Differences in ability are a fiction, or are not measurable, or are a kind of confidence trick. The ruling class makes sure that the system is rigged to protect its own kind. The gifted can take care of themselves, or are in any case not worthy of admiration or special attention. There is no reason to stress cognitive skills over all others, since to do so is a bourgeois prejudice; it takes as much intelligence to survive on the street as to solve quadratic equations.

These propositions were not often stated quite so crudely, but stated they were, and they helped establish a moral and intellectual ambience in which striving, self-discipline, and the intellectual life itself came to be devalued. That in turn produced a loss of morale which was to diminish the moral energy of the public schools.




Beginning in the middle 1960’s, a great many parents became aware that something was going awry in the schools. Those with children in the middle or high schools could recognize symptoms of demoralization and loss of purpose: that drugs were sold openly and that school authorities were not doing much about it; that courses in math, science, and languages were disappearing; that students were rarely asked to write, and were given little work to bring home. Parents also began to feel that they could not get their concerns acted upon. On issues of discipline, the school principal might say that his hands were tied because of new developments in the law, or because the schools were wary of litigation. On the issue of a softened curriculum, he might point to changes in college entrance requirements, or utter pieties about bringing education up to date and keeping it in tune with the times, leading the parents to feel that they were back numbers. Or the principal might agree wholeheartedly, but then go on to say that things were not what they once were, that students were less manageable, less motivated, and that many families had become indifferent to the academic progress of their children.

That parents, and the general public, were becoming disenchanted with the quality of public education was evident from trend statistics collected by the Roper Organization during the last quarter-century.2 These showed a striking loss of confidence in the local schools during the period we are considering. In 1959, 64 percent of Americans felt that public education was doing an excellent or good job. That figure declined to 48 percent by 1978. Most of the drop took place between 1967 and 1971, when the proportion giving a favorable rating declined by eleven points, from 61 to 50 percent. We can infer what may have been involved in that loss of confidence from the Gallup figures on discipline in the schools. Those believing that the schools were too lax jumped from 39 percent in 1969 to an extraordinary 84 percent in 1978—about as close to unanimity as anyone ever achieves in opinion polling. That conclusion received distinct support from the potential targets of disciplinary toughness—the high-school students themselves, a majority of whom reported the following as “big problems”: classroom disturbances (64 percent), marijuana use (60 percent), theft (56 percent), and vandalism (52 percent).

The remedies proposed for the schools also showed some startling changes. There was a sharp increase in sentiment for a greater amount of homework for high-school students, from 39 percent in 1965 to 63 percent in 1978. Many students themselves agreed: 48 percent thought the work was not hard enough, contrasted with 23 percent who believed it was too hard. Finally there was a striking jump in the number favoring competence testing: from 50 percent of the general public in 1965 to 82 percent in 1978. Once again, the students agreed. In 1977, 65 percent favored a standard examination to earn the diploma, as against 35 percent who were opposed.

These findings offered compelling testimony that the public disaffection with the schools had been felt for well over a decade, and that there was nothing whimsical about it: it had been responsive to the actual vicissitudes of American schooling, specifically the easing of both academic and disciplinary demands. But what was most striking was the extraordinary cleavage between public and elite opinion on the schools. It was during the late 1960’s that a sharp decline in public confidence began showing up; and that was precisely when liberationist writing had come to dominate elite attitudes and then the media and ultimately educational practice. By the early 1970’s, the public attitude had become cynical when not altogether hostile—the schools had been turned into a playpen, at times a dangerous one, where little serious learning took place. Yet these perceptions were either ignored or rejected by vanguard opinion.

In one form or another that cleavage continues—it is one of the most striking aspects of American education today that there is so little agreement among professional educators (the public is another matter) on what is wrong with the schools, how it came about, and what if anything ought to be done about it. The public’s sourness about local schooling—now beginning to change, though rather slowly—is simply not shared by a great many experts in education, who may agree that there has been a decline in quality, but take it in stride, seeing it as the price to be paid for universal education.

Nor is it the question of quality alone that divides opinion. Shall we teach morality in the schools, and if so, how? The struggle over “values clarification” between some teachers and some parents has turned on the claim of the latter that under the pretext of teaching children how to think about moral issues, a program of moral relativism has in fact been inserted into the curriculum. The occasional disputes about sex education provide another example. Though the opinion polls show that most people—even those calling themselves conservative—approve of the idea of teaching youngsters about sexuality, a great many parents become uneasy or opposed if they believe that more than information is being conveyed, that social attitudes they find offensive are being taught as well.



These disputes are by no means new to the schools, which have always been an arena for the playing out of arguments about values and ideologies. Nevertheless, the quarrels now seem more intense than before, and seem to involve a larger range of issues. We may well have seen, since the middle 1960’s, some loss of consensus on the functions of the schools, and on the values they are meant to embody and teach. If so, that loss of consensus would have to do with a widespread shift in values among the population at large, from “materialist” to “post-materialist.”

Portents of that change have been described by social theorists for many years, from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) to Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973). More recently support has come in a variety of studies, most significantly Ronald Inglehart’s The Silent Revolution (1977), which presents data from most of the industrialized countries of the West.

As these nations advance into a more affluent phase, one less dominated by economic survival and fears of scarcity, material values lose their hold over large segments of the citizenry—especially those cohorts which are young and have enjoyed higher education—and are replaced by a greater emphasis upon aesthetic, intellectual, and communitarian values. It is a trend visible in all developed societies, and most striking in the most prosperous of them—Belgium, the U.S., and Switzerland. Certain political movements—environmentalism, for example, both here and abroad—can be understood fully only if we keep in mind the more general changes in sensibility they rest upon.

Of course it is not at all clear whether this shift in values will survive the moment, or, more precisely, will survive the current worldwide economic recession. Certainly some of the more flamboyant claims made for a new level of consciousness, as by Herbert Marcuse and Charles Reich, now seem—to put it generously—overstated. Nevertheless, it is quite evident that the emergence of these new values—transient or not, deeply rooted or not—had some considerable consequences for American education, not merely because new values always tend to jostle the status quo, but even more so because in this case they provided the agenda for a new and assertive constituency in American life.

That constituency is made up of a significant social cadre, often called the New Class—occupationally centered in government, education, journalism, and education, of extremely high educational attainment, and usually from affluent and educated families. It considers itself to be a part of or at least allied to the intelligentsia. The growth and evolution of this cadre were sensed, with an uncanny prescience, by a number of astute observers—Joseph Schumpeter and George Orwell, for example, but most strikingly in some early essays by Lionel Trilling, who noted its adversarial tendencies and its sense of affiliation with those elements in the literary and political culture that were hostile to the given order, which in American terms meant the business culture.

These intuitions about the New Class, which have often been dismissed as either speculative or tendentious, have now been confirmed in some remarkable social research by S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman comparing the views of the media elite (journalists working for prestigious newspapers, magazines, and television networks) with a group of high-level corporate executives. As we might expect, the former are more liberal on political and economic issues, and show more cynical attitudes toward American institutions. But the most substantial differences, by far, are to be found on moral questions—homosexuality, abortion, adultery—where the journalists give “liberal” responses three to four times as often as do the business executives.

Each group takes an adversary stance toward the other. Each sees the other as too influential, and itself as not influential enough, and each would like to replace the other in influence. This competition involves more than pride of place. Though it is an argument about politics and economics, it is also a struggle over which values will be ascendant—the ideal of self-restraint on the one hand, of individualism on the other.

Such differences, so strongly separating two segments of the upper bourgeoisie, are important to us not merely because these are strong and willful elites, but even more because that dispute has taken place, partially, in and about the schools. The mainstream culture fears the schools may be captured by those who, out of a misguided sense of compassion, are unwilling to make the demands necessary to a child’s intellectual and moral growth. The modernist culture fears they are academic prisons which sustain the mercenary, authoritarian aims of the heartless elements of American society.




A few months ago, I took part in taping a series of broadcasts on the state of American secondary education. For nearly a full day, our panel of five complained about the public schools: their mediocrity, their low standards, the loss of discipline and the prevalence of drugs, legislative and judicial intrusion, the abysmal level of science and mathematics teaching, the poor quality of education majors, and much, much more.

Having listened to six hours of steady pessimism, the moderator concluded by asking the group to predict the next ten years. Every face brightened. Things would be far better: demographic trends were favorable, with fewer and more able students; social pathology showed signs of ebbing; the legislators and judges had at last learned their lesson and would leave the schools alone; SAT scores would soon rise; school administrators were feeling more confident; and parents were making themselves heard. All in all, we could look forward to a glorious decade.

As Diane Ravitch has pointed out, that fluctuating mood has been all too characteristic of American sentiment on education—our pessimism is succeeded by utopian zeal. Will it really be a glorious decade? Probably not, although the schools are indeed beginning to lift themselves from the depths of the last two decades. Chester E. Finn, Jr. thinks we may be approaching a national consensus on. the importance of educational excellence. That consensus is evident at the local level, among almost all parents and most classroom teachers, wherever we find a clear determination to elevate the quality of schooling.

Yet that resolve has been present for years, and change has been slow in coming. If you spend some time among the intellectuals of education—the writers and professors—you soon see some of the reasons. A great many of them are simply stuck in the 1960’s. They believe that the widespread yearning for achievement and discipline has somehow been trumped up, that it represents a strategy to oppress minorities or to stamp out student creativity. The most powerful teachers union, the National Education Association, offers a politicized agenda for the schools, giving more stress to racial quotas in hiring than to the achievement of excellence. And many of those genuinely interested in quality want to avoid controversy, or hope to finesse the touchy issue of intellectual standards through the wonders of the technetronic age—a microcomputer at every desk.

This country deserves far better public schooling, but will get it only if it can find a way to cope with the intellectual inertia of our educational leadership.


1 Daedalus, for example, published over a hundred articles on higher education during the last quarter-century, but until last year only a handful about the schools. The shining exception is the Public Interest, which has published a steady stream of excellent articles by the most distinguished American writers on education.

2 The statistics that follow are taken from the invaluable summaries published by Public Opinion magazine (August/ September 1979, February/March 1980 and October/November 1981).

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