Commentary Magazine

Quackery in the Classroom

To begin on a note of solemn affirmation: I consider elementary and secondary education in this country to be nightmare almost unrelieved, and were I king, all that would remain would be a few of the handsomer buildings, an occasional administrator, some of the teachers, and all of the students. Such views hardly set me apart these days, for we live in plague season. In such a time, the alchemists, geomancers, and sellers of mandrake root begin to sound as likely to heal as doctors of physic. A recent anthology of the new breed of romantic educational reformers, Radical School Reform, edited by Beatrice and Ronald Gross,1 provides useful selections from just about every authority in that curious new school of educational theory where the bright, well-scrubbed, shiny faces on all the idealistic reformers almost make one forget the faint aroma of snake-oil about the halls.

I found myself pausing at the title: Radical School Reform? Why not The Revolution in the Schools? As it turns out, the editors have a special definition for what is educationally radical:

Radical has many meanings, in fact. In politics, radical means revolutionary . . . in social relations, radical means libertarian . . . in a school situation, radical means unorthodox ways of promoting learning that fall outside the scope of conventional or even innovative school practice.

As opposed, no doubt, to orthodox ways of promoting learning that fall outside the scope, and so forth. Well, I suppose Unorthodox School Reform wouldn’t quite have made it.

The book is divided into three parts, along lines reflecting with fair accuracy the three types of works which have characterized the movement: “Some Realities”; Something Else: Theory”; and “Something Else: Practice.” Despite the tidy organization of Radical School Reform, it would be difficult and not very illuminating to review it conventionally, largely because a great many of the selections are collops cut from larger works, which make little or inconsistent sense without their theoretical and dialectical contexts. I shall try, accordingly, to review the movement as much as the book, an exercise which will lead me to discuss a number of the entire works from which the Grosses excerpt, and some works not excerpted at all.



If not the first of the prophets in time—Paul Goodman and Edgar Z. Friedenberg were notables when he was yet unknown—John Holt has attained an eminence and authority nearly papal, on the basis of his first two books2 and a considerable spate of periodical literature, some of it recently collected in book form.3

How Children Fail is ultimately an infuriating book, infuriating because although it contains any number of exceptionally keen insights into the learning process, observations which would entitle their author to some importance in the history of education, it ends by finally marshaling these observations about the methodology of education into an exceptionally dogmatic and imperceptive theory of its content and end. Of that unfortunate marshaling more in time. The principal methodological insight of the work, carefully documented from Holt’s experience as a teacher in “good” private schools, is that children respond to the strategies of their teachers by developing their own set of eventually self-defeating counters, and that by providing the inspiration for such, the most enlightened of teachers in the best of schools eventually end up by subverting learning. A principal part of the process is the ease with which students learn to regard Yes answers as preferable to No, quite without regard to the extrinsic value either may have. Thus, when playing “Twenty Questions,” the object being to determine a number between 1 and 10,000, a standard gambit is to ask “Is it between 1 and 5,000?” Children in Holt’s classes invariably applaud a Yes here, groan at a No. In the closing stages of such a game, children will repeatedly ask a question already answered Yes, apparently for the simple pleasure of hearing affirmation. Holt rightly believes that such irrational behavior grows out of an emphasis on getting right answers as opposed to defensible ones.

He observes that his students frequently know appallingly little about arithmetic, no matter what their assumed preparation, so little that the first task of the teacher is to plumb the depths of their ignorance, and to start from there: he provides several impressive anecdotes suggesting how such a technique can work to teach arithmetic to those apparently ineducable in it. Another notion, as provocative if less easily documented, is that students seek refuge in incompetence, knowing that they can sink to a level which convinces teachers they are hopeless, at best not worth bothering anymore, at worst meriting praise for a pitiful level of performance.

Any reader who follows Holt through his observations of the learning process will be impressed by his ability to get inside his students, and the astuteness with which he handles what he sees there. As I shall make clear, I think Holt’s short-run influence will be deleterious, but I think there can be no doubt that if the schools can make use of those nugget-like passages in which Holt talks about how children learn, and reject the surrounding fool’s gold, Holt may yet be made to expedite that learning process which, even though he confuses it with education, is after all its basis.

An example of the detritus I have mentioned is the summary chapter of How Children Fail, in which Holt makes the first of his assaults on the notion of curriculum, a notion which he seems to understand to mean only a body of knowledge judged all-sufficient in itself. Without for the moment arguing an alternative view, that curriculum may be seen rather as a body of knowledge perhaps useful in itself, but primarily important as a tool for developing certain habits of intellectual behavior quite apart from its intrinsic value, I want to sketch the lurid sort of argument Holt uses to discredit curriculum as he defines it.

Our information, he begins, is constantly subject to revision, and it is therefore difficult to be sure that any body of knowledge now taught will be true in twenty years, let alone relevant. He cites several examples from his own education:

I studied physics at school from a fairly up-to-date text that proclaimed that the fundamental law of physics was the law of conservation of matter—matter is not created or destroyed. I had to scratch that out before I left school. . . . Not for many years after I left college did I learn that the Greeks, far from being a detached and judicious people surrounded by chaste white temples, were hot-tempered, noisy, quarrelsome, and liked to cover their temples with gold leaf and bright paint; or that most of the citizens of Imperial Rome, far from living in houses in which the rooms surrounded an atrium, or central court, lived in multi-storied apartment buildings, one of which was perhaps the largest building in the ancient world. The child who remembered everything he heard in school would live his life believing many things that were not so.

I am myself professionally incompetent to talk about conserving matter, but physicists tell me that the Law of the Conservation of Matter, no matter how badly clawed by Mr. Holt, is still around, and one of the most accepted of scientific propositions. It was last modified seriously in 1905, by something involving E = MC2. If Holt was really taught the sort of nonsense he appears to have believed about the Greeks and the Romans, that is a sad commentary on the state of classical studies at Yale University in the last generation, and, at least with regard to the Greeks, upon Holt’s ability to read such texts as the Birds or the Apology. In any event, the epiphanies vouchsafed Holt about the Greek psyche and Roman housing are far from representing a state of knowledge perfected after he took his B.A.: they represent improvements in his own understanding.

Note also the peculiar crudity of Holt’s last sentence: what children hear in school equals what they believe all their lives (as long as they remember it); and the only way, given the imperfection of knowledge, to keep them from believing the false is to keep them from hearing anything at all. The problem with the argument is that eventually it is an argument against education. Now, if the schools were teaching the Ptolemaic cosmology as truth, and Holt could demonstrate that the Copernican cosmology were true, that would surely be compelling argument against requiring anyone to study Ptolemy. But although it would also be an argument against teaching Ptolemy at all, in the sense of teaching him as truth, it would hardly be an argument against teaching astronomy. No one should be forced to study the sort of nonsense about the Greeks to which Holt was apparently exposed. But that does not mean that no one should study the Greeks.

What Holt appears to demand of the curriculum, indeed of knowledge itself, is that it should be perfected before the young study it. This seems a curiously absolutist stand for one of Holt’s general orientation, absolutist if not totalitarian: Holt’s canon of perfection would be quite understandable to the curriculum consultants who must revise eighth-grade history texts in the Soviet Union.



Allied to Holt’s view of curriculum is the claim that one piece of learning is as good as another, an assertion he supports by arguing that herpetology (which is rarely in the secondary curriculum) is as exciting to some students as chemistry (which usually is), and that science (whatever that is) may excite some more than Roman Britain. Without pointing out that herpetology is, after all, a branch of biology, which is in the curriculum, and that we live in a world threatened by the activities of scientists who were in effect allowed not to learn about Roman Britain, it can be said that these examples do not do a great deal to demonstrate the truth of the assertion that one piece of learning is as good as another, a statement, whatever its fatuity, which is beginning to be profoundly influential in contemporary educational theory. A group of my friends are starting an experimental college called, significantly, “The Learning Community.” Their prospectus contains the remark, “We will not be concerned that certain things are being learned, but rather, that everyone in the Community is learning.” The people who wrote that are cultivated and gifted scholar-teachers, and when I hear such people talk like that, I begin to wonder if education may indeed be obsolete. It ought to be patent that not all learning is equally desirable: the learning capacity includes at minimum the power to learn (a) truth, good habits, and sound values, as well as (b) falsehood, bad habits, and deplorable values. There is no evidence from history or behavioral science to indicate that man’s capacity or disposition for learning (a) is greater than his capacity or disposition for learning (b).

Underlying Holt’s argument here is a basic confusion common to most of the recent reformers, the confusion of education and learning. Historically the latter has been seen as a process by which the former may proceed. Holt and his school either fail to distinguish between the two, or, having made the distinction, prefer the part to the whole. Traditional education, warts and all, always assumed that something was needed to mobilize learning in the service of education, indeed to insure that the learning that went on was of the sort I have called (a) rather than of the sort I have called (b). One would not be excessively idealistic to suggest that education is learning of the (a) variety and that what goes on at (b) can best be called miseducation, a process no more a variety of education than National Socialism is a variety of Socialism. A principal device available to education to keep it from being miseducation is in fact a curriculum. No one in his right mind would argue that the curriculum as currently defined does much to prevent such degeneration; but to argue that the present misuse of a technique has led to nothing but failure does not lead to the conclusion that any other technique is necessarily better. “Nothing but failure” is an advised use of words: a prime article of faith for Holt and the others is that learning is simply impossible in a conventional setting. Holt himself begins How Children Fail by claiming that most children do fail. This belief is not unlike that dogma of the old education that no education ever took place before the birth of John Dewey, and that since his birth none has taken place outside the United States. Under Holt’s assumptions, it is difficult to understand how he learned to write and we to read.

This confusion of education and learning leads to a secondary one, that of methodology and content. How Children Fail often achieves brilliance as an analysis of methodology; as a treatment of content it is callow and unoriginal. While nowhere does it contain a persuasive argument that the adoption of a certain methodology makes a curriculum impossible, it does argue that any required learning is coercion and that coercion is always painful. The problem is that the Social Contract eventually coerces us all, and Holt thinks that education should be integrated with life. A school absolutely free would be a poor learning laboratory for even the most libertarian society: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” It is easy to forget that the chains of which Rousseau speaks are not the infamies of the Old Regime, but rather the minimal restraint necessary for a free society.

Holt’s second book, How Children Learn, is at once less controversial and less original than his first. “Little children learn far more easily and effectively than we have realized.” Such a statement accurately paraphrases any number of sentences in the work, and also its total content: the subset is the set. It is true enough, I suppose, if we imagine a we sufficiently ignorant, a non-parent, perhaps. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) knew all about the precocity of children, and used her knowledge to construct an educational system with rigors I presume Mr. Holt would deplore. I doubt that many observant parents would be surprised by Mr. Holt’s descriptions of infant capacity to learn, but heaven knows the educational establishment might be.

Holt’s lengthy discussions of learning to talk and read appear to be innocent of any knowledge of much of the relevant linguistic theory, particularly the work of Noam Chomsky. His major conclusion, that because we all teach ourselves to talk, admittedly a difficult task, we therefore have the capacity to learn every sort of difficult task, would seem to be challenged by Chomsky’s notion of an innate linguistic competence, that man is predisposed to talk. He is not necessarily predisposed to play the ‘cello, ski, or develop educational theory.

Oversimplification from inadequate knowledge runs throughout Holt’s work (to a greater degree than it runs throughout everyone else’s). He cultivates a simple style, and does not assume a great deal of knowledge on the part of his audience. (“Going south from London on a train, I found myself in a compartment—a small, closed-in section seating eight passengers.”) Whether he really knows as little about linguistics as he appears to in the sections on talking and reading, I cannot say: perhaps he simplifies for his presumed unsophisticated audience. Certainly, to talk about talking and reading in 1967 without some knowledge of Chomsky would be as quaint as to talk about motion without some knowledge of Einstein.



Like How Children Fail, its successor, How Children Learn, follows a hundred pages or so of sensible observation with a section of weighty conclusion, and the conclusion is familiar:

What we need to do, and all we need to do, is bring as much of the world as we can into the school and the classroom; give the children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for, listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest [emphasis added].

He again assaults the curriculum with the same knowledge-gets-out-of-date argument, trotting out the conservation of matter for a second appearance, sparing the Greeks and the Romans the embarrassment, and adding valence. (“I mentioned valence to a chemist the other day, and he laughed. When I asked what was so funny, he said, ‘Nobody talks about valence any more; it’s an outmoded concept.’” Holt’s alchemical friends may be more à la mode than mine, several of whom assure me that while valence is not necessarily on the frontier of research, it is alive and well in one of the most widely used basic texts in physical chemistry, Coulson’s Valence.)

What Holt grasps for—and does not reach—in these examples is some modern equivalent of one of the famous fossils of knowledge that everyone once knew and which have had to be unlearned, such as the Ptolemaic cosmology. Even had he succeeded, the search would have been pointless. Intellectual endeavor frequently proceeds by reacting against the vulnerable orthodoxies of the past: it is not at all certain that Newton would exist without Aristotle, or Einstein without Newton; Chomsky comes to his work in generative grammar from the training in structuralism which prepared him to overturn it. Although Holt may argue that the Einsteins and the Chomskys do not need an orthodoxy against which to kick, we have little evidence that this is so, and even less that lesser minds would challenge themselves without the spur of curriculum. Since Holt is fond of citing his miseducation, let me immodestly cite mine. One of my graduate schools coerced me into the study of linguistics, a subject which delighted me not. I still recall the classes as poisoned by the sort of coercive atmosphere Holt rightly detects in the required course. Yet I eventually became so interested in the discipline that it occupies a considerable amount of my intellectual life, and provides me with some of my most enjoyable teaching. My undergraduate college, on the other hand, allowed me to be a Bachelor of Arts without any exposure to mathematics, leaving me with no more than tenth-grade geometry, as dimly remembered as Holt’s Hellas. My work in linguistics requires a knowledge of mathematics, however limited, in excess of what I have, and I am forced to go to my colleagues with questions they must at best regard as pitiful. In fact, it is precisely our inability to know at ten, fourteen, or twenty-three, exactly where we are headed intellectually that demonstrates the desirability of the liberal-arts curriculum, a chance to profit from the mistakes of others.

Holt’s third book, The Underachieving School, is, despite its title, not an articulated critique of the schools, any more than the earlier books were comprehensive accounts of learning theory. The first two were largely revisions of memoranda Holt had produced as a teacher (one cannot but envy the technique of an educator who is able to sell his old memoranda) and this last is largely a reprint of pieces recently published elsewhere, some rewritten substantially, others not at all, since as the author tells us, “this collection may be useful in different ways to many people, it seemed a good idea to make it available as quickly as possible.” (As many of the pieces originally appeared in such obscure and scarce journals as the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Magazine, PTA Magazine, and Life, it is easy to understand Holt’s desire to get them to a wider audience before it became too late.)



While there is a lot of repetition from Holt’s other books (valence comes forward again, and those chaste white temples return from exile), many of the pieces in The Underachieving School are substantial developments of notions earlier casually put, and some of these are provocatively and persuasively done. In “Schools Are Bad Places for Kids,” the essential argument, that an enlightened school is too often run like an enlightened prison, seems to me unanswerable. Holt’s perceptions of the horrors of such an environment, and of the effect on its inmates, are astutely and compellingly developed. “Not So Golden Rule Days” argues for the abolition of compulsory attendance. Here is Holt at his provocative best, arguing from the grounds of civil liberty. The compulsory-attendance law once protected children from exploitation in factories. Now that child labor is forbidden outside of schools, the state ought to justify anew its detention of a substantial portion of the population. The only justification which would convince Holt—or me—is that being in school is clearly better for the student than being out of it. For a portion, at least, of today’s students, this claim cannot be made. Holt correctly assumes that there is no hope of legislative repeal of the compulsory attendance law, and suggests a challenge in the courts on what would be semi-habeas-corpus grounds. That all good things would flow from such an overturning is not so clear to me as it is to Holt, but his arguments deserve a wide and impartial hearing.

If Holt is compelling when arguing from grounds other than educational, e.g. civil libertarian, his other proposals of comparable originality and controversiality can be dismaying:

Taking a longer view, I cannot see why any college should not admit anyone and everyone who applied for admission. What if they get filled up? Then let them do what any theater or movie house does—hang out a sign that there is no more room, and that people will have to wait for the next performance . . . let a student judge whether or not he will be able to do the work at a college. If I go to a concert hall to hear a difficult piece of music nobody gives me an exam at the door to make sure that I am going to be able to understand it. It may in fact be too difficult and I may not understand or like it and so waste my time and money. That is my risk and my misfortune. . . . The same is true when I buy a book, go to a play, or a lecture, or a museum. Let the student take the same risk.

Cutting gordian knots is doubtless great fun, but behind such an argument lies a series of profound misunderstandings of the metaphysics and mechanics of higher education. It is a vulgar fact that if museums and concert halls do not themselves suffer from the failures of their patrons, colleges do. The personal cost to the student who fails is ample reason for a college to try to admit only those with a reasonable chance of success, which is, after all, the principal aim of an admissions policy (given a philosophy of education under which some students succeed and others fail). But there is a serious cost to the institution itself: attrition rates affect the college in important ways. In any college budget part of the income is derived from so many tuitions paid at such and such a rate. If the college expects $2,400,000 from tuition at a rate of $2,400 a year, then the equivalent of 1,000 students must pay full tuition. Let a student paying full tuition be called a full-time equivalent student (FTE). If a college admits 400 freshmen, and none drops out by the end of the year, then it has 400 FTE freshmen. If half of them drop out at the end of the first term, then it has only 300 FTE, and with an attrition rate of 50 per cent, it would be necessary to admit 600 freshmen to achieve 400 FTE. No college would willingly confront the severe problems inherent in handling so artificially large a class for the fall term. Further, if one is trying for, say, 1,200 FTE students for an entire college, it would be necessary to admit a freshman class (whatever its own attrition) disproportionately large in order to cancel the attrition from the three succeeding years. The costs of handling such inflated classes are enormous, and, in many ways, the other-than-financial costs are equally high. I labor this small lesson in the economics of higher education because it demonstrates how Holt’s unwillingness to educate himself in the areas in which he pontificates can lead him into patently absurd proposals. (Holt would probably argue that one ought not to fail anyone. But the majority of college dropouts—at least in liberal-arts colleges—leave voluntarily. And if one argues that the college ought to be made so attractive to students that they will stay, whatever the cost to an educational program, well, that is an argument, but it is not the one Holt advances, which is that there is no problem to open admissions.)

But there is another horror in Holt’s argument for open admissions; and his apparent ignorance of it suggests the depths of his confusion about what really goes on in college. Students are not, like Holt in the concert hall, passive consumers. Few colleges conduct their program entirely by lecture, and at one like mine, which tries to conduct most instruction in small discussion groups (a model which I suppose Holt would prefer to Behemoth State U.), there is an absolute need for students who can not only profit from the experience, but who help promote it for others. Students who sit in apathy because they aren’t able to enjoy the concert cheapen the experience for all. Holt, curiously, seems to believe that students are so peripheral to the educational experience that school can go on without them, as long as they pay their tuition. This view might find some support in the graduate faculty at Behemoth State, but I am surprised to see it held by John Holt.

The failure of the student who does not learn is not his failure alone, nor are the consequences. My own view, that a great college succeeds only with great students, is unashamedly but embarrassedly elitist, and I would gratefully forswear it any time I can be convinced that an institution which tries to educate everybody can educate anybody. Holt’s uninformed and simplistic argument does not convince.



I turn with some trepidation to one of Holt’s most recent publications. While it is somehow fitting for our convolute and electronic culture to review in COMMENTARY a review in the New York Review of Books of a book one plans to review in COMMENTARY, it is nevertheless a considerable organizational challenge. But I shall try, since Holt’s review of George Dennison’s The Lives of Children4 says as much about Holt as it does about Dennison.

With Holt’s opening judgment of The Lives of Children as “by far the most perceptive, moving, and important book on education that I have ever read,” I am in essential agreement, although not, as will be seen, for the same reasons. With another of Holt’s judgments I am in some little disagreement:

Our educational system, at least at its middle-and upper-class layers, likes to say and indeed believes that an important part of its task is transmitting to the young the heritage of the past, the great traditions of history and culture. The effort is an unqualified failure. The proof we see all around us. A few of the students in our schools, who get good marks and go to prestige colleges, exploit the high culture, which many of them do not really understand or love, by pursuing comfortable and well-paid careers as university Professors of English, History, and Philosophy, etc. Almost all the rest reject that culture wholly and utterly.

The average Ivy League graduate is . . . estranged from the cultural tradition, certainly those parts of it that were shoved down his throat in school. . . . The entertainment high-light of the class dinner at my 25th college reunion, and the nearest thing to a cultural event during the whole weekend, was a low-comedy parody of grand opera. It seemed to be just what most of my classmates expected and wanted.

If this passage is a sample of the intellectual habits engendered by an Ivy League education, then I can only share Mr. Holt’s contempt for it. There are two appalling statements here: first, that you can’t even exploit the “high culture” except by way of a prestige college (a view suggestive of the sweeping snobbery which seems to characterize Holt’s understanding of higher education, an impression reinforced by the assertion that even Ivy League graduates are estranged from that culture), and secondly, the impudent claim that vast numbers of people whom Holt knows neither in person nor by reputation neither understand nor love that which they profess. The first claim is that of a snob, the second that of a bigoted dogmatist who has yet to show that he himself understands or loves any part of culture. (Now that I think of it, if Holt’s classmates had what appears to have been his exposure to the Greeks, their estrangement is entirely understandable.) College teaching is, to be sure, now adequately paid, but the notion that the life of the mind is ever comfortable suggests that the holder has never experienced that life, and the view that the life of the mind on a college campus is today comfortable suggests further a surprising insensitivity to the world about us. Where can John Holt have been? The review’s major failing, however, lies in its abstraction of Dennison’s experience with seriously rebellious primary students into assertions about education in general. As will be seen, this is a fault of which Dennison himself is innocent.



Holt’s latest word is a statement in a recent issue of Look, on the kind of schools he thinks we will need in the 70’s. The compactness of the piece and the fact that it was intended for a mass audience combine to exaggerate two traits evident elsewhere in Holt’s writing—a humble, retiring style masking a Johnsonian dogmatism:

Abolish all compulsory testing and grading. If a student wants his teacher to test his knowledge or competence . . . fine. All other grading is destructive and inexcusable. . . . Students of any age should get academic credit, as some college students do now, for holding down a job. . . . Let people, of whatever age, go in and out of school when they see fit, using it when it seems most useful to them. Let the learner direct his own learning.

The self-effacing cast of these remarks conceals the essentially authoritarian nature of their content. Recast them, or add a prefatory statement such as, “Sir, the education of those in their nonage is best effectuated by . . .” and the disjunction will be marvellously reduced. Even though pomposity and dogma are often joined, he who eschews the first does not necessarily eschew the second. For proof of this dogma, see Holt, passim.

What to say in sum, then, about Holt, whose predominance in this essay accurately reflects his predominance in his movement, and his possible influence for evil or for good? He will still be read some years hence (unless some successor adapts his theories of learning without accepting his romantic excesses) because he really has a great deal to say about teaching. But he does not know a great deal about education, and his current development does not encourage the hope that he will begin to learn about it. One wishes that he had contented himself with doing what he is obviously very good at, looking at the ways children learn. Perhaps it is an inescapable artifact of a time desperately looking for easy solutions to difficult problems that a man who is good at one thing will eventually come to believe that that’s all there is to the problem.

Unfortunately, his present eminence is likely to cause a good deal of trouble long before he has a place in history. I have already dealt with the consequences of his popularization of the hoary chestnut that learning equals education. But what is finally most dangerous in his doctrine, dangerous yet nonetheless popular, is his assault on the necessity of preserving and transmitting culture. Now, it is not clear to me that Holt believes that culture ought to be preserved and transmitted, but I am quite sure that if it is it will not be by the sort of “education” he preaches, just as sure as he is that it is not being transmitted now. (In this connection, incidentally, it might be pointed out that the fact that Holt and his audience seem to know what he’s talking about suggests that the failure is not quite so unqualified as he claims.)

Notwithstanding the forests heretofore consumed in arguing the desirability of liberal education on the grounds of cultural transmission, I will not take the transmission as obviously desirable, but content myself with two arguments in its favor, the hedonistic and the pragmatic.

The first is easily dealt with: “high culture” can be fun. It apparently is not fun for Mr. Holt, who does not exploit it with one of those well-paid and soft jobs in literature, philosophy, or history; it is clearly not fun for everyone; but it is fun for some of us. And unless one wishes to argue that some of us are somehow hereditarily competent to enjoy it while some are not—are you there, Mr. Holt?—it seems that what is needed is the improvement of transmission, not its suspension. The notion that the transmission is impossible for most ordinary blokes and provisionally possible for Yale graduates smacks of cultural snobbism, educational adventurism, high-culture elitism, and heaven knows what else.

Second, without wishing to argue for the sort of vulgar relevance now called for at every hand, I would suggest that “high culture” is in fact useful. It would be a dunderheaded reader of Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War who did not find in its analysis of the downfall of the Athenian empire chilling omen for the American. Aristotle’s treatment of rhetoric is still a cogent account of the art of persuasion. There is good stuff in Dante, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, and so forth, and so forth.

I will pass over as circular any argument to the effect that Thucydides is still essential to him who would understand what history is, Plato to the would-be philosopher; even if I could prove this, the benefit would accrue only to those comfortable and well-paid philosophers and historians who graduate from Ivy League colleges. But at least for those of us who desire cultivation of our cultural heritage, I cannot recommend Holt’s view of education as likely to effect it. In an intellectual milieu increasingly seduced by the supermarket, or even by custom-tailored cultures (one selects from a variety of sources the culture one likes best, or, even more groovy, constructs one’s own counter-culture), it is not surprising to find educational philosophy ignoring the problem of cultural transmission. While it may be tempting to imagine that information retrieval, the media, and the counter-cultures may in time give us so much culture that its preservation may seem as otiose a task as preserving the buffalo must have seemed in 1820, and while to insist on the transmission of culture as an end of education puts one in the unpleasant company of the likes of Max Rafferty (who, whatever his other faults, is no Yahoo), the necessity and desirability of that transmission ought to remain an open issue. The Middle Ages knew a good deal more about classical antiquity than is generally supposed, but it also knew a good deal less than we know, largely thanks to the activities of the Visigoths and like-minded people. The survival of some fairly important parts of classical antiquity was a pretty near thing: we know the works of Catullus because in 1453 a looter at the fall of Constantinople turned up the only manuscript of his poems; and all the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and many of Euripides, have survived because of a single Alexandrian textbook. The New Visigoths are at the gates, and it is no time to be complacent about cultural survival. (The Visigothic impulse is hardly limited to the destruction of texts: Chaucer did not read Homer, not because Homer had disappeared from view, but because, like almost all of his contemporaries, Chaucer could not read Greek.)

Holt’s latest vision comes at the end of the Look article, in which he sets forth an ideal of child-directed “education.” Aside from its stunning un-originality, what can we say of the idea? As I write this, the students at my college are finishing up a month-long session of do-your-own education known as Paideia. (A pretentious name, to be sure, but preferable to its predecessor, Unstructured Independent Study. A classicist friend, asked to translate paideia for the benefit of the naming committee, rendered it Structured Dependent Study.) Certainly some education goes on during the period, but a depressing number of students turn out to require instruction in sour-dough bread baking and the I-Ching. And this is at best harmless. I remember a freshman from last fall who complained about having to study the irrelevant Greeks. What she wanted to study was the American Indians, who lived with nature, rather than against it, an altogether more promising lifestyle. I assume as normal her having decided the superiority of the Indian life-style before having studied it, but I wonder whether by herself she would eventually question the difficulties inherent in living with, rather than against, the bacilli of smallpox and syphilis. As long as intellectual faddism is challenged by reactionary educational statesmanship, there is still some hope of education as synthesis. But in a situation where ecologically-oriented communes reject the straight culture as long as no one has appendicitis, and organic-food freaks cheerfully introduce into their bloodstreams such naturally-grown pollutants as LSD, one begins to understand that a little learning is at least a foolish thing. And perhaps Pope was right about the danger: consider one of the most voracious and highly-motivated self-learners of the last generation, Adolf Hitler. He read widely, and thought intensely about what he read. But being his own judge of what he wanted to learn and how well he wanted to learn it, he was, at best, “loosely educated,” in the splendid phrase of Sir Winston Churchill (a figure of whose education I doubt Mr. Holt would approve). The example is extreme, but one not reassuring as to the value of self-directed education. It is hard to imagine a curriculum-guide which would have told Hitler he was doing well, at least outside the educational system he himself eventually created.



It is, I suppose, an indication of the desperation of the educational malady that a theorist of Holt’s slender ability should be listened to. But, as I have remarked, it is plague season. Consider, for example, another work generously excerpted by the Grosses, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingarten.5 This is the most jargon-ridden and pretentious of the current bibles, the most assiduous in setting forth vulgarizations of what competent teachers have always known, and dressing the result up in the sort of Choctaw currently in favor in the Regional Education Laboratories. This is not surprising, for the authors, while lambasting the educational establishment, are in fact themselves professors of education, Postman at New York University and Weingarten at Queens College. They are, it must be said, several orders of magnitude better than the authors who usually write from schools of education, but the establishment against which they rebel has left its dread mark on them, especially in terms of a weakness for the glorification of the routine and for the windily romantic in terminology. (Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover: the dust jacket is decorated with a red apple fitted with a burning fuse, a device consonant with a general tone designed to blow the minds of faculty malcontents smoking in the boiler-room at Kremlin High School in Kremlin, Idaho.)

Thus well begun, the authors start with a discussion of the need for the “built-in, shockproof crap detector,” a concept the sturdy elegance of which is doubtless explained by its derivation from Hemingway, and which appears akin to critical sense, or perhaps to skepticism. The opening chapter, “Crap Detecting,” proceeds to an obligatory account of the Knowledge Explosion, then introduces us to Marshall McLuhan, described as “one of the most dangerous men around at the moment . . . because he seems to be subverting traditional assumptions.” Postman and Weingarten are the only critics I know who treat McLuhan less critically than McLuhan.

Having defined education as crap-detecting, the authors proceed to develop one of the most original theses ever propounded in a program of radical education:

The Inquiry Method of teaching and learning is an attempt to redesign the structure of the classroom. It is a new medium, and messages are different than [sic] those usually communicated to students.

If the method is new, they tell us, the terms used by its critics are not:

In instances where someone wishes to dismiss the inquiry method, it is common to hear, “Oh, all you mean is the Socratic Method.” That serves as terminal punctuation. No more need be said. In better circumstances, serious people search for a “real” name: the inductive method, inquiry training, the hypothetical mode of teaching, inferential learning, the deductive-inductive method, the inductive-deductive method, and so on.

It is not quite clear whether the authors regard “Socratic method” as a proper label, rightly understood, but they shortly suggest that Socrates was in fact very close to developing the all-new Inquiry Method, and suggest further a reason for the unhappy end of his promising career in the New Education: “All authorities get nervous when learning is conducted without a syllabus.” This remark illumines the Apology in a light so intense as well-nigh to blind, and I can only retire blinking with the remark that if all the people in the world who use the term “Socratic method” were laid end to end, there would be a good deal less philosophical confusion among those left standing.

If the Inquiry Method is really anything new, then I guess I don’t understand it, but let me quote the authors on the behavior characterizing the Inquiry Teacher:

The teacher rarely tells students what he thinks they ought to know. His basic mode of discourse with students is questioning. Generally, he does not accept a single statement as an answer to a question. [Everyone knows there are two sides to every question—S.M.] He encourages student-student interaction as opposed to student-teacher interaction. And generally he avoids acting as a mediator or judge of the quality of ideas expressed. He rarely summarizes positions taken by students on the learnings that occur. His lessons develop from the responses and not from a previously determined logical structure. Generally, each of his lessons poses a problem for students. He measures his success in terms of behavioral changes in students.

Well, these are all reasonably harmless prescriptions, if administered with a reasonable dose of salt. A good teacher worries about the dangers of killing discussion by too hasty disagreement with ideas expressed; but an absolute commitment not to judge the quality of ideas presented in class is a commitment to irresponsibility. I presume the inquiry-centered doctor would not judge the somatic condition of his clients, but rather would try to get them to come to a self-diagnosis. As a matter of fact, there is almost nothing in these prescriptions to which any sound teacher would not give qualified assent. What is ludicrous about their appearance in Teaching as a Subversive Activity is the notion that somehow they characterize some sort of switched-on operative who becomes possible only after reading the relevant chapter in Postman and Weingarten.



From these truisms, the authors proceed to a discussion of the one issue it is my fervent hope to outlive: relevance. Speaking of doctors, as we were, they open the chapter with a witty playlet involving a group of doctors at a Blear General Hospital, including a Dr. Gillupsie, a Dr. Killdear, a Dr. Fuddy, and a Dr. Car-stairs, who, no one will be surprised to find out, is the Good Guy. The first three open the scene with a good deal of discussion about gallstone removals qua gallstone removals, frontal lobotomies qua frontal lobotomies, and the like, leading into such snappy dialogue as:

Fuddy: Frankly, I never cared much for appendectomies.

Gillupsie: Appendectomies?

Fuddy: Well, that seemed to be the trouble with the patient in 397.

Gillupsie: But you stayed with the old pilonidalcyst excision, eh?

Fuddy: Right, chief.

Although the playlet does not carry, well as it might, Artemus Ward’s annotation, N. B. This is wrote sarkastikul, the authors do belabor the point: “Perhaps our playlet needs no further elaboration, but we want to underscore some of its points.” The main point is that teachers who teach courses their students don’t want are like doctors who perform operations their patients don’t need. The shift from want to need or, rather, the confusion of these two, is a device absolutely essential to the contemporary ideology of relevance, even when comparatively sophisticated ideologues obfuscate the confusion further by talking about wants as felt needs. Implicit here is another confusion, that teaching = medicine, and hence student = patient. This confusion, heaven knows, is becoming epidemic, as education becomes more and more an essay at bootleg psychotherapy and less and less an attempt to deal with the healthy, but the educational theorists could take a leaf from the obstetricians, who are well aware that uncomplicated pregnancy and childbirth do not constitute a disease.

A good example of the unneeded operation, according to Postman and Weingarten, is grammar. Grammar, we are told, has its controversies, but

. . . they are of such a sterile and generally pointless nature that only one who is widely removed from human concerns can derive much stimulation from them. Browning’s line that grammarians are dead from the waist down captures the sense of what we are trying to say about them. (An emphatic exception to Browning’s observation is Professor Noam Chomsky, who has recently distinguished himself as an invaluable “crap detector” of the language of political bureaucrats and “house intellectuals.”) . . . You see, there simply aren’t any children who would have any possible reason—now or for the rest of their lives—to care about how a noun is defined, or what the transformational rules are for forming the passive voice, or how many allomorphs there are of the plural morpheme.

There is enough Yahooism in that passage to last your average educational romantic through several books, but here is God’s plenty. One wonders whether Professor Chomsky is excluded from the authors’ Browningesque strictures simply be cause he serves as a kind of latter-day Maury Maverick, or whether additionally they are making some special claims about his manliness. Of his profoundly original and influential contributions to our understanding of language, there is no mention. To say that there are no children who will ever have any reason at any time in life to care how many allomorphs there are in the plural morpheme says simply that no one should ever study linguistics. Such a position is perhaps comprehensible, but not in Messrs. Postman and Weingarten, who are, a jacket blurb informs us, co-authors of Linguistics: A Revolution in Teaching6 I’ve already paid my debt to Postman and Weingarten, and don’t intend to read the book, but I have read the reviews, and they confirm one’s inference from the title: the authors hold that (a) there is a science called linguistics; and (b) it can effect an educational revolution. What can one say of people who publish such a work in 1966, and who in 1969 argue that linguists are not only sterile but also impotent, practitioners of a discipline in any event of no use whatever to anyone? One can express admiration of their sense of the market, that’s what one can do.

To intrude for a moment in my role as jackleg linguist, I should express my view that linguistics is irrelevant to learning to write, just as hydrocarbon chemistry is irrelevant to learning to drive, and that the current emphasis on “linguistic” high-school composition programs is 99.8 percent fraud, most of it impious. The proper place of linguistics in the secondary schools is next to chemistry, physics, and biology. Unfortunately, the schools are prone to gimmicky fads, and the teaching of composition so difficult, that the snake-oil salesmen do particularly well here. To say all of which is not to share in the sort of ignorant opportunism evident in Postman and Weingarten.

Lest I seem to select an isolated example of troglodyte argument, see next our anti-linguists play at etymology:

Advocates of “high standards” characteristically and unwittingly invoke other revealing metaphors. One of the most frequently used of these is “basic fundamentals.” Indulging our propensity to inquire into the language of education, we find that the essential portion of the word “fundamental” is the word “fundament.” It strikes us as poetically appropriate that “fundament” also means the buttocks, and specifically the anus. We will resist the temptation to explore the unconscious motives of “fundamentalists.”

Well, I’ll resist the temptation to explore the intellectual qualifications of people who argue by means of such pitiful combinations of folk etymology and weak pun, but I cannot resist the temptation to quote them once again:

The new education . . . enters into an entirely new “business”: fundamentally [sic], the crap-detecting and relevance business.

My ability to resist temptation is even sufficient to keep me from speculating as to the unconscious motivations of those for whom “crap-detecting” is a basic metaphor for education. People with glass fundaments. . .



Postman and Weingarten, to do them justice, do believe in the need for a curriculum, albeit a swinging one. Gracefully called a What’s Worth Knowing Questions Curriculum, it consists, in one version, of such stuff:

What do you worry about most?
What are the causes of your worries?
Can any of your worries be eliminated? How?
Which of them might you deal with first? How
    do you decide?
Are there any other people with the same prob-
    lems? How do you know? How do you find
* * *
How can you tell “good guys” from “bad guys”?
How can “good” be distinguished from “evil”?
* * *
What do you think are some of man’s most im-
    portant ideas? Where did they come from?
    Why? How? Now what?
What’s a “good idea”?
* * *
Which of man’s ideas would we be better off
What is “progress”?
* * *
If you wanted to stop one of the changes going
   on now (pick one), how would you go about
   it? What consequences would you have to
* * *
What’s worth knowing? How do you decide?

We ought clearly to distinguish two questions about these questions: whether they are worth asking (they are), and whether they provide anything which could responsibly be called a curriculum (I think not). They are, first of all, distressingly inclined toward navel-watching, which may be a pleasant enough activity, but which is no substitute for education. A little experience with that fraction of the college generation which has ceased to worry about knowing anything except itself makes me suspect that we don’t need to encourage such notions by institutionalization. One can accept Pope’s advice to know first oneself, without forgetting that his next generalization was not “the proper study of mankind is you.”

Other considerations militate against accepting these questions as a curriculum. The psychotherapeutic tone of the earlier ones suggest that the answers might well be sought from answerers with some training in therapy. (If the craze for Sensitivity Training, T-Groups, and so forth continues we may well have a generation which thinks it is competent at the sort of therapy envisioned in this curriculum, but I prefer to take a more optimistic view.) It seems of dubious value for adolescents to undertake this sort of self-analysis under the quality of guidance likely to be available in most high-schools. Moreover, answering questions like “What is change? What is progress?” is the sort of endeavor likely to be very difficult for anyone without considerable grounding in the methodologies and factual content of history and philosophy. There is, of course, no reason why the young should not ask these questions. The objection is to considering that asking such questions constitutes a curriculum.

And, finally the later questions, for all of the authors’ cautions against judging ideas in the classroom, have a distinct bias. There is a curious dearth of questions like “Is change a good thing?” and “What is stability?” Postman and Weingarten seem to be reasonably committed to the proposition that any change is a good thing, and their questions, in a world which agrees with them, are not likely to get students wondering whether an occasional status quo ante may not also be a good thing: the United States role in Vietnam prior to the Geneva conference, for example.



My objections so far have been to the way in which two theorists embody the principle of relevance. But the principle itself can also stand closer examination. Relevant has become such a term of praise—and its negative has been for so long a term of dispraise—that the proposition that learning ought to be relevant has become generally accepted, with the current battle fought largely on whether, say, Homer is as relevant as Cleaver. But there are at least two serious objections to imposing the test of relevance, however defined, on what is to constitute the curriculum, however defined: that the test of relevancy encourages an essentially destructive attitude toward knowledge, and that it can become the pretext for substituting emotional predispositions for serious thought.

Most thinking people would see the danger of requiring that the objects of learning be National Socialist, Socialist, Capitalist, Christian, American, safe, clean, or courteous. And the objection one could make to imposing such criteria is not that the implicit goals are necessarily evil, for who would object to courtesy as a goal? The trouble here is that each of these tests proscribes some large body of knowledge. The fact that the Inquisition required of Galileo that his teaching be Christian suggests clearly the danger here: true, like pregnant, cannot be qualified as very, or slightly; and further, it cannot be modified as National Socialist, American, or relevant. Such a statement as “All Americans desire to live in a suburb and have 2.3 children” might be said to have white middle-class truth, but that is a claim as false as the original statement. The term All Americans is not modified by talking about a species of truth derived from it, and the claim remains false. In the same way, truth cannot be properly modified by relevant, and for reasons other than grammatical or logical: the truth is, truth can become relevant only after it is established. The calculus, for example, was not particularly useful when Newton devised it, at least not useful beyond making more efficient certain processes also operable with geometry, and the theories of relativity had at their birth little practical application. Had Newton and Einstein been successfully limited to the pursuit of the relevant, we would all know a good deal less than we do now. We do not know, often cannot know, as we pursue truth, whether we or anyone else will have any use for it, immediately or ultimately. What is relevant here, if you will, is that our inability to predict the relevancy of truth requires us to pursue it wherever it may be found. The life of the mind is as crippled when its objects are defined in terms of relevance as when they are defined in terms of any sort of orthodoxy. It is possible to make a case—as I have suggested earlier—that some objects of study are more relevant than may appear, but this should not obscure the fact that the very existence of a relevance test is more dangerous than any abuse which might be made of it by the unknowing.

It may be justly observed that the objections I raise here seem pertinent especially to higher education, and that since the high schools have not in the past been concerned with the pursuit of truth, one need not bother to attack conditions unfavorable to that pursuit. Well, that’s just the problem with the high schools: they have concerned themselves largely with promulgating shoddy orthodoxies, and perhaps sending them on a relevancy kick will make the situation no worse. But I presume the authors are looking for ways to improve the situation. It will not matter how much truth is discovered at Behemoth State if the relevancy freaks at John Holt High suppress most of it as irrelevant.

And not all those who cry for relevance in the interest of the learner really know what they are doing. I recently came across a declaration issued by a teacher of “social studies” in a new and highly switched-on high school, wherein he tells his students that they ought to study only what is relevant, and that what is relevant is what will enable them to make more money or supply them with immediate enjoyment. They are not slaves any more, he informs them, and they are at long last free to do exactly as he tells them. That he has settled for them in advance two questions still being hotly debated outside his classroom—namely, whether there is a need for relevance, and what is relevant—does not seem to bother him. It appears that in the high schools, as elsewhere, it is possible to invoke the dictatorship of the proletariat in the service of the fascist ruling circles.



If the ideology of relevance is potentially dangerous because it provides a scheme for enforcing a new orthodoxy (which is, as Sydney Smith defined it, “my doxy; heterodoxy is another man’s”), there is yet another danger. Relevant subjects are often defined as those subjects having immediate or prospective practical value, but this neo-Babbittry is in some ways less troubling than another definition—that relevant subjects are those subjects to which one can relate. Anyone who teaches, as I do, a required freshman course beginning with Homer and ending with Montaigne, spends a good deal of time debating the question of relevance with his students. And many of the bright and committed students with whom I deal, although they do their share of complaining about the irrelevancy of Montaigne on practical grounds—though they desperately wish to change their patently unsatisfactory environments, the last thing they want to do is to learn about previous attempts at the same thing—often seem to regard the intellectual experience as essentially emotional, a sort of sweaty grappling with ideas. Now, while the life of the mind is frequently an emotional one—and there are few sights more noble than that of a man driven by passionate reason—the reason comes first, the passion second, and he who wrestles with ideas only because he is emotionally attracted to them is at least temporarily disabled as an intellectual. When one believes that only those ideas which are already somehow provisionally a part of one are worthy of intellectual-emotional engagement, then the range of thought is seriously reduced. The sorts of ideas, moreover, which seem most amenable to the ecstatic embrace are often those which the intellect would, given its chance, reject, as witness the current fad for the irrational, from “serious” students who seek guidance in the I-Ching and the astrology manuals, to the activists who with a straight face denounce reason as a repressive device invented by the military-industrial complex. Why the I-Ching should be seen as relevant and Montaigne as not is beyond my comprehension, but it is not a time in general supportive of the belief that in reason lies salvation. I tend to believe that the doctrines being preached in the more turned-on high schools by the hierophants of Holt and Postman & Weingarten are not doing much to improve matters. Certainly, some of the best of my students arrive from the high schools in a new sort of semi-catatonic state, quite distinguishable from the apathy of the Eisenhower years, and seeming to result from corrupt education, rather than from the lack of education altogether. Whatever the cause, the conversion of those literally our best hope into literal believers in witchcraft (itself a relevant discipline, considering its concern with altering the environment) is a dreadful situation, and I predict that the problem will become magnified as the new wisdom makes its way outward.

Late in Teaching as a Subversive Activity Postman and Weingarten suggest that teachers ask themselves the question, “Why am I a teacher, anyway?” and suggest some answers:

Some honest answers that this question has produced are as follows:

I can control people.

I can tyrannize people.

I have captive audiences.

I have my summers off.

I love seventeenth century non-dramatic Elizabethan Literature [sic].

I don’t know.

The pay is good, considering the amount of work I actually do.

That is the entire list. In these questions and answers we have a paradigm of what is right and what is wrong with the educational romantics. It is clear enough (was it not always clear?) that some teachers teach for each of the obscene motivations listed here, although I for one would regard a love for literature as a decent motivation for teaching it, even if the three-years’ worth of nondramatic literature which is both 17th-century and Elizabethan seems a narrow specialty, and I suspect that the workload in the public schools is such that the pay is not really all that good. The problem here, as elsewhere, is overkill. Some teachers teach for unworthy reasons, a conclusion extant at least since Plato began to belabor the Sophists. The authors take this time-honored conclusion, and by suggesting that all teachers teach for unworthy reasons (which is the only conclusion to-be drawn from their apparent willingness to consider as honest only those answers confessing unworthiness), blow it up into the sort of dreadful revelation which our crisis mentality is presumed likely to take seriously. We all know about the Big Lie; what we need now is a realization of the dangers of the Big Truism.



Let us turn from so-called educational theory to educational science fiction, in the person of George Leonard. Leonard is represented in the Gross anthology by “Going to School in the Global Village,” an article originally published in Look with Marshall McLuhan. The article is a sort of selective précis of Leonard’s later Education and Ecstasy7

The book itself is at once stimulating and irritating. Although one welcomes a theorist with some historical orientation, the history is the same sort of facile summary which has proved so useful to McLuhan and so fatal to truth. (It’s a brilliant suggestion that the Renaissance was a result of the printing press, so long as you think that the printing press came first, which is a not unreasonable assumption if you limit yourself to looking at Northern Europe, and are willing to forget that publishers in any event preceded printers.) The work appears athrob with many ideas, which at close inspection collapse into a handful: the human capacity for learning is greater than we have imagined; education is overly devoted to something called the rational/verbal mode; civilization is a process from which we are just emerging; the education of the future must be tribal; much can be done toward this end with technology; man’s brightest hope is the Esalen Institute (Geo. Leonard, vice president); Ecstasy is a Good Thing, and there ought to be more of it, especially in education.

Leonard is easily the most switched-on of the present crop of writers, and his visions are the most apocalyptic: the schools as vast computer facilities, where under the kindly tuition of patient cybernons children can learn the present curriculum by the age of six, in an educational lifestyle reminiscent of the Fillmore Auditorium, and in the sort of huggingly conflictless world yearned for at Esalen. But Leonard is not really an educational reformer. Although he would probably reject the label of visionary, on the ground that the technology he wishes to marshal in the future is already visible just over the horizon, it seems exceedingly unlikely that school boards are going to be ready for it until 2001. Leonard’s disciples, unlike Holt’s, can’t very well set up a demonstration project in a store-front. The book is—dare I say it?—irrelevant. Leonard appears to believe that his Kennedy School will just sort of grow as the experimental psychologists and neurologists tell us more about how we learn. Nothing, alas, in the history of American education suggests any special connection between what may be known by the best and brightest and what goes on in the schools. What is notably lacking in Leonard are instructions to get us from here to there. (Although there is one good suggestion in the book: that every parent ought to go and spend one day studying with his child as the child is forced to study. I can think of no event more likely to improve the schools than for this advice to be acted upon.)

But in sum, I am still having difficulty deciding whether the book is ingenious science fiction or dystopian satire. Satire is not something one can imagine coming out of so earnest and smooth a place as the Esalen Institute, but the similarities between the Kennedy School principal directing a guided tour and Huxley’s Director of Hatcheries are tempting. One cannot help wondering who is going to do the programming, whether the same machines which will make students unable to read Thucydides without tears might as admirably administer the Four Hours’ Hate. Well, as Mr. Nixon demonstrates, there are those capable of unconscious self-satire. Oh, what a brave new school is this, that hath such machinery in it!



It is a relief to turn from Holt, Postman & Weingarten, and Leonard, to the work of George Dennison, whose article “The First Street School,” in Radical School Reform, is an extract from his recent book, The Lives of Children.8 If the first four authors suggest educational romanticism at its worst, Dennison is an example of it at its best. Moreover, what George Dennison has done is as important as what he has written. What he has done is to have been a guiding spirit of the First Street School, an institution of twenty-three students (most under ten) from the East Village and three and a half teachers. The students were for the most part children on whom the public schools had given up; during the school’s brief existence most of them were put on the road to salvation; and the miracle was worked at a cost per pupil less than that of a public school. Dennison, then, writes with an authority not possessed by those I have been discussing: he writes from successful experience.

It is his claim that the miracle is simply attained: “. . . running a primary school—provided it be small—is an extremely simple thing.” The essentials are this: a school which, by avoiding heavy capital expenditures, is able to put most of its budget into salaries, so as to achieve a student/ faculty ratio of 8 to 1, and by staying small—under thirty students—is able to dispense with bureaucracy. From these master conditions flow secondary benefits: primarily, the ability to deploy teachers as students need them, thereby permitting individual attention for those unable to function in groups, and the ability to leave the design of the program in the hands of the teachers themselves. By simple, Dennison does not mean easy: “on the contrary, teachers find [work] in a free school taxing.” While I am convinced that Dennison, whose authentic humility is one of the pleasantest traits in his book, may well be underestimating his personal contribution in the form of his extraordinary gifts, I find it indicative of the possibilities of such a school that by the end of its first year, the First Street School, far from having a dropout problem, was faced with the problem of a seriously disturbed student who refused to stay away. One is reminded that the capital penalty at Summerhill is suspension from its non-compulsory classes. There can be no better indication of what is wrong with the public schools than that an approach as tentatively fruitful as that of the First Street School is not being tried out on the widest possible scale.

Life at First Street was not much like life in an average elementary school: attendance was not compulsory, discipline was limited to that necessary for the protection of others from physical harm, there was great freedom of activity for the students, a good deal of time was spent exploring the city. The teachers were able to regard each student as a separate problem (one of the few irritations of the book is that it discusses fewer than half the students, without making clear whether these are a representative sample, the successes, the greatest challenges, or what), and to follow the oft-quoted injunction of Rousseau to lose time. Dennison characterizes his most troublesome students as rebellious, a state he would distinguish from disturbed; many of them had in fact been regarded as beyond hope by the public schools from which they came. To the extent that First Street was successful with these students, it was successful with just those children with whom the public schools are most conspicuously failing. Whether or not it would have succeeded with the non-rebellious may be argued, but I am inclined to believe that it would: few of the school’s activities seem especially therapeutic, and for what the evidence is worth, my own eminently non-rebellious son attends a considerably posher private school whose spirit is remarkably Dennisonian (a judgment which might surprise his teachers), and in it he and his fellows thrive in ways and to degrees I would not have thought possible.



Dennison, then, is an educational reformer who comes to the world with ideas tested in realistic conditions and found not wanting. We ought, as Holt has said, to listen to him very carefully. Inasmuch as Dennison and Holt are generally invoked these days as part of a trinity usually completed by A. S. Neill, the reader may wonder how a critic with whom Holt has found so little favor can find Dennison so promising. The answer is fairly simple: although Dennison may bear a surface resemblance to the other romantics, he is at heart profoundly unlike them, whether he or they know it, and it is crucial to us all to be able to tell the difference.

If one were called upon to characterize Dennison in a phrase, the one which comes to mind first is “tough-minded romantic.” As his experience has been limited to primary education, he limits his prescriptions to it. In this, he is remarkably unlike Holt, who seems to see no difference in kind between the first grade in elementary school and sophomore year in college. Whether Dennison, after teaching in college, would agree with Holt is beside the point. In his conduct of the school, he frequently did things that are anathema to the movement in general: the best way to calm a hysterical child, he tells us, is often to shake him into exhaustion. If discipline of the no-chewing-gum sort was mercifully absent at First Street, behavior which endangered others was likely to lead to suspension. Although the school admitted one student who proved to be, in Dennison’s judgment, disturbed, it was also able to come to the conclusion that the admission had been a mistake, and that the school was incompetent to help him.

Dennison’s theorizing, to be sure, can be as dubious as that of the others I have discussed:

. . . with two exceptions, the parents of the children at First Street were not libertarians. They thought that they believed in compulsion, and rewards and punishments, and formal discipline, and report cards, and homework and elaborate school facilities [emphasis added].

Now, the parents may well have been wrong in holding such beliefs, they may well have renounced them after experience with First Street, but I am at a loss to understand the concept of thinking a belief, if it means anything other than believing. Here Dennison condescends to his parents; he can also be surprisingly naive:

It goes without saying that teachers must be competent (which does not necessarily mean passing courses in a teacher’s college). Given this sine qua non, there is nothing mysterious. The present quagmire of public education is entirely the result of unworkable centralization and the lust for control that permeates every bureaucratic institution [emphasis added].

To this one could answer that the relation of courses passed in a teacher’s college to professional competence is somewhere near absolute zero, and that while it would be a happy thought that centralization and bureaucracy are the sole causes of all that is wrong with public education, there must be other causes, else the most centralized schools would be the worst, which is not necessarily so.



But in general, Dennison’s theory, the product of carefully observed experience, and of a critical understanding of Tolstoy, Dewey, and A. S. Neill, is typified by the sort of caution and realism that entitle it to the label “tough-minded.” An example is his account of an imitation Summerhill. Such institutions have been mushrooming lately: one can follow their progress in a curious publication called the New Schools Exchange Newsletter,9 in which they publish self-descriptions. The Newsletter would be better named The Journal of Educational Cant: most of the accounts appear to have been plagiarized from last month’s issue, and it is the rare school where education is not free, unstructured, and joyous, all at the same time. Most of the proprietors seem to view their students as a commodity (“We’ve got eight kids this term, and hope to get some more kids next”), and they are all just like Summerhill, except for two little differences. They do not appear to provide anything remotely like a classical education for those who want it, and none of them is run by that extraordinary genius A. S. Neill, or anything approaching a surrogate. Here is Dennison on one such school:

I visited a school ostensibly modeled on Summerhill, but in fact (so I believe) not much like it. I noticed two teen-agers who were pathologically depressed. I learned that they were suffering severe conflicts with their parents. I was informed, too, that their parents were small-minded, narrow, repressive, status-seeking petit-bourgeois; which is to say that the suffering of the two students had been invested with a programmatic, radical meaning: their detestation of their parents appeared as a form of loyalty to the school. The two students, in short, were being tugged in opposite directions by interested adults. To make matters worse, the tugging at school was largely sub rosa, implicit rather than overt, and the foreground was filled by “freedom,” that is, by lack of contact, lack of guidance, lack of structure, lack of everything that children experiencing such disorders require. Let me hasten to say that such lacks cannot be filled by rules and regulations. They must be filled by persons, and not just any persons, but those capable of true encounter and decently motivated for work with the young. The problem at this school was that the director regarded staff and students less as people than as events in his own protracted struggle against middle-class America. The faculty, too, consisted of True Believers, and I had never before seen such a listless, resentful bunch, or heard the words “creativity” and “spontaneity” bandied about quite so often.

It is not common for a member of a vanguard to be so clear-sighted about his presumed allies. Where Dennison clearly differs from most of his fellow practitioners is in his fine understanding that the removal of external ordering devices requires replacement by internal ones, and that occasionally the external is justified in the absence of the internal. Thus, deciding that (a) José ought to learn to read, and (b) José would never decide on his own to start learning, Dennison simply began José’s lessons in reading. José learned to read.

One of Dennison’s particular strengths is his ability to see how quickly an innovator in theory can become treated as a guru and then misunderstood by a horde of Beatle-like followers. It is this critical ability, I believe, which proves Dennison no Postman or Weingarten, and which is pretty good evidence that he will not follow in Holt’s footsteps. It seems very unlikely that Dennison will become no more than a self-exploiter, and he may well remain, as has Paul Goodman, a romantic to whom non-romantics must listen with absolute respect.

Holt, Postman and Weingarten, Leonard, and Dennison are likely to be the most influential of the authors the Grosses anthologize, for each of them has a program, and a program of a fairly fashionable sort. I therefore feel justified to a degree in neglecting to deal with other writers represented in the work (they include Jonathan Kozol, James Herndon, Herbert Kohl, and older, well-known writers like Paul Goodman, A. S. Neill, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, and Sylvia Ashton-Warner). All in all, Radical School Reform is a fair sampler of a movement, and its representativeness is hardly diminished by any doubts one may have about the validity of the movement itself. I do end by worrying about the book’s possible influence on education; its publicists are already pushing it as a vade mecum for would-be reformers, and if there is anything that an already oversimplistic movement does not need, it is to be watered down for popular consumption in a general anthology. As a matter of fact, it is too bad for the movement to be defined, and its prophets identified, at all, for it is painful to see people like Paul Goodman and George Dennison entered on the same class list with the Holts and the Postmans and Weingartens; for the genius of the former for simple solutions is balanced by a concomitant understanding of the complexities. If they begin to be read in capsule form, the distinction may begin to blur, and that would be most unfortunate.




1 Simon & Schuster, 350 pp., $7.95.

2 How Children Fail (1964), Pitman; How Children Learn (1967), Pitman.

3 The Underachieving School, Pitman, 203 pp., $4.95.

4 New York Review of Books, October 9, 1969.

5 Delacorte, 219 pp., $5.95.

6 Dell (1966).

7 Delacorte, 239 pp., $5.95.

8 Random House, 308 pp., $6.95.

9 2840 Hidden Valley Lane, Santa Barbara, California 93103.

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