School & Society
Our Children’s Crippled Future: The Failure of American Education.
by Frank E. Armbruster with Paul Bracken.
Quadrangle. 308 pp. $14.00.
That this flawed, badly-written book must be judged useful to our understanding of American education is a sign of how much trouble the schools are in, and how unhelpful most public discourse on this subject is. It will not do to dismiss the book, as some critics already have done, for its “nostalgia” or “naive traditionalism”—it says too many things that need to be said and seldom are, outside of little monthly bulletins from the Council for Basic Education. Armbruster’s main point is undeniable: despite (sometimes because of) greatly increased spending on public schools over recent decades, most children are cheated, and children from poor backgrounds are crippled for life, by educators who fail to ask enough of them. Extravagant gadgetry, “innovative” (i.e., condescending) teaching methods, and “relevant” courses have resulted in a decline in aptitude and achievement scores throughout the country, irrespective of region, race, or social class. By surrendering the making of school policy to a self-promoting caste of experts, we have been guilty of an appalling waste of taxpayers’ money and of our children’s minds.
The author goes on to demonstrate that academic standards are discarded first in the very schools that need them most, the ones enrolling the underprivileged. Instead of working doubly hard to fill the gaps left by home and neighborhood, these schools themselves become “suppressive environments.” The failure of discipline, too, strikes hardest at the children of the poor, depriving them of that ordered environment which alone might free them to learn, and their teachers to teach. Worse still is the abandonment of standard English grammar, vocabulary, and speech, on grounds that they are irrelevant or oppressive to slum and minority-group children. Middle-class educationists, according to the author, have simply refused to admit that disadvantaged children need more content and more conventional teaching than do the children of the educated middle classes; instead, they get less.
Armbruster pleads for a restoration to the primary-school curriculum of the three R’s, plus geography, spelling, and penmanship, and to the high-school curriculum of history (three years, including Western civilization), great books, English, mathematics, real science, foreign languages, writing, and speech. There are subjects and skills, he implies, that no one in a democracy has the right to be allowed to evade:
Children in high school do not know, nor do their parents, what they will be doing in later life. If an opportunity should arise for them to go higher by means of advanced education, or positions that require better education of the classical type, these children should not be denied that right because of the failure of schools to insist that they learn the fundamentals in the traditional academic areas in primary and secondary school.
Armbruster is certainly right as far as he goes. But he neglects those broader aims of education, beyond the utilitarian, that alone would justify the academic requirements he is urging. Why, after all, should everybody study Western civilization and read poetry and great books? Why should everybody achieve some grasp of science, and of the music and painting of the past, when only a few can expect to rise to positions which, in his words, “require better education of the classical type”? Armbruster’s anger will carry no force—and the follies he deplores in American schools will persist—as long as we limit ourselves to training people to fill useful slots in society.
Some of the 18th-century founders of the Republic believed that free politics and human dignity could proceed only from right education, education that would make informed citizens and cultivated persons of all who were able to learn, without regard to their daily work. But the mainstream of American education quickly subsided into utilitarianism. The public schools most Americans have attended offer little to the free citizen (the “good” citizen is something else) and even less to the cultivation, rather than the amusement, of the private person.
The emptiness goes back a long way. In 1918, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Education published a series of guidelines for American high schools under the title Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, which ignored subject matter. Instead, “health” and “worthy home membership” led the list of goals for high schools, which were to be made responsible for solving (or circumventing) problems erupting from the social order itself. “Education,” said John Dewey, “is the fundamental method of social progress and reform,” a notion that would remain the prime source of our confusions over schooling until the present day. From Dewey and his predecessors through William Heard Kilpatrick’s master device of “problem-solving” there runs a straight line to the latest vogue of “Moral Education” and “Doing-a-Value.”
Those school systems which did manage to hold to some version of required general education through the 1930’s usually did so only in their college preparatory tracks. Otherwise, the social instrumentalists prospered. In 1947, the national Commission on Life Adjustment for Youth pronounced only 20 per cent of American adolescents capable of higher education, with another 20 per cent fit for disciplined vocational training. The high schools, in other words, could forget about intellectual training for 80 per cent of our children, most of whom were deemed uneducable. Again in 1959, James Bryant Conant, in his influential post-Sputnik book, The American High School Today, found only 15 to 20 per cent of American adolescents “academically talented,” and able to profit from “rewardingly advanced courses in mathematics, science, and foreign languages or general education courses in English and social studies.” The rest, he said, should “follow vocational goals and develop general interests.” Scant faith in most children’s potential is nothing new in America. Our secondary schools have never tried to do for everybody what Armbruster now asks them to do.
He is nonetheless right in looking for help elsewhere than to the pedagogical establishment, with its retinue of consultants, analysts, managers, specialists, and publicists. Questions of purpose and standards are too broad for this new multitude of quasi-professionals, who have not been trained or hired to think about general issues, but rather to concoct and promote ceaseless change, and to tell the rest of us what is good and bad for classrooms they rarely see. Armbruster’s distrust of these specialists is well-founded, but unfortunately he too is remote from the classroom and badly confused about ordinary teachers and their part, or their lack of part, in making policy. Though some teachers may welcome and exploit the policies handed down by the experts, they do not make them. Typically, not a single teacher served on HEW’s recent National Panel on High School and Adolescent Education, which purported to “revolutionize” all secondary education.
Armbruster muddles questions of cost and student-teacher ratio as well. He says repeatedly that we spent $75 billion on schools last year, more than was spent on national defense, and he implies that most of the money allocated to education goes to pay classroom teachers (whose salary scales he distorts by ignoring time spent out of school hours), that the student-teacher ratio has dramatically improved over the years, and that, therefore, we are wasting money on small classes.
The truth is that ordinary teachers, especially of those basic subjects Armbruster rightly stresses, have not much increased in numbers relative to students taught; apart from buildings, equipment, materials, and fuel, most of the money has been spent on the costly services of auxiliary personnel, counselors, media specialists, technicians, roving experts, and “resource persons” of all types, as well as on administrators and purveyors of “enrichments” from driver education to film-making. At both the secondary and university levels, the per-student constant-dollar costs of direct academic instruction have risen only feebly if at all, while overall costs have skyrocketed. Armbruster is mistaken in supposing that schools doing what he asks—demanding enough work of students and subjecting that work to close criticism and corrective instruction—could be less expensive without a drastic shift in budgetary priorities.
Whatever their failings, teachers know better than most what is wrong and right with American education. The best among them also know that what is wrong will not be cured by a simple return to “basics” any more than by the mindless “greening” of the 60’s, by today’s hard-boiled “Career Education,” or by the zeal for “Future Learning” that currently takes the lion’s share of space in the journals. They stand awash in the debris left by successive tides of faddism, quite aware that until we set the aims of schooling above the instantly measurable and utilitarian, nothing much will change.
There can be no explaining why students must confront the subject matter of a liberal education until the purposes of schooling are redefined as the education of all citizens to the highest level of political competence and personal culture they are capable of. “Any lesser goal,” Lawrence Cremin said a decade ago in The Genius of American Education, “is narrow and unlovely, and ultimately destructive of democracy.” The “failure of American education” lies not so much in dismal test scores as in forgetting what schools are about.