Never before has American education been in as precarious a situation as it seems to be at present. For over ten years now we have seen many governors’ summits, and a host of commissions, committees, panels, unions, boards and business executives trying to warn citizens that American schools have become dysfunctional and are in dire need of repairs. And for over ten years the results of student performance have worsened despite the billions being spent to stop the downward trend. Perhaps the time has come to stop and try to examine the problem rationally. It is not the first time that American education has reached a threshold at which only radical solutions seem to be called for. This time, however, reformers are calling for a systemic reform, a complete rethinking of the very concept of education. As politicians, educators, academicians, psychologists, sociologists, and CEOs entered the fray, the well-intentioned movement became murky and increasingly chaotic. It soon became clear that the reformers truly intended a clean sweep of what education had meant to Americans.
The acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, the study and appreciation of great works by outstanding minds and artists, the acquisition of communication and mathematical skills, the objective search for scientific knowledge, the analysis and assimilation of ideas and ideals that enabled western civilization to serve as a beacon for the rest of the world, all of this was suddenly declared superficial, politically motivated, artificial, and unneeded. The new education was to turn from such academic trivia to preparing the new person for the 21st century, a person aware of the leading role that was to be played by the new technology which in some way will take care of all the other academic “frills” that had marked the progress of the old education, the education of the past.
The search for truth, which was at the heart of the traditional academy, was to be replaced by the promotion of the social and emotional growth of the individual while preparing him or her for the demands of the “real life.” As a result, a bevy of researchers and educators started scurrying around for a system that would accomplish this. A goldmine seemed to be struck when a group of sociologists and educators, with the assistance of politicians and business executives, came across a program that had been around for some time and that had close connections with Dewey’s “progressive education.” Known as Outcome Based Education, it called for a much greater emphasis on the affective dimension of the educational process at the expense of the old academic rigors. Basing itself on the conviction that it’s a disproven theory that children must first learn basic skills before engaging in more complex tasks, the stress was now to be placed on the “more complex tasks.”
The educational process was to move from concepts to facts rather than vice versa. This called for a complete revamping of teaching methods. Instead of the teacher being an authoritative figure in the front of the class, he or she was to be a “coach” or “facilitator” helping the class to discover knowledge in small groups working on one or more projects. Working together in groups would prepare students for the team approach used by industry. It would also “level the playing field” so that the disadvantaged would have the same opportunity as others in the learning process. This brings us to the two dominant mantras of the new education. One is that it must foster self-esteem; the other that “it takes a whole village to raise a child.” The first requires that students must acquire the attitudes, values, and feelings that would lead to a smooth, painless transition to the “real life,” as defined by experts; the second requires that the child’s entire community participate in defining his or her education. As for assessing the results, standardized tests are out for the most part. Whatever testing is done must be supplemented by portfolios containing a student’s work record that follows him or her throughout his or her schooling and beyond. In short, primary emphasis is place on the student’s ability to process information rather than to acquire and to retain knowledge of content material or a discipline.
The general movement is from academics to behavioralistic concerns, from the cognitive to the affective domain. The sharp contrast with “traditional education” is obvious without going into further detail. Since the results so far can only be called dismal, should we not mark time for a while to see where we are going? Should self-esteem be the ultimate goal of education? Should the “whole village” be involved in defining a child’s education? Should the idea of knowledge acquisition defer to the acquisition of skills for the new technology? Has the concept of education become so controversial that it calls for a new definition? The two great revolutions that shook the world, the French revolution of the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution of the 19th, tried in vain to redefine education. The passage of time inevitably justified a return to the time-tested concept of the educated person developed by the ancients and the European Renaissance. The latest example of this occurred shortly after World War II when the Soviet Union suddenly seemed to be outpacing us in the new technology with the launching of Sputnik in 1957. No less than the American commander-in-chief responsible for the defeat of Hitler agreed that rather than have American education turn to the wholesale training of technical experts, it should continue stressing the liberal arts and the development of well-rounded citizens. The payoff came with the fall of the Soviet empire. It has also come in the form of the amazing continuation of Americans winning more Nobel prizes than the rest of the world combined.
In a new study recently published by two professors with impressive credentials, we even find the incredible thesis that the entire substructure supporting the current educational reforms is based on faulty and unsubstantiated research and statistics. The study challenges the notion that American schools are failing and are inferior to European schools. The authors ask how Americans could possibly have escaped the conclusion that education in this country is in a deplorable state. The authors then proceed to present statistics supporting their conclusions. Even granting that their handling of the statistics has been seriously questioned, the main thesis is still valid. Does the success of American education over the last two centuries justify the sudden storm of criticism directed at our schools? The call for a complete overhaul and “reinvention” must certainly be approached with great care. Such a radical approach may well affect not only the general direction but the basic philosophy of an educational system that has given our country the leadership in almost every area of human endeavor. We thus come to the basic question that must be asked. What should be the basic purpose of American education? Is it to prepare for adult life, and, if so, what do we want adult life to consist of? Or is it to fulfill the promise contained in our Declaration of Independence: the guarantee of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Could it be the ancient adage of Know Thyself? A Renaissance sage considered virtue the only constant in mortal affairs because she alone “can make blessed those who embrace her and wretched those who forsake her.” He defined virtue as the capacity “to feel rightly about God, and act rightly among men.” Given the recent interest in the teaching of character, should virtue be education’s primary goal? Can any or all of these be summarized in the concept of wisdom? And don’t most or all of them fall in the category of what has been considered “academics” since the days of Plato and Socrates?
It is essential that we measure what progress has been made before proceeding. We therefore respectfully urge the leaders of future Summits to use their influence to make certain that the radical programs being thrust upon schools in an attempt to “reinvent” education nationally be carefully reexamined. Schools have already been overburdened by the intrusion of social services, health services, special interest groups and the attempt to make them all-purpose community centers. We must not blur the distinction between “schooling” and “education.” Any Summit that does not take into account the opinions of those parents, taxpayers, and citizens who are rightfully skeptical of what has transpired in the last ten years of the reform efforts is bound to create further tensions and misunderstandings that could lead to the crippling of the American school.