Ever since the eighteenth century American idealists have proposed that education could remedy any and all human maladies. Confronted with the ignorance of the electorate, Jefferson proposed universal education. Confronted with the racism of Caucasians, the NAACP proposed integrated schools. Confronted with the rise of Sputnik, a chorus of voices is calling for a rougher academic curriculum. Since this faith in education is universal, the great debate of our time is not whether or not the schools can save us from radioactive ruin, but merely which educational policy will turn the trick.
As in most matters of faith, this inquiry has theological overtones. The historical schism between the traditionalists and the progressives has left deep scars on the vocabulary of educators, so that certain phrases and programs evoke emotions disproportionate to their nebulous meanings.
A "progressive" educator, for example, is a very bad man who is variously charged with being anti-intellectual, anti-social, and feeble minded. These progressives are termed "educationists," to distinguish them from more academic "educators." According to their critics, these "life-adjusters" are engaged in a conspiracy to exalt adolescent mediocrity, a subversive effort to remove all difficult and challenging courses from the curriculum.
Of course all upright men are opposed to these sinister agents of the enemy, but we are also opposed to the traditionalist, who insists the schools exist solely for the gifted minority who will go on to college. These are the classroom martinets who think of their students as buckets into which they must pour a predetermined number of facts.
The conflict between these two groups is primarily at the symbolic level. For traditionalists, any use of the word "growth" or "adjustment" is enough to induce rage, no matter what the context or meaning. Conversely, for many progressives the suggestion that knowledge is best organized into "subjects," or that the mind can profit from "discipline," raises such a repellent image of rote learning and tedious pedantry that they will hear no more of the matter.
The intensity of passions on both sides of this schism has been such that those who wish to have a real impact on public education must avoid the controversy completely, couching their suggestions in practical rather than ideological terms. Such is the form of the Conant Report.
Working on a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, and with the assistance of the Educational Testing Service (part of the College Board organization), Dr. Conant visited 55 comprehensive small town high schools in 18 states. His report takes the form of ad hoc suggestions for improving these schools and others which presumably resemble them. The suggestions range from increased time for teaching English composition to requiring that talented students study science and foreign languages.
The Conant report is, then, a political document, designed to sway school boards and school principals. It is written in terms which the least sophisticated can really grasp, equipped with check lists and inventories which a ten-year-old could easily administer. The appeal throughout is to that great political slogan: individual freedom and variation. Although the major emphasis of the report is on providing higher academic standards for the intelligent minority, this appeal is surrounded with recommendations which appeal to every special interest group from vocationalism to the mentally retarted.
Considering Dr. Conant's intellectual record, as chemist, as Harvard President, as advisor to the Manhattan Project, and finally as diplomat, it is perhaps surprising that his recommendations should be more practical than those of a professional man of affairs such as Admiral Rickover. Unfortunately, the builder of the atomic submarine seems to have thought more about the demands which reality places upon America than about the equipment with which we must meet this crisis. He sees very clearly that we are at the brink of disaster, that the Sputnik was not merely a fluke, and that unless a revolution takes place, our economic and technical advantage over the Soviets will soon be a matter of history. But he is perhaps overly optimistic in supposing that the schools can remedy this cultural lag.
Admiral Rickover believes, for example, that the schools should raise their academic standards in order to provide more technical and creative training for their students. At the same time he deplores the fact that only half the youngsters of college caliber are actually continuing their education. Yet in "the good old days," When his cherished academic curriculum was universal, far fewer talented young men reached college or even bothered to graduate from high school. Instead, they left school early and became the anti-intellectual voters who refuse to support school taxes, and the "practical" parents who steer bright children into auto mechanics.
The Admiral's prescription for our time is perhaps the only possible: self denial, self discipline, and hard work, in school or out. To blame our schools for popular hedonism, complacency, chauvinism, or plain stupidity is dangerously simplistic. The underpaid, undertrained, and often underdeveloped minds which staff many of our classrooms make good scapegoats, but they are relatively helpless victims of the cultural tragedy which we are now enacting.