Friday, 15 June 2012

The School Crisis

Published in The Clearing House, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Sep., 1958)
The School Crisis

The Revolution in Education by Mortimer Adler and Milton S. Mayer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. 224 pages, $3.75.

A Fourth of a Nation by Paul Woodring. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1957. 255 pages, $4.50.

Schools without Scholars by John Keats. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1958. 202 pages, $3.00.

The great debate over American education rages, and, unhappily, raging confuses rather than clarifies issues. Two calm and coolly reasoned books are heartening current exceptions; a third, although arrogant and sometimes irrelevant, has enough truth in it to warrant the attention of the self-critical teacher.

Adler, the famous philosopher, and Mayer, an author and lecturer, frankly admit that their book is “not trying to find the right answers; it is trying to find the right questions.” In short, what changes are needed to meet the unique educational situation of a democratic, scientific, and industrial society like America in the past century? They urge all who want to talk about education to distinguish between “principle, policy, and practice,” and to keep in mind important differences in principle between aristocrat and democrat, realist and idealist, and traditionalist and modernist. A book guaranteed to minimize partisan polemics.

Woodring, a former teachers college professor of education and now consultant to the Fund for the Advancement of Education, forever belies the canard (implicitly by Keats) that educators have to be fuzzy and dogmatic. His book quickly disposes of such false issues by showing how, just as some progressivists have been too doctrinaire, so have some liberal arts proponents been illiberal and irresponsible about the needs of teacher education. No “good old days” man either, Woodring presents a cogent plan for an ungraded primary school focused on skills, a triple-track high school, a nonprofessional college education, a sensible fifth-year internship at two-thirds pay in lieu of practice teaching.

Keats unquestionably hits sticky, deserving targets when he spoofs the worst excesses in vocationalism, life adjustment, and the inflated piffle of much education. And there is a great deal of common sense in his counsel, in this age of rampant curricular inflation and just as rapid empire building, to keep the schools concentrating on a few things (chiefly intellectual or humanistic) and to forego what other social agencies can do better. He is also convincing in insisting that a school isn’t public until its community determines curricular goals and keeps a committee eye trained on school compliance with those values. 

But Keats speaks too much of the very literate communities not at all representative of American education (the new suburbs of Maryland and Virginia or the wealthy suburbs of Connecticut) for his book to have too much relevance for urban school systems. Moreover, when he does discuss the typical community which falls for American sports and anti-intellectualism, he arrogantly dismisses its inhabitants to the limbo till then reserved for chuckleheaded (i.e., all) educationists. Thus Keats ends social analysis where any penetrating critic would begin it. 

More evidence of the essentially descriptive and superficial picture he gives is the virtual absence of analysis of how the mass media complicate the teacher’s role today. Nor does he seem to know that the humanities are a changing body of insight in his compulsive reiteration of the loss of Arthurian legend in the curriculum shuffle. Finally, the questionable logic of his polarities (Miss Alpha and Pragmatic Tech v. Miss Omega and Mental Prep) and his na├»ve assumption of genius in liberal arts professors and mental incompetence in educationalists seriously damage the fabric of his arguments. 

Still his descriptions of sentimentality and fuzziness in teacher colleges and their products deserve our attention. Keats would profit just as much be observing Woodring’s urbanity and wisdom, two qualities one would have guessed were the true hallmarks of a liberal education.

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