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The Public Schools And The Public Mood
Since the birth of the nation, the public’s perception of the quality of public schools has swung from approval to dismay and back again. Here an eminent historian traces the course of school reform and finds that neither conservative nor liberal movements ever fully achieve their aims—which may be just as well.
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
A spate of books in the first half of the decade voiced these complaints. The titles tell the story: Quackery in the Public Schools, The Diminished Mind, The Miseducation of American Teachers, Let’s Talk Sense about Our Schools, and The Public School Scandal. The most widely debated book was Arthur Bestor’s Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Our Schools. Bestor, a respected historian of nineteenth-century Utopian communities, taught at the University of Illinois. So did Harold Hand, a professor of education and one of the leading defenders of Life Adjustment Education. The two could hardly have been more different. Bestor was the epitome of the college professor; he was reserved, dressed conservatively, and spent his free time in the library. Hand was an outdoorsman and amateur pilot who wore work boots and open shirts, a self-conscious man of the people, yet highly regarded by his colleagues for his intelligence and judgment. His willingness to depart from traditional subject matter stemmed from his experience as a young boy in school in the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, listening to a teacher reading Tennyson’s The Lady of the Lake while outside, through the window, he could see the topsoil blowing away.
It was a classic confrontation. The two advocates were personally gracious toward each other, but their views were irreconcilable. Hand was convinced that Life Adjustment Education was a necessary and democratic response to the ever-increasing number of young people who were going to high school. Bestor would have none of it. He gave himself over wholly to the debate, dropping his scholarly work and mounting a campaign to convince the public that education professors had expelled traditional learning from the schools. Unlike some of the other antiprogressive traditionalists, Bestor did not blame the abandonment of traditional learning on Dewey. In fact, he said that progressive education had been “on the right track” up through the 1920s, when he himself had gone to the Lincoln School, a showcase of progressive education at Columbia’s Teachers College. But then too many educators forgot about Dewey’s efforts to balance the child’s interests with a concern to impart traditional knowledge. Life Adjustment Education emphasized social rather than intellectual learning, especially for students with average or low academic ability. This, fumed Bestor, “declares invalid most of the assumptions that have underlain American democracy.” Like conservatives in the 1980s, Bestor took the high ground on the issue of democracy: All students should have the same highly academic curriculum, in order to make opportunity equal, convey high expectations, and prepare students for intelligent citizenship.
With Sputnik as a catalyst in 1957, American educators launched the schools into a period of frenetic—and ultimately successful—reform.
No doubt Bestor exaggerated the loss of traditional academic subjects in most schools, and he overestimated the power of education professors. Hand argued vociferously that Educational Wastelands was full of “falsehoods and misleading statements” as well as “sleight-of-hand” and “bloopers.” But Bestor found a receptive audience for his complaints, and he got widespread publicity. In the Life Adjustment curriculum, Bestor complained, “trivia are elaborated beyond all reason,” and to prove it, he cited details about helping students develop hobbies and choose a dentist.
Bestor’s biting criticisms, however, got more publicity than his program for reform. He called for the abolition of the undergraduate education major so that all teachers would get a liberal education. He also argued that experts should have more say in curriculum decisions, hoping that this would lead to a restoration of the traditional disciplines in the schools. And of course he wanted higher standards and tougher exams for students.
Whether this conservative program would have resulted in a successful reform movement simply on the strength of its critique of Life Adjustment Education is doubtful. In any case, it had not done so by October 1957, when the launching of the Russian space satellite Sputnik dramatically raised Americans’ anxieties about the Cold War. Many Americans erroneously viewed the satellite as evidence that the Russians had a generally superior school system. Adm. Hyman Rickover wrote that Sputnik proved that the Russian schools caused “all children to stretch their intellectual capacities to the utmost.” President Eisenhower called upon the schools to give up the path “they have been following as a result of John Dewey’s teachings.” And Life ran a series on the hardworking Alexei Kutzkov, who studied difficult math and science in a Moscow high school and did homework most of the time when he wasn’t in a museum. Kutzkov was contrasted with two American children: goofy Steve Lapekas from Chicago, who had fun in school and spent most of his after-school hours fooling around, and Barry Wichmann of Rockwell City, Iowa, the neglected genius with an IQ of 162, whose school had no time, no concern, and no competence to deal with his talents.