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Commentary: Babbitt: 'Shared Culture' Is Vital

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A narrow, short-term focus in American education contributed to the dominance of "trivia" in the 1988 Presidential campaign, according to one of the contenders for the Democratic nomination, former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona.

In a speech at Northern Arizona University shortly before the election, Mr. Babbitt argued that Americans have lost a sense of history--and with it, the ability to recognize and confront economic and political changes:


[W]e've become a nation of specialties, a nation of short-term, specific education where people are learning more and more about less and less.

I submit to you that that's the problem with education today. How can people even know what questions to ask unless they are receiving an education in which we have some common ground--and in which we all understand the relevance of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence--unless we understand the fables and the stories and the shared history of western civilization? ...

If we don't understand those things, we can't ask our leaders those questions. We can't force them to be honest with us about the profound changes we need in our education system, the way we have to instill standards, basics--a shared common culture.

If people don't understand the Japanese challenge, and if [politicians] won't talk about it, how do we cure the problem?

We have to go back to some basic realities called languages, geography, and history. Maybe we have to start to think about an education system in which every citizen in this country will understand the reality of another nation rising from ashes in less than half a century, to outproduce, outgun, and outcompete the rest of the world.

An open "memorandum" in the November/December issue of Change magazine suggests ways in which the U.S. secretary of education can give the field a "vision and voice of credibility."

In the following passage, the author, Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, proposes initiatives for supporting teachers:


Teachers in America desperately need encouragement--and what you and the President say about them really matters.

Beyond articles and speeches, there is a program initiative you might consider--one that would cost far less than a B-1 bomber. Thirty years ago, in response to Sputnik, President Dwight Eisenhower proposed the National Defense Education Act, a federally funded teacher program that sent a powerful signal to the nation. You and the President might consider a 1989 version of the ndea--a teacher-excellence act.

This act would include more summer fellowships, plus a distinguished teaching fellows' program in which master teachers in each state would move from school to school, holding seminars with colleagues.

Recruiting better teachers is perhaps education's biggest challenge, and I hope you expand the federal scholarship program for gifted high-school students who plan to enter teaching. After all, we have a Peace Corps to send Americans overseas; why not attract the brightest and the best to teach the rural poor and the disadvantaged in our inner cities here at home?

There is another thing you and the President can do--and it would hardly cost a dime. Every year we select the National Teacher of the Year. Winners from all 50 states come to Washington for the celebration. I suggest a White House dinner for these teachers, hosted by the President. Let's televise the event and ask the Teacher of the Year to speak about education on prime time.

The current wave of collaborative efforts between schools and businesses has produced "little payoff" in improving education, contends Donald M. Clark, president and chief executive officer of the National Association for Industry-Education Cooperation.

Addressing a conference of the New York State Association of Small City School Districts, Mr. Clark attributed the disappointing results to a lack of coordination between the school-reform and partnership movements, and suggested strategies for more successful plans:


During the past six years, widespread attention has been given to fostering "partnerships in education." [O]ne would be led to believe that business/industry has a central role in improving education at both the public- and postsecondary-school levels. This is not the case.

Many business/industry representatives and educators do not fully understand the scope of what must be done in establishing and maintaining a partnership. ...

Partnerships in education, therefore, can be viewed as a movement in search of a mission. What we are witnessing are, in the aggregate, unconnected, uncoordinated, fragmented, unstructured, duplicative, and ad hoc efforts between business/industry and the schools. ...

Articles continue to feature "innovative" partnership projects and activities that have no relationship to school improvement; the vast majority of them are not transportable to other school systems or institutions--and more important, miss the real reason, the substance, for the collaborative process: educational improvement.

Change occurs in education when decisionmakers--the power structure of the business/education/labor/government/professional community--undertake the process of reshaping the total school program through:

Cooperative planning, to include needs assessment, goal setting, and program development;

Curriculum review and revision;

Intensive and ongoing inservice training of faculty, administrators, and support personnel;

Upgrading instructional materials and equipment;

Improving educational management.

Teaching literature should involve more than helping students master content and formal analysis, Dennie Palmer Wolf, a researcher with the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Project Zero, writes in a new monograph.

In the following excerpt from Reading Reconsidered: Literature and Literacy in High School (College Board Publications, Box 886, New York, N.Y. 10101-0886; $6.95), Ms. Wolf discusses the implications for teachers of viewing the reading of literature as a "way of thinking":


If the act of reading is, in fact, a matter of thinking and feeling along any number of paths at once, we are shortchanging students if all we talk about is decoding or analyzing the structure of a text. We also have an obligation to recognize and educate other reading processes that frequently go unnamed.

These include the way students engage with what they read, their reflections on the reading process, and whether they think about books as comments on, or questions about, the culture in which they live.

Since reading is a profoundly social and cultural (as much as a neurological or cognitive) process, the smallest acts--reading assignments, comments on papers, questions asked in class--are infused with a teacher's particular view of language and reading. But many of the readers in any classroom may bring a different set of expectations and values to a text. Rather than presuming views and values, teachers might, and perhaps ought to, use their beliefs to challenge students to (as one teacher put it) "know their own theories and values."

What is literature for? What is a reader supposed to do? Is it all right for a writer like Ernest Hemingway to offer cool, detached descriptions of war and wounding? Is Mark Twain's portrait of Jim racist? Is a poem that sounds like ordinary conversation doing what a poem should do? Grappling with these kinds of questions is not a digression but a part of acquiring a deeper literacy.

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