Letters to the Editor
To the Editor.
In "The Ends of History" (Commentary, Feb. 5, 1992), Harvey J. Kaye chastises Lynne V. Cheney, the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others on her side of the fence for promoting what he calls "an artificial and one dimensional" history curriculum. He accuses such people of favoring history that ignores "the underside of Western civilization" and our "traditions of dissent and struggle from below."
This is a major distortion of Lynne Cheney's views. And it is a truly laughable misrepresentation of most of the other scholars who share her concerns. Mr. Kaye does not mention any of these scholars--Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Diane Ravitch, Theodore Hamerow, Jacques Barzun, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Eugene Genovese, Irving Howe, and many others. This is not surprising. They are an odd assortment. Their political views range from conservative, to liberal, to oldline socialist, to (in Mr. Genovese's case) Marxist. Yet in various ways, all have been skeptical about what Mr. Kaye rather tendentionsly calls "the more critical and democratic developments" in much contemporary historical scholarship.
In defining the poles of this debate about history in the schools, Mr. Kaye sets up a worthless straw man. He describes the clash as one between a bad kind of history designed to produce "consensus in favor of the status quo" and an admirable kind meant to inform the "great public debates and arguments essential to a free and democratic life."
Mr. Kaye, of course, sees himself on the side of "public debate" and a "free and democratic life." Given the way he defines the choices, who could blame him? Yet it is precisely those quintessential Western values of his, public debate and democracy, that Ms. Cheney affirms as well.
What she opposes is history that denigrates these ideals in the service of a divisive and anti-Western ideology.
Take, for example, the treatment of slavery. Have Lynne Cheney and the N.E.H. sought to cover up the ugly facts of slavery in the United States in order to snuff out "public debate" and divert attention from the "underside" of our history? In fact, the N.E.H. has funded many fine projects focusing on slavery and other aspects of race relations in the United States. What I'm sure Ms. Cheney would insist on, however, as would the other scholars I've mentioned, is that U.S. students also be told the ugly facts of slavery's global history. After all, slavery in Africa long predated the arrival of Europeans, and it persisted well after those Europeans had abolished their own slave systems. To deny this is to skew history in the interests of ideology.
Sadly, many educators are now engaged in precisely this kind of sanitizing of the past. It is they, not their critics, who wish history to serve therapeutic, indeed propagandistic, purposes. To them, "dealing" with the underside of Western civilization means denying it any other side--as well as ruling off-limits in the classroom any criticism at all of other civilizations. This tendency may serve the ends of history as Professor Kaye defines them. If so, his ends are not my ends.
Jonathan Burack Editor-in-Chief
Knowledge Unlimited Inc. Madison, Wis.
To the Editor:
The credentials of the authors of your recent Commentary "Where Are Equity and Diversity in America 2000?" (Jan. 29, 1992) are certainly impressive; the quality of the writing is also high, but the message sounds old and tired to many in the the business community.
Here is the way we see it: Public education is (probably always has been) an arena for contests of social policy. One side in this contest has a single answer--spend more public funds. Evidence is that per-pupil expenditures have in fact risen in real dollars over the past 30 years while the workplace literacy skills of the pool from which we draw our employees have fallen dramatically over those same 30 years--especially when compared with the skills of the labor pool of our foreign competitors.
Given the failure of current educational practices, some of us make a simple proposal: Lot's try something different in this country. There are national standards in Germany and Japan, our principal competitors, and these standards are measured by test scores that drive the national education systems. If these are ethnically homogeneous societies, and thus a poor model for the United States, then let's use test standards that are culturally neutral. Business people simply cannot believe that such standards will be impossible to develop.
Might it be possible to ask employers what they need? We could give a fairly simple answer. Send me students who read, and if cultural bias is a problem, let that reading be a phone book, a parts manual, the newspaper--any paper in English would do. What could possibly make a test on basic arithmetic operations culturally biased? Could you give us students whose test scores show that they can read a schedule, interpret a graph, make change, make reasonable estimates?
If you want to debate among yourselves over the content of the social studies curriculum, see if you can do it without wasting too much of the students' time. In the meantime, how about students that understand our economic system, that understand how democracy works, that understand the advantages of cooperative effort and responsibility?
And finally, if there is some fear that the setting of these standards will be dominated by the majority culture, I believe most of us in the business community would be perfectly happy to have them set by employers who are themselves immigrants or African-Americans.
The authors want more money for public education? Well and good, but many of us are not going to be happy about paying more until public education gives us the specifications and standards for the product you intend to produce.
Don Wilson President Diamond Technology Products Los Angeles, Calif.
To the Editor:
In the Letters section of your Jan. 29, 1992, issue, Carroll Heideman and Richard H. de Lone respond to my Commentary on calculators ("Speaking Out for Calculators," Commentary, Jan. 15, 1992) by disputing my example on estimating. They argue that the estimate for the problem 7,839 x 6,859 should be about 8,000 x 7,000, or 56,000,000, rather than my estimate of 7,000 x 6,000 = 42,000,000.
I'm pleased to report that their estimates are correct! However, so are the estimates of 45,000,000 and 51,000,000--estimates given by two of my colleagues in the math department. The point is this: there is more than one correct answer for an estimate, whereas there is only one answer for "rounding to the nearest million," that is, 56,000,000.
Too often we confuse children with these two processes so that when asked to estimate, children become anxious because they think the teacher is looking for one right answer. As I mentioned in the Commentary, for this problem we are looking for a "ball park" figure, a "feeling" if you will, of the "range" or "reasonableness" of our answer. We want students to know the answer is between 42,000,000 and 56,000,000 but not between 42,000 and 56,000.
Professor of Mathematics California State University at Fullerton
To the Editor:
It is difficult to imagine a more impossible to enforce condition than silent times in today's clamorous classrooms. Charles Suhor's advocacy of such silence is unsatisfactory in that it leaves us with more questions about it than he satisfactorily answers. ("The Uses of Silence," Commentary, Jan. 29, 1992).
Today's students in the most part are heavily addicted to loud, continuous sounds from their out-of-school lives. The schools reinforce students' psychological craving for and dependence on this din by their pedagogical fads, such as collaborative or cooperative learning.
Mr. Suhor would have us believe that students accustomed to noisy, persistent uproar in and out of their school classes can be switched on to silence in classrooms if only teachers would adopt "silence as a method." This method consists of having students sit quietly and meditate.
The author obviously wants it both ways: (a) a new curriculum dominated by spontaneous, lively student talk, and (b) classroom silence. This seems wishful thinking. Most teachers have found condition (a) to be so dominating and overwhelming that it inevitably prevents condition (b). If there is matchless value to silence in class, then the new curriculum must go.
Professor of Education San Diego State University San Diego, Calif.