What Postman is really attacking here is dogmatism and narrow-mindedness, both of which impede change. In community after community, people trying to change schools are butting heads with those who essentially want them to stay the same. Sometimes there is give and take, but too often those involved are strident followers of a particular dogma or stubborn defenders of the status quo. The fight invariably gets ugly, and what's best for children often gets lost.
Over the years, this magazine has reported on many of the issues over which fierce battles are waged: whole language, outcome-based education, sex education, standardized testing, and now (in the story beginning on page 26) report cards. Educators in Cranston, R.I., worked long and hard on a new elementary school grading system that did away with traditional letter grades. They thought it would give parents more detailed information about their children. But when the district introduced the new system, a handful of parents hit the roof. They wanted the old familiar report card back and had no interest in working with teachers to improve the new one. "We've had 30 years of the A-B-C format,'' one parent offered by way of explanation. Her attitude seemed to be, "if it was good enough for me, then it's good enough for my kids.''
As though he were referring to the Rhode Island flap, Postman writes: " . . . Whatever ideas we have, we are in some sense wrong. We may have insufficient facts to support an idea; or some of the facts we have may be incorrect, perhaps generated by a festering emotion; or the conclusions we have drawn may not be entirely logical; or some definition we are employing may not be applicable . . . .'' In short: Consider the possibility that you might be mistaken.
Postman reminds us that progress comes from correcting our mistakes. Cranston educators made an error that they aren't likely to make again: They failed to reach out and communicate effectively with parents about the changes they were planning. Their lament is a familiar one: "If only we'd involved parents from the beginning.''
Inflexible bureaucratic approaches nearly always backfire. In 1987, California mandated a literature-based elementary school reading program that gave little attention to skills development. To ensure that teachers switched to the whole language approach, some administrators went so far as to lock up phonics and spelling books. The word now, eight years later, is that the state blundered by mandating a single method. (See the news story on page 7.) Education officials there are scrambling to put together a more comprehensive program, one that melds whole language with phonics and basic skills. Had officials used more common sense, they might have avoided this setback. Even whole language purists acknowledge that they teach phonics when needed.
Neil Postman, of course, would turn the California curricular debacle into a learning experience for students. He'd probably ask them the following questions: What was the biggest error the state made? Why was it a mistake and who was responsible for it? What would you do to correct it? Students, after all, should understand the error of our ways.
--Blake Hume Rodman