Books: Excerpts

June 05, 1991 8 min read

Schools and Change in a No-Fault Society

By Chester E. Finn Jr.

Formal education is plainly going to have to change in fundamental ways if it is to serve the nation well in the 21st century, and so is the public’s willingness to endure--even demand--those changes. Yet that is no reason to throw up our hands, glibly excusing our lackluster educational performance by claiming that “forces beyond our control” are making it practically impossible for schools to function at all or for children to learn much in them.

Almost every time I talk with educators, someone seeks to assign primary responsibility for weak academic achievement to heedless parents, decaying families, changes in the ethnic or socioeconomic composition of the students, drugs and alcohol, violence on television, bad role models in the neighborhood, and so forth. Nobody has yet mentioned sunspots, but almost every other imaginable non-school influence has been suggested.

I generally respond by recalling Lester Maddox, the infamous ax- handle-wielding, segregation-minded former governor of Georgia. When asked how he proposed to improve the sorry condition of the state prison system, Mr. Maddox replied: “There’s not a lot more we can do unless we start getting a better class of prisoner.”

He had part of a valid point, to be sure. Prisons would obviously be more tractable and tranquil places if only nice people were incarcerated in them. Their rehabilitation rates would probably be up, recidivism down. Yet those questioning Mr. Maddox should not have been satisfied by his rejoinder. For a public official in his position to suggest that we can shrug our shoulders, that there is no more to be done until some improvement takes place in the condition of those entering the prison walls--well, one might as usefully respond to drought by praying for rain or to arthritis by donning a copper bracelet.

I can think of no institution that would not have an easier time producing satisfactory results if those with whom it deals were not so sorely afflicted. Hospitals would have a terrific cure rate if nobody presented maladies more serious than hangnails and head colds. Defense attorneys would win many more acquittals if all their clients were innocent.

And schools would enjoy greater success if every child were ready and eager to learn, had supportive parents and no serious personal4problems, and the neighborhood were peaceful and other community institutions available and active. In the same vein, we know that the school faces a far harder task when other influences undermine and contradict its lessons. We will surely need to devise means of boosting its leverage, and these are likely to include increasing the fraction of their lives that children spend under its influence. Yet it little avails us as educators to cast about for scapegoats, to yearn for a better class of students, to blame forces beyond our control, or to insist that society’s other shortcomings be set right before we can begin to do our part. The challenge of the 1990’s is to wrestle our education system into such a shape that it can do its part, meeting the cognitive learning needs of a modern society as well as those of its individual students, even when other conditions are unhealthy.

Its shape will have to change considerably, and changing it will doubtless bring discomfort. We are talking, after all, of whipping our sluggish couch potato of an education system into one resembling Jane Fonda or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Many of its longtime assumptions and standard practices will need to be replaced. Above all, we will need to hold our schools--all of them--responsible and accountable for the results achieved within their assigned domain. This means properly defining the limits of that domain and not overpromising what schools can deliver outside it. And it means holding others responsible for doing their parts in their respective realms.

If such phrases seem quaint or dated, it is because while we transform a 19th-century institution into one suited to the 21st, we would also do well to save some of the beliefs and attitudes about human behavior that characterized the earlier culture. Responsibility is a term too often scorned today, living as we do in a society that is quick to say people and in8stitutions are “at risk” but that scrupulously refrains from suggesting anyone is ever “at fault.” We readily assert that a person or group is a victim of malign forces or circumstances beyond its control. Yet we are allergic to holding people and institutions accountable for the consequences of their actions. We dismiss that way of thinking as “blaming the victim,” a morally callous thing to do.

Certainly it is not a politically prudent thing to do. Observe the storm that broke around former Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos in early 1990 when he dared to suggest that Hispanic parents should shoulder more responsibility for the educational achievement and behavior of their children. As reported by The New York Times: “Mr. Cavazos, a sixth-generation Texan who is of Mexican descent, leveled his criticism at Hispanic parents. Hispanic cultures long placed a high value on education, he said, but “somewhere along the line we lost that ... I think in part we Hispanics have not acknowledged that problem. I think that’s been one of our problems in America today. We really have not cared that youngsters have dropped out of school ... We must have a commitment from Hispanics, from Hispanic parents especially, that their children will be educated. That is the first vital step.”

Leaders of Hispanic groups did not thank the Secretary for saying something true and important about the education of children. Rather, they hastened to denounce him for not saying the politically correct thing, which, in the words of the former San Antonio mayor, Henry Cisneros, is that Hispanic parents are amply committed to education but “confront the reality of unequally financed school systems, the reality of low-paying jobs and language barriers.” Added Gloria Rodriguez, director of a parent-child program in Texas: “He’s wrong to say the families are at fault, when society is at fault for not supporting families that are overwhelmed by economic problems.” “How can you blame the victim?” Congressman Jose Serrano of New York asked rhetorically.

That a Hispanic Cabinet member was in trouble with Hispanic leaders for remarks about Hispanic parents lent piquancy to the situation but, in truth, any public official who had laid substantial blame on any minority group or at-risk population would have provoked a similar response. In our no-fault society, it is acceptable to be a victim but not to be held responsible for one’s own situation or for that of one’s children. Something closer to the preferred explanation was offered a few weeks earlier by a community group named aspira, whose leaders, reported The Philadelphia Inquirer, “decried the high Hispanic dropout rate in the Philadelphia public schools and declared it a failure of the system, not of the students.” “We have a system that is no longer functioning,” explained City Councilman Angel L. Ortiz. “When we see such high numbers, we’re looking at a system that has failed the kids.”

Had one taken the matter up with teachers and administrators in the Philadelphia public schools, some would doubtless have echoed Mr. Cavazos, attributing the excessive Hispanic dropout rate to parents and peer group. And they would have had a point, as do community leaders who charge the education system with serving their children poorly. Both are partly correct--but just partly.

Our tendency to lay the entire problem at someone else’s doorstep is by no means confined to minority groups or impoverished neighborhoods. Teachers in middle-class suburbs also complain that when they voice criticisms to parents about the behavior or academic progress of children, the parents are apt to react by denying the problem, castigating the child for it, or denouncing teacher and4school for not having solved it. The last thing the parents want is to share the responsibility. Yet when the same teachers are criticized for the paltry knowledge and weak skills of their students, they are likely to utter some variant of the Maddox explanation. They don’t want to be held to account either.

Nobody does. Yet we’re quick to engage a lawyer to bring suit against someone we’d like to hold responsible for any imaginable mishap or failure, even to demand immense sums in compensation for damages. We’ve turned the liability and malpractice fields into gold mines for attorneys and busy markets for insurance companies. We have taken to heart the notion that others are accountable for their actions. But practically never in contemporary discussions of American social policy does anyone assign responsibility for anything to himself or his own institutions. Somebody else is at fault for what happens to us; we are not at fault for what we do to ourselves. We’re victims of circumstances beyond our control or perhaps just bad luck. How can we expect our children to mature into responsible citizens in a society in which community “leaders” get away with “explanations” akin to the comment of a 3-year-old staring at his mother’s shattered vase: “Uh-oh. It broke.”

A stunning instance of this mindset was expressed at the 1990 convention of the American Psychological Association, where a senior scholar solemnly informed his peers that the increasing mayhem and homicide among adolescents was attributable (at least in part) to reductions in the federal Food Stamp program.

But we may have had enough of such explanations. When the 1990 sat results--showing that the stunted verbal aptitudes of our high-school students had further deteriorated--came out, even so softhearted an observer as The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen erupted. “I am for humiliating, embarrassing, mocking--you name it--the dummies who have scored so low on these tests,” he sizzled. “I’m sick of explanations that take everything into account but the values and mentality of students and their parents.”

A few months earlier, Meg Greenfield declared in her Newsweek column that adults ought to stop behaving like 3-year-olds: “The assumption of responsibility for one’s own conduct, after all, is another way of describing the basic act of growing up. It means facing up to the consequences of what you do and thus inevitably incurs both costs and pain. But those who are unwilling to make this transaction forfeit dignity and self respect, not to mention the respect of others.” Not to mention the quality of education for their--and everyone else’s children.

From We Must Take Charge, 1991 by Chester E. Finn Jr. Reprinted by permission of the Free Press, a division of Macmillan Inc.

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as Books: Excerpts