April 01, 1998 3 min read

The four features in this issue seem at first glance to have little, if any, connection to each other. But together, they speak to two of the major purposes of public schooling: the academic and the social.

“Quiz Show” and “Rewriting History” are about the central mission of schools—to educate, to transmit the accumulated knowledge to each rising generation. At their best, schools do that by exposing youngsters to content-rich curricula and encouraging them to discover and construct meaning and knowledge from facts, information, and experience.

It’s Academic, television’s longest-running high school quiz show, pits students from the Washington, D.C., area against each other in a dazzling display of factoid fireworks. As in the nationally popular Jeopardy!, contestants field questions—generally more difficult than those on Jeopardy!—in virtually every area of knowledge. The competition is as fast-paced as a basketball game. And cheerleading squads and fans gather in the TV studio to root for their teams. Critics dismiss exercises like this as promoting rote memorization, but viewers of the program can sense that the student participants not only know the more common name for the European Recovery Program but also could discuss the program and General George Marshall’s involvement at some length. Alumni of the TV program are living evidence that there is much more than rote learning and memorization at work here.

“Rewriting History” looks at how history is sometimes distorted in children’s fiction to fit modern notions of right and wrong. That may not seem as appalling to some people as it should. Writing history “accurately” is already a nearly impossible task because the story always reflects the point of view of the storyteller; even major events like revolutions are interpreted differently by different historians. But deliberately washing out differences between yesterday and today undermines the truth and is, as writer Anne Scott MacLeod puts it, “a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past.”

The two other features in this issue—“Class Action” and “Home Away From Home”—are more about the social purposes of schooling, which, among other things, are to lift up the disadvantaged, assimilate society’s newcomers, and open the doors of opportunity to all. Migrant children are among the most dispossessed among us. Often homeless and poor with little or no command of English, migrant farm workers and their children are caught in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of toil and despair. But as writer Kay Mills shows in the second of these two articles, Head Start programs have been able to break that cycle by providing safe, nourishing preschool services for children—as well as opportunities for adults—when and where they are most needed.

In Denver, minority parents, led by a lawyer and politician named Joe Rogers, have sued the school district for failing to provide their children with the adequate education guaranteed them by the state constitution. As David Hill explains in “Class Action,” these parents are demanding tuition vouchers so they can opt out of the failing public schools and send their children to private ones. For minority and poor children in Denver and all our cities, education is the key to sharing in the American dream. Recognizing that, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate but equal schools for minority children are unconstitutional. Now, after more than four decades, African American and Hispanic children are being resegregated into predominantly minority schools that are not equal and are often inferior.

The academic and social purposes of public schooling are linked; our schools must fulfill both to succeed at either. Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence to suggest that schools are performing neither function as well as we wish. Public schools cannot accomplish their academic mission if a substantial proportion of our young people are neglected or relegated to poor schools with low expectations. We must make sure our disadvantaged children have the high standards and rigorous curricula they need to compete and survive in our rapidly changing economy. We need to do it for them and for ourselves.

—Ronald A. Wolk