Excerpts From Horace’s Compromise

November 16, 1983 11 min read
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From HORACE’S COMPROMISE--The Dilemma of the American High School, by Theodore R. Sizer. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. Copyright 1984, by Theodore R. Sizer. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

On Students

Above all, the hungry student is active, engaged in his or her own learning. It is that quality that is most appealing to many teachers. The student takes the initiative and works at teaching himself.

Lamentably, far too few modern American adolescents are hungry students. No more important finding has emerged from the inquiries of our study than that the American high-school student, as student, is all too often docile, compliant, and without initiative. Some who have initiative use it to undertake as little engagement as possible with school. They await their education and take in such of it that interests them. Such students like to be entertained. Their harshest epithet for a teacher is “boring.” Nonetheless, and paradoxically, students do accept the boring classes, as a price that the school sets. There are too few rewards for being inquisitive; there rarely is extra credit for the ingenious proof. The constructive skeptic can be unsettling to all too many teachers, who may find him cheeky and disruptive. Questing can be costly.

On Incentives

What is completely clear, however, is that most students see the diploma as their high-school goal, the passport to their next stage of life. The way to receive it, they now know, is to serve time, to be in attendance the requisite number of weeks in the requisite courses. One thereby amasses “credits,” which ultimately “earn” the diploma. Attendance is the way it is done.

If a school awarded the diploma whenever a student reached the agreed-on level of mastery at the completion of a student’s study rather than after four years of attendance and the collection of credits, the effect on student behavior would be dramatic. That is, we should use the incentive that the diploma provides as a means to improve students’ learning. Award it only when there is a clear exhibition by the student that such learning has been mastered. Be less concerned about means, such as mere attendance or how many years a student has been at school. Place the emphasis on ends, on exhibited mastery.

This approach would give the students a clear, academically substantive goal, the obviously appropriate priority.

It would usefully undermine the tyranny of age-grading; a student can elect to exhibit his mastery when he is prepared to do so, not just when his birthday signals that he “ought” to be ready. It would give an incentive to the students’ learning on their own and would reward those who do. It would eliminate the painfully distorting counting of Carnegie units, where equally useful but very different enterprises--physical education and physics, for example--are equated, usually on an “hours-attended” basis.

It would ensure sustained attention to key subjects and topics, a major improvement over the current system, where a student can drop a subject, such as mathematics, when the credits are earned, perhaps even in the 10th grade. Two years later, the diploma--presumably a symbol of a mastered general education--is awarded to a 17-year-old who has forgotten, because of disuse, much of mathematics.

For teachers, the need to create the mechanisms for students to exhibit their mastery will force into the open the myriad questions of academic priorities that now lie buried under the political neutrality of the credit-collection system.

On CurriculumAnd the Roles of the Schools

Late-20th century high schools deserve a more appropriate purpose than a warmed-over version of principles promulgated in 1918. We are no longer in the early 20th century, needing an institution that provides a comprehensive set of experiences to prepare adolescents for a newly modernized state. We live today, crowded together, in a culture overloaded with information, surfeited with data and opinions and experiences that we pump up with the buttons on our TV sets, home computers, telephones, and word processors. The world around us, for good or ill, is a more insistent, rich, and effective provider of information than was our grandparents’. Education’s job today is less in purveying information than in helping people to use it--that is, to exercise their minds.

An earlier day may have required that we create an institution to fill a full range of needs, to provide the comprehensive objectives that are now so deeply ingrained in American tradition. Today we need to ask what special role schools should play among the extraordinary sets of educating influences around and available to the modern American adolescent.

One purpose for schools--education of the intellect--is obvious. The other--an education in character--is inescapable. ...

Obviously, American high schools must reconcile their practice and their philosophy, and find convincing rationales for both. One cannot proceed with this process, however, without addressing the issue of compulsion. What learning can the state properly demand of its citizens? How should that demand be exercised? Indeed, should there be a common learning among Americans, a set of skills and attitudes and beliefs that all share? If this common learning does not readily arise from private choice--that is, skills and beliefs that emerge consistently from the informal family and neighborhood structures of the country--how should it be mandated?

While there may be a certain, theoretical contradiction between a state which asserts that it exists at the pleasure of the governed, who have important rights as autonomous individuals, and a state which requires that all individuals understand and believe certain things and act in certain ways, it is fanciful to argue that the state has no claims on the minds and actions of its citizens. The real issue is what claims and how they are to be met.

The essential claims in education are very elementary: literacy, numeracy, and civic understanding. Literacy means more than merely skills in decoding works. It means the ability to comprehend and to understand ideas and arguments to a degree that allows an individual to use them. Literacy implies clear thought; that is, one must read easily and sensitively enough to comprehend at least the basic arguments presented by contemporary political and social life. Without that ability and the correlative ability to present such arguments oneself orally and in clear writing, a citizen cannot fully participate in a democracy. Any community that expects collective, affirmative government requires a literate citizenry.

Numeracy means the ability both to use numbers, arithmetically and algebraically, and to understand the concepts, relationships, and logic embedded in mathematical thought. A modern citizen cannot make critical judgments without these skills.

Civic understanding means a grasp of the basis for consensual democratic government, a respect for its processes, and acceptance of the restraints and obligations incumbent on a citizen. These restraints and obligations are eloquently summarized in the Bill of Rights. One need go not much further: If all American citizens had mastered at the least the complex principles there, this would be a more just society. ...

My basic conclusion is contained in the aphorism “Less is more.” I believe that the qualities of mind that should be the goal of high school need time to grow and that they develop best when engaging a few, important ideas deeply. Information is plentiful, cheap; learning how to use it is often stressful and absolutely requires a form of personal coaching of each student by a teacher that is neither possible in many schools today or recognized an an important process. ... In sum, these skills--reading, writing, speaking, listening, measuring, estimating, calculating, seeing--and the basic modes of imagining and of reasoning should be at the core of high-school work. They should pervade all subjects offered and be visibly and reviewably part of the school program. ...

I would organize a high school into four areas or large departments:

1. Inquiry and Expression

2. Mathematics and Science

3. Literature and the Arts

4. Philosophy and History

You will immediately note that “English,” that pivotally important but often misconstrued or even unconstrued “subject,” would disappear. By “expression,” I mean all kinds of communication, but above all writing, the litmus paper of thought. Some of “communication” is brute skill, such as the use of a keyboard (that sine qua non for the modern citizen) and clear, if rudimentary handwriting. Visual communication is included, as are gesture and physical nuance and tone, those tools used so powerfully by such masters as Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan. A teacher cannot ascertain a student’s thought processes unless they are expressed.

Mathematics is the language of science, the language of certainties. Science, of course, is full of uncertainty, as is much of higher mathematics, but for beginners it is the certainties that dominate. Number systems work in certain ways. Axioms hold. The pituitary gland secretes certain hormones; if it fails to do so, predictable consequences ensue. The work around us has its share of certainties, and we should learn about them, learn to be masters of them. Basic arithmetic, algebra, some geometry and statistics, physics and biology, are the keys. I would merge the traditional departments of mathematics and science, thus forcing coordination of the real and abstract worlds of certainty. The fresh, modern necessity for study in computer science can be the first bit of glue in this process of collaboration; that subject nicely straddles both areas.

Human expression cuts across written and spoken languages, theater, song, and visual art. There is much common ground in these attempts of man and woman to explain their predicament, yet English, music, and art usually proceed in as much splendid isolation as do mathematics and science. This is wasteful, as aesthetic expression and learning from others’ attempts to find meaning is of a piece. All need representaion and benefit from an alliance.

History, if it is responsibly taught, is perhaps the most difficult subject of most high-school students, because it involves the abstraction of time past. One often can engage it well first through autobiography and then through biography, preceeding finally to the “biographies” of communities, which make up most conventional history. Things were as they were for reasons, and from these incidents evolve concepts in geography, economics, and sociology. For most students at this stage, these disciplines should remain the handmaidens of history. The exception is philosophy, particularly moral and political philosophy. A political philosophy, essentially that associated with American constitutionalism, is the bedrock of enlightened democratic citizenship, and adolescence, more than any other stage of life, is filled with a search for values. The study of elementary ethics, for example, not only provides excellent opportunities for learning intellectual skills, but also powerfully engages students’ interest. ...

On Teachers

In one sense, high-school teachers should feel that they are greatly respected, since they are allowed to teach in remarkable privacy. Few teachers watch each other teach. However, this privacy may be less the result of social respect than of indifference. One can read some parents’ minds: Our kids’ll learn that history stuff on their own, and it really doesn’t matter if they don’t learn it all, because they’ll never actually use it much. But be nice to our kids. Give them good grades. Many teachers hear this quiet signal, with or without cynicism. Undoubtedly it is there. Thus, the privacy of the classroom is not always the honored badge of the professional but an indication that what happens there is thought to be of relatively little consequence.

Few find much mystery in teaching. The technical expertise is not arcane and it has a familiar vocabulary, the monstrously pretentious language of some educationists notwithstanding. The distance between professional and client that often exists in medicine and law and the autonomy created by many business people does not exist for teachers. The qualities that make for good teaching are generally available qualities--knowledgeability, energy, clarity, empathy. Given this fact, the teacher lacks the respect-laden autonomy enjoyed by other professionals. The individual instructor or groups of instructors rarely decide what the basic outlines of their curriculum will be. That is handed down, either by adminstratively senior colleagues or by lay boards, often with elaborate teaching guides. (Teachers can sabotage or ignore these ... and few people will find out.)

Teachers are told the amount of time they are to spend with each class--say, 55minutes five times a week. Even though they are expected to be competent scholars, they are rarely trusted with the selection of the texts and teaching materials they are to use, a particularly galling insult. Teachers are rarely consulted, much less given significant authority, over the rules and regulations governing the life of their school; these usually come from “downtown.” Rarely do they have any influence over whom their immediate colleagues will be; again, “downtown” decides. One wonders how good a law firm would be if it were given manuals on how to apply the law, were told precisely how much time to spend on each case, were directed how to govern its internal affairs, and had no say whatever in who the partners were. Teaching often lacks a sense of ownership, a sense among the teachers working together that the school is theirs, and that its future and their reputation are indistinguishable. Hired hands own nothing, are told what to do, and have little stake in their enterprises. Teachers are often treated like hired hands. Not surprisingly, they often act like hired hands.

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 1983 edition of Education Week as Excerpts From Horace’s Compromise


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