In the Press Column

September 27, 1989 6 min read

In the wake of a fierce national debate over the usefulness of a “canon” of required literature in schools and colleges, Harper’s Magazine invited five leading scholars and cultural critics to discuss whether schools should have a core curriculum in humanities and what such a curriculum should include.

Roger Shattuck, a literary critic who teaches at Boston University, expresses perhaps the most traditional view in the forum, which appears in the magazine’s September issue. The function of education, he argues, is equivalent to “that of the gonads"--passing on the “chromosomal constants” of culture.

“Just because the teaching of the classics, the masterpieces, has been done for a long time,” he observes, “doesn’t mean this old system is faulty.”

But Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, professor of English and cultural studies at the University of Pittsburgh, replies that the traditional curriculum excludes certain key ideas, as well as works by groups such as women and minorities that “have not had access to the strange area where greatness is adjudicated.”

Rather than abandon the canon, she suggests, schools should revise it to reflect changes in culture.

“We should teach the young American to recognize that this is a multiracial, multicultured country,” Ms. Spivak contends.

In addition to teaching the great works of the past, argues John Kaliski, principal architect for the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles, schools should also teach the ideas that such works signify.

For example, he says, in teaching about the architecture of the Mall in front of the U.S. Capitol, schools should discuss the civil-rights movement and the way the space acquired a new cultural meaning after the March on Washington in 1963.

Whatever schools choose to teach, the curriculum should reflect the shared national culture, argues E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of the best-selling book Cultural Literacy.

“Frankly, I don’t care what [curriculum writers] come up with,” he comments. “What I want is consensus.”

Jon Pareles, popular-music critic for The New York Times, notes that the need for a “canon” has grown in recent years as Americans have become less certain about “historical continuity and greatness.”

“I think people have to learn to make their own way through the mess, through the information barrage, to see from Rambo to Rimbaud,” he says.

The forum was moderated by Jack Hitt, senior editor at Harper’s.

With demographic projections for the next half-century indicating a progressive decrease in the number of working-age Americans and an increase in the number of the elderly, “a new redistributional politics is emerging--a politics of redistribution from the childless to the child-rearing,” writes Jonathan Rauch in the August issue of The Atlantic.

“Today, as we face the need to nurture our workforce and safeguard our retirements, the question forcing itself onto the agenda is how much more we will pay for other people’s children,” asserts Mr. Rauch, a writer on economic issues for the National Journal.

Where other countries have long regarded their children as “capital’’ and created government inducements to encourage child-rearing, he notes, Americans have preferred to think of their children as a “source of pleasure rather than profit.”

But even in the United States, he reports, business and social activists have begun to turn their attention to children’s and family issues, some calling for “pronatalist” policies.

While there are “profound differences both within and between the left and the right over who should get relief from the high cost of kids and in what form relief should be provided,” both sides are advocating proposals to help children and families, Mr. Rauch points out.

Although incentive-based pronatalist programs have done little to raise birth rates abroad, a program that redistributes money from childless to child-rearing adults could relieve poverty among children, suggests Mr. Rauch.

But, he writes, “any program, public or private, that brings substantial relief to middle-class parents is going to be expensive.”

“The middle-aged, the elderly, and the childless would inevitably have to sacrifice more so that young parents would not have to sacrifice so much,” Mr. Rauch concludes.

Teenagers from impoverished, inner-city families should be promised ''generous” vouchers for continuing their education if they remain childless and finish high school with a reasonable academic record, Isabel V. Sawhill, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, argues in the summer issue of The Public Interest.

Such a strategy could be combined with stronger and more consistent enforcement of child-care obligations to create a “carrot and stick” mechanism for improving current behavior patterns, Ms. Sawhill writes.

These and other recommendations are based on the author’s analysis of the “underclass,” which she defines not simply as the poor but as those living in poverty “who are not fulfilling their end of the bargain.”

According to American norms, says Ms. Sawhill, the social obligations of young people include studying hard and completing at least high school, refraining from conceiving children until they have the personal and financial resources to support them, obeying the law, and working at a steady job unless they are disabled or supported by a spouse.

Reducing chronic poverty and the growth of the underclass, she suggests, requires a series of new public policies whose objective should be “to widen people’s choices and to reward those who take responsibility for their own lives.”

Among the author’s other recommendations are:

  • Expanding programs such as prenatal care, nutrition assistance, preschool enrichment, and compensatory education to serve a “reasonable” proportion of the eligible population.
  • Accelerating efforts to improve inner-city schools, including offering teachers salaries that reflect their working in a “war zone,” more flexible teacher-certification procedures, and attractive packages of higher-education assistance for minority teacher candidates willing to commit themselves to careers in inner-city schools.
  • Supplying housing vouchers and subsidized rents for families who want to move out of inner-city ghettos and are committed to working and providing educational opportunities for their children.
  • Replacing the welfare system with income support that is more closely tied to employment.

Grouping students on the basis of their standardized-test scores often dooms them to academic failure--and lives of menial employment--by limiting them to watered-down classes and destroying their faith in hard work, Sheila Tobias argues in the September issue of Psychology Today.

“We are becoming a society where test-taking skills are the prerequisites for a chance at getting a good education, and where hard work, hope, and ambition are in danger of becoming nothing more than meaningless concepts,” writes Ms. Tobias, author of Overcoming Math Anxiety.

Maintaining that both tracking and standardized testing are on the rise, she says these practices send students the “profoundly inegalitarian” message that test-measured ability, not effort, is what counts and that some students are not equal to others.

Such implications are not only unjust but untrue, Ms. Tobias writes, because standardized tests are fine-tuned to point out differences, not similarities, between students.

Citing recent research, Ms. Tobias contends that placement in a low-track class actually increases a child’s chances of academic failure. Whereas high-track courses emphasize reasoning ability over simple memorization, low-track classes teach students by rote, stressing functional skills and neglecting the critical-thinking skills needed for college, she argues.

Low-track placement can also erode students’ self-esteem, resulting in a “sense of inadequacy” that persists into adulthood, she writes.

“At a time when our economy requires better-educated workers than ever before, can we afford to let abstract measures of ability curtail the educational aspirations and potential accomplishments of our children?” Ms. Tobias asks.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as In the Press Column