In the Press

September 19, 1984 10 min read

Many young people today “are in a complete moral stupor,” and the schools are largely to blame, contends Christina Hoff Sommers in the summer issue of The American Scholar.

Ms. Sommers, an assistant professor of philosophy at Clark University, argues that a growing aversion among educators to teaching traditional morality is undermining the moral development of many students.

“Unencumbered by the ‘old bag of virtues,”’ she writes, “the student arrives [at college] toting a ragbag of another stripe whose contents may be roughly itemized as ... psychological egoism (the belief that the primary motive for action is selfishness), moral relativism (the doctrine that what is praiseworthy or contemptible is a matter of cultural conditioning), and radical tolerance (the doctrine that to be culturally and socially aware is to understand and excuse the putative wrongdoer).”’

According to Ms. Sommers, moral-education classes in the schools are to blame. These classes, she contends, operate on the premise that no teachers have the “right” set of values to pass on to other people’s children. Citing Sidney Simon of the University of Massachusetts School of Education, she says such courses “are meant to help students to get at ‘their own feelings, their own ideas, their own beliefs, so that the choices and decisions they make are conscious and deliberate, based on their own value system.”’

In classes employing this type of “values clarification,” Ms. Sommers says, the “classical moral tradition,” including Western literature and history are considered alienating influences and “insensitive to the needs and rights of the contemporary student.” In such courses, Ms. Sommers contends, the role of the teacher is reduced to that of “facilitator” of students’ examinations of their own values. In that type of environment, she laments, no values are actually taught.

Her solution: “What [college students] sorely need are some straightforward courses in moral philosophy and sound and unabashed introduction to the Western moral tradition--something they may never have had before.”

The September issue of Personal Computing includes a special report on computers in education.

In the first of four articles, “Computers in Education: Promise and Reality,” Paul Bonner, a senior editor of the magazine, discusses problems associated with bringing computers into schools, including financing and equal access.

In “Education’s New Challenge,” Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, maintains that teachers must learn about computer equipment by building partnerships with computer companies and helping guide the companies in developing hardware and software. He also recommends that a national commission of teachers and other educators evaluate instructional software.

A third article is by U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey and author of the Computer Education Assistance Act of 1984, which seeks to establish federal support for computer education. The Senator discusses his views on the need to train teachers to use computers well, to maintain the country’s “computer-technology pre-eminence” in the face of world competition, and to provide equal access to computers in the classroom.

And in “A Buyer’s Guide to Educational Science Software,” Associate Editor Christopher O’Malley analyzes whether science software packages can help improve the quality of science education in schools. The article includes a buyer’s guide to publishers of educational science software.

Michael Jackson, the Peter Pan of pop music, “is one of the most sensual and least sexual stars” according to the September issue of Discover magazine, and appeals to adolescents and children who identify with the gender and age ambiguity that the entertainer projects.

Carin Rubenstein talked with psychologists and educators about the Jackson phenomenon and concluded that Mr. Jackson, who manages to represent “a fusion of the rebellious style of the 1960’s with a new concern for oneself,” is a less threatening idol for young teen-agers than Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger.

“American adolescents usually choose their idols as a way of reflecting or resisting prevailing standards,” she writes. “Frank Sinatra was a picture of postwar innocence and cute sexiness. Elvis Presley was a paradigm of rampant sexuality in an era ripe for eroticism.

“Mick Jagger was the first of many androgynous stars who represented the beginning of gender liberation,” Ms. Rubenstein continues. “In the oversexed and gender-blurred America of the 1980’s, Michael Jackson embodies a childlike sensuality that is both male and female.”

Psychologists interviewed for the article say Mr. Jackson also appeals to the “confused psyche” of the pre-teen-ager.

“He is everything at once: male and female, black and white, violent and sweet, ascetic and gaudy. Nothing is surrendered; he has mingled all the opposites,” David Gutmann, professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University, is quoted as saying.

Mr. Jackson represents a part of every adolescent who is a bit afraid of growing up, Ms. Rubenstein says, and is “living proof that confusion and uncertainty are not only acceptable, but admirable.”

“In a society obsessed with sex, there could be worse role models for young people caught up in the changes and confusion of adolescence,’' she concludes.

A strong principal with well-defined educational and disciplinary aims, enthusiastic teachers who take an interest in their students’ academic and personal concerns, and involved parents and business leaders are three influences characterizing the successful public schools examined by U.S. News and World Report in its Aug. 27 cover story.

“What Makes Great Schools Great” profiles five schools chosen from among the 354 public secondary schools across the country that were honored by the Education Department this summer and 202 urban schools cited by the Ford Foundation for reversing “seemingly hopeless educational climates.”

At the 260-student Kathadin High School in rural Sherman Station, Me., “mutual respect among teachers, students, and administrators” is a cause of the school’s success, according to one teacher.

In the inner city of Los Angeles, Francis Nakano is credited with bringing discipline and pride to Thomas Jefferson High School in his two years as principal. When Mr. Nakano took his post, the authors explain, “he found a graffiti-marred campus that openly showed its latest scars ... Nakano immediately masterminded an overhaul of the buildings ... [and] with physical changes has come a renewed attention to learning.”

U.S. News and World Report also published the results of a survey of 1,175 student leaders in the National Association of Student Councils. Among its findings:

Over 75 percent of the students give a grade of A or B to the quality of their education.

Improving the quality of teachers is seen as the highest priority in upgrading education.

The top-ranking complaint about teachers is that they fail to make subjects interesting.

Students, those surveyed said, share responsibility for educational shortcomings because they are too apathetic about learning.

Almost half think that at least a C average should be required for student participation in sports and clubs at school.

About 50 percent see drug and alcohol use as a serious problem in their schools.

Anthony J. Alvarado, former chancellor of the New York City school system, “has fallen, and like Humpty Dumpty can’t be put back together again,” writes Nat Hentoff in the July 3 and July 10 issues of The Village Voice.

But, Mr. Hentoff asks in the title of the piece, “Do Tony Alvarado’s ideas have to be buried with him?”

This month, had Mr. Alvarado not resigned last spring in response to allegations of financial misconduct, redesigned high schools, called ''theme” schools, were to spring up in the nation’s largest school system, Mr. Hentoff notes. Alexander Hamilton High School, for instance, would have become the Central Brooklyn High School of Computer Technology, and the High School of Business Careers would have replaced the Manhattan Vocational High School.

By taking one failing high school from which large numbers of students dropped out and turning it into a magnet school that focused on mathematics and science, Mr. Hentoff notes, Mr. Alvarado had brought life to his premise that “children want to learn more about what most interests them.”

Besides more “theme” schools, which students from all community districts could choose to attend, Mr. Alvarado was beginning to put together a citywide network of adult mentors for high-school students. The mentors, Mr. Hentoff notes, would have served as tutors, career counselors, “big brothers” and “big sisters.”

Gov. Mark White of Texas was the biggest winner in the state legislature’s recent passage of a $2.8-billion education-reform bill, writes Paul Burka, senior editor of Texas Monthly, in the magazine’s August edition. Teachers and the education lobby, he maintains, were the biggest losers.

Assessing the significance of the special session for politics as well as for education, Mr. Burka notes that Governor White scored a victory in pushing through the legislature a bill that calls for the first major increase in state taxes in 13 years.

“The sluggish Texas economy made a tax increase during [Governor White’s] administration inevitable,” Mr. Burka writes in “Guv Passes, Teachers Flunk.” “But he was able to tie it to the state’s two most popular expenses: highways and education,” the author adds. Some $1.8 billion of the new revenue will go to highway construction.

“He at last learned the fine art of how a governor lobbies the legislature,” Mr. Burka continues. “He delivered on his campaign promise to raise teachers’ salaries; yet the reforms insulated him against charges that he was beholden to the teacher lobby.”

The biggest loser, Mr. Burka contends, was the education lobby, made up mostly of teachers. “Its strength has been declining for years, ever since the administrators lost control of the Texas State Teachers Association and left to form their own organization.

“Although much was made of the tsta’s (and two other teacher organizations’) suicidal opposition to the final bill, the truth is that for years teachers have not been nearly so effective as their numbers (95,000 in the tsta) warrant.”

Seventeen months after the release of the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, there are signs of a “full-fledged backlash” by the “education establishment” to the changes that have been urged on the schools, asserts Chester E. Finn Jr. in the September issue of The American Spectator.

In “The Excellence Backlash: Sources of Resistance To Educational Reform,” Mr. Finn, a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, offers “10 early manifestations” of this widespread backlash within the education profession.

Among these are a rejection by educators of the criticisms leveled at the schools in recent years, claims that the requested reforms will be inordinately expensive, and the contention that higher educational standards are discriminatory and unjust.

"[I]t is not altogether suprising,” Mr. Finn writes, “that a serious push for uniform high standards for everybody, ... standards to be applied to all individuals regardless of their group characteristics, would alarm the ideologues of equity and would worry leaders of some of the groups that have profited from special treatment.”

He then outlines “five of the most vexing tensions within the ranks of the reformers.” They include a debate over whether schools should equip all students “with essentially the same intellectual skills, core values, and knowledge,” dissent over where responsibility should lie for the implementation of the reforms, and disagreement over what constitutes successful reform.

Mr. Finn concludes by noting that the “blunt fact is that even if the excellence movement remains on the battlefield for several more years,” policymakers face three difficult challenges: upgrading “the sorry state of teacher quality,” coping with the “managerial dilemmas, administrative snarls, and political pressures” created when more students fail in the face of higher standards, and overcoming the lack of “reliable mechanisms to maintain public pressure for better schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1984 edition of Education Week as In the Press