On ‘Intellectual Education,’ Waning Local Involvement

November 18, 1987 3 min read

Addressing the annual principals’ meeting of the Coalition of Essential Schools in Baltimore last month, Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of the education department at Brown University, reviewed what he saw as the group’s “basic ground.”

Mr. Sizer three years ago formed the coalition of public and private high schools across the country dedicated to changing the basic structures and assumptions that underlie schools.

While acknowledging the uniqueness of each school and each community, Mr. Sizer suggested that “behind what works” in any school is a fundamental “set of ideas.” The foremost of these assumptions shared by sound schools, Mr. Sizer argues in the following excerpt from his speech, is the belief that the primary goal of education is the cultivation of students’ ability to think:

We believe, in this group of schools, that the primary and overwhelming purpose of secondary schooling is the development of the student’s intellect. ...

And an intellectual education is essential in this society for everybody, without exception. The

youngster who may buck against an intellectual education is the youngster who needs more of it, not less of it.

[W]e cannot survive in this kind of society with a citizenry that can’t think hard. We cannot survive in this kind of society with a citizenry which is easily conned, which is manipulated by Madison Avenue, which is sold a bill of goods, whether in the marketplace of commerce or the marketplace of politics.

The very freedom which this country depends upon, indeed, maybe the very future of this planet, depends on folks who can think clearly. And that is the pre-eminent, overwhelming purpose of high schools. And nothing, absolutely nothing, must get in the way of that. ...

Intellectual education of a serious sort is very difficult. And therefore we believe that only a very simple program can provide it.

The more complicated a school’s program, the less likely that serious intellectual education will result. ... Better to do a few things thoroughly, better to really understand a few things well, a few essential things, ... than a passing and superficial and indeed trivializing knowledge of a lot of

things. Less is more.

In the 34th Delta Epsilon Lecture at the University of Southern California, Patrick O. Rooney, a former superintendent of the Ventura (Calif.) Unified School District, analyzed the effects of recent educational reforms in California. While focused on California’s experience, Mr. Rooney’s comments also pointed to the implications for other states and districts of similar legislation.

Among the trends noted by Mr. Rooney were the shifting of greater responsibilities for funding and policymaking to the state and the consequences for local districts of this change. In the following excerpt from his speech, Mr. Rooney discusses the decline in local interest and involvement in education that results from the centralization of control over policy matters:

One of the last bastions of local control is the local school district. Much like the town-hall meetings of colonial days, citizens can attend school-board meetings and express themselves on various issues. ...

There needs to be a perception on the part of the community that the school board is accessible and responsive to the unique educational needs of the student. When the seat of control and authority is placed at a centralized level, the desire for local participation dissolves into nothingness. ...

Accompanying the transfer of numerous financial and curriculum responsibilities to the state, there has been a gradual dwindling of interest in school matters by local citizens. Whereas past school-board elections would usually draw a number of qualified candidates, there are many districts in California where elections were not held due to a lack of candidates.

In conversations with likely candidates, ... a universal reply was that the tasks of a board member are too negative and thankless. Few people are interested in dealing with such duties as closing schools, bargaining with the staff, balancing the budget, and desegregating the schools. The comment of one board member who didn’t seek another term was, “It just isn’t fun anymore when we have so little to say about the way schools are operated.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 1987 edition of Education Week as On ‘Intellectual Education,’ Waning Local Involvement