Education Opinion

The Not-So-Good Old Days

By Ronald Levitsky — June 01, 1990 4 min read

In Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, manufacturer Thomas Gradgrind warns young Cissy Jupe, “You must discard the word Fancy all together....In this life, we want nothing but Facts.’' Like modern-day Gradgrinds, many critics of education are pushing a back-to-basics approach to school reform that emphasizes drumming in “facts, facts, facts’’ and inculcating traditional values. They are nostalgic for the way subjects were taught during the “good old days’’ in the idealized school that Beaver Cleaver attended. They claim that these traditional methods will better prepare our students for the “real world.’' Not only is this claim false, but it also could set back some of the genuine progress that has been made in American education. It is time for educators to challenge such critics and let them know what teaching in the “real world’’ really is.

Nostalgia has a way of muddying the memory. Those idealized schools of the past were “real’’ neither in content nor methodology. Discipline and knowledge of basic facts, which such schools emphasized, are only preludes to learning, not ends in themselves. If the purpose of school is memorization and rote learning, the classroom is nothing more than a game of Jeopardy without the prizes. This seems to be the thinking of many state legislatures, which try to measure learning solely with a standardized multiple-choice test. Indeed, some of those “experts’’ who created the prototype for my state’s social studies exam were writers for Hollywood quiz shows.

Jeopardy is not the real world. How can we expect students to be successful problem solvers as adults if they are never asked to analyze and evaluate data in the classroom? If children aren’t taught real thinking skills--such as how to use the facts they have learned to examine critically our history and current controversies--is our educational system really so different from those that have been discarded in Eastern Europe? Reformers longing for the schools of a generation ago should read Frances Fitzgerald’s analysis (in her book America Revised) of that period’s U.S. history textbooks:

“Ideologically speaking, the histories of the fifties were implacable, seamless. Inside their covers, America was perfect: the greatest nation in the world, and the embodiment of democracy, freedom, and technological progress.’'

Is it any wonder that the American people, indoctrinated with our nation’s infallibility, were bewildered by the tragedy of the Vietnam War and the way it split our country into warring camps?

The “Beaver Cleaver’’ schools of the past were also unrealistic in their pedagogy. Teaching any curriculum without applying it to the student’s world is generally futile. This is especially true of my own subject area, social studies, which often has been presented as a series of facts from a distant time or place about people who seem to have no connection to students. To make learning meaningful, teachers must pose serious questions about the relationship of such disciplines as history and geography to their students’ lives (for example, how the creation of African slavery in the 1600’s is related to racism in today’s society).

Relying on competition and the dreaded “curve,’' these schools of the past measured one child’s success at the expense of another’s failure. Yet outside school, as the Japanese have reminded us, the “real world’’ of work emphasizes cooperation. Business friends tell me that it is much easier to teach someone necessary skills than to find employees who can work well as part of a team. Many schools are just discovering that cooperative learning-- helping students become responsible for one another’s learning--not only improves the understanding of subject matter, but also helps a child develop a better self-image and stronger interpersonal relationships, the very qualities that can lead to success in the “real world.’'

And there is a more fundamental point. While preparing students for a good job is important, it is not the ultimate purpose of education. If it were, children would become, like Dickens’s Gradgrind, soulless individuals who strive only for the “facts’’ needed to get money and power, or, like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, people who measure out their lives with coffee spoons, leading a crablike existence without a love of beauty or the challenge of ideas. Is this to be their “real world’’?

Teachers are among the handful of adults who deal with the essence of civilization--Shakespeare, the diversity of other cultures, the latest scientific discovery--on a daily basis. The “real world’’ is measured by more than coffee spoons or a certain salary. In the “real world,’' we must create a life worth living, a life based on thinking critically, acknowledging the relationship between oneself and people distant in time and place, working cooperatively with others, and seeking the stimuli of art and ideas. That is the ultimate lesson we must teach our students. In doing so, we will finally bridge the gap between school and the adult world, anchoring one as firmly in reality as the other.

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The Not-So-Good Old Days