John Gardner on the Revival Of Public Interest in Education

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For nearly 30 years, John W. Gardner has been one of the nation's leading spokesmen on education, urban affairs, and social issues. In his 10 years as president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York from 1955-65, during his tenure as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Johnson Administration, and recently, as chairman of Common Cause and Independent Sector, Mr. Gardner has developed a keen perception of shifts in public attitudes toward major social issues.

Education, Mr. Gardner now predicts, is recovering from the low position it held on the national agenda during the 1970's.

Q:Mr. Gardner, you were quoted recently in the New York Times as saying that education is likely to become an important political issue in the 1980's. What did you mean by that?

A:I meant that the apathy and lack of attention that education has been treated to for the past 15 years is coming to an end. The situation today reminds me of the days before that apathy set in, when education was really a live, political subject for about eight years, between the post-Sputnik period and perhaps 1966 or '67. Nobody before Sputnik thought of education as a very lively subject. But it became so after Sputnik, when Congressmen didn't want to vote against education. When it came right down to it, it was just something so universally significant that they didn't want to fool around with being negative on it. Whether it will be an issue in the 1984 presidential election, I don't know. But it's entirely possible.

Q:How will the issues be shaped? Will there be "hot" disagreements over control of education, the federal role, tuition tax credits, and so on?

A:I don't think that it's going to be a "hot" political issue. I think the American people are simply turning their attention back to education. They will not develop finely tuned notions about how much federal, state, and local support they want. They'll create a climate in which you can get support. There are big differences in political philosophy as to where you get it, but I don't think it's going to be a hot political question. I think most Americans will assume that support will come from a variety of sources.

Q:What factors are responsible for turning the attention of Americans back to education? And what caused the period of apathy you mentioned?

A:I don't think anybody knows why things go on and off the public agenda. It just happens. A subject is terribly lively for a while, and then it ceases to be. It may be that we had such an intensive period from the time Sputnik went up in 1957 that the public got a little jaded on the subject. We not only talked about it incessantly, and had the Congressional people working, but we spent an awful lot of money on it. Public enthusiasm comes in bursts; maybe it just used up that burst of enthusiasm.

A:lso, the social issues and the urban disintegration pulled attention away from the schools, and, in some cases, produced hostility toward the schools, made racial conflict a kind of focus of school interest, and altered the character of the attention to educational issues.

Now, I've come to feel strongly that there is something starting again, as I move around and talk to people. Something's happening.

Q:Can you pinpoint any specific causes of the new attention education may be getting from the public? You compared the current climate to the post-Sputnik era. Are Americans focusing on competition between our education system and those of other countries, as they did then?

A:The extraordinary performance of Germany and Japan has stirred a lot of concern. And that concern goes down two streams--one is productivity and technology and capital: Are we doing our job as a business society? And the other channel is: Are we doing our job in training our people to run that society? The evidence is not very good that we are. You've probably seen the report by the National Academy of Sciences on science and math. This really is of concern because it isn't just Japan. It's Korea, and Taiwan, and eventually mainland China that have been seized with the work ethic and determination to perform such as we haven't seen in our country for quite a while. We're great performers when we set our minds to it. But we haven't been lately.

But there is other evidence of a shift toward a serious and possibly sustaining interest in education. It's an extraordinary thing that several important studies of the schools are being done--by Ernie Boyer, Ted Sizer, John Goodlad. And my own university, Stanford, is doing a major study of the schools, universitywide, every department, with the department of education in the lead. That's an extraordinary event. Typically, universities as a whole can barely see down that far to the lower level, as they regard it. In the old days before Sputnik, the universities hardly paid attention to the schools. This is a kind of return to the 1958-to-1966 period when universities became interested because they had to be interested.

Those studies amount to quite a few little seedlings coming out. You begin to think this bleak scene of the past 15 years is changing. Now, I couldn't guarantee it any more than you could. But I have been around long enough to think that when bright, thoughtful people--who have limited time to do things--take on major efforts of that sort, there's a sense of something coming along that may be a new chapter.

Q:Do you think these studies might set off a kind of chain reaction of interest in rejuvenating the schools?

A:Oh, yes. We're guessing now--nobody knows--but if these things are really sound indicators, the fact that bright and creative people are coming back to work on it with some zest, it could catch on. I think an awful lot depends on the quality of the studies. They cannot be whitewashes. They've got to point some directions and set some standards. And if they do that, I have some hope.

Q:How, in your view, do major changes of the kind that may be recommended in those reports come about?

A:Well, the model--the kind of man-in-the-street model--of how you get something done is that you go to the institution that's supposed to do it and persuade them to do it, whether it's Congress passing a bill, or the state legislature passing a bill, or the school changing the curriculum. That's just oversimplified. You've got the people trying to bring about change, you've got the institution that has to act, and then you've got the climate of public opinion that is immensely important. It makes all the difference in the world. If that changes, all kinds of things become possible. You see it over and over again. In all fields, not just in education.

Q:Given that American society has evolved since Sputnik, do you think that education's mission has changed and that society's expectations of that mission have changed? And if so, how?

A:I think there are two different aspects of it. One is unchanging. Since the beginning of our democracy, education has been the broad avenue that all can travel. You promise opportunity, individual growth, and fulfillment, and that means education. That's the road we take for all these American things we want our kids to have. Whatever kind of apathy sets in, we're going to come back to education and say you've got to keep that central instrument. I don't think that's changed since the beginning of the Republic. I think that scholars believe that it has remained quite continuous over this century.

What has changed is the increasing awareness that we must educate for a technological society. A lot of people were saying that before Sputnik. But nobody listened until that doggone little thing went up in the sky, and then everyone just began running around in circles. Now, I think that educating for a technological future is going to be an unchanging element, too. We're coming back to what I think is the true reality--that we must prepare students to function in a complex society--a society that is so complicated that we can hardly manage it.

You've got to set standards all the way down the line. A sense of rigorous standards, a sense of performance. The designer of the computer may botch a job or the lowest employee working the computer may botch a job. You cannot just say we're going to give money to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and produce a lot of computer designers. You've got to get [superior performance] all the way down the line.

Q:If the advent of technology has presented a huge challenge for education, how should the schools respond? Will businesses and higher education play a greater role in setting the agenda of the schools?

A:I don't see it as the responsibility of business. I see it as the responsibility of the schools, first of all, because the first 12 grades are utterly, utterly crucial. Crucial to those kids who aren't going on to further education, crucial to all kids. You have to know how to count and read. We went through a period in the 60's and 70's where we thought, "Well, we have to go easy on the kids who have trouble reading." Or, "Let's go easy on the black kids." And finally some black leaders said, "Nonsense. We as black leaders want our youngsters to survive in a world that is saturated with words and numbers and to do it they have to get the basics."

It's the job of the schools. We can supplement it with business incentives to set up vocational courses. That's fine. But the basic job has to be done by all of us together through our public schools and our tax-supported institutions.

Q:Do you think the mechanisms for change are themselves changing? After Sputnik was launched, the federal government passed an aid program to improve education. Do you now think that the federal government cannot itself try to solve today's more complex problems?

A:I think the federal government is a piece of the solution, but we're not as confident as we once were that you can pass a bill and get a result. Or even that you can sit at a national level and design a marvelous curriculum that will get a result. Because some very good courses were designed, and textbooks for them, that teachers just didn't want. There wasn't enough work at the grassroots level, and a lot of this change today is going to have to do with grassroots effort.

We understand that a little better today than we did then. This is the importance of public opinion. The local teachers will get interested probably sooner than anyone else and will stay at it longer, and they'll work at it harder if they're supported by the public.

Q:So the impetus--and the responsibility--for riding this tide of reform you predict will be focused on the local schools?

A:Well, the schools are almost a model of the kind of social functions that have to be dealt with locally. The decision power is at the local level. The funding may have to come a lot more from the states and from the federal government because localities differ so in their capacity to do it. But I want to see the locus of decision and responsibility out there. And not pulled back into Washington any more than necessary.

Vol. 02, Issue 08

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