Commentary: In The Press

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The May issue of The Washington Monthly contains the latest of many attacks on the National Education Association that the magazine has carried over the years. This one, written by two former state-level nea executive directors, charges the nation's largest teachers' union with being more devoted to its national staff and their expansive political agenda than to the principles of education reform that concern the average teacher.

Bill Boyton and John Lloyd write that "in its present state, teachers don't run the nea The staff does--as much to serve its own interests as the aspirations of teachers and the cause of reform."

The authors say "the nea staff frequently is less than respectful of the views of their members" and often "are openly contemptuous of teachers and their 'naive' political views."

Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Boyton discuss the nea's position on a number of recent education-reform initiatives and its interest in policy matters outside the realm of education. They conclude that "the nea has been the single biggest obstacle to educational reform in this country."

Walter Karp, a contributing editor of Harper's, accuses the public schools of engaging in political hypocrisy in "Why Johnny Can't Think: The Politics of Bad Schooling." The article, an extended review of recent books on American education, appears in the June issue of the magazine.

"The great ambition professed by public- school managers is, of course, education for citizenship and self-government," writes Mr. Karp. "What the public schools practice with remorseless proficiency, however, is the prevention of citizenship and the stifling of self-government."

To support that argument, he cites several books--including John I. Goodlad's A Place Called School and Theodore R. Sizer's Horace's Compromise--that portray students as passive learners who are called upon to provide short "right" or "wrong" answers to questions but rarely to engage in reasoned discourse.

Overcrowded classrooms, the high premium placed on "quiet," the shortage of teachers trained to engage students in the development of thinking skills, and the growing reliance on standardized tests to measure student performance all contribute to the "dogma and docility" that underlie American schooling, Mr. Karp says.

In addition, he writes, "Public schools stamp out republican sentiment by habituating their students to unfairness, inequality, and special privilege. These arise inevitably from the educational establishment's long-standing policy ... of maintaining 'the correlation between social class and educational achievement."'

Mr. Karp believes Diane Ravitch, author of The Troubled Crusade, is correct to contend that the use of nonphonetic methods to teach children reading favors those children who are already motivated and ready to read, while making reading more difficult for children whose parents are "ill-read or ignorant."

The recent studies of schooling have shown, he writes, that "the schools hasten this process of falling behind ... by giving the best students the best teachers and struggling students the worst ones."

"The whole system of unfairness, inequality, and privilege comes to fruition in high school," he says, with the widespread use of tracking, which "reproduces the divisions of the class system" by concentrating students from wealthier families in the honors tracks, and those from working-class homes in general and vocational courses.

These problems cannot be solved by "trifling reforms," Mr. Karp says. Instead, ordinary citizens need to "rescue the schools from their stifling corruption, for nobody else wants ordinary children to become questioning citizens at all. If we wait for the mighty to teach America's youth what secures or endangers their freedom, we will wait until the crack of doom."

The recent focus on the substance and purpose of "general education'' for college undergraduates is nothing new, argues Ann Hulbert in the May 6 issue of The New Republic.

In two previous waves of interest in revising the undergraduate curriculum--after the First and Second World Wars--general education's aim of exposing students in a structured sequence to the major realms of human knowledge was touted as the cure for what ailed society. But the specific recommendations put forth during those periods were "as diffuse as those in this season's reports," she contends.

Ms. Hulbert, a senior editor at the magazine, spotlights three recent reports on general education: William J. Bennett's "To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education"; the National Institute of Education's "Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education"; and the Association of American Colleges' "Integrity in the College Curriculum." Taken together, these reports reveal "how confused and contradictory most of the claims about general education are," Ms. Hulbert argues in the article.

In his report, Mr. Bennett calls for restoring "great books" to the core curriculum on the grounds that the best work in the humanities addresses universal human issues. Mr. Bennett also says that students should become familiar with one non-Western culture, a foreign language, and the history of science and technology.

The nie report--Ms. Hulbert calls it the work of seven "meta-academics"--makes 27 recommendations regarding such factors in undergraduate learning as student involvement, "high expectations," and "assessment and feedback." On the subject of general education, the report urges educators to "agree upon and disseminate a statement of the knowledge, capacities, and skills that students must develop prior to graduation."

The aac report, Ms. Hulbert says, "is the closest to an inside look at what might go on in college curriculum committees." Written by 19 administrators and professors, the report concludes that "the problem with the American college curriculum is not that it has failed to offer up knowledge [but that] it offers too much knowledge with too little attention to how that knowledge has been created and what methods and styles of inquiry have led to its creation."

The panel goes on to recommend a "modes of inquiry" approach that would introduce students to the "how" of knowledge, leaving the particular "what" to professors' discretion.

On the whole, Ms. Hulbert finds the reports confusing and says the resultant "muddle" is particularly disappointing. "Now might actually be an opportune moment to mix hard-nosed calculations and humanistic aspirations," she writes, "precisely because what's behind the commotion is not just a vague sense of civic crisis but a financial crunch'' in higher education.

The June 3 issue of the magazine takes a look at modern-day "bowdlerization" of Shakespeare. The term, which means "to expurgate prudishly," was coined after Thomas Bowdler and his sister Harriet published their first edition of Family Shakespeare in 1807. As The New Republic's managing editor, Dorothy Wickenden explains, high-school-textbook publishers have long thought that some of Shakespeare's plays require judicious cutting for adolescent audiences. Romeo and Juliet, "with its arousing themes of young love, sex, drugs, and death," is, she says, "a perfect candidate for the curriculum--and for excisions."

Ms. Wickenden writes about a Fairfax County, Va., 9th grader who discovered that some of the lines in the play had been deleted from Scott, Foresman's America Reads, an anthology of literature. Subsequent investigations by school boards across the country and by People for the American Way, a civil-liberties group, found that 300 lines had been eliminated from the textbook--most of them sexual allusions--and that textbook publishers "routinely expurgate Shakespeare."

Ms. Wickenden says there is nothing new or surprising about such cutting. But she contrasts today's censors with the Victorians, who were ''secure in the belief that they were serving the cause of Christianity and assisting in society's moral progress." In contrast, she says, today's editors expurgate "shamefully, defensively, on behalf of a cause that most of them don't fully believe in."

Ms. Wickenden suggests that, if certain passages must be trimmed, publishers should indicate changes with ellipses and point out the expurgations in both the teachers' guide and the students' introduction. "Covert or open," she concludes, "censorship is a doomed enterprise, for it stimulates precisely that dangerous urge it set out to crush: curiosity."

The May 23 issue of Rolling Stone contains what for some teachers and administrators may amount to a nightmare vision--a portrait of Los Angeles's "new young underground."

In "Spending the Night with the Zero Generation," the free-lancer Aaron Latham plunges into the after-hours world of young "punks" who have names like Mad Marc Rude, Modi, and the Zebra Girl. The Zebra Girl is particularly memorable--she wears nothing above her waist but black and white painted stripes. Mad Marc decorates his apartment with a human skeleton ("I traded a bass amplifier for it"), a human heart in formaldehyde, various animal skulls, and a live tarantula. His friend, Iris, lives in Disgraceland, "a kind of Zero Generation dormitory."

These young people circulate through a shifting array of late-night, no-frills bars with names like the Zero and the Fetish Club. One club's "doomsday philosopher" says, "What you see here is a modern-day Dance of Death. ... Back in the Middle Ages, they were afraid of the Plague. Now we are afraid of everything--especially the H-BBBOOOOOOMMMMMBBBBBB!!!" Mad Marc and Iris say they have already chosen the clothes they will wear on the day of Armageddon.

Vol. 04, Issue 36

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