Books: Readings

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In The Spirit of Community, Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist, former White House adviser, and founder of what has come to be known as the "communitarian movement,'' offers his outline of how Americans can harmonize a strong heritage of individual rights with a renewed sense of collective responsibility. Schools can contribute to this "moral revival without Puritanism,'' he says. In the excerpt below, he suggests that stronger bonds between teachers and their students might be a starting place:

For teachers to be more than purveyors of information and skills, for them to be able to educate, they must be able to bond more closely with students than they do now in many schools. Such bonding may be encouraged by arranging for less rotation of pupils. Many American high schools are currently organized as if a powerful sociological engineer were intent on minimizing the bonds between students and teachers and seeking to insure that whatever peer bonds formed would not be classroom-related.

These effects stem from the fact that students are reshuffled each time the bell rings, every 45 minutes or so, while the various subject teachers stay put. As a consequence, students, especially in larger schools, rarely develop bonds as members of a class group, because the class members who come together in one period do not remain together for the next. As a result, peer groups, which often hold much sway over members, especially in moral matters, are not classroom-based and are formed for other, often irrelevant-to-education reasons. Peer groups tend to be formed around other values or occasions, whether it is racing cars or heavy-metal rock music.

Although these peer groups don't necessarily have to oppose community and educational values, sociological studies show that they often do. They are rarely mobilized by educators on the side of moral education in typical high-rotation schools.

Another result is that teachers cannot form bonds with their students because they have few opportunities to get to know them. Teachers are typically responsible for a subject and not for a "class''--not for a given group of pupils, say, all those in the 11th grade, third section. Thus the highly specialized school organization is, in effect, a systematic hindrance to bonding with educators, which is an essential prerequisite for moral education.

High schools should be reorganized to facilitate experience-based moral education. Teachers should be in charge of a particular "class,'' teaching the same group of youngsters, say, three subjects (especially those rich in value content, such as history and literature) or two subjects and civics. The same teacher would also be the class's homeroom teacher, in charge of disciplinary matters. Discipline should be approached by the teacher not as if he or she were a punitive police officer, but as a faculty member whose task it is to use instances of improper conduct to engage in moral education. Schools might also institute a policy whereby such teachers would follow the same students from 9th through 12th grades.

Such changes, in turn, would necessitate modifications in the ways the teachers themselves are trained, to make them less specialized. Note, though, that many teachers, especially those who teach humanities or liberal arts, are already properly prepared. In any event, without more bonding and contacts that are more encompassing, extensive, and value rich, moral education is unlikely to succeed.

From The Spirit of Community, by Amitai Etzioni. Copyright 1993 by Amitai Etzioni. Reprinted by permission of Crown Publishers. All rights reserved.


Thomas Sowell, one of the country's foremost voices of black conservatism, spends considerable time in his scathing indictment of the education establishment, Inside American Education: The Decline, The Deception, The Dogmas, criticizing schools' attempts to teach values. Practices common in areas ranging from multiculturalism to sex education are examined for their "behavior altering,'' even "brainwashing,'' intent. Below, he summarizes his views on the entrenched, misguided interests that have, in his view, produced such failed and intrusive education policy:

The most important thing to reorganize about education is our own thinking about it. Our purpose cannot be to project yet another Utopia as to what teaching methods are best, what educational goals are the loftiest, or what kind of end-product would represent the student of our dreams. We need to begin instead by facing up to the debacle in which we find ourselves, so as to understand not only the institutional and attitudinal factors behind the failures of the educational system, but also the factors behind its successes in thwarting repeated attempts at fundamental reform. We need to face the harsh reality of the kind of people we are dealing with, the kind of bitter fight we can expect from them if we try to disturb their turf and perks--and the bleak future of our children if we don't.

Despite the lofty rhetoric which is as much a part of the educational world as the cap and gown, we must face up to what educators have actually done, as distinguished from what they have said:

1. They have taken our money, betrayed our trust, failed our children, and then lied about the failures with inflated grades and pretty words.

2. They have used our children as guinea pigs for experiments, targets for propaganda, and warm bodies to be moved here and there to mix and match for racial balance, pad enrollments in foreign-language programs mislabeled "bilingual,'' or just to be warehoused until labor unions are willing to let them enter the job market.

3. They have proclaimed their special concern for minority students, while placing those students into those colleges where they are most likely to fail.

4. They have proclaimed their dedication to freedom of ideas and the quest for truth, while turning educational institutions into bastions of dogma and the most intolerant institutions in American society.

5. They have presumed to be the conscience of society and to teach ethics to others, while shamelessly exploiting college athletes, overcharging the government, organizing price-fixing cartels, and leaving the teaching of undergraduates to graduate student assistants and junior and part-time faculty, while the tenured faculty pursue research and its rewards.

All this says something, not only about educators, but also about the rest of us, who let them get away with such things. At the very least, it says something about the kind of institutional insulation which protects misfeasance and malfeasance from detection and correction. No reforms which leave that institutional insulation intact are likely to escape the fate of innumerable previous reforms, which have either been nullified or turned to the further advantage of the education establishment.

If there is any lesson in the continuing deterioration of American educational standards, despite a growing inflow of money and an escalating proliferation of rules, it must at the very least be that (1) money is not the bottleneck preventing higher educational quality and (2) micromanaging procedures in no way insures better educational results. The task is not specific prescription but institutional changes to enable results to be monitored and accountability to become a reality in the schools and in the colleges and universities.

Once it is clearly understood that changing an educational establishment which is experienced, skilled, resourceful, and unscrupulous in defense of its territory is going to be a bitter battle the question can then be squarely faced as to what the advantages and disadvantages are on each side in the struggles that are sure to follow.

From Inside American Education, by Thomas Sowell. Copyright 1993 by Thomas Sowell. Reprinted by permission of the Free Press. All rights reserved.

Vol. 12, Issue 30

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