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The Use and Misuse of Hope

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The following was adapted from a lecture given by Mr. Botstein May 11, 1993, in New York City. His topic was “America's Education Crisis: What Should Be Done?"

When we approach the question of educational reforms, we have to talk about language and literacy. The key instrument in our tradition of education is literacy and the use of language. But our definition of literacy has changed dramatically. First of all, we consider literate someone who can read, not necessarily someone who can write. There has been a separation of reading and writing in the curriculum, a very dramatic one. The passive recognition of the symbols has come to be sufficient, when in fact literacy requires active use of those symbols. It's not that this isn't taught. Is grammar taught in the American school? Sure it is. But it's not remembered. And that's because it's like teaching the rules of baseball to someone who's never been on a baseball field.

If you look at the use of language in our society, it's no wonder people don't read and write. In the American households in which our children are growing up, reading is not an important function. We're a society that doesn't read; why do we expect our children to read? We write very little. How can we expect young people to think they need to be literate?

Another essential for learning is memory. But we live in a culture where memory is not important. The amount of detail we have to retain in our own heads independent of any technologies of reference is limited. The quality of memory thus has eroded. Likewise, curiosity is limited. The more hostility there is between and among people, the less curious one becomes about them.

Given this cheerful description of the context in which we need to educate, it's clear that the failure to educate is not the result of some evil people-those policymakers, those lousy teachers, those ethnic groups we don't like. There are no culprits here. The problems are severe and basic. However, education remains at the heart of any hope for democracy or any kind of quality of life in this society, however you wish to describe it.

How do we go about changing the system? . . . What the Clinton Administration must do is develop an official policy that focuses on the total educational population as if on a snake, on the head and tail of a snake, pulling the head forward and pushing the bottom up. The real emphasis has to be at the extremes. Think of it as a race. If the fastest person in the race runs faster and the slowest person runs faster, the middle will also run faster. People are bounded by their context, which means you must raise the minimum standard if you want the upper standard to be raised too. A social policy must concentrate on the ends of the traditional population in an effort to push the entire mass, not play to the average or the center.

So, how to achieve this? First of all, I would simplify the curriculum and focus on very basic concerns: a command of language, reading and writing, mathematical reasoning. Too much time is spent in elementary school in repetition of arithmetic. We should be concentrating on approximation, probability, and geometry in a much more enriched elementary math curriculum.

I would eliminate the American high school because it is not fixable in its current design. I would divide schooling into five or six years of elementary school and then middle school. At the end of the sophomore year of high school, kids would feed into the community-college system. The American high school system is a 19th-century structure and has run its course. It is not congruent with the rapid development and See “The New Philanthropy," by Denis Doyle, page 37, and a parent's view of special education, page 38. autonomy of adolescents, their physical maturation, and the independence the society permits them. It simply doesn't work. The community-college system, however, works very well by comparison, doing what high schools should be doing. So I would end formal compulsory schooling earlier in the career of young people and send them into the two-year-college system. Plug them in directly to what is quite a successful sector, where young people are treated much more as adults.

We also have to face the fact that teaching must become a desirable profession. In order to do this, we have to raise teachers' salaries. Long ago, I had the idea of making all public school teachers exempt from federal taxes, which would be an easy way to improve their income without bureaucracy. But, in addition, we have to change the working conditions. Why do many people want to become college teachers and not high school teachers? Not because the pay is better; in fact, some public school teaching pays better than college teaching. Why do good people teach in private schools? Because in public schools the teaching profession is bureaucratized, teachers are not treated as professionals, there is enormous regulation, the conditions of work are horrendous, there is no professional community. These are disincentives. They contribute to the insufficient number of teachers and to large class size.

Among people who go into teaching now, there is some increase in idealism, but by and large that idealism is beaten out of them very rapidly. The administration and organization of schools need a radical overhaul. Teacher training also has to be changed. I would abolish the teacher education programs at the undergraduate level. And I would essentially dismember the university-campus schools of education. Training has to be located in subject matter and not pedagogy. The only area of pedagogy that should remain intact is in the early-childhood arena, where it's a serious discipline. Beyond that, the methods and materials of teaching have to be connected far more with the discipline. The love of a subject, not the love of an age group, has to predominate in the teacher. And that involves changing the integration of American schools and universities.

American education is excessively organized on a horizontal system. A high school physics teacher is more in touch with a high school English teacher than with a college physics teacher. There should be much more vertical integration by field. The people who teach English in elementary and high school should have more contact with universities. There should be more of a discipline-based orientation in the teacher training system. There has to be a massive amount of in-service training for current teachers.

In terms of national service, every graduate student in the nation should serve in the public school system as part of his or her training. If the graduate students are not adept at teaching, they can help out in the lab, they can tutor. They have to somehow help the school system.

We need national standards, but these cannot be driven by the testing instruments we have now. We test and overtest already with no result. The testing instruments are helpful for politicians and legislators and for the public and journalists, but they're not helpful for the kids who should benefit from the testing in the first place.

Science and mathematics, as opposed to the humanities, should be at the center of the curriculum from the beginning. I take this radical position because science is the last common ground we have, and it's the easiest curiosity to sustain. Every child wants to know about how the world works, and every scientist in the history of the West certainly has been literate. Science and literacy can be linked. College is too late to develop a curiosity in science and mathematics; it can only be done early in life.

In urban areas, I would suggest that we rethink the settlement house model, creating a new kind of physical pace, which is the public school. It would be open 24 hours a day as a safe haven from drugs and violence, a place where any young person could enter with an identification card and get instruction and activities any time of day.

The major skill taught in school needs to be the command of language. To motivate students, we need to make a connection in the public arena between literacy and learning and the quality of our public life. That has to do with the discourse of politics, but the irony is that the quality of political discourse in the United States has declined even as the number of people who finish college has increased.

People say there used to be a great college curriculum once upon a time. But I disagree. You have to measure the quality of education in the long run, not immediately after a person graduates, but 10, 15, 20 years out. You have to measure it in the level of people's curiosity, the way they conduct their lives, how they behave in their communities, what kind of character of life they aspire to. That's where you measure a curriculum: In the generation of curiosity, skills, and interests.

I believe in a core curriculum, but that core curriculum has to include diverse cultures. Whether we like it or not, and cliches notwithstanding, we live in a global society, and we have to educate young people for that. The diversity and multiculturalism being talked about so much is a very commonsensical notion, and it should add to, rather than subtract from, the agenda of American education. All curricula are political, because our definition of the tradition is always evolving and always changing. Curricula have always adjusted to political needs and political beliefs. What kind of curriculum can we create that will teach Americans to really function well in a democracy? The question for us is not whether a curriculum is political but what politics we want the curriculum to enhance: a politics of commonality or a politics of separation? By including diverse cultures, we enhance rather than decrease the possibility of communication across ethnic and religious lines.

The key to educational reform is, first, decisiveness on the federal side, which is not yet in evidence, and, second, a real mobilization of the nation to invest in it. Without this reform, the country is indeed troubled; but we have a unique chance to make changes. We have to struggle with our own sense of pessimism as adults and create an environment that is much more about hope.

I want to close with this notion of hope. One of the ugliest of the changes in grammar that have taken place during the 20th century is the use of the word "hopefully." As you know, "hopefully" is an adverb and is properly used only to modify a verb. Nowadays, however, it is used in common parlance as a surrogate for the words "I hope." Why has that usage become acceptable to our ears? Because, I would argue, it fits absolutely with a cultural shift, a tendency to displace responsibility. Saying "Hopefully, the school system will be better" is very different from saying "I hope the school system will be better," If you say "I hope," the next question is, What are you going to do about it? "Hopefully" implies an impersonal passivity with no obligation.

"Hope" is a very unusual word; we think of it in very complex ways. One of the ways we can think about hope is in comparison to animals. What's the difference between humans and animals? One way of looking at it, as Ludwig Wittgenstein argued, is that while animals may have emotions, they don't have hope. Hope is contingent on the possession of language. The animal can't hope because it does not possess language. Hope is not an emotion but a function of language, and is thus contingent on education. To create hope in a society, there must be education.

It is not some other special-interest arena that adds to the deficit. Education is of primary importance, but it has a unique, anomalous place in our political discourse because it is a local, non-national enterprise. The Clinton Administration is instead focusing on health-care reform. But the point is, health care for what? Do I want to live longer and more healthfully in a totalitarian society where there's no free speech because no one thinks, and therefore no one has a dissenting opinion? Where intolerance is so rampant that we take any dissenting opinion as a reason to hate the other person? Where language doesn't communicate anymore? Where no one sustains any memory? Where there is no bared knowledge, no shared experience, no shared discourse, and therefore no democracy? Do I want my health care to be better? I prefer to skip the immunization.

Education must be at the center of the future of America. The sooner this Administration comes up with a serious national education policy, the better off our children will be. We must learn to hope for them and cease crushing them with our own ill-earned pessimism.

Vol. 12, Issue 39, Pages 40, 48

Published in Print: June 23, 1993, as The Use and Misuse of Hope
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