The Old Order Changeth?

Searching for Education' s New Giants

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The old order changeth, yielding place to new," wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson in Idylls of the King. In no other social enterprise has the change in the "old order" been as dramatic and complete in such a short space of time as it has in the realm of ideas in public education. Untimely deaths have deprived us of the intellects of Ralph W. Tyler, Terrel H. Bell, Madeline Hunter, Allan Bloom, John Saxon, Albert Shanker, and Ernest L. Boyer. Retirement has beckoned to Theodore R. Sizer, Gordon Cawelti, and Scott Thomson. We are pleased but not comforted that John I. Goodlad, E.D. Hirsch Jr., and Mortimer J. Adler have moved beyond threescore and 10 yet remain productive and influential. These are the "Knights of the Round Table" who influenced, stimulated, and shaped the American school's intellectual agenda for over four decades. Their books, speeches, articles, theories, critiques, actions and reactions, formed the culture in which those of us who toiled in the educational vineyards were immersed. Theirs was the language we spoke when talking to school boards and parents. Our schools were changed or not changed, made better or worse, were deemed innovative or traditional, in response to the ideas that emanated from one or more of these powerful minds.

The purpose here is not to lament the passing of their influence but to ask some questions concerning the other side of Tennyson's line: "yielding place to new." Try as one might, it is difficult to find any "new." For a short period in the 1980s, when the economy turned sour, the business community turned out a few books directed at reforming the schools, but none proved influential enough to change anything that happened where teachers met students. Some superintendents may have had their staffs sit around in "quality circles" chanting Total Quality Management mantras, and some probably used the jargon of "downsizing" when increasing class size to meet the annual budget crisis.

Some principals may even have tried "managing by walking around," but all in all the effect was negligible, and when the economy changed directions the CEOs went back to thinking about stock options.

"Multiple intelligences," "cooperative learning," and "authentic assessment" have all spawned more than a few disciples, sustained more than a reasonable amount of workshops, and filled out the programs of far too many conferences. Their continued appearance on conference programs of national education organizations provides sufficient evidence that the "new" is in short supply.

There was a time when one might have looked to the national organizations for leadership and ideas, but that time is no longer with us. The present leadership of the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development can best be described as the bland leading the bland. If their conferences remain well-attended, that has far more to do with the choice of cities they are held in than with the programs they are offering.

It's possible that these organizations are not fully to blame for the beige nature of their agendas, for if there is a paucity of new ideas there will be a similar paucity of interesting programs. The National Education Association has long settled for self-serving--the most recent example being the attempt to co-opt the charter school movement by supporting a few run by NEA members and undermining those that are not. One seldom expected anything original from that quarter in any case. What the NEA will do for ideas now that Mr. Shanker is not around to tweak its tail will be interesting to watch. As for the American Federation of Teachers, it may be fair not to rush to judgment, but I know of no one who is rushing out to buy The New York Times on Sunday to read the columns of Mr. Shanker's successor.

There was a time when one might have looked to the national organizations for leadership and ideas, but that time is no longer with us.

There was a time in our history when college presidents contributed considerably to the flow of ideas that found their way into the schoolhouse. The elective system, still popular in most secondary schools, is directly attributable to President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard. Presidents Clark Kerr of the University of California, Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago, Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University, and James B. Conant of Harvard were all major players in the life of American schools. It is a flow that has since dried up, and few if any educators in our present schools could even name a college president, never mind look to one for an idea.

The nation, I am sure, grows tired of "education presidents" and lists of goals that are neither attained nor attended to. The only likelihood one can be confident about is that "Goals 3000" will be announced before Goals 2000 is achieved.

Let's be brutally frank: Is any one under the age of 50, other than some parents, concerned about the condition of schooling in America? Is there an idea out there that would decrease the boredom of students or enrich conversation in faculty rooms? Is there a book that school administrators are eager to recommend to each other? Is there anyone speaking that it would be worth the price of an airline ticket to hear? If not, why not?

Are the schools now in such good order that they require no reformation or innovation? Are we content to allow Adidas and Nike to divide up our high schools and for single-issue parents to strip-mine our elementary schools? If yes, why yes?

John F. Kennedy in his 1961 Inaugural Address said that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." It would seem there is but little flame left in the educational torch and few of the educators left who carried it. Some years ago, Richard Weaver, the Southern conservative writer, wrote a book entitled Ideas Have Consequences. Of that there is little doubt. The lack of ideas, however, is certainly likely to have more serious consequences.

Vol. 17, Issue 31, Page 43

Published in Print: April 15, 1998, as The Old Order Changeth?
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