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For well over a century, two seemingly irreconcilable notions of the purposes and character of American public education have warred against each other.

At one extreme has been the concept of the public school as training ground for the future economic roles our students will assume, with sharp distinctions drawn between students whose “innate” abilities presuppose their future economic and professional ascendance and those who require a more practical curriculum to prepare them for the levels of employment thought to be appropriate to their more modest capabilities. Whether for the future surgeon or the future gas-station attendant, schools are to be governed by a highly disciplined agenda. A child’s satisfaction in the act of learning is regarded as irrelevant to these objectives, and indeed is sometimes considered a dangerous distraction.

At the opposite extreme is education of a relatively classless nature, in which every child is believed to have unknowable potential and, for this reason, is to be provided, to the degree this is feasible, with an equally capacious course of study to prepare that child for the fullest possible participation in a democratic social order. Under this conception, schooling should elicit the potential of each child by fostering excitement and authentic pleasure in the learning process, allowing opportunities for curiosity to thrive, and even permitting episodes of unexpected deviation on the part of students from the preplanned course of study. It is these deviations, according to this way of thinking, that enable teachers to discover areas of hidden motivation in a student, which often represent the “breakthrough moment” for a child who has previously seemed apathetic or resistant.

The Atlantic essays assembled here dramatically illustrate the pendulum swings between these two extremes. From Hugo Münsterberg and Richard Herrnstein, on the one hand, to Jacques Barzun, closer to the opposite polarity, we see the range of strongly held beliefs that have resurfaced, in recent years, in the harsh debates about the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal legislation that has given new life to the views that Münsterberg enunciated back in 1909. With parents and teachers torn by these convulsive arguments, the essays below are as relevant today as in the years when they were first published.

Jonathan Kozol

Archival excerpts:

The Standing of Scholarship in America (October 1909)
by By Hugo Münsterberg
In a 1909 article that might not seem out of place today, a founding father of applied psychology expressed concern that a trend toward permissiveness in the classroom had gone too far.

Good-bye, Mr. Chips! (April 1934)
by James Hilton
James Hilton’s novella about an aging schoolmaster at a boarding school first appeared in an evangelical newspaper called the British Weekly in 1933. When a friend of The Atlantic's editor, Ellery Sedgwick, happened to see the piece in galleys at the British Weekly’s offices, he liked what he saw and cabled Sedgwick to tell him about it. Sedgwick soon met with the obscure young author and obtained permission to publish the story as the lead feature in the April 1934 Atlantic. It thereupon found widespread popularity, vaulting Hilton to the ranks of best-selling authors, and Mr. Chips to the status of a beloved classic. The actor Robert Donat later earned an Oscar for his portrayal of Mr. Chips in the 1939 film version.

Education for a Classless Society (May 1940)
by James Bryant Conant
In 1940, James Bryant Conant, a research chemist and the president of Harvard University, argued that America’s educational system should be reconfigured to foster the success not just of those who excel at book learning, but also of those whose strengths lie elsewhere.

What Is Teaching? (December 1944)
by Jacques Barzun
In 1944, Jacques Barzun, a historian, cultural commentator, and professor at Columbia University, shared his thoughts on the dynamics of effective teaching.

Death at an Early Age (September 1967)
by Jonathan Kozol
Not long after graduating from Harvard, Jonathan Kozol became a fourth-grade teacher in an inner-city Boston public school. In 1967 Kozol described his efforts to make a difference in the lives of children who clearly had been given up on by many others.

I.Q. (September 1971)
by Richard Herrnstein
In 1971 the Harvard psychology professor Richard Herrnstein suggested that, contrary to popular opinion, educational opportunity in a meritocracy would result in more social stratification rather than less. He later went on to coauthor, with Charles Murray, the controversial Bell Curve (1994).

Illiberal Education (March 1991)
by Dinesh D'Souza
In 1991, as the term political correctness was working its way into the national vocabulary, the rising conservative star Dinesh D'Souza criticized what he saw as a new spirit of intolerance on American college campuses.