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
For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.