150 Years Of The Atlantic November 2006

Education

This is the tenth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Jonathan Kozol, the National Book Award-winning author of several books on public education.
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.

Our secondary-school system is a vast engine which we are only beginning to understand. We are learning only slowly how to operate it for the public good …

Abilities must be assessed, talents must be developed, ambitions guided. This is the task for our public schools. All the future citizens pass through these institutions. They must be educated as members of a political democracy, but, more important still, they must be equipped to step on to the first rung of whatever ladder of opportunity seems most appropriate. And an appropriate ladder must be found for each one of a diverse group of students. This may seem an overwhelming burden to put upon our educational system. But is it not possible that our public schools, particularly our high schools, can be reconstructed for this specific purpose? …

Our schools … must be concerned not only with the able scholar, but with the artist and the craftsman. They must nourish those whose eye or ear or manual dexterity is their greatest asset. They must educate others whose gifts lie in an ability to understand and lead their fellow men. The school curricula must include programs for developing the capacities of many who possess intuitive judgment on practical affairs but have little or no aptitude for learning through the printed page …

Jefferson in the simpler society of his day naturally thought of only a few avenues of opportunity open through education. Today we must recognize the existence of many and strive for the social equality of all.

Volume 165, No. 5, pp. 593–602

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