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.
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.
There may have been a time … when education had become ineffective through its formalism and rigidity. The children were forced by severe methods to do work repugnant to them. The prescribed studies of the college boys were dry and tiresome … A great reaction had to come. School-time was to be made a period of happiness, the child was to learn only what he liked, the college boy was to study only that which seemed interesting … It was a period in which the children were no longer ordered, but begged and persuaded … athletics flourished, and in the school all, with the exception of the teachers, had a good time.
But now in the zigzag movement of educational progress, a new countermovement seems imminent. We have been trying the national experiment long enough to test its results … The outcome seemed more disappointing than ever. Every one who was not deceived by a showy exterior soon discovered the mental flabbiness and superficiality which resulted from the go-as-you-please methods. We began to feel that those who had never learned to obey never really became their own masters; those who had never trained their attention by forcing their will toward that which is unattractive had to learn by severe disappointments later that a large part of every life’s work must be drudgery. The youth left the school with a hundred things in their minds, but without any power of intellectual self-discipline.
Our public life reflects this lack everywhere. The newspapers and magazines, the theatres and the social-reform movements, are more and more made for a public which looks only to be entertained, and which has lost the power of sustained attention to that which is not attractive in itself …
If the nation is not to suffer by a cheap complacency, and the triumph of ostentatious mediocrity, the whole educational life must be filled with a new spirit of devotion to serious tasks.
Volume 104, No. 4, pp. 453–460
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.
Across the road behind a rampart of ancient elms lay Brookfield, russet under its autumn mantle of creeper. A group of eighteenth-century buildings centred upon a quadrangle, and there were acres of playing fields beyond … It was the sort of school which, when mentioned, would sometimes make snobbish people confess that they rather thought they had heard of it.
But if it had not been this sort of school it would probably not have taken Chips. For Chips, in any social or academic sense, was just as respectable, but no more brilliant, than Brookfield itself.
It had taken him some time to realize this, at the beginning. Not that he was boastful or conceited, but he had been, in his early twenties, as ambitious as most other young men at such an age. His dream had been to get a headship eventually, or at any rate a senior mastership in a really first-class school; it was only gradually, after repeated trials and failures, that he realized the inadequacy of his qualifications. His degree, for instance, was not particularly good, and his discipline, though good enough and improving, was not absolutely reliable under all conditions. He had no private means and no family connections of any importance. About 1880, after he had been at Brookfield a decade, he began to recognize that the odds were heavily against his being able to better himself by moving elsewhere; but about that time, also, the possibility of staying where he was began to fill a comfortable niche in his mind. At forty, he was rooted, settled, and quite happy. At fifty, he was the doyen of the staff. At sixty, under a new and youthful Head, he was Brookfield—the guest of honor at Old Brookfeldian dinners, the court of appeal in all matters affecting Brookfield history and traditions. And in 1913, when he turned sixty-five, he retired, was presented with a check and a writing desk and a clock, and went across the road to live at Mrs. Wickett’s. A decent career, decently closed; three cheers for old Chips, they all shouted, at that uproarious end-of-term dinner.
Three cheers, indeed; but there was more to come, an unguessed epilogue, an encore played to a tragic audience.
Volume 153, No. 4, pp. 385–512
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
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.
Always and everywhere, “He is a schoolteacher” has meant “He is an underpaid pitiable drudge.” Even a politician stands higher, because power in the street seems less of a mockery than power in the classroom. But when we speak of Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, and “other great teachers of humanity,” the atmosphere somehow changes and the politician’s power begins to look shrunken and mean. Supreme examples show that no limit can be set to the power of a teacher …
The pupil has some curiosity and he wants to know what grownups know. The master has curiosity also, but it is chiefly about the way the pupil’s mind—or hand—works. Remembering his own efforts and the pleasure of discovery, the master finds a satisfaction which I have called artistic in seeing how a new human being will meet and make his own some part of our culture—our ways, our thoughts, even our errors and superstitions …
The pupil feels resentment arising from the fact that the grownup who teaches him appears to know it all. Even under the best conditions of fair play and deliberate spontaneity, the pupil, while needing and wanting knowledge, will hate and resist it. This resistance often makes one feel that the human mind is made of some wonderfully tough rubber, which you can stretch a little by pulling hard, but which snaps back into shape the moment you let go.
The process may be exasperating for the teacher, but consider how the student feels, subjected to daily and hourly stretching. “Here am I,” he thinks, “with my brains nicely organized,—with everything, if not in its place, at least where I can find it,—and you come along with a new and strange item that you want to force into my previous arrangement. Naturally I resist. You persist. I begin to dislike you. But at the same time, you show me aspects of this new fact or idea which in spite of myself mesh in with my existing desires. You seem to know the contents of my mind. You show me the proper place for your contribution to my stock of knowledge. Finally, there is brooding over us a vague threat of disgrace for me if I do not accept your offering and keep it and show you that I still have it when you—dreadful thought!—examine me!
“So I give in, I shut my eyes and swallow. I write little notes about it to myself, and with luck the burr sticks: I have learned something. Thanks to you? Well, not exactly. Thanks to you and thanks to me. I shall always be grateful for your efforts, but do not expect me to love you, at least not for a long, long time. When I am fully formed and somewhat battered by the world and yet not too displeased with myself, I shall generously believe that I owe it all to you.”
Volume 174, No. 6, pp. 81–87
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.
Consider what it is like to go into a new classroom and to see before you suddenly, and in a way you cannot avoid recognizing, the dreadful consequences of a year’s wastage of so many lives. You walk into a narrow and old wood-smelling classroom and see thirty-five curious, cautious, and untrusting children, aged nine to thirteen, of whom about two thirds are Negro …
You check around the classroom. Of forty desks five have tops with no hinges. You lift a desktop to fetch a paper, and you find the top has fallen off. There are three windows: one can’t be opened. A sign on it written in the messy scribble of some custodial person warns: “Do Not Unlock This Window It Is Broken.” The general look of the room is that of a bleak-light photograph of a mental hospital. Above the one poor blackboard, gray rather than really black, and hard to write on, hangs from one tack, lopsided, a motto attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Well begun is half done.” So much within this classroom seems to be a mockery of itself.
Into this grim scenario, drawing on your own pleasures and memories, you do what you can to bring some kind of life. You bring in some cheerful and colorful paintings by Joan Miró and Paul Klee …
For poetry, instead of the materials recommended by the course of study, you decide to introduce a poem of William Butler Yeats …
The children are offered something new and lively. They respond to it energetically and their attention doesn’t waver. For the first time in a long while, perhaps, there is actually some real excitement and some growing and some thinking going on within that room …
A … measure of the impact of these changes came to light when I started testing the class on the intensive work we had been doing in math and English. In less than a month, the math average went up to a median well above grade level. Test score averages over the course of three weeks began at 36, rose to 60, and leveled off at 79.
There was no unusual expertise at work within the classroom. There was, in fact, total professional naiveté as well as considerable technical incompetence. One thing was present, however, and this was the personal motivation of the children. It was there, unused and wholly unawakened, but very much in evidence as soon as it was looked for and believed in.
Volume 220, No. 3, pp. 49–55
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).
Classlessness is elusive because people vary and because they compete for gain—economic and otherwise. The tendency to respect, honor, remunerate, and perhaps even envy people who succeed is not only ingrained but is itself a source of social pressure to contribute to one’s limit … The premium given to lawyers, doctors, engineers, and business managers is not accidental, for those jobs are left to incompetents at our collective peril. There are simply fewer potentially competent physicians than barbers. The gradient of occupations is, then, a natural measure of value and scarcity. And beneath this gradient is a scale of inborn ability, which is what gives the syllogism its unique potency.
It seems that we are indeed stuck with the conclusion of the syllogism. The data on I.Q. and social-class differences show that we have been living with an inherited stratification of our society for some time. The signs point to more rather than less of it in the future … The opportunity for social mobility across classes assures the biological distinctiveness of each class, for the unusual offspring—whether more or less able than his (or her) closest relatives—would quickly rise above his family or sink below it, and take his place, both biologically and socially, with his peers.
If this is a fair picture of the future, then we should be preparing ourselves for it instead of railing against its dawning signs. Greater wealth, health, freedom, fairness, and educational opportunity are not going to give us the egalitarian society of our philosophical heritage. It will instead give us a society sharply graduated, with ever greater innate separation between the top and the bottom, and ever more uniformity within families as far as inherited abilities are concerned. Naturally, we find this vista appalling, for we have been raised to think of social equality as our goal. The vista reminds us of the world we had hoped to leave behind—aristocracies, privileged classes, unfair advantages and disadvantages of birth. But it is different, for the privileged classes of the past were probably not much superior biologically to the downtrodden, which is why revolutions had a fair chance of success. By removing arbitrary barriers between classes, society has encouraged the creation of biological barriers. When people can freely take their natural level in society, the upper classes will, virtually by definition, have greater capacity than the lower.
Volume 228, No. 3, pp. 43–64
By Dinesh DSouza
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.
Each fall some 13 million students, 2.5 million of them members of minority groups, enroll in American colleges … At the university they hope to shape themselves as whole human beings, both intellectually and morally. Brimming with idealism, they wish to prepare themselves for full and independent lives in the workplace, at home, and as citizens of a democratic society. In short, what they seek is a liberal education.
By the time these students graduate, many colleges and universities will not have met their need for all-round development. Instead, by precept and example, they will have taught them that all rules are unjust and all preferences are principled; that justice is simply the will of the stronger party; that standards and values are arbitrary, and the ideal of the educated person is largely a figment of bourgeois white male ideology; that individual rights are a red flag signaling social privilege, and should be subordinated to the claims of group interest; that all knowledge can be reduced to politics and should be pursued not for its own sake but for the political end of power; that convenient myths and well-intentioned lies can substitute for truth; that double standards are acceptable as long as they are enforced to the benefit of minority victims; that disputes are best settled not by rational and civil debate but by accusation, intimidation, and official prosecution; that the university stands for nothing in particular and has no claim to be exempt from outside pressures; and that a multiracial society cannot be based on fair rules that apply to every person but must rather be held together with a forced rationing of power among separatist racial groups. In short, instead of liberal education, what many American students are getting is its diametrical opposite: an education in closed-mindedness and intolerance—which is to say, illiberal education.
Volume 267, No. 3, pp. 51–79
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