Do American Schools Educate?

Headmaster of the Grammar School in Bristol, England, and contributor to numerous British periodicals, JOHN GARRETThas long been concerned with the problems of educating the young. Last year, as a Smith-Mundt Fellow in Education, he had the opportunity to visit our schools, and from his firsthand observation he has struck at the weaknesses and underlined the strengths of secondary education in America.



THE whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.” This weighty dictum fell from the lips of Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Whether the good lady would be as forthright today in denunciation of the theories and results of education on either side of the Atlantic, it is impossible to guess. It is, however, certain that she lacked that essential humility which must characterize the observer who dares to put pen to paper about another country’s educational system, after a visit which was as crowded as it was brief. W hatever is written here in way of honest doubt is qualified by warm admiration of the buoyant belief in education, the eager experimentation, and the astonishing vitality which characterize the American scene in schools and universities alike.

One of the surprises facing an inquiring pilgrim from Great Britain is the emphasis placed in the United States upon what the Harvard Report on General Education in a Free Society styles “the ideal of commonness,” and the extent to which “social indoctrination" and “the civilizing work of preparing for American life” have gone. A possible explanation is, of course, that America is still faced with the problem of welding a nation out of many nationalities, a consideration which prompts the conscious use of education as an instrument 1o produce right-thinking and coöperative citizens of a great democracy.

On our side we distrust a use of the schools as training grounds for children as social beings, and note with dismay that the most highly “progressive” teachers make no bones about educating children, not for society as it is, but for society as they mean to make it. We see danger in a too conscious indoctrination of any political ideals, and believe rather that the good is often better achieved as a by-product. The citizen of the world is more likely to emerge from a proper study of history than he is from a course in international understanding, and the man of civic virtue from living in the ethos of a good community than from a course in citizenship. The Squire in Tom Brown’s School Days wanted his son to “turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian.” The Harvard Report defines the good man as one who possesses “an inner integration, poise and firmness, which in the long run come from an adequate philosophy of life.” Expressed differently, the two statements boil down to the same thing, and the Tom Brown of our times, whether his home is in New England or Old, is more likely to achieve the way of life appropriate to a democracy by exposure to the right atmosphere than by any “social indoctrination” through teaching.

The diet most suited to the taste of the nonacademic pupil is much more carefully catered for in America than in Great Britain. The system is more flexible, and the interests and aptitudes of the individual child at fifteen are more important than the dictates of the timetable. More thought has been given to how to reconcile the interests of the fast and the slow, how to give a fair deal both to the quarter in the high schools who proceed to further education, and to the three quarters who leave school without a university career. A brave and determined attempt is being made to find a binding understanding of the society which the two groups will possess in common despite their different interests and abilities. More has been done in finding new and authentic treatments of traditional subjects for the less able.

In England the course given to the children who leave the modern secondary schools at fifteen is still too often a watered-down version of the academic course of the grammar schools, whose function, substantially, is to educate the cleverest children for entrance to the universities. When the Harvard Report says: “The tendency is always to strike a somewhat colorless mean, too fast for the slow, too slow for the fast,” it is making fair comment on the uneasy compromise existing in Great Britain. When it continues: “The ideal is a system which shall be as fair to the fast as to the slow, to the hand-minded as to the book-minded, but which, while meeting the separate needs of each, shall yet foster that fellow-feeling between human being and human being which is the deepest root of democracy,” it proclaims a Utopian ideal which so far has eluded both countries.

The quotation rightly implies that America still falls far short of the ideal, in varying degrees in varying States. Mississippi, able to spend a fifth as much per pupil as New York, must clearly present a less rosy picture. But Americans are still far ahead of us British in constructive thinking about how to pursue the two goals simultaneously. It is when the Harvard Report asks the question, “How can general education be so adapted to different ages and, above all, differing abilities and outlooks, that it can appeal deeply to each, and yet remain in goal and essential teaching the same for all?” that different answers are likely to come from the two sides of the Atlantic.


THEORY does not always produce the results it desires or deserves. Because in these days education has no enemies, it is the more important sometimes to defend it from its friends. If the slower children have a fairer chance in the United States, it also seems clear to a sympathetic observer that a far greater number of clever and intellectually able children have a better deal in the United Kingdom. In the best American schools, whose pupils are trained for and accepted by such universities as Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, and the University of California, and such colleges as Williams and Amherst, the same standards probably obtain as in the best schools in Britain. But. the number of such schools is in smaller proportion to the total of those to be educated.

It is furthermore difficult to resist the conclusion that the independent schools set a far higher standard of intellectual attainment than the public schools. President Conant in his enthusiasm to establish the ease for the lawyer’s son to rub shoulders with the artisan’s son in their formative years perhaps gave more support than he intended to those influences which were hostile to independent schools. The hope is that public schools will so improve their standards that parents will feel that a real alternative exists. The development of state secondary education in the United Kingdom since 1902 has owed much to the example of standards set and maintained in the independent schools.

Nothing surprised me so much in America as the comparative indifference concerning the education of the exceptional child. When I used the term, I was told that in its American connotation it described, not the child endowed with rare intellectual gifts, but the child handicapped or in some way underdeveloped mentally. The euphemism is revealing of the difference between the two countries. The emphasis of the American system is on the social and average; ours, at least until 1945, has been fundamentally intellectual and geared for distinction.

Is there a moral to be found in comparing the publications which set forth the life stories of candidates for the Presidency of the United States? Where Andrew Jackson’s in 1828 was dignified and written for an electorate which could read, Harry S. Truman’s “biography” was presented in comic strip technique, all the more terrifying for being adroitly done. Does this mean that a man who aspires to the Presidency can only hope for success in so far as he can persuade his countrymen that, far from being exceptional, he is actually the common man whose century this is supposed to be? England’s Labor Party has improved on the original dictum, which originated in America, by saying: “If this is the ‘century of the common man’ it must be made the century of the common child.” it will be — if our levelers go their purblind way. A more profitable ideal would be to set about making this the century of the uncommon child, and to plan how to increase their number.

The root fallacy seems to be a refusal to admit that there must always be a governing class, and that men are not all capable of appreciating the best even when they are exposed to it. The evidence of newspapers, advertisements, cinema queues, radio, the near pornography of the bookstalls, the so-called “comics,” and the recreations preferred by the majority prove that education, however well intentioned, can produce standards of taste and good judgment in only a minority. As Matthew Arnold said, “the highly instructed few, and not the scantily instructed many, will ever be the organ to the human race of knowledge and truth. Knowledge and truth, in the full sense of the words, are not attainable by the great mass of the human race at all.”

It is the task and the responsibility of the small creative minority to hold fast to standards, to hope to widen the area of their acceptance, and to ensure that the salt of the centuries’ heritage of culture shall not lose its savor. Equality of opportunity there must be, regardless of the parents’ ability to pay. That is no longer a question of debate. What we have to guarantee is that the best quality of leadership shall be available for the service of the state from whatever class it may come, and that the most satisfactory means of education for its attainment are accessible. If society is to avoid the creation of a community content to glide along the easy current of life, education has to produce a minority of leaders whose influence is rationally persuasive rather than dictatorially dominating.


THE question which now has to be posed is whether education in the United States is calculated to produce an elite of leaders of high intelligence. The highly trained mind must be a prerequisite of all leadership. On the report of a boy just leaving elementary for junior high school, I read: “Emphasis has been placed on helping him to assist and carry out his responsibilities as a member of a group.” Splendid! But he was eleven years old, and after a weekend in his home, I could not discover that he had ever learned to read a book. My godson, before he went to Eton, had done four years of Latin, three of Greek, had read all Jane Austen, most of Dickens and Scott, and a good deal of Shakespeare. He was also a good member of a group, a quality which had been added as a byproduct of his education.

A professor with whom I had the privilege of staying told me regretfully that his son was a typical American boy in that he never tackled books at a higher level than comics and magazines. At a famous private school, whatever literary values were inculcated in the classroom, on the bookstall in the school shop I found a remarkable range of cheap novels, each in its provocatively pornographic dust-wrapper, with titles such as Nude in Mink, The Harem, and Sin in Their Blood. A member of the school told me that all the boys bought such trash, and added: “ The trouble about this place is that there’s so much learning there isn’t time for living.” His complaint seemed unfair when he added that the school authorities paid $2000 for an orchestra for the school dance! Is this the boasted American maturity?

The books on the school bookstall seemed to stimulate sexual appetite rather than to provide healthy meat for good minds. On a tour of America Sir Richard Livingstone found “the clever children an underprivileged class.” An American undergraduate described “our high school products” as “well-adjusted morons.”This judgment is of course too sweeping. Another critic said that “when he leaves school the American is socially more mature than the Englishman, intellectually less mature.”This is probably true if the emphasis is upon social adjustment rather than upon intellectual development.

Young Americans are certainly kept less at the stretch than young Britishers: One teacher in Kentucky excused the weight of American textbooks on the ground that they never had to be taken home for purposes of study. A family in California told me that if homework was ever set, it was the parents who in effect did it. As with us, the one-eyed television set is threatening the kingdom of the blind. I very much doubt whether this leeway of learning is ever made up. At eighteen, Americans are intellectually anything from eighteen months to two years behind our young people, and at the universities they have to make up two years of education which in England they would have done at school. They arrive at college without the preparation for work at that level which the specialized work in the last two years at school gives to the English student.

While the B.A. degree is rarely the intellectual equivalent of ours, the postgraduate schools in the United States are probably better than ours. The difference is a mailer of spread over the years. A similar result may be achieved in the end, but it takes a much longer time to attain it — which is of course a privilege of a wealthy nation. It must be remembered, however, that the greater length of time may be justified because American schools certainly do better by the average boy. Each nation is conditioned by what is practicable and what is desirable.

An American teacher after a year on exchange in Great Britain once summed up the difference between the two systems to me in the words: “Your system produces snobs, ours slobs.” The Labor Party in Great Britain would presumably agree with the first statement; and when I look for any hard core of learning in the American high school, I am inclined to see something in the second. I saw little emphasis on the necessity to hold on to the centuries-old tradition of exact, precise, and thorough learning. The syllabus often contained little to bite on, little to discipline minds. The use of Latin and even mathematics was called into question because transfer values had been repudiated. A publishing company reduced Shakespeare’s plays to comic strip technique, where the verse, written as prose, emerged in balloons from people’s mouths. “Classics Illustrated” justify their vandalism because they are directed “toward familiarizing school-children with the literary classics in a form that will be appealing and ‘easy to take.‘” Such snippets of culture may be justified for children who cannot read, but they are inappropriate if able minds are to be extended and toughened.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that in the modern American school the snail’s pace becomes the school’s pace. Neither can the able child outstrip his companions by a double promotion, because of the custom of classing children by age groups and advancing them by age rather than performance. If “tensions” might result by allowing the clever to outpace the dull, frustration and boredom must be the lot of the able child who is held back. Perhaps that is why there is so much talk about adjustment in America!

The phrase “easy to take” extends to pupils’ choice of the subjects of their study in high school. Backward children can take high pride and discover their confidence in subjects which are unsuitable for their brighter brethren. But it is nothing short of idiocy to pretend that a training in typewriting is equal in cultural value to a study of the Odyssey or that the child who is exposed to the one is likely to have the same value for the community (qualities of character being equal) as the child who masters the other.

Neither is “Education in the U.S.A.,” published by the Federal Security Agency, reassuring on the intellectual pabulum offered. It is hoped that a high school pupil will “acquire the basic tools of learning; the methods and significance of science; prepare for, get, and hold a job; develop and maintain good mental health and physical fitness; be a good consumer; develop insight into ethical values and principles; grow in appreciation of beauty in the arts and in nature; be a good citizen; be a good family member; use leisure time wisely.” The aims are unexceptionable, but are they not what Johnson called “an ill digested piece”?

Subsequent study of the publication fails to reveal any priorities or any indication of comparative importance. Much is made of the Health Services. “The mental and emotional health of teachers and students is being given careful consideration.” By the same doctor? Surely those who are fit to teach can look after their own mental and emotional health, and surely much that is called health instruction constitutes an impertinent invasion of the responsibilities of parents. If the stale controls all, the state can demand all.

A Californian mother summed up the compulsory subject of “Health and Safety” as meaning that a child could “mend a fuse, walk across a street, and know how to avoid V.D.” The captions to attractive illustrations run: “School programs are adapted to meet the child s needs (perhaps a lesson in wise shopping?); “Schools provide rich environment for the children” (teacher and class appear to be concentrating attention on a canary in a cage); “Education for intelligent participation in family life” (teacher and class beholding what appear to be plates of cereals); “Home Economics classes encourage students to care for and repair clothing” (young men apparently pressing trousers, preparatory to dating?); “An opportunity to engage in creative activities (since when has listening to gramophone records been a creative activity?). All this is admirable, but does it add up to education? All the children look happy and have photogenic smiles that would make the sunshine jealous. But if they are being prepared for life, is happiness enough?

The heresy of free activity has much to answer for in both our countries. A current story in Great Britain tells of a teacher, who was being inspected, saying to her class, “Now it is time to start arithmetic.” Whereupon the inspector interrupted, “How do you know that the children want to start arithmetic?” If the child is to choose and dictate its requirements, what is the merit of maturity? If education is to teach children that they can abandon whatever they find difficult, what sort of preparation for life are we giving?

Children are naturally addicted to egotism, and education should assist their emancipation from its tyranny. Progressive education and free discipline seem something like a reversion to barbarism, as well as a calculated debasement of cultural values. One American teacher told me that the word “progressive” had been omitted from the title of his school because it might lead people to include the school in “education’s lunatic fringe.” Now that university authorities have found that some of their college entrants are incapable of self-expression on paper, and of tearing the guts out of a book presenting difficulty, there are signs of an overdue reaction against the solemn nonsense of these traitors to true education.

We have them on our side of the Atlantic as well, and both countries are faced with some parallel problems. How can schools be financed from public funds and yet be kept free from the dead hand of bureaucratic tyranny? Do those who pay the piper call the tune? I was in one school which had been done to death by remote control from an office desk. What is the limit to administrative pipe dreams? What is the correct emphasis — extravagant buildings, or a salary scale for teachers which will win them the respect which the community gives to other professions? All schools in the United States are much better housed and equipped than the vast majority of ours. I often wondered what American teachers and pupils would make of some of the small, dark, and ill-ventilated classrooms at Eton and Winchester. But, let us make no bones about it, men not walls make a city, and any school is as good as its staff. Recruitment of men and women of ability and virtue, to what is in very deed a vocation, is the consideration which must perforce override all others in both our countries.

A Cambridge don asked Erasmus: “Who would put up with the life of a schoolmaster who could get a living in any other way?” and Bacon was of the opinion that “to have commandment over children, as schoolmasters have, is a matter of small honor.” How wrong they both were. To those who have heard the call, it is a life of unique honor, limitless fulfillment, and weighty responsibility. The job of the teacher is to excite in the young a boundless sense of curiosity about life, so that the growing child shall come to apprehend it with an excitement tempered by awe and wonder.