How to Teach the California Child: Notes From the Never-Never Land

Why is wealthy California one of the poorest states in educational achievement? Social historian, biographer, parent, and former school board member, MORTIMER SMITH is the author of two of the best-known books dealing with deficiencies in our schools, AND MADLY TEACHand THE DIMINISHED MIND.He is one of the founders of the Council for Basic Education and is currently serving as editor of its monthly BULLETIN.

THREE years ago the dean of a school of education in one of our large Eastern universities stated in a letter to the New York Times that “our public schools were never better and if we can get adequate and timely assistance through Federal aid without Federal control the current ills besetting them can be cured.” This touching faith in fiscal solutions to current educational problems is belied by what has happened in California. The Golden State is generous in support of schools, as even its insatiable educational bureaucracy admits; California now leads all other states in teachers’ salaries (current average wage: $5750) and is among the top three or four in the amount of money expended each year per pupil. Despite this largess on the part of the taxpayers, many serious students of the California scene believe its schools to be of inferior quality. There are in the state outstanding schools (such as George Washington High in San Francisco) where a student may receive an education of solid content, but by and large California seems to have gone further than most states in abandoning rigorous academic training.

The paucity of comparative figures makes it difficult to give a categorical answer to the question of quality in California schools, but such figures as are available suggest that all is not well. A straw in the wind is provided by the results of the Tests of General Educational Development in basic subjects given to a small cross section of high school seniors in 1943 and in 1955. (These tests are used in establishing norms for awarding a secondary school credential to service personnel who have not completed high school.) According to Thor Severson, writing in the Sacramento Bee, California has dropped nationally in these tests from fifth place in 1943 to thirty-fifth place in 1955, and ranks forty-fifth in English and forty-sixth in mathematics. The reason these figures are uncovered by the reportorial legwork of Mr. Severson and not through announcement from the California Department of Education is obvious. In any case, the department refuses to confirm or deny them but simply states that the tests were given to such a small proportion of the total number of high school seniors that no valid conclusions can be drawn. As Mr. Severson says, this did not prevent officials of the department from pointing with pride to the 1943 results when California ranked fifth in the nation.

While the results of these tests do not provide infallible evidence of deterioration, a recent study shows that as far as mathematics is concerned, they may give a startlingly true picture. G. T. Buswell of the School of Education, University of California, has recently compared the achievement in arithmetic of some 3000 eleven-year-olds in England with a similar sample in central California, with results that give a rather devastating picture of the teaching of arithmetic in that state. English pupils showed a two-to-one superiority with a mean score of 29.1 as compared with 12.1 for California; 1077 pupils in England answered correctly more than 38 of the total of 70 test items, but only 13 California pupils scored this well; 428 English pupils answered more than 53 of the items correctly which was something no Californian was able to do. (For full details of this study see the Arithmetic Teacher for February, 1958.)

Whatever its precise standing in academic achievement, it is certain that in education, as in other fields of human endeavor, California lives up to its reputation for devotion to the cult of the cockeyed. Examples of scholastic boondoggling and educational nonsense abound: A high school in the southern part of the state has recently inaugurated an eleventh and twelfth grade course for boys called bachelor living. A Sacramento high school now gives academic credit to juniors and seniors for working as carry-out boys in supermarkets and as attendants in gasoline stations. An Oakland school stages, as part of the home and family relations course (known before the present enlightenment as home economics), a mock wedding in which boys and girls play the parts of bride, groom, parents, attendants, minister, vocalist, and so forth. A suburb of San Francisco has a unit on the peoples of the world in which seventh grade boys as well as girls are put to work dressing dolls. Los Angeles county has invented a course described as “how to be attractive and well groomed,” which considers such weighty questions as how to bathe, how to banish unwanted hair, how to pick up a handkerchief gracefully, and how to sit down properly at various occasions. And on the level of higher education, last year a well-known football player was prevented from graduating with the rest of his college class because he flunked his course in movie appreciation.

Various reasons have been advanced for California’s preoccupation with educational trivia and for its achievement. Some trace it to the sort of provincialism that desires to excel, even in foolishness, and to the wholesale importation of people from other parts of the country, many of them receptive to anything new or bizarre. While these may be contributing factors, the underlying cause of educational malpractice in California as in other states is that the schools have become the monopoly of what Arthur Bestor has called “the interlocking directorate of professional educationists.” Most of the professors of education, the personnel of the state department of public instruction, the state teachers’ association, and the school administrators have reached the conclusion that the primary task of the schools is not education but social conditioning. If California is unique in the degree of nonsense prevailing in its schools, it is because this monopoly is more firmly entrenched there than elsewhere, the constituent members of the directorate more united in their anti-intellectual bias and in their determination to prevent the faculties of the liberal arts colleges from exerting any influence on the schools.

AN ILLUSTRATION of what I am talking about is afforded by a document called A Framework for Public Education in California, originally published by the State Department of Education in 1950 and still used as a general guide in setting the direction in which the state’s schools should move, It is typical that in drawing up a statement which is supposed to come to some conclusions about the purposes for which schools have been created and maintained, the department asked not a single member of a liberal arts faculty (that is, not a single scholar in a recognized subject) to serve on the committee; with the possible exception of one person, all nineteen members of the committee are educationists. With such uniformity of membership, it is not surprising that the committee made no attempt to establish any priorities for education or to state what should be central and what peripheral in schools. It lists no fewer than fifty-four objectives for education in California, covering practically every area of human endeavor, but is notably meager in describing the objectives of academic accomplishment.

When such matters as learning to write English effectively are mentioned, there is no indication that they are of any more importance in the classroom than other matters mentioned, such as how to develop a sense of humor, work to achieve poise and coordination in bodily movement, enjoy a rich, sincere, and varied social life, exercise skill in homemaking, or work and play with others effectively. The usual genuflections are made in the direction of democratic living, and much is made of group problems, group living, group activities, and group action.

Reflecting the grotesque but official view among educationists that superior students are deviates, the Framework makes this extraordinary juxtaposition of students: “Individuals requiring [special facilities] include the mentally and physically handicapped, persons with impaired sight, hearing, and speech, those with superior capacities for intellectual achievement and leadership, and those with pronounced problems of adjustment.”(Italics mine.)

Among the authors of this document is Miss Helen Heffernan, now head of elementary education in the State Department of Education and a very powerful force in remaking California schools. She is a devotee of Kilpatrickian progressivism who thinks schools exist for the purpose of social adjustment and the development of healthy personality and to whom all talk of academic standards and intellectual values is antediluvian. In an article1 in 1952 she stated that “report cards on which a marking system is used do not contribute to the development of healthy personalities.” She quoted with approval someone who called report cards “nasty little status cards” and maintained that they are bad not only foi the dullards but also for the child who gets A’s — they may cause him to have “feelings of smugness or an exaggerated sense of intellectual power when he is only being rewarded for natural ability, docility or skill in pleasing teacher.”

Miss Heffernan feels so strongly about “this educational evil that she returned to the subject in a 1953 article2 in which she blamed “ineffective teachers” for clinging to report cards because “they like the power of the weapon they wield” (her italics). She thinks it makes “teachers feel important to be able to control the lives of others in this manner.”

Miss Heffernan is worth quoting because, as the holder of a strategic office in the educational hierarchy, she is in a position to translate her zeal for the child-centered school and her contempt for intellectual standards into a potent force for change in California s lower schools.

Secondary education in the state seems to be animated by the same anti-intellectual bias and life-adjustment orientation as prevail in the elementary school. The official attitude is similar to that of Harold Spears, superintendent of the San Francisco public schools, whose book, The High School for Today, is considered among educationists one of the definitive volumes dealing with the emerging pattern of secondary education.

Like Miss Heffernan, Mr. Spears scoffs at “standard-worshippers” and deplores the fact that scholastic achievement is considered by many “more significant than achievement in social and civic action.” Mr. Spears seems never to have entertained the old-fashioned notion that the road to achievement in social and civic action runs mostly through a territory called liberal education.

He does not like the subject curriculum because it has encouraged high school teachers “to expect all entering students to come with an ability in fundamental academic skills and habits sufficient to enable them to master subjects set out for them at the grade level in question.”Apparently the teacher who expects this is not only unreasonable but slightly mean; real readiness for high school is chronological age and social maturity rather than the outdated academic preparation.

Mr. Spears suggests that certain steps will probably be necessary “if we are to build a functional secondary school.” Among these will be the abandonment of the traditional marking system and any system of promotions, and the elimination of the subject curriculum “in favor of one built around areas of living as represented by the life activities of youth and their elders.”(What this last means, deponent saith not. Youth practicing the life activities of their elders? And if so, is this good?)

Last spring, San Francisco newspapers reported that Mr. Spears, apparently in answer to widespread complaints of deficiencies in subject matter, has called for “tougher courses” and stated that the school must do “a more solid job.” He did not attempt to reconcile this demand for toughness with the “soft” curriculum, and general permissiveness, which he advocated in his The High School for Today.

CALIFORNIA presents a unique opportunity to devotees of life adjustment: Through its system of some fifty-nine state-controlled junior colleges, education for group living need not be sacrificed to genuine education even after the student reaches college. In many circles the two years of junior college are referred to as the thirteenth and fourteenth grades, implying (correctly) that the junior college years are apt to involve simply a continuation of high school rather than a genuine higher education.

It is true that some excellent scholars are attached to the staffs of the junior colleges and that a student could probably secure a solid education in academic subject matter if he were adroit enough, but it would also seem to be true that these colleges have largely taken to heart the statement made some years ago by the President’s Commission on Higher Education that “we shall be denying educational opportunity to many young people as long as we maintain the present orientation of higher education toward verbal skills and intellectual interests.”

If these colleges are short on intellectual interests they are long on courses in psychology of personal adjustment, consumer problems, communication skills, art for enjoyment, principles of community recreation, mother and daughter foods, father and son workshop, and, of course, innumerable courses in family life education, (These are described in the definitive book on California’s junior colleges, General Education in Action, by B. Lamar Johnson.)

One college includes in its course on marriage and family relations a unit on dating in which students are asked to list “the five most difficult problems you have faced in the dating process or experience.” At another college the student is asked: What is this thing called love? What do college girls want in a man? Is a proposal necessary? Should engaged couples have dates with others? What does a Romeo really mean when he swears, “I’ll love you forever”? Still another college, recognizing that life is not all love and skittles for everyone, has a course dealing with the condition and problems of spinsters and bachelors. (Probably known as advanced bachelor living for those who had it in the high school course.)

When students are not thus engaged in the kind of bull sessions that formerly were reserved to the dormitory, they can study science and mathematics and English and foreign languages; but from some of the descriptions in Dr. Johnson’s book, one cannot feel hopeful that these subjects as taught are very meaty. What is one to think, for instance, of the humanities course in which “Emphasis is also given to art in everyday life — for example, the appropriate selection of neckties and socks by the men of the class, and of dresses and costume jewelry by the women"?

What the educationists think of foreign languages is reflected in the following regulation, adopted by the California State Board of Education in 1951: “No foreign language shall be required by a state college as a condition to graduation.” A professor of languages in one of these colleges pointed out that this has “the threefold effect of making California unique among her sister states by having on its books a specific prohibition as to requirements; of depriving state college departments and divisions, presumably staffed by competent professional men, of the right to prescribe curricula for their own majors; and of compelling foreign language departments within the state college system to operate illegally by continuing to require foreign languages of their own graduates.” In answer, presumably, to public pressure, the State Board last May removed this restriction as far as individual departments are concerned, but the education code still forbids the college as a whole to require languages.

THE strangle hold of the educationists on the schools is complete. The tune in California is called by several groups, first among them being the State Department of Education. This is headed by Roy Simpson, an orthodox educationist who presides over a sprawling empire: 1277 full-time employees in the department at Sacramento, 722 in special schools, 6101 in the state colleges, with a total budget for 1957-1958 of $695,364,727. The other groups are the professors of education in the teachers’ colleges and universities, who hand down the official dogmas and doctrines, and the superintendents and principals whom they train; and the California Teachers Association, the largest state organization of teachers in the country and perhaps the most potent lobby in the legislature at Sacramento.

The California Teachers Association, which is the local arm of the National Education Association, has done much to improve the worldly status of teachers, but ideologically it hews to the orthodox educationist line and rarely permits a dissenting voice to be heard. It is headed by a tireless organizer named Arthur F. Corey, who is considered by many to be the most powerful figure in California education, a sort of behind-the-scenes dictator of educational policies. As he is an unabashed modernist with an almost messianic faith in the rightness of the educational status quo — and is also extremely efficient in getting what he wants — he has become, to those seeking to improve academic standards in the state, a symbol of everything that is awry with California education.

One area where Corey and the CTA are very much in evidence is that of teacher certification. Working smoothly with the State Department of Education, the CTA has been in the forefront of those advocating more and more courses in professional training for teachers, which are usually taken at the expense of sound education in subject matter. There has been so much criticism of these courses that State Superintendent Simpson has appointed a Committee on Revision of the Credential Structure, but this has turned out to be a typical educators’ committee of administrators and educationists. In California, as in the rest of the country, when the professional educators sense any demand for evaluation or investigation of their activities, they make sure they do the investigating themselves.

Not even school board members have much control over their own local conditions. They are hedged about by state restrictions — lobbied through the legislature by the educational bureaucracy—restrictions which set minimum salaries for teachers, which curtail the right of boards to dismiss employees, which tell them what outside groups can use school facilities, and which severely control, through certification requirements, the kind of teachers the board may hire.

While the prospects for the restoration of sound educational practices are not bright, there is a faint, pink glow on the far horizon which may presage a change in the educational climate. Part of that glow comes from such actions as the courageous stand recently taken by an independent group, the Teachers Association of San Francisco. This association has stated publicly that the schools are teaching nonessentials and trivia and have become a dumping ground for the unfinished business of the home and the community. This criticism has been echoed by the San Francisco Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO), although it is not always easy to tell whether the teachers’ unions speak out of deep conviction or from a desire to annoy the nonunion CTA. Some people are encouraged by the fact that Governor Goodwin Knight is making threatening noises about setting up some state academic standards; they feel that if a shrewd political operator like Knight thinks this is a popular bandwagon, the cause may not be as hopeless as it seems.

Another small sign of sunnier weather is the fact that distinguished scholars are concerning themselves with what goes on in schools. Dr. Fee DuBridge, president of Cal Tech, has said that “science and mathematics have been treated in our schools as if they were not legitimate subjects of study” and has called for a tough policy of hard work in the interest of producing trained minds. The forthright Joel Hildebrand, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of California and past president of the American Chemical Society, is using his retirement to conduct a one-man crusade against sloppy educational practices — and for his pains is constantly being sniped at by the educationists. Another scholarly voice is that of Professor James J. Lynch of the English department of the University of California, who says that we must “quit pretending that education is a mysterious process that can only be known to certain professional initiates" and “must not be any longer misled into believing that all is well in education because the voices most often heard say so.” But the voices of DuBridge, Hildebrand, and Lynch have so far been effectively drowned out by the powerful main chorus.

  1. The California Journal of Elementary Education, February. 1952. “The Organization of the Elementary School and the Development of a Healthy Personality" by Helen Heffernan and others.
  2. Ibid., February, 1953. “Do Parents Want Report Cards?” by Helen Heffernan and Faith Smitter.