The Schools We Deserve

BARNABY C. KEENEY, who became president of Brown University in 1955, rounds up the discussion with this vigorous statement of the capabilities the colleges would like to find in their entering freshmen.

WE HAVE today some public schools that are as fine as any in the world, and we have others so bad that they almost defy description. This condition will continue as long as we have local government, for a community gets the kind of schools it deserves, just as it gets the kind of government it deserves. If a state supports its office of education properly, staffs it with men and women of high caliber, and provides it with the necessary legislation and money, that office of education will get good results. II towns and cities choose good school boards, take an active interest in their schools, and, through taxation, provide them with the lands necessary to secure first-rate teachers and equipment, they should have good schools. If the citizens of a town take an active interest in their schools and respect the teachers, and if these same citizens make it clear to their children that they consider a good education an imperative, then they will certainly get better schooling. But I do not think that parents whose children never see a hard-covered book in the house have any reason to expect well-educated children. Colleges and universities that do not concern themselves with the preparation of teachers do not deserve good students.

We shall not have the best schools possible until we live with the belief that nothing on earth is more important than education and that no one is more important than the teacher. We do not behave that way now. We are quite willing to pay the executives of our great corporations salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; we are not willing to pay the schoolteacher as much as we pay the skilled laborer. We revere the television personality or the baseball player, but we do not admire the schoolteacher, who is so essential to our society. Young men and women who enter teaching in America cannot expect large salaries; they cannot expect social distinction; they rarely receive admiration, or even respect. The result is that we do not attract the very best of our young college graduates into public school teaching, except for those who are idealists. Schools can be made more comfortable, they can be supplied with more efficient equipment, but they will not be better educational institutions until the teachers are better than they are today.

The writers in this series have each stressed that a dependable school system should provide preparation on a variety of levels. We have prevented this for some time by insisting that all children be treated almost alike. More recently, as Dr. Hansen explains, the instruction for students of different abilities has been divided into different curriculums, called tracks. Whatever the track, all these students are being prepared, for no education is terminal. The school must be ready to prepare the ablest and most ambitious of its students for college, a goal far more likely to be attained now than it was a generation ago. It must prepare others for special institutes or for junior colleges. It must prepare others to live competently at the level of their abilities. In all these curriculums the standards must be appropriately high and the students must be stretched to work to the best of their abilities.

What does preparation for college require? First of all, a sound knowledge of the fundamental subjects on which literacy and higher education are based. The student’s imagination must be aroused, so that he is impelled to ask questions of his material and to perceive the areas of his ignorance or the incompleteness of his knowledge. He needs experience in the use of a library and a laboratory, each of which he must be curious to explore. Above all, he must be eager to develop his mind.

Firm standards are indispensable in judging the achievement of students, and students must be made aware that these standards are fair and desirable. Firm standards require that a distinction be made between success and failure, between excellence and mediocrity. Pretense that success has been achieved when it has not must be eliminated. No man or woman is uniformly successful in mature life; we must all expect a rather high percentage of failure in the things we attempt. A student must learn to expect failure as well as success and learn to make a clear distinction between the two. No useful purpose is served by pretending that a student has achieved excellence, or even proficiency, in a language when, in fact, he has not. The results of this pretense are apparent to any American who has traveled abroad and been baffled by a language that he “passed” in school or in college.

Instruction must be concise and well planned. It must be concise because repetition beyond the point of meaningful improvement is boring and destructive of interest. Every student, for example, must know the history of his own country, but he does not need to pedal through it in every other grade from the third on, unless he studies it in greater depth than is customary today. When a student is confronted for the fourth time with a chapter on Columbus or the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he not unnaturally assumes that he knows it all.

Instruction must be directed toward the subject. Every good teacher makes allowance for the differences in his students, and he approaches each student as an individual, but when instruction becomes “pupil oriented,” to vise the current jargon, it becomes undisciplined and disordered. Instruction must lead beyond knowledge to imagination: it should be provocative, so that the student constantly asks questions of himself and of his material and speculates from what he knows to what he does not know. Only by asking questions can he prepare himself to go through and beyond college, as a seeker of understanding.

There is no valid reason why a good student preparing for a good college cannot go through elementary calculus in school, why he cannot have a sound course in physics or chemistry or biology which will not have to be done over again once he gets to college. He should know enough of the history of this country and of the world so that the college will not have to start him rereading his way through elementary history, and he should have a decent command of at least one, and preferably two foreign languages. He should be able to read and write English, and he ought to have read some first-rate examples of our literature. In most colleges, the freshman does not know these things today, and therefore his first two years are devoted to restudying subjects which he has already presented for admission, studying them at a level not much higher than the one purportedly required for admission.

Selection of students for one curriculum or another must be based upon ability to learn, not on ability to pay the cost of college, for we are coming into a period when any really able and ambitious students will find a way to finance college by scholarships and loans. Vocational courses should be based upon a general knowledge and understanding of what a person in that trade does, with sufficient emphasis on basic principles, so that the graduate will be flexible enough to change as the trade does.

Instruction should produce an attitude of eagerness for learning and a willingness to regard learning as hard work; both of these are necessary, and they are not contradictory. All things that are worth while require hard work. The teachers alone cannot produce this attitude. They must have the unanimous support of the parents and of society. It is essential that we value learning and that we cherish the person who learns and the one who teaches.

We have failed to provide our schools with the means to achieve excellence, and at the same time have overburdened them with many activities which do not belong in the schools. As the influence of the family has declined, we have come to expect that our students will learn in school to do things that they used to learn at home, such as sewing, cooking, using the telephone, driving the car. All these things are necessary to a greater or lesser degree, but they tend to crowd out fundamental subjects in the curriculum, and for that reason, their inclusion is harmful.

So much for what the school should do, but what does it need in order to do it? The first essential is perhaps good leadership, both professional and lay, leadership capable of making plans and carrying them out — there is a difference. The school superintendent and the chairman of the school board should be as able as any people in the community. The second requirement is support, both financial support and moral support. The community must act as if there were nothing more important than educational facilities - not even garbage disposal or slum clearance. Appropriations for the schools should have the first call on the city’s finances; the schools should not be given what is left over.

The next essential is equipment and plant. We hear a great deal about the frills in school construction, and truly there are such, frills. It is unnecessary, for example, for every school to have a swimming pool, though indeed it is nice. It is necessary for every school to have an athletic field, for athletics and physical education are essential for adolescents. The school should be as beautiful as it can be made, for the appreciation of beauty is an important, though often neglected, aspect of the complete education. One of the most shocking things about many new schools is that they are constructed without adequate provision for a school library and books to put into it. Yet it is vital for the young to learn how to use a library, so that they may continue to learn after they leave school. Use of the library should be built into the curriculum, but it must be built into the plant first. We tend to confuse the newness and quality of the plant with the quality of the school. For example, in many Southern states it is asserted that the segregated schools for Negroes are better than the segregated schools for whites. They are better buildings because they arc newer and better designed, and they replace buildings that were scandalous. They are not better schools, or even as good schools, for the teachers in them are segregated, too; they are, for the most part, Negroes who have been brought up to believe that they are inferior and are required to behave as if they were. This is not good preparation for teaching future citizens of America.

The greatest essential of a good school system is the teacher, and it is in the recruitment, preparation, and continuing improvement of our teachers, as Dr. Barnes has demonstrated, that we can make our greatest contribution to the betterment of our schools. We must make teaching an attractive occupation, through the respect and status that go with the position and through the tangible rewards that come from it. Then we must insist upon teachers who are extremely well educated in the subjects they teach and who have been prepared to teach by a careful and sensible program of teacher training and internship.

About twenty-five years ago, our colleges and universities of arts and sciences turned their backs upon the preparation of teachers for the public schools. They did so because of the disgust of their faculties with the emphasis on instruction in educational methods rather than in subject matter arid because of an impatience with the luxurious growth of the profession of education. Many of the best colleges and universities are now returning to the business of preparing teachers for the schools and are beginning to do a very good job. One of the major changes in the situation today, as compared with that often years ago, is that the faculties of liberal arts and sciences are taking a strong interest in the improvement of teachers who are already on the job and in the preparation of new teachers for the future.

This activity is not without its frustrations, for we have found that many well-regarded teachers simply do not know as much about the subjects they teach as we expect a sophomore to know. This accounts for a good deal of the poor preparation of our students. On the other hand, these teachers have taken a plethora of courses in how to teach and were encouraged to do so by the certification requirements. Now these requirements are in the process of being changed, so that the teacher must become competent in his subject.

There is considerable danger that we may go too far and may neglect entirely the preparation to teach. A well-qualified teacher must understand the role of the school and its purpose; he should have a good knowledge of the history and philosophy of education; he must understand how people learn and what methods of teaching have been found effective; and he must have applied these things, together with his knowledge of his subject, in supervised teaching. While the colleges and universities are now returning to the field of teacher preparation with considerable enthusiasm, and even excitement, the best of the colleges of education, on the other hand, are becoming more and more competent in the subject matter, so that their graduates know better what they are to teach. There is considerable reason to hope that the next generation of teachers will be better prepared than the last.

It is time this country realized how dependent both the school and the teacher are upon the attitude of our society. When students realize that their parents value education, they will value it more themselves. When teachers realize that their communities value what they are doing, they will do it better. When the high school teacher realizes that his colleague in the college regards him as a partner and not as an inferior, he will lake fresh heart and new pride in his work.