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A LITTLE more than a hundred years ago an article appeared in these pages titled "The Present Requirements for Admission to Harvard College," by James Jay Greenough. Among the skills to be demonstrated by candidates for admission was a "working knowledge" of Latin, Greek, French, and German. "In the elementary examination in the classics," Greenough explained, "the test applied is the translation at sight of passages from Caesar and Nepos in Latin, and from Xenophon in Greek." These authors, he went on, "all have a simple narrative style, and their thought is neither involved nor profound, so that their works are entirely within the comprehension of the average boy."

From the perspective of the present day that article, published in May of 1892, prompts several thoughts about America's recurring debate over what academic standards should be--thoughts also prompted by the cover story in this issue, written by the distinguished historian Paul Gagnon, which in part describes why the work of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing came to naught, amid much acrimony. By their very nature, academic standards can never be permanent. They have changed as the nation's demographic makeup has been roiled by immigration and other forms of social mobility--such as the advent of mass public secondary education and, later, of a system of mass higher education. They have changed, too, with the evolution of technology and of the world economy, and the evolution in American thinking about what it means to be a mature, moral, and perhaps even happy human being.

Recommended Reading

At the Atlantic's offices a long wall of bound volumes contains every issue back to the first one, in 1857. As it happens, those volumes cover virtually the whole period in the nation's history during which educators have tried to bring the American classroom to order. We have published writers on the subject with voices as diverse as those of James Bryant Conant, Jonathan Kozol, and Oscar Handlin. Looking back at that body of work, one is struck by how regular a theme has been the search for standards, how eloquent have been the pleas of the visionaries, and how constant has been the frustration as time and again the reformers have at best only winged the target--even when everyone agreed on what it was. And, of course, we haven't always agreed.

Lamentations have their uses, but it is quite another thing to point out a path of possibility. Paul Gagnon stands firmly in this second tradition. He is angry at much of what he sees in the schools--and at much of what he saw while an official at the Department of Education in 1991-1992. But his article in this issue is a vigorous plea to the states to pick up a challenge that the federal government has failed to meet.


The Atlantic Monthly; December 1995; 745 Boylston Street; Volume 276, No. 6; page 6.