As report-card time approaches, educators may find that they're not the only ones handing out grades. Martin L. Gross, for instance, has a few low marks to distribute. As the author of The Government Racket: Washington Waste From A to Z and other provocatively titled tomes, Gross tends to cast a sharply critical eye on American institutions. It's no surprise, then, that his latest book, The Conspiracy of Ignorance (HarperCollins, $25), offers a denunciation of our nation's public school system.
Gross blames the schools' troubled state on the "Education Establishment," a group he defines as "the 5 million `professionals,' from classroom teachers to state education commissioners, who constitute the near-monolithic force that controls our public schools, from kindergarten through senior high school." In his view, this cabal maneuvers to keep our classrooms safe for undertrained and incompetent teachers, resulting in a "conspiracy of ignorance" that has reduced public education to a crisis state.
Hapless instructors are at the heart of Gross's thesis. He contends that teachers are poorly trained and rarely qualified, and frequently come from the bottom third of high school and university graduates. Using information taken from a 1997 Educational Testing Service survey of 1.7 million high school seniors and Scholastic Assessment Test scores, Gross found that would-be education majors scored toward the bottom, with a combined math and verbal score of 964, on a scale from 400 to 1600. He urges his readers to do the math: "The typical college-bound senior may well have some 50 points more on his SATs than did his or her teachers at the same period of life."
Gross, who once wrote a book titled A Call for Revolution, does no less here, concluding with a list of recommendations: to close all undergraduate schools of education, to eliminate the doctor of education degree, to disband all national, state and local PTAs -- and those are some of his more moderate suggestions.
In recent years scholars such as Roger Kimball and Thomas Sowell have leveled similarly harsh charges against teachers at the university level. As James Axtell notes in The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration & Defense of Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, $40, $15 paperback), much of the criticism aimed at colleges implies that "professors as a class do not work very long or very hard at their highly paid jobs." According to Axtell, who is a professor of humanities at the College of William and Mary, such implications prove that "even college-educated politicians and voters are woefully ignorant of what constitutes academic life and work."
In his view, studies that support negative assessments of teaching are faulty for two reasons. The first is that teaching is "largely invisible" and thus can't be measured in traditional terms. The second reason is that, "while poor teaching is easily recognizable, there is little agreement on what constitutes good teaching."
Axtell also argues that tinkering with tenure would be economically foolhardy: "If colleges and universities dropped the tenure system for short-term contracts and necessarily competitive salaries, the American price tag for higher education would skyrocket."
But Axtell's book is not just a defense of his profession. The second section, "Pleasures," is more memoir than polemic. Axtell's fond reminiscences color personal essays on a variety of subjects, including his adventures in rare-book collecting, the rewards of living in a college town and the tendency of scholars to turn family vacations into research forays.
For Axtell, the sheer joy of teaching is stimulus enough to continue aiming for personal excellence. For others, the excitement may fade. In Bright College Years: Inside the American Campus Today (University of Chicago Press, $14 paperback), author Anne Matthews observes, "After tenure, a campus asks only one thing of its professors: Keep your brain alive. But many do not, will not, cannot." Matthews, a journalist and teacher, writes about "the kindly colleague in the slow lane who can't produce, or else writes very, very slowly, fussing for years over tiny points, reading the same lectures year upon year from yellowing notes."
Originally published in hardcover in 1997, Matthews's book offers what she calls "field notes" on the condition of the American "knowledge business." Her season-by-season trek through campuses large and small presents a portrait of four-year institutions struggling to retain a patina of ivy-covered majesty while surviving in a nasty, competitive era of corporate ascendance. As Matthews notes, every year a few colleges die; others hang on, making Faustian bargains in the process. A list of company-sponsored professorships illustrates the extent to which the knowledge business has come to resemble other enterprises: "the Mitsubishi Professor of Finance and the Toyota Professor of Materials Science at MIT, the Federal Express Professor of Excellence in Communications Technology at the University of Memphis, the Burger King Chair in American Enterprise at the University of Miami."
Matthews avoids passing judgment on such developments, preferring to focus instead on the noble intentions at the heart of the university tradition. "Even in its least cost-efficient aspects," she reflects, ". . . real value lies, and honor, too."
Jabari Asim is a senior editor of Book World.