AMERICA'S EDUCATORS, WHO are as eager as everybody else to get into the federal till, have covered the Washington landscape with lobbies of every imaginable sort. Superintendents, biology teachers, Catholic colleges, principals, university researchers, historians, home economics teachers, community colleges, school secretaries - everybody has an association of this or an association of that. Occasionally within this vast network, one even comes upon an association speaking for students and children.
Among these groups one of the smallest, yet most interesting, is an organization called the Council for Basic Education. By the standards of the rest of Washington's education lobby, it is a paltry thing. Usually only 15 of its 8,000 dues-paying members show up for annual meetings, and its Washington staff numbers only eight people. (The National Education Association, the teachers' lobby, employs 600.) It has never testified at a congressional hearing, as far as anyone can remember, nor been invited to lay its program before the president. Its most visible activity is the publication of a lucid, spritely bulletin that comes out 10 times a year, rarely runs more than 20 pages and fits into the inside pocket of a suit jacket. And its headquarters, in an office building on 15th Street, is a rabbit-warren of offices distinguished mainly by spare decor and small size.
Yet the council has a certain old-fashioned appeal. In the education business - where beguiling gimmicks come and go with the regularity of trouser cuffs - the council stands like some unchanging force of nature. From its founding in 1956, it has argued over and over for a single proposition: that the main purpose of schools is to teach children an "aristocracy of basic subjects" - reading, writing, literature, mathematics, history and government, science, foreign languages and the arts. Anything that distracts them from that purpose - driver's education, cooking classes, consumer education, square dancing, death education, good-grooming courses and any number of other "frills" - makes the council cranky and quarrelsome. School assemblies, it was once said in the council's bulletin, are a mere "parade of would-be comedians, trained dogs and has-been magicians."
During most of its history, the council has been a gadfly buzzing around the educational establishment, but the current "back-to-basics" movement among parents and school boards has put the organization in vogue. Within the past five years, its membership has increased by 3,000, or 60 percent. A. Graham Down, the council's English-born executive director, is increasingly in demand these days to speak to parents and educators; newspaper and television reporters come around frequently to seek the council's opinions, and it has become a national clearinghouse for information about "fundamental schools," a scattered group of basics-oriented schools that have sprung up under pressure from parents disenchanted with regular classrooms.
The council was started as a protest against a little-remembered phenomenon of the early 1950s called "life-adjustment education" - and it has since lived through several wide swings of the pendulum of educational philosophy and practice. Life-adjustment education was a perversion of John Dewey's progressivism that stressed the role of public schools in the social and vocational adjustment of children - at the expense, in the council's opinion, of their intellectual development. Typical of the life-adjustment posture was a report of a National Education Association commission in the early 1950s. The commission, whose members included Harvard President James Conant and Columbia President Dwight Eisenhower, allowed that "mathematics and mechanics, art and agriculture, history and homemaking are all peers."
To the council's founders, this was dangerous anti-intellectualism. The principal founders were a former school-board member named Mortimer Smith, a self-educated man who had written a couple of books attacking the life-adjustment philosophy and teacher's education (he served until 1974 as the council's executive director), and Arthur Bestor, a historian who had written a book called The Educational Wastelands. They persuaded a number of well-known intellectuals to join as charter members, including Malcolm Cowley, Joseph Wood Krutch, Alfred A. Knopf, Allan Nevins, Mark Van Doren, Howard Mumford Jones and Richard Hofstadter. (The current board of directors includes Jacques Barzun, Clifton Fadiman and Francis Keppel, a former U.S. Commissioner of Education.)
Fadiman wrote one of the council's early manifestos on basic education, calling for "emergency measures" to meet the crisis of life-adjustment. The philosophy he presented was pretty much what the council endorses today: Some subjects are inherently more worthwhile than others, and schools ought to concentrate on teaching children to master those basics. Teaching a young man to tie a four-in-hand knot was nice, Fadiman said, but it made more sense to teach him to read so he could follow knot-tying instructions for himself. Fadiman often could barely control his outrage: "If he has learned little or no history, geography, science, mathematics, foreign languages, or English he will, naturally enough, learn...golf, quail-shooting, barbecuing and some specialized technique of buying and selling."
From the start, the council kept a vigilant eye on fuzzy thinking in the schools. Its bulletin has taken delight, for example, in reporting educational innovations like these:
Three thousand home economics teachers in the Midwest accepted a Chicago manufacturer's offer of a free classroom kit including a color film explaining "five basic bra types" as well as a record, teacher's guide, a companion student booklet, a wall-chart and demonstration bra.
A well-known educational consultant produced a study on "the place of the dog in the school curriculum" and suggested development of "aides to teachers wishing to utilize their pupils' dog interest in various cirriculum areas."
And, finally, a school in upstate New York offered a course on "Family Living" that included units on "mate selection" and "learning to be livable, lovable, and datable" - complete with advice from a panel of livable, lovable, datable grandmothers.
In 1957, about a year after the council started its crusade for toughening up American schools, it got a powerful ally in the unexpected form of the Russian Sputnik. American schools were blamed for this embarrassing proof of our technological backwardness, and Congress voted new money for schools and colleges to upgrade science, mathematics, and foreign languages. (The legislation, significantly, was called the "National Defense Education Act.") Teams of curriculum development specialists from M.I.T., Harvard, and other centers of high science went forth to shape high-school curricula to bring our budding scientists and engineers up to par with those of the Russians.
As much as the council applauded the boost in basics that followed Sputnik, the trend did not last. During the late '60s, the pendulum of educational reform swung back the other way in an orgy of liberal school reform - exemplified by "open classrooms" and the abandonment of required courses. Once more, the council found itself and its ideas on the outs.
Now, of course, those same liberal reforms have created a strong public reaction of their own. They are often blamed for a much-publicized decline in test scores among the college-bound, and that has combined with teacher militancy and rising school operating costs to convince many taxpayers they are getting an expensive run-around from educators. The new emphasis on basic skills and the creation of fundamental schools have been among the products of this disaffection, along with requirements in some states, which the council has applauded, that students pass "minimum competency" tests before receiving their high-school diplomas.
The council has misgivings about certain aspects of some of the fundamantal schools - their excessive regimentation, for example, and their occasional emphasis on religion and patriotism. But generally it is happy to see the public mood shifting toward its old set of values about basic skills.
"Reports of high morale among students and teachers alike, of waiting lists, of good parent cooperation, and of very respectable achievement suggest that the alternative fundamental schools are making a successful demonstration of basic education," said George Weber, until recently the council's associate director. "Perhaps most important and promising is their influence on other schools, which may be rather like that of a third party in politics."
Any organization as forthright and critical as the Council for Basic Education is bound to get some criticism thrown back its way, of course. And one of the most persistent criticisms leveled against it is that it is "elitist" - led by pompous intellectuals overly concerned about rarefied academic standards which are irrelevant to the problems of poor children who are not doing well in school.
"Nonsense! The charge is absolutely unfounded," says Down. "We have always argued that even the most disadvantaged children can learn basic skills and ought to settle for nothing less - long before Jesse Jackson started "Push for Excellence." From the very beginning of the organization, Arthur Bestor saw that it was not fair in a democratic society to train the many and send them to a factory and educate the few and send them to Harvard.
"Our position is that the current level of illiteracy, around 15 percent among 17-year-olds, is simply inexcusable. The educational establishment won't deliver, but there is no good reason why it can't." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, BY MICHAEL DAVID BROWN