In recent years we've been inundated with homiletic reports on the state of American education, so it's tempting to ignore yet another: Lynne Cheney's "American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation's Public Schools." The temptation must be resisted. Cheney's report, which was issued last week, is a devastating analysis of the price we are paying for the bureaucratization of American education; though Cheney tries hard to look on the positive side, honesty and intelligence compel her to accentuate the negative.
There is little in "American Memory" that will come as a surprise to anyone who has followed postwar American education with reasonable care. What gives the document its force is, first, that it summarizes the case against American education with clarity and pith, and, second, that it does so with unimpeachable authority. Cheney herself is deservedly respected not merely as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities but as a published author; many members of the advisory committees that helped her with the report are well-known figures in education at all levels. "American Memory" is anything except a dispatch from the bush leagues.
Like virtually all government reports it concludes on an upbeat note, with various cheerful recommendations for hauling the humanities out of the trough into which the educationists have pushed them. These recommendations are uniformly sensible, and no doubt put forward in all sincerity, and if wishes were horses they would all be in effect tomorrow morning. But wishes are not horses and the odds against any of these proposals ever being widely adopted are, if not insuperable, dauntingly high. So we do better to look on the darker side, to consider what the report has to say about things as they actually are, and as they are certain to remain into the foreseeable future.
"Long relied upon to transmit knowledge of the past to upcoming generations," Cheney writes, "our schools today appear to be about a different task. Instead of preserving the past, they more often disregard it, sometimes in the name of 'progress' -- the idea that today has little to learn from yesterday. But usually the culprit is 'process' -- the belief that we can teach our children how to think without troubling them to learn anything worth thinking about, the belief that we can teach them how to understand the world in which they live without conveying to them the events and ideas that have brought it into existence."
Cheney minces no words about who is to blame for this: "Education specialists who think in terms of process rather than content," the "educational theorists, administrators and bureaucrats" who have imposed on the public schools their conviction that "the purpose of education is to teach students how to think rather than imparting knowledge to them." These are the people who have inflicted upon the schools the stunting sophistry that "schools should concern themselves not with intellectual life but with practical life" -- the people who have turned history into "social studies" and English into "language arts," and have given primary importance to "instructional objectives," "learning activities," "teaching strategies" and "evaluative measures."
All of this educationist cant may be hogwash but it has become the received wisdom, and going against it as forthrightly as Cheney does is an act of not-inconsiderable courage. It is even grittier for someone in her position to pounce as vigorously as she does on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which she correctly identifies as, under the present system, for too many students "the single most crucial experience of their academic lives." She rightly says it is a test that, "in its verbal component, carefully avoids assessing substantive knowledge gained from course work," but she does not go far enough. The public schools have become fixated on the SATs, and now concentrate on teaching students to improve their scores not in order to educate them but to deflect criticism of the schools' effectiveness. Test-taking is all; education is nothing.
Further, it is certain to remain that way so long as the educationists are in charge. The prospects for showing them the door are not good. "Between 1960 and 1984," Cheney points out, "while the number of teachers grew by 57 percent and the number of principals and supervisors by 79 percent, the number of other staffers, from curriculum specialists to supervisors of instruction, was up by almost 500 percent. Resources are increasingly being drawn into salaries for people who ... inevitably steer in the direction of process rather than content, toward skills rather than substance."
These people are already deeply entrenched, and as is true of all bureaucracies, they will become all the more so as their numbers increase. The dismal, inescapable fact of American primary and secondary education -- and, more and more, of higher education as well -- is that it is in the hands of people who are anything but teachers, people who are indifferent if not hostile toward the very knowledge that any responsible educational system seeks to transmit. They are alumni of schools of "education" that emphasize teaching and administrative "process" while slighting, if not actually neglecting, what is to be taught. Thus "a survey of 17 major institutions in the South showed that future teachers had a weaker general education curriculum than most arts and science graduates," while "of particular concern to the history profession is the value placed on coaching ability when history teachers are hired."
Small wonder that the system produces students who do not know when the Civil War and World War I were fought, who think that the principal language of Latin America is Latin, who have no acquaintance with the Reformation or Chaucer, with the Magna Carta or Dostoevsky. They know how to fill out an application for a driver's license, and indeed they know (more or less) how to drive, but Shakespeare and Mozart and Faulkner are not within their ken. They are in the deepest and truest sense ignorant people, yet the American system of public education has certified them as educated.
It is, as Cheney says, a system that "denies its students a great deal: the satisfactions of mature thought, an attachment to abiding concerns, a perspective on human existence"; indeed it is a system that holds students in contempt, for its underlying assumption is that they are incapable of genuine learning, only of absorbing "practical" instruction for "vocations." It also denies them the knowledge of the past upon which to live in the present and to plan for the future. A citizenry ignorant of past wars is a citizenry that will elect leaders no less ignorant, and thus liable to lead it into wars it neither wants nor supports. That alone should be ample "practical" reason for giving students the "intellectual" education that the educationists, in their own blissful ignorance, so scornfully spurn.