AS PREDICTABLE as falling leaves, September brings us a new school year, and with it our new national slogan, "Back to Basics." "Basics" are like motherhood; everybody is in favor.
I would like to stick to some ground that high schools and colleges share and thus broaden the word "basics" a little. There are "basics" which do not immediately concern the curriculum. Some of them are skills, some are understandings of what's happening and some are ways of tackling the job. From talking to families with high school students who want to go to college, I think I can identify a set of basic attitudes and approaches which might be helpful.
The first "basic," it seems to me, is that the unit of concern is the family -- mother, father and student. The best teachers are the ones God gave us. Obviously there is need of professional advice and help, of such things as guidebooks to college; but there is also need of common sense, of care and of love. These can-best be found where they naturally grow. Getting a son or daughter into college is really a concern of the whole family, and the entire process goes better if it's talked over, worried over, thought through at home. Obviously, the ultimate choice has to be the student's. But in many senses the best guidance can be had at home, even if it means that some mothers and fathers are going to do some homework they had not counted on.
Some parents have always taken this task seriously. The late Irish poet William Butler Yeats had his own ideas of what schooling ought to consist of, as he tells his young son's teacher in a letter written in 1930: Dear Sir,
My son is now between 9 and 10 and should begin Greek at once and be taught by the Berlitz method that he may read as soon as possible that most exciting of all stories, the Odyssey, from that landing in Ithaca to the end. Grammar should come when the need comes. As he grows older he will read to me the great lyric poets and I will talk to him about 'Plato. Do not teach him one word of Latin. The Roman people were the classic decadence, their literature form without matter. They destroyed Milton, the French 17th and our own 18th century, and our schoolmasters even today read Greek with Latin eyes. Greece, could we but approach it with eyes as young as its own, might reneu our youth. Teach him mathematics as thoroughly as his capacity permits. I know that Bertrand Russell must, seeing that he is such a featherhead, be wrong about everything, but as I have no mathematics I cannot prove it. I do not want my son to be as helpless. Do not teach him one word of geography. He has lived on the Alps, crossed a number of rivers and when he is 15 I shall urge him to climb the Sugar Loaf. Do not teach him a word of history. I shall take him to Shakespeare's history plays, if a commercialized theater permit, and give him all the historical novels of Dumas, and if he cannot pick up the rest he is a fool. Don't teach him one word of science, he can get all he wants in the newspapers and in any case it is no job for a gentleman. If you teach him Greek and mathematics and do not let him forget the French and German that he already knows you will do for him all that one man can do for another. If he wants to learn Irish after he is well founded in Greek, let him -- it will clear his eyes of the Latin miasma. If you uill not do what I say, whether the curriculum or your own will restrain, and my son comes from school a smatterer like his father, may your soul lie chained on the Red Sea bottom.
Along with the cranky insights of genius, this letter says two important things. The first is the value of tools for further learning. Yeats urges that his son be helped to keep on learning, which I sometimes think is all any of us schoolteachers ever really do. Secondly, it is the father who worries, draws on his own experience and cares for the education of his son. Like Yeats, most parents, by the mere fact of survival, have earned the right to be involved in educational processes and choices. Like Yeats, they should coolly take this for granted.
Parents can really help by making sure that high school years are spent keeping options open, not closing them. The student who is overspecialized in high school has already, and perhaps wrongly, predetermined college. All purposes alter in fulfillment, and it is classic that students begin their college years with one goal in mind and end with a quite different one. So don't close doors; keep as many open as possible, and look for a few new ones to open. I would say this even to students who want to study medicine. Getting into medical school will probably so dominate your undergraduate curriculum as to come close to ruining it. So, in the years of high school, lay down as broad an intellectual base as you possibly can. Medical schools, to their huge loss, won't let you do much more.
The best curricular advice I can give a future college student is the one I think that most colleges would give. You will need tools -- several different ones. The first of these is the English language; known, handled, loved if possible, but above all possessed sufficiently to write clearly and with some imagination. Only slightly second is the other language you will need for the scientific parts of the college curriculum -- that is, mathematics. There is quite literally no substitute. A further need will be a vantage point, from outside. This means some contact with a foreign language. You should at least get through its grammar and have some spoken or written control of it. A last basic tool you will need is the habit of reading. Successful college students read. Success doesn't mean good marks, but does mean a good education. Such students read and read and read and read. It's a habit that can be acquired early. The more automatic the habit is, the more successful you are likely to be.
Somewhere along the line in high school you have to put down one good taproot. I suggest American history because it contains so many of the seeds college will try to make grow for you. Good colleges work at making good citizens. Part of the armor and equipment of a good citizen is a knowledge of history, at least the history of his own time and place. The more of this you can get, the better. Nobody else's history will ever make much sense unless you first know your own.
The common note in all this free advice to both parents and students is to opt for the substance and not the shadow. The better the college you want to enter the more sophisticated and experienced an admissions staff it will have. That kind of staff can pick out the student who has worked at the hard subjects, taken the tough courses and learned a lot, no matter what the numbers show. Good colleges are not comfortable with the intricate apparatus of tests and hurdles which guard their doors, necessary as these numbers may be to cope with a multiplicity of high schools. The best admissions officers are still able to distinguish between those who have learned, learned how to learn, and those who have not.
As early in your high school years as you can, get rid of the notion that there are only one, two or three colleges where you could get a good education. That is simply not so. What matters is the match. The admissions director at the City University of New York used to say, with a touch of genius, that he would be happy when he felt that each of 70,000 freshmen had been matched to the college and the curriculum that best suited him and in which he could best grow. The premise of his statement is that there are a lot of ways in which students can skin collegiate cats, and a lot of cats to choose from.
Of course some basics do concern the curriculum. I can only speak for one area, the humanities. Teaching English in three colleges has shown me how many faculty members are distinctly in favor of getting back to at least some basics. It is disconcerting to be teaching Chaucer and mention the "story of Susanna" and have an intelligent student ask, "Susanna who?" Every English professor has taught students who have read the complete works of Dostoevsky but are radically incapable of seeing an English paragraph as anything other than a geographical entity. Finally, serious exposure to a modern foreign language (or to a classic one) is becoming a rarer and rarer commodity on the market, salable, it would appear, only to the most exclusive colleges.
There can be much in the slogan "Back to Basics." But there can also be danger. The slogan can be an indictment of the schools themselves. Schools hold children only for five or six hours a day; the family, the street, the TV set and their friends work at them for the waking part of the other 19. Kids who don't care for language anywhere else find it hard to start in school.
The slogan is worse as an indictment of teachers. The teachers, by and large, are our neighbors and friends. They go to the same schools we do, study the same subjects, play the same games. It's not the teachers who politicize education in the United States, not even in this city. It's not teachers who have forced upon schools "social promotion," or the retention of students whose disruptive conduct makes teaching and learning impossible. These are public decisions, social decisions, decisions taken by all of us. If they are wrong, we all richly share the blame.
Finally, "Back to Basics" can also pander to power and blame the victims. The slogan can be used to shut out poorly prepared or just poor children from the best the school has to offer. Blaming the victim is an old game, and we all play it only too well.
One final point comes out of Yeats' letter. I could make just as good a case for Latin as he does for Greek, and clearly very few of us nowadays would agree that science "is no job for a gentleman." But Yeats' eccentricity is useful. He shows us that there are dozens of different ways of building a good high school education, and that no single one of them can contain all the good things a young mind can hold. Yeats reminds us of the almost infinite variety of ways young and old can meet each other, can share the richness of man's intellectual experience, and, subject to love and discipline, work toward growth. That's a "basic" which, both in and out of college, we had all best remember. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, drawing by OPIE; Copyright (c) 1977, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.