LYNNE CHENEY, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, had "an epiphany" when a school board official, asked why her students didn't know the history of the Civil War or the author of "Moby Dick," responded, "They know how to look it up." Mrs. Cheney's realization -- that by focusing unduly on teaching students "learning skills," educators have all but abandoned the attempt to teach them content -- forms the theme of her short report, "American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation's Public Schools," which the NEH released the other day. "American Memory," like so many recent education-reform reports, offers a clear diagnosis of an awful situation, plus modest suggestions. That is welcome. But after so many such reports, the question remains how the problems raised can actually be attacked.
This report notes that real history, real literature and foreign language study have all but faded from the curriculum in favor of "communications skills" and "social studies," which proceed to "belabor what is obvious even to six-, seven- and eight-year-olds" -- for example, that people live in families and children go to school. Teacher training relies heavily on courses in method -- to the exclusion of courses reinforcing their love of, or even expertise in, the subjects they will teach. Even university faculties in the humanities, seemingly those most directly concerned with the transmission of culture to the young, tend to pay more attention to potential university teachers and to convey the message that teaching humanities to grade school or high school isn't important. The report rightly condemns these tendencies and the resultant situation, where, as Mrs. Cheney says, "the curriculum chart . . . says students should practice 'finding the main idea' -- and never mind if the main idea is worth finding."
Its straightforward and simple recommendations -- devote more school time to the humanities, use original sources, free up teachers' time and improve their textbooks -- are good, even though this report does not take up the reasons these apparently ludicrous shortcomings are so widespread in the first place. It does not, for instance, address the widespread unwillingness of authorities to dictate what children should learn -- an abdication which has a great deal to do with the rise in popularity of supposedly neutral "skills."
Mrs. Cheney sets forth an inspirational prescription for better textbooks and recommends more direct use of real storybooks and literature not written in accordance with deadening "readability formulas." But the commercial incentives and interest-group pressures that have brought textbooks to their current moribundity will be a problem. The National Education Association, the status quo incarnate, has endorsed the report in guarded phrases, but there is not much likelihood that it will do anything to advance Mrs. Cheney's call for the schools to "invest less in curriculum supervisors, instructional overseers and other mid-level administrators." As an institution outside the education establishment, the NEH is free to see clearly and criticize, but that freedom curtails its scope for follow-up. Sooner or later, the education establishment must pick up the ball. Will it