As a shut-up-and-learn advocate, President Reagan could do no more than offer his customary anecdotal evidence to support his view that the schools are in a "sorry state." In a speech to educators in Tennessee, Reagan lamented "the abandonment of compulsory courses." He remembered a science class in his boyhood: "It didn't appeal to me at all, but I was forced to take it. . . . I had to do it, if I wanted to play football and if I wanted to get a diploma some day."
With the national blackboard about to be filled by pet theories of politicians who haven't been students for decades and have never taught school themselves, Reagan is emerging as the leader of the knuckle-rappers. To prepare the kids for life--the school of hard knocks--put them in the school of hard hits. Hit them with the compulsory subjects. If the students don't like them, too bad. What do they think, that schools are for them?
Like the kind of teacher who should be the first to be denied merit pay, Reagan hasn't prepared for class. The curriculum debate is not new. For a decade and more, teachers have been protesting the lowering of educational standards. Few listened. They argued through organizations like the National Education Association that cutbacks in foreign languages, science and writing courses were inviting the declines that are now being detailed in the reports of commissions. The teachers were answered with the charge that they were merely trying to protect their jobs.
As these accusations of self-interest were leveled, the grammar and high- school teachers who believed in making demands on the students were assaulted from another front. Colleges decided to lower admission standards. They had overbuilt in the 1960s, and then in the 1970s needed students to pay the debts of the building programs. To attract students, admission standards were lowered. Foreign languages were no longer required, nor were four years of math or science. If the colleges aren't requiring these subjects, the local school boards asked, why should we spend money to teach them?
Colleges that resisted these curriculum dilutions risked their own survival. In the 1970s, more than 100 private colleges closed. Thirty years ago, 50 percent of the nation's college students were in private schools. Today it is 20 percent.
Despite the attacks, teachers who valued excellence fought on. They had victories on the harshest of battlefields. Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), a progressive whose first question when domestic policy is being shaped is how it will affect children, recently visited three core-city schools in Cincinnati. Each gives lessons in a foreign language: Spanish, German or French. Simon reports that "it is an exciting thing to walk into an aged school building in a none-too-attractive section of that city, enter a fourth-grade classroom, and watch a multiracial student body get a biology lesson in German! Not surprisingly, there is a waiting list to get into this school, which people formerly fled."
Reagan's call for "forced" education mocks those many teachers who have been victimized by force themselves: from the hands of politicans like Reagan. As president, he is better at subtraction than addition. Since taking office, he has cut $1 billion from Department of Education programs.
Even without the cuts and the undermining of curricula by colleges, complexities about compulsory courses won't be eased by the folksy reminiscences of the president. In the war against crime, the cry was that we must stop coddling criminals. In the new war against ignorance, it will be stop coddling the students. If they aren't suffering, they aren't learning.
Reagan's leaping to the lectern with this simplism makes him as unconvincing as his earlier calls for tuition tax credits. From Tennessee, he went to Albuquerque to tell a PTA convention that "education must never become a political football." He then tried the quarterback sneak of calling for reforms but telling the educators not to expect federal aid. Let's get back to basics--every one but money.
To the teachers' hard questions about the future of American education, Reagan keeps giving them D-minus answers. As if they haven't troubles enough, now there is a slow-learning president in the front row.