California's superintendent of public instruction, a well-meaning bull in an educational china shop, keeps knocking over other people's fragile assumptions and wondering why they don't understand that he means no harm.
Bill Honig has excited racial fears with his insistence on tough academic standards, with no exceptions for the culturally deprived minorities. He has sparked charges of elitism with his notion that the schools should foster and pass along the basic American culture. And he has been called a schoolhouse Jerry Falwell for calling on the schools to inculcate moral and ethical values.
And through it all, this gentle, gaunt, almost monkish man seems genuinely bewildered that anyone listening carefully to what he says could disagree with him on the basics.
"You have to ask yourself just what it is you want the schools to accomplish," he said in an interview while in town to promote his new book, "Last Chance for Our Children" (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.).
"It seems obvious that if you want to prepare kids for the kind of careers they will be facing, you have to make sure that they acquire the right combination of skills. We talk a lot about literacy, but we fail to understand that literacy is not technique only, but also what you bring to the reading.
"We want our children to be educated for citizenship and responsibility, which means that they have to understand what this country is about: how our ideas and ideals developed, what makes us different from other countries. And we want them to be of solid moral character. But children aren't automatically ethical or moral. They have to be taught."
Honig contends that one of the reasons minority children tend to score less well on the standardized tests -- even for uch basics as reading -- is that we try to teach as though in a cultural vacuum. "Literacy is not an empty form or skill," he says in his book. "It also depends on how much you already know about what's being read."
Some of the harshest criticism of Honig comes from those who object to his attempt to use public education for moral instruction. Again he thinks the objections would vanish if his critics would only hear him out.
"There is," he explains, "a difference between those who want group prayer in the public schools and those who want moral content in the curriculum."
The one group advocates the public, state- sponsored practice of religion, which he abhors; the other sees moral instruction as a fundamental purpose of education.
As a matter of fact, Honig's notion was once the prevailing view. Even during the earlier days of this century, there was no attempt to draw a distinction between academic and moral instruction. What has happened in recent years, he says, is that morality has come to be confused with religion, and since we know better than to try to teach religion in the public schools, we have abandoned moral instruction in favor of the approach called "values clarification," or as Honig calls it, "institutionalized public amorality."
"Our society is built on widely observed moral precepts," he writes. "It isn't a matter of personal conjecture, for example, whether stealing a Walkman from a classmate's locker is right or wrong. It's wrong, and so is cheating. However, students who decide that they personally sanction using crib notes because tests are irrelevant to the real dynamic of learning, or because the teacher assigned too much material to study in so little time, or for any one of a thousand convenient reasons, are perfectly entitled to do so under the values clarification rubic."
Honig's book smashes one final icon: the idea that an increasingly complex technology demands a far greater emphasis on technical skills (including computer training) and correspondingly less emphasis on traditional education.
He makes just the opposite argument: The fact that technology changes so fast makes the development of particular skills less relevant than the development of the mind. Traditional education, because it preserves and builds on the best of what has already been learned, may be increasingly important in our high-tech future.