Johnny can't read and that's not all

June 24, 1993|By Maurice C. Taylor | Maurice C. Taylor,Contributing Writer

If you can read this, don't bother to thank a teacher. Such is the theme woven throughout "Inside American Education."

Thomas Sowell, a noted conservative writer, contends that public schools have failed to educate students in even the most basic skills of mathematics and English, and that academic performance among undergraduates enrolled in the nation's colleges and universities has likewise declined.

Offered as evidence is the decade-long decline in scores on standard measures of academic performance, including the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the American College Testing program (ACT, and the Iowa Test of Educational Development.

Dr. Sowell notes that poor teaching and grade inflation are hastening the decline in the quality of higher education. The average college grade is now a B, and the author writes: "Among the factors behind nationwide rises in college grades, in addition to more lenient grading by professors, have been such widespread practices as not recording failing grades on the student's records, allowing students to withdraw from class when a failing grade is impending, and ordinary cheating."

Dr. Sowell contends that public schools have generally abandoned the academic subjects necessary to achieve an effective education in favor of a psycho-therapeutic curricula of affective education. (Among the affective courses now in public schools are sex education, death and dying, human development, drug prevention and values clarification.)

The author suggests that the acquisition of knowledge has been supplanted by the exploration of emotions.

The result? "Too many American students learn neither an intellectual process nor a knowledge base, nor acquire habits of study."

Thus, the problem is "not merely that Johnny can't read, or that Johnny can't think. Johnny doesn't know what thinking is, because thinking is so often confused with feeling in many public schools."

Undergraduate education has suffered, according to Dr. Sowell, in part, because of an emphasis at "top tier" universities on research and publication rather than on teaching undergraduates. He argues that the academic prestige enjoyed by many colleges and universities is "usually research prestige" purchased by neglecting undergraduate education.

The demise in undergraduate education is also attributed to a system of tenure that makes it difficult to insist that tenured faculty "give serious attention to teaching, or otherwise oabey institutional rules."

Thus, the author observes, "it is not uncommon for an English department to leave freshman composition courses in the hands of teaching assistants, junior faculty, or even part-time or 'gypsy' faculty, hired just for doing the 'menial' work in the department . . ." Similarly, using teaching assistants to conduct basic mathematics and science courses is a common practice and so is the "widespread use of foreign graduate students with incomprehensible English as teaching assistants."

But even when professors do teach, Dr. Sowell says, professors often engage in "ideological indoctrination" and time-wasting diatribes rather than instructing students in the content of the course. Regardless of whether the institution is a well-known research university or an obscure teaching college, preaching often substitutes for teaching and sermons replace lectures in many undergraduate classrooms.

The importance of this text rests not in the data used to document the decline in American education, but in the author's allocation of blame. According to Dr. Sowell, it is educational policies rather than social problems that have resulted in the substandard education of American students.

For example, he makes the case that compulsory public education is a monopoly that "serves the interests of two narrow constituencies: (1) public school teachers and administrators, and (2) those college professors who teach education courses. . . ." Further, "the college students who have majored in education have been among the least qualified of all college students, and the professors who taught them have been among the least respected by their colleagues" in the college or university. Thus, according to the author, the real problem with public education is "impaired faculties" who are not simply "academically deficient" but who are not even "academically oriented."

Aside from poor teaching, grade inflation and the emphasis on research, the educational policies that have contributed to a decline in undergraduate education include: the "mismatching" of minority students to certain colleges and universities as a result of "campus racial policies"; ideological double standards of free speech that promote particular social goals by punishing students whose language, humor and penmanship is not politically correct; and fiscal policies that involve overpricing higher education and then offering discounts in the form of financial aid and scholarships.

It would be simple to dismiss Dr. Sowell as a carping critic, but to dismiss this text requires that one either ignore his data or offer an equally exhaustive explanation of the documentation supporting his claims. I recommend this text to anyone with the courage to consider the prospect that entrenched educational policies and practices of public schools, colleges and universities may have contributed to a decline in American education.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Inside American Education: The Decline, The Deception, The Dogmas"

Author: Thomas Sowell

Publisher: Free Press

Length, price: 368 pages, $24.95

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