A Word In Defense Of America's Maligned Schools

November 28, 1993|By THOMAS V. DIBACCO

Education-bashing has become so widespread these days that a foreign visitor to the United States might believe this land of the free to be also the home of young blockheads.

Department of Education officials want better teaching as they lament the low reading scores of elementary-schoolers; state governors want more federal money for their schools; and many parents want to be able to choose their children's schools instead of having them assigned by their local school boards.

Historians recognize that each generation of Americans has lamented the educational state of its offspring. In colonial times, kids were criticized for laziness and inattention to education by rote; by the 1930s, according to one federal report, youngsters were destined to fail because they could not adapt to "a narrower and more specific type of skill and preparation" that technology demanded.

In my Happy Days of the 1950s, critics found the educational system uncommonly uncreative: from the series of "Little Golden Books" that parents read to tykes to academe's curricula that led Time magazine to comment that "no campus is without its atrocity story of intellectual deadness." Recall the other bete noires for educators of the era: musical maverick Elvis Presley and the "wasteland" of television.

Somehow, however, young people were still educated in the old days and assumed a role in society that was at least equal to -- and in most cases better than -- that of their parents in terms of the financial assets they acquired.

Of course, nowadays sociologists suggest that the upward mobility pattern that typified earlier generations of children will come to an end today -- and largely because of a wayward lifestyle and lack of educational assets.

Maybe, but as an educator for nearly three decades, I don't agree with the doomsday prophets.

For one reason, I've spent the last three years traveling around the country visiting middle schools and high schools -- urban schools in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Virginia, private ones in Pennsylvania, rural schools in South Carolina and Texas, and numerous institutions in the Midwest. I've sat in classrooms listening to students, chatting with teachers and sometimes parents, and the feeling that I'm left with in almost every instance is that the news of education's demise is %J premature.

Youngsters may not be viewed as doing as well in reading, writing and math as their predecessors, but they have far more street smarts than earlier generations. That is, they understand human psychology because they've had to in order to survive in today's complex world. Their interpersonal skills, in spite of the occasional horror stories to the contrary, are also good, honed in an increasingly multicultural and transient nation in which the ability to get along with others is paramount.

And youngsters' poorer performance on standardized tests may not be all their fault. Too many textbooks still assume that they must be written for the acclaim of professionals in the field (on whom publishers rely for their ultimate decision to publish) rather than for the classroom teacher and student. Test-makers too often ask questions on information that is tricky and marginally important. An example drawn from an actual test:

"Who was the European who traveled in the United States and wrote down perceptive comments about what he saw in 'Democracy in America'?"

1. Napoleon

2. Lafayette

3. Tocqueville

4. Crevecoeur

5. Blank/No answer

By a narrow margin, Tocqueville -- the right answer -- bested Lafayette in total student responses. But this query tests knowledge of a relatively obscure French visitor (but an intellectual that historians like) instead of the more famous Frenchman who affected American politics, namely, Lafayette. In fact, the Marquis would not only play a critical role in the American Revolution but would be the first foreigner formally honored during a lengthy visit in 1824. ("The Reader's Companion to American History," a 1,226-page standard reference work, includes Tocqueville but not Lafayette.)

To be sure, the challenge to stimulate learning these days is difficult, and those of us who teach every semester recognize that students must be encouraged to develop to their full potential. But we also recognize that the ultimate barometer of our students' knowledge will not be standardized test scores or formal report cards so much as it will be application to, and their life in, an adult world. On that basis even the Hippies of the 1960s -- who spurned much of formal education -- appear to be doing quite well today, thank you.

Thomas DiBacco is a historian at The American University in Washington, D. C.

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