Bard College president would remake high schools from scratch

April 18, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

If he had his way, Bard College President Leon Botstein would not reform the American high school.

He would destroy it.

"It's a wasteful, expensive and obstructionist system," Dr. Botstein said. "High school is an institution which extends childhood and the absence of responsibility far beyond what is tolerable."

Most students -- the strong and the weak students alike -- fritter away important years in highly structured but uninspiring courses, he contended. In a talk this afternoon at the Park School, Dr. Botstein will argue that the whole American high school system should be scrapped.

Instead, he said yesterday, students should attend public schools through ninth or 10th grade, when compulsory education would lapse. Then students who want further education would still live at home but enroll in community colleges, which would be expanded to handle all the new students. Students would then apply to traditional four-year colleges and universities if they wanted to continue.

It is at this age, from 14 to 18, that students best develop intellectual ambition and self-discipline, he contended. But not enough is asked of them in high schools, which he said have turned into expensive and tension-filled holding pens for young adults ill-prepared to handle issues of sexuality, violence, drugs and alcohol.

The details of his plan remain somewhat sketchy, Dr. Botstein acknowledged, but he intends to offer a more specific blueprint in a book to be published next spring.

"If you have a conscience or any kind of civic pride, you have to speak," he said. "We can't leave it to the politicians. Where is the leadership from the White House or the state houses?"

Twenty years ago, at age 28, Dr. Botstein was appointed president of Bard in Annandale-on-Hudson, about an hour's drive north of New York City. That was five years after he had started his first job as president of the now-closed Laconia College in New Hampshire. He earned a doctorate from Harvard in 1985 while on the job, and is the author of two previous books, one in German.

In a time when many university presidents shy away from speaking out on issues because their campuses depend upon public dollars and private largess, Dr. Botstein has been a relatively constant public presence. He has been interviewed by the New York Times, Harper's magazine, the "Charlie Rose" show on PBS, and ABC News' "Nightline."

"Either the guy must really believe what he has to say, or he wants to see his name in print -- or some combination of the two," Dr. Botstein said of himself. "There's no movie rights from this process."

It doesn't hurt that his prominence also places the small liberal arts college, which has an enrollment of slightly more than 1,000 students, squarely within the public eye. But Dr. Botstein said that he finds people receptive to his pronouncements because he does not pose any threat: "You can't run for governor from the presidency of Bard, so people trust what you're going to say," he said.

Dr. Botstein is also musical director and the primary conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra. Part of his drive to alter standard education comes from his firmly held belief that today's young adults are too often allowed to cast their sights away from the life of the mind. He sees that in music, where audiences attending classical concerts contain few young faces. But he also sees a level of indifference among most high schoolers toward classroom material. While some schools challenge their students, not enough do to redeem the system, he said.

"Even for the most gifted students, their time in school could have been better spent," Dr. Botstein said. "That's the unquestioned truth. The brighter the student, the more painful the waste."

WHO AND WHERE

Who: Leon Botstein, president, Bard College.

What: Lecture, "The Future of the American High School."

Where: The Park School in Brooklandville, Old Court Road (between Falls Road and Green Spring Avenue).

When: 4:30 p.m. today.

The lecture is open to the public. Call Sherrie Bernstein at (410) 339-4143 for more information.

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