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Hard Days For Lame Ducklings : Learning Disputes

January 10, 1988|Mortimer J. Adler | Mortimer J. Adler is chairman of the board of editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago

CHICAGO — Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's recent proposal for a national curriculum for our public high schools and for national tests to measure student achievement in them will not produce the much-desired reform of basic compulsory education in the United States.

The secretary's ideal curriculum for his imaginary James Madison High School would not accomplish the sound objectives set by those who, better than Bennett, understand what needs to be done to reform our public schools--Profs. Theodore R. Sizer of Brown University, John I. Goodlad, formerly of UCLA and now at the University of Washington and Diane Ravitch of Columbia Teachers College.

Sizer, who wrote the classic book on the teacher as a coach--"Horace's Compromise" (Houghton Mifflin), published in 1984--now heads the Coalition of Essential Schools, where the training of teachers to coach the fundamental skills as well as other subjects is a primary consideration.

Goodlad, after a five-year study of American schools, wrote "A Place Called School" (McGraw-Hill), also published in 1984. In it he documented the appalling statistic that 85% of all classroom time in the United States is spent in teachers talking at students who memorize what is needed to bone up for examinations, and only 15% of the time is spent in teachers talking with students, interacting with their minds in protracted discussions. Any substantial reversal in those figures would accomplish a major reform.

Ravitch last year wrote (with Chester E. Finn Jr.) "What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?" (Harper & Row), which detailed the literature and history that should be part of a sound curriculum.

Bennett has manifested no acquaintance with--and has acknowledged no indebtedness to--those educational reforms. If he had paid some attention to them, he might have realized the shortcomings of his own thinking about education. The most serious of these are his failure to recognize that educational reform must begin in the primary grades, that a truly democratic school system must give all the children the same quality, not just the same quantity, of schooling, and, most important, that there are three very different kinds of teaching and learning:

--Didactic instruction in subject-matters.

--The coaching of the language and mathematical skills.

--The Socratic conduct of seminar discussions of the basic ideas and issues to be found in books assigned for study.

Of these three, Bennett is concerned only with the first, which now predominates in our schools. This is the least-effective kind of teaching and the learning that results is the least durable. In truth, it is not genuine teaching at all, but rather indoctrination by the teacher, and not genuine learning by the student, but memorization for the sake of passing exams. Genuine learning involves activity of the learner's mind; genuine teaching involves the cooperative activity of the teacher in helping and guiding the learning by interacting with the student's mind.

All this Bennett might have understood had he paid attention to the earliest of these recent educational reform movements--"The Paideia Proposal," an educational manifesto issued in 1982 by a panel of American educators and teachers that I chaired and that included Jacques Barzun, Sizer, Ernest L. Boyer (president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and author of "High School," published in 1983 by Harper & Row) and Ravitch.

The Paideia group has focused on the three methods of teaching and learning in ascending order of importance--the acquisition of knowledge (not information, which is the memory of facts without any understanding of them), the formation by coaching of the intellectual skills, which are possessed as habits, and increased understanding through Socratic questioning in seminar discussions.

There are now more than 50 U.S. primary, middle and secondary schools in various stages of implementing the Paideia program--in California, they include the Santa Monica and Culver City school districts, Hanson Lane Elementary School in Ramona and the Moraga schools in Contra Costa County.

In these schools, we have conducted seminars for students, with teachers observing the method--"Jack and the Beanstalk" for first-graders; "Aesop's Fables" and "Charlotte's Web" for third-graders; Frost's "The Road Not Taken" for fifth-graders; Shakespeare's "Hamlet" for sixth-graders; the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address for eighth-graders, and for high school students, Plato's "The Apology," Aristotle's "Politics," Rousseau's "Social Contract," Sophocles' "Antigone," Machiavelli's "Prince," Martin Luther King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," along with the "Encheiridion" of Epictetus.

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