NEW YORK — In 1951 and 1952, before he became a newsman, Roger Mudd taught at a private boys' school in Rome, Ga. On Monday, he'll take public-TV viewers back to class as host of a five-part series examining the state of "Learning in America."
Its first chapter examines, with often gloomy conclusions, how American education compares with that in Japan and other countries. Succeeding chapters study such issues as the politics of school reform, social and economic inequality in education, and the growing shortage of teachers.
Mudd, who after leaving teaching spent 19 years at CBS and another seven at NBC before joining public TV's "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" in 1987, is quick to say that his time as an educator was short and was "limited to one thin strata of society"--the sons of relatively affluent families.
But in working on "Learning in America," he said in an interview, "what was interesting for me was to see how much the educators in America have had to change, or should be changing, to meet a really changing society."
A $2-million, Chrysler-funded co-production of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and public-TV station WETA in Washington, the series was no quick-hit, go-for-the-emotions project.
Mudd and his fellow "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" colleagues John Merrow, Paul Solman and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and a team of 12 off-camera staffers, worked on the series over an eight-month period. Interviews were conducted in 21 states, plus Europe and Japan.
"Learning in America" will air on successive Mondays at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15, and at 10 on Channel 24. MacNeil/Lehrer Productions has proposed to PBS turning it into a weekly series later this year.
Executive producer Joe Quinlan, the son of a public school teacher in Philadelphia, said the idea was not to rehash such well-publicized issues as teen-age drug use or weapons on campus. Rather, he said, "we took what we thought were the important questions and stuck with them. . . . We focused in on things that had some breadth, some common denominator."
The first 22 minutes of the third show, for example, will be devoted to an often-overlooked aspect of education, namely, "why textbooks are so bad," said Quinlan, explaining that that segment shows the process of selecting textbooks by committee.
There was one particular eye-opener for Mudd that he said "sickened me a little."
He related that New York Life Insurance, an insurance company, can't find--"at the wage they offer"--enough computer-literate high-school graduates to process medical claims at its office in Freehold, N.J. So the claims are put in a box each day and flown to Dublin, where high school kids working for New York Life's Irish subsidiary do the processing.
"That makes you kind of ill, to realize that the New Jersey public school system--and don't single out New Jersey, because it could happen in any other state--is not turning out young men and women who are competent to do basic clerical work," Mudd said.