A Reviewer's Notebook - 1963/9

James d. Koerner calls his book The Miseducation of Amer­ican Teachers (Houghton Mif­flin, $4.95). The title is not quite apt, for Mr. Koerner is not aim­ing his shafts at the parochial schools on the one hand, or the many secular private institutions on the other. They have teachers who are both scholarly and lit­erate. Indeed, by implication or inference (or both together), Mr. Koerner’s indictment of the public schools amounts to a brief for private schools.

True enough, Mr. Koerner does profess to hold out some hope that the worst ravages of the "educationists" who now con­trol the major power centers in the American public school sys­tem will be overcome. But the bulk of the book is so steeped in pessimistic reporting that one wonders about the nature of

Mr. Koerner’s trust in a saving remnant consisting of a "handful of independent-minded school boards in each state."

The reason for deriving a pes­simistic conclusion from Mr. Koerner’s exceedingly well-docu­mented study is that the "revolu­tion" of the past thirty years has become an entrenched orthodoxy on practically every level of influ­ence and control. The teachers’ colleges, stuffed with dull and repetitive courses in "method," grind out the annual crop of neo­phyte instructors who have only a halting command of the subject matter they are supposed to im­part to their future students. Presumably an intelligent neo­phyte could go on to get up his chosen specialty for himself. But brainy lads and lasses are re­pelled by the teachers’ college cur­ricula in the first place, and the few lively individuals who put up with their "miseducation" just to get coveted jobs soon discover that they are expected to take more dreary courses in nothing­ness just to qualify for salary raises. There is no time to read Elizabethan drama or critiques of Keynesian economics in a "pro­gressive" school system that puts its stress on conforming to "edu­cationist" theory.

Even if the bright teacher re­sists, he finds that he is com­pelled more or less to use the texts and the methods prescribed by an Administration that is itself a product of the orthodoxy. And so things go from bad to worse as enthusiasm is killed.

Educational Jargon

Mr. Koerner’s book, when it consists of the author’s own prose, is sparkling. But, as befits a good reporter, Mr. Koerner has included many examples of the stuff he is inveighing against, which means that the book has its long dull stretches. Sometimes the quotations from "educanto" or "educationese" are unconsciously funny. There is, for example, the list of dissertations on page 187. The Ph.D. or the Ed.D. in Educa­tion has actually been awarded to people for grinding out wordage on such topics as "A Performance Analysis of the Propulsive Forceof the Flutter Kick," or "The High School Student’s Perception of Most-Liked and Least-Liked Television Figures," or "A Study of Little League Baseball and Its Educational Implications." But the fact that such stuff is not of­fered as parody material for col­lege comic magazines soon causes the reader to wipe the smile off his face. And when Mr. Koerner piles up his examples of the lin­gua franca of the educationist in his "L’Envoi" chapter, the humor is quickly buried under the weight of what is listed as "the extended cliché," or "the enervating fugue," or "the forward passive," or "the grandiloquent bromide," or "the jargonized pyrotechny." The "ed­ucantoids" who write "educanto" are masters of meaningless sen­tences about "meaningfulness" and unstructured paragraphs about "structures." A teacher is never a teacher; he is a "critical inquirer," or a "director of ex­periences," or a "producer of ef­fects," or a "motivator," or a "cre­ator of learnings environments," or a "substitute parent."

Naturally the textbooks written by the educationists are them­selves filled with enervating fugues and grandiloquent bromides. And the textbooks publishers, who might be willing to commission a few masters of clear, simple Eng­lish to write texts, are stymied, for how could an educantoid rec­ognize a first-rate product if he saw it?

Is There No Hope?

Sterling M. McMurrin, former U. S. Commissioner of Education, says in an introduction to Mr. Koerner’s book that there are "teachers of high ability and good education" in our school sys­tem, but Mr. Koerner is primarily interested in drawing a gener­alized picture, not in isolating a few bright spots. For myself, I wish he had tried to single out a few points from which a counter­revolution in public education might just possibly be expected to take off. Are the "teachers of high ability and good education" inevitably bound to be suffocated by the dreary orthodoxy that sur­rounds them?

Take Carl Hansen, the super­intendent of the Washington, D.C., school system, for example. Not so long ago Dr. Hansen started an experiment in "basic education" in the Amidon School. The idea was to restore some of the old-fashioned teaching meth­ods of the pre-Deweyite day in a desegrated school of mixed I.Q.’s drawn from various social and economic backgrounds. Reading, in the first and second Amidon grades, has been taught by pho­novisual chart methods that in-elude a heavy dose of old-fash­ioned phonics; "social studies" have been sidetracked in favor of courses in history and geography. Dr. Hansen insists that the Ami­don experiment has been a huge success—and he is now extending the "basic education" counter­revolution to other Washington schools.

In NEA’s Backyard

Since Dr. Hansen’s office is only a stone’s throw from the Washington headquarters of the National Education Association, which is the stronghold of every­thing that Mr. Koerner detests, I have often wondered how the Amidon experiment in counter­revolution was ever permitted to get under way. When Dr. Hansen substitutes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Frost for the usual "Dick and Jane" drivel as prescribed classroom reading, why don’t the educantoids descend on him in a body and ride him out of the District of Columbia on a rail? I’d like to know Mr. Koer­ner’s answer to this question.

Again, the new head of Teach­ers College at Columbia in New York City insists that the propor­tion between "method" and "con­tent" courses in the various teachers colleges is changing. A prospective French teacher presumably can take more semester hours in languages and fewer hours in "how to teach" redun­dancy. Has this shift gone far enough to make an appreciable difference?

To take one other example, there is the town of Weston in my home state of Connecticut. Some of the kids in the Weston primary school were having trou­ble learning to read by the Dew­eyite "look-and-say" or "whole word recognition" method. The “independent-minded” school board of Weston decided that reading delinquency had gone far enough, and accordingly it hired Mrs. Hamilton Basso, the wife of the novelist, to make remedial recommendations. Old-fashioned phonics were restored to the Weston primary grades on Mrs. Basso’s advice.

Do examples such as the fore­going constitute much ground for hope? I’d like to hear more from Mr. Koerner on this.




Ideas on Liberty

Nothing to Do

The necessity of labor may, indeed, be regarded as the main root and spring of all that we call progress in individuals, and civilization in nations; and it is doubtful that any heavier curse could be imposed on man than the gratification of all his wishes without effort on his part, leaving nothing for his hopes, desires, or struggles. The feeling that life is destitute of any motive or necessity for action, must be of all others the most distressing and insupportable to a rational being. The Marquis de Spinola asking Sir Horace Vere what his brother died of, Sir Horace replied, "He died, sir, of having nothing to do."