So what are schools for anyway?

Posted: Feb 27, 2001 12:00 AM
The latest "education president" (Lyndon Johnson, somewhat inauspiciously, was the first) has high and honorable intentions about upgrading public education. George W. Bush wants better results than we are accustomed to from the public schools. So do we all. Who wouldn't? There are problems, even so. One is that no matter how you slice it, educational results aren't going to be equal across the board. On the other hand, policy makers keep hoping they will be, and that's another kind of problem. A week or so ago, the president of the University of California system proposed getting rid of the Scholastic Aptitude Test as an admissions requirement. Dumping the SAT would leave admissions counselors freer to judge applicants on the basis of nonacademic credentials. This sounds genial and democratic -- until you consider that the root purpose of institutions like the University of California is academic, not humanitarian. This is what most modern educators hate to do: acknowledge that their business is the training of minds. Nevermind how much more money Congress decants into public schools, money isn't the real issue. Nobody brags on today's public schools -- leaving generous room for exceptions. The problem actually is widespread. The Spectator, a grand old British journal, recently assailed the quality of British education. British! Gee, all them guys that knows Shakespeare so good? Seems the Bard is on the wane among his countrymen: too hard, too old school. One Spectator reader wrote to the editors: "The only hope for those in the underclass in any country is a rigorous education which through intellectual discipline equips children with the tools to engage the adult world. Thomas Jefferson said: 'No people has ever been ignorant and free.' We in the English-speaking countries are about to test this hypothesis. God help us." The word "underclass" seems to generate the most difficulties. "Under," "over" -- it sounds so snobbish: a vestige of distinctions among human beings. If "gender" has become irrelevant, and also race, why not ability? It's a matter of saying so, isn't it? You get that impression around places like the University of California -- largely due to, one should acknowledge, kind-hearted impulses. What's wrong with trying to get the most out of people, hmm? Encourage and inspire them? Lift them to a higher level? Everything about it is right, and everything about the modern Liberal method -- coddling would be another name for it -- is wrong. Basically, what Liberals want, though they rarely put it this way, is for everyone to make an A -- a B anyway -- on all tests. These folk tend to confuse education, the training of minds, with welfare, the filling of empty hands. This is why "rigorous education" -- in the phrase of that Spectator reader --doesn't win much favor these days. "Rigorous" means some pass, some don't. Liberals, bless their hearts, want everyone to pass. Thus, the anti-SAT movement: no SATs, no human progress to retard, no scraped self-esteem on which to apply ointment. That natural achievers get hurt doesn't seem to weigh heavily with our educational authorities. But that isn't the end of the matter. Again and again, dedicated teachers have proved that ability is no respecter of color and class. Members of the "underclass," just like putative masters of the universe, respond to "rigor," as experience with determinedly rigorous schools makes plain. Scores rise -- along with what the education establishment sees as floor-level pride. Ours is the age of flex and give. "Rigor" sounds harsh and hard -- because it is. This question, though: What do we aim at? Filling classrooms with people unable to pass unless standards are lowered? Or forming young minds to wrestle with the best that disciplined minds can offer? No question, even on the SAT, more urgently demands an answer.