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The Demise of American Education

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The words are those of the late John A. Pidgeon, the legendary headmaster of the Kiski School in Saltsburg, Pa. At the time, he was reflecting on his 45 years at the school, but what he said could apply to so many other things:

"I could not believe my ears when I heard 'an educational expert' say recently that a head master should serve only five to seven years, do what he can for the school, and then leave. This is without question the most idiotic statement I have heard, especially from educational experts who are probably the most idiotic group I know anyway."

Jack Pidgeon's low opinion of educational experts may be an exaggeration; I have come across one or two professors of education who actually made sense. But, if pressed, I would probably cite the generality of the country's schools of education as the most corrosive influence on American education in my time. With the possible exception of teachers' unions, of course.

Is there a fad that the educantists have not embraced over the years, much to the detriment of education? They seem to switch shibboleths -- sight-reading! self-esteem! emotional intelligence! -- as often as Mr. Pidgeon's idiotic expert would have them switch locales.

Jack Pidgeon spelled "head master" as two words -- as if to emphasize the primacy of teaching at his school. To him, administration was just a necessary evil. It is an order of priorities the rest of American education would do well to adopt.

To quote Laura Bush the other day, who was explaining why the new George W. Bush Institute was going to concentrate on training school principals: "A well-trained, energetic teacher can be stifled under lackluster or discouraging administrators." Here's hoping the first thing the Bush Institute teaches administrators is just to get out of the way of the talented. It's a lesson administrators could learn in many a field besides education.

But what's wrong with a school's switching headmasters on a regular basis? Why keep the same old leader, and stick to the same old dreary principles? Mr. Pidgeon explained why:

"Like people, schools must have an identity. If they do not, they drift along trying to be all things to all people. A school is not unlike a person in that it must have a set of values from which it does not waver. I have known many people who do not have this set of values and they bounce about the world standing for one thing one day and another thing another day and become feckless and pitiful people who do not command the respect of their peers and are unable to make any lasting impression on life. I hope that we can remember the same applies to schools."

And to many another institution. Like newspapers. I've long been fascinated by the kind of editorial writers who early on clamber aboard the transmission belt from smaller to ever larger newspapers, regularly jumping from one locale and one editorial philosophy to another with the greatest of ease till they wind up at the pinnacle of their trade -- either at the New York Times or in public relations. I have to admire -- I've never envied -- their sheer adaptability, which seems to go with their upward mobility.

It takes years, maybe a lifetime, to acquire a working knowledge of just a small town, let alone a small state, but some of my brightest colleagues can jump from convivial communities in the South to impersonal megalopoli up North or out West unburdened (and unsupported) by what is called a sense of place.

An innocent Northerner once asked me, apparently seriously, what Southerners mean by a sense of place. And I thought of Louis Armstrong's response when someone asked him what jazz is: If you have to ask, you'll never know.

A sense of place is inextricably bound up with a set of values. Forget where you came from, and who are you?

Jack Pidgeon, who died about a couple of years ago, had every one of his boys at Kiski memorize the last page of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.")

It's not only people that need a sense of their past and the values that go with it. Constancy of purpose is also what distinguishes a successful family, newspaper, political party, republic ... life.

Without a set of inner beliefs, we wind up abandoning principles as regularly as we adopt them. The way educantists do catchphrases.

Now the line is: Forget the classics, concentrate on an education for the 21st century! Which apparently means knowing how to operate electronic devices and figure out a spreadsheet. That's not education, it's vocational training. What once were means seem to have become ends in education. And our more with-it "educators" shift with every passing wind, clutching at the latest gimmick the way drowning men do at straws.

If there is a single factor that separates the enduring from the passing in institutions great or small, local or national, it is constancy of purpose. The way in which that purpose is pursued may be flexible, but forget one's purpose and decide to stand for everything as it comes into vogue, then a school, a university, a newspaper, an individual, a nation ... will come to stand for nothing.

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