Smells Like School Spirit

"No other people," wrote Henry Steele Commager, the
most widely read American historian of the generation following World War II,
"ever demanded so much of schools and of education as have the American. None
other was ever so well served by its schools and its educators." A lot of us,
bombarded by the educational controversies and the ongoing schools-are-failing
rhetoric of the past two decades, may now find Commager's words a little
quaint--even preposterous--either because he was writing about some long-gone
golden age or because he got carried away by his own celebratory fervor.

The four-part PBS documentary School: The Story of
American Public Education,
which will air September 3 and 4, is an ambitious
attempt to show Americans how accurate Commager's assessment was and still is. No
institution--certainly no cultural institution--is more pervasive, more deeply
embedded in the history and hopes of our democracy, or more central to our
debates about that democracy than public education. For all its shortcomings, to
paraphrase Commager, none other has delivered so much. School has been America's
great secular religion.

Produced by Sarah Patton and Sarah Mondale and written by Sheila Curran
Bernard, School breaks no new historical ground; too often it presumes that its
viewers are only dimly aware of the complex and rich history of American
education. Nonetheless, the program offers an important overview, plus a superb
collection of archival photos and film clips that lend it a rare depth and human
dimension.

Each of School's four segments covers one historical period, beginning with
Horace Mann's crusade in the 1840s to establish free common schools for all
children, continuing through the great era of urban growth and immigration, and
ending with our latter-day debates about standards, testing, privatization, and
vouchers. Here we see the nineteenth-century struggles, particularly by
Catholics, to obtain secular instruction free of a "nonsectarian" (read
Protestant) slant, and the fights, beginning in Boston in the mid-1800s, for
racial integration and equal treatment in public schools not only for African
Americans but for Latinos, American Indians, and, eventually, women. Many of
these stories--for example, the successful battle by Mexican-American students
and their parents in the late 1960s to end the blatant racism in the schools of
Crystal City, Texas, and get something approaching respect--go far beyond
educational issues: They're landmarks of American democracy.

The series devotes considerable attention to the controversies, particularly
in the first half of the twentieth century, over child-centered and
activity-focused progressive education--the first great model was in Gary,
Indiana, in 1906--and to the checkered career of intelligence testing and the
racial assumptions of those who pioneered it. It reminds us of the class-based
tracking of the elite into college-prep programs and others, mostly minorities
and the poor, into dead-end courses, thus revealing the dubious pedigree of most
aptitude testing. It also spends a lot of time covering the push for higher
standards and accountability that's marked much of the past two decades.

But perhaps the most telling element of the story--often neglected or even
disparaged in this era of multiculturalism--is the part on the acculturation of
the children of immigrants. School, says the literary critic Alfred Kazin in a
wonderful interview conducted not long before his death, was supposed to "get us
out of the barbarism of our immigrant background.... School made you love the
language." And throughout there are those wonderful photos: kids caning chairs at
John Dewey's lab school in Chicago (1900), students serving tea in a homemaking
class (1923), a "toothbrush drill" in a New York City school (1920), the
still-too-familiar clips of haters outside southern schoolhouse doors as the
first integrated black students are escorted through the mob.

All the bases are covered, either by the narration read by the actress Meryl
Streep and the accompanying photos, clips, letters, and recollections (these
days, it seems that Ken Burns is everywhere) or by the half-dozen talking heads,
most of them historians and critics of education, who appear on camera and have
contributed useful supplementary essays to the series' accompanying book (also
titled School).

Yet something is missing. the program ties each of its four
chronological eras to a theme. The section on 1950-1980, for instance, is about
integration and equal access. The part covering the past two decades focuses on
the testing-and-accountability movement, which the documentary not quite
accurately says began with A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report of President
Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education. In American education,
there are few entirely new issues: There is a circularity about our school
debates--something that the program's structure tends to conceal.

Neither the call for tougher standards--often issued in
crisis terms--nor the claim that schools are failing the country because they are
too academically flabby is anything new. In 1957, after the launching of Sputnik,
schools were blamed for not producing the scientists and engineers the nation
needed. If the schools didn't shape up, the Russians would beat our brains out in
the Cold War. A few decades later, A Nation at Risk described our schools'
alleged failures as unilateral economic disarmament; this time if they didn't
shape up, the Germans and Japanese would beat our brains out. Now, critics of
drill-and-kill instruction and high-stakes testing often echo progressive
criticism of education that has reverberated for more than a century and that in
some ways reflects a romantic sensibility about children that goes back at least
to Rousseau.

Beneath all that is a fundamental American ambivalence: Should we pursue
rigorous standards and unforgiving demands that kids and schools perform, or are
we committed to democratic inclusiveness and unlimited second chances? This
question, too, gets lost in School. The talking heads--from Chester Finn, Jr.,
and Diane Ravitch, thoughtful conservatives who served in the Reagan
administration, to writer and test critic Nicholas Lemann and Stanford University
historian Larry Cuban, both of whom are on the moderate left--reflect some of
that ambivalence, but somehow the interview excerpts that made it into the
program soften their differences. There seems to be a conscious preference for
smooth narrative over philosophical conflict.

Except for racism and the shortage of resources, we don't hear much about the
forces and attitudes that stand in the way of school-reform efforts: the
teachers' unions that have resisted differential pay, the seniority rules that
make it hard to assign experienced educators to underperforming schools, the
know-nothings who fight evolution and sex education and scour school libraries
for witches and signs of secular humanism, the local boosters who are not
altogether sure whether there's any need to make the high-school quarterback pass
algebra before he can play on Friday night, and the long and honored history of
an anti-intellectualism that never really had much use for anything that sought
to reward academic distinction.

Speaking about the similarity of earlier business demands that schools produce
a trained workforce and recent efforts of business leaders to institute
corporate-model accountability standards in schools and to impose test-centered
instruction, Cuban points to the recurrent themes in school reform. In his
supplementary essay, he raises a number of related questions: "Do schools geared
to preparing workers also build literate, active, and morally sensitive citizens
who carry out their civic duties? What happens when the economy hiccups,
unemployment increases, and graduates have little money to secure higher
education or find a job matched to their skills? Will public schools, now an arm
of the economy, get blamed--as they have in the past--for creating the mismatch?"
He concludes: "These basic questions, unasked by business-inspired reform
coalitions over the past century, go unanswered today."

As do many others. We are fighting over a lot of the same things in
education--race, religion, testing, standards--that, in one way or another, we've
fought over almost since the beginning. But this point gets buried in a narrative
sometimes afflicted with a passivity of tone that makes the progress of American
public education sound like a seamless whole rather than the messy, uncertain,
contentious thing it often is. Current debates about such issues as testing,
curricula, and phonics in the teaching of reading should have been more sharply
analyzed. Ravitch, our most articulate critic of progressivism, isn't really
allowed to state her case in this series. It would have been nice if she had.

Yet School's documentation of the progress that has been made is powerful and
moving: its periodic recording, for example, of the growth in school enrollment
over time and the increase in the number of years the average student stays in
school, and the stories of how hard Americans fought to create the free common
schools and then to ensure their children's right to attend and to be respected
regardless of race, gender, or class. All of this underscores a strong faith,
throughout much of our nation's history, in the centrality of the public school.
In their implicit contention that the institution is too casually maligned by
politicians and editorialists, Patton, Mondale, Bernard, and their colleagues
have succeeded admirably.

Although huge flaws and inequities remain in our educational system--in
resources, in achievement, in opportunity--the common school remains the
quintessential institution of our democracy. There is no real alternative. As
late as 1950, the average child didn't go past ninth grade; fewer than 14 percent
of blacks had a high-school diploma; kids in 17 southern states went to
segregated schools that were inherently unequal. A half-century later, we begin
to take at least the first two years of college almost as a matter of right for
all Americans.

Mann dreamed about "a free school system (that) knows no distinction." He
wrote: "Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer
of the conditions of men--the balance wheel of the social machinery." We aren't
there yet, but School reminds us of how far we've come. Surely a little
celebration is in order.

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