Wednesday, July 6, 2022 Jul 6, 2022
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Old ideas on education-no thanks to Gary Hart
By Lee Cullum |

NOT SO MANY weeks ago, when Gary Hart was first flushed from the warm winds of unexpected victory, he appeared on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshourfor a long interview. The most curious moments occurred when Robert MacNeil explored the question of Hart’s candidacy as a contrived recollection of John F. Kennedy. Hart said, “There are no similarities between now and 1960.”

He couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, the similarities are striking. Kennedy, the youngest president in our history, came to power just as the oldest man to occupy the White House at that point was leaving. Like Reagan, Eisenhower enjoyed an enormous reservoir of good will and could easily have won re-election. (Paradoxically, the political lesson of those days could be construed to favor either Reagan or Hart, especially if the young senator from Colorado begins to show some substance.)

There was considerable talk in 1960 about a “missile gap,” although in those days it was Kennedy the Democrat-not Eisenhower the Republican-who warned that the Soviet Union was winning the arms race. The nation was just coming out of a recession 24 years ago, but it wasn’t nearly as agonizing as our recent bloodletting. Kennedy was an economic innovator who tried tax cuts to prime the pump. Does this sound familiar?

If Hart weren’t so preoccupied with creating himself and the world anew-if he would attend to the history of his own times -perhaps he would see how cyclical life is. We deal with the same themes over and over again. Only the variations are different.

Take public education. I haven’t heard Hart’s new ideas on this beleaguered subject, but H. Ross Perot is proposing some old approaches that have worked before and that can work again if they are given a chance and are backed by enough money.

By far the most important proposal to come from Perot’s Select Committee on Public Education is the abolition of vocational training from high schools and a renewed emphasis on an academic curriculum. If we’re going to transmit our values from one generation to the next, it can only be done through the inculcation of language, literature, history, mathematics, arts and sciences-in short, of culture, which carries the accumulated experience of our people over the centuries.

In the heart of Jerusalem stands the Dome of the Rock, a magnificent mosque that is sacred to the Arabs and that represents for them a pinnacle of architectural achievement. Built in the seventh century, when all of Europe had literally forgotten how to construct the fantastic domes of the Romans (Fi-lippo Brunelleschi wouldn’t recover this knowledge for his part of the world until the 15th century in Florence), the mosque reminds us how fragile learning can be.

The Arabs were a brilliant people who lost their culture-some say because they put aside pure research and only pursued practical applications of what they already knew. Every generation must seek its own truth, and that opportunity can’t be closed to the many yet open to the few without serious damage to the whole. Eliminating state funds for vocational training in public schools will free up time and resources for the essential task of transmitting our values to all of our children.

Doing away with the elected State Board of Education appears to be another excellent act of abolition proposed by the Perot panel, especially when you remember that this Board of Education is the same group that approves textbooks for Texas schools. It hasn’t always done the most enlightened job of it, particularly in the area of science. Here there seems to be only a shaky understanding that the best educational policy is to render unto Darwin (and his formidable scientific critics) the things that are Darwin’s and render unto courses in the history of religion the critical documents of that equally (if not more) important study. Taken together, we hope they would add up to a thoughtful consideration of human life in all its vexing complexities. Maybe a smaller state board, appointed by the governor, would make more sense on this issue.

An idea that’s been around for years in Europe but that has never gained support in Texas is education for 4-year-olds. Under the Perot plan, enrollment of 4-year-olds would be voluntary, but it’s hard to imagine a family that wouldn’t want to take advantage of this opportunity. We’ve known for a long time that learning patterns are set in the early years; we’ve just never done anything about it. Now is our chance.

It’s a relief to see that the Perot panel didn’t dwell on “computer literacy,” an oxymoron that denies students the very thing it seems to promise: access to ideas. Ernest Boyer writes persuasively in his book, High School, about the absurdity of district superintendents spending a fortune on computer hardware when they haven’t the foggiest notion of what to do with it.

Boyer suggests that students use computers in the same way the real world uses them: as tools where they can really help- in the library, for instance. David Hicks, headmaster of St. Mark’s School of Texas, repeats the same theme when he says that students could learn a great deal about clean, clear writing and editing from working with word processors. The point is that if the computer is going to contribute to learning, it has to be subordinate to the material being taught. The medium is not the message. It never was.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the success of the Perot program rides on teachers and principals. Perhaps the most significant move made by the Select Committee toward finding better teachers is the recommendation that school districts be allowed to hire faculty members who don’t have education degrees but who can show that they know their subjects. If higher salaries can be added to this new hiring freedom, we might see substantially improved faculties in our public schools.

As for Gary Hart, he said on MacNeil/ Lehrerthat we have a “new generation of problems.” Wrong again. We’re dealing with many of the same old problems. And one of the most persistent is how to educate our children. We’ve tried every method, from learning can be fun to fun must be mandatory. Maybe this time we’ll get it right.

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