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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

A Nation of Learners: Nostalgia and Amnesia

Since early in this century critics have said that kids are getting dumb and dumber. In more recent decades, they blamed the schools for this perceived ineptitude and, by extension, for the declining competitiveness of our nation.

In The 13th Man, former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel Bell (1988) asked, wistfully, "How do we once again become a nation of learners, in which attitudes toward intellectual pursuit and quality of work have excellence at their core?" In penning these words, Bell, who served in the Reagan cabinet, exhibited two qualities common among would-be education reformers since World War II: nostalgia and amnesia. Exactly when was this Golden Age when we were a "nation of learners"?
We begin the search a century ago. At that time, we had a 3 percent high school graduation rate (it is now 83 percent—or 91 percent if those getting GEDs or returning from dropout status are included). We also had nothing that could be called a "system" of public secondary schools. To bring coherence to secondary education, the Committee of Ten—so called because it consisted of five university presidents and five school superintendents—met to decide what should be taught in high school and how. The committee saw the situation as grim:As things now are, the high school teacher finds in his pupils fresh from the grammar schools no foundation of elementary mathematical conceptions outside of arithmetic; no acquaintance with algebraic language; and no accurate knowledge of geometrical forms. As to botany, zoology, chemistry and physics, the minds of pupils entering the high school are ordinarily blank on these subjects. (Raubinger et al. 1969).What were kids doing in class to come up so short in science and math? Mostly they were engaging in recitations, one student at a time.

The Greatly Depressing

As the country eased into the Great Depression, secondary school enrollment climbed to 70 percent and the graduation rate to 25 percent. Still no nation of learners.
In 1932, one reform group maintained that "Most high school graduates are not competent in the use of the English language," and that "the high school diploma meant only that the student had done whatever was necessary to accumulate the required number of units" (Raubinger et al. 1969).
Enrollment increased during the Depression—where else could kids go?—but critics continued to find students wanting as scholars. In 1943, the New York Times, through Columbia University, conducted a national survey to see what students knew of geography and history. The journalists were horrified at the results:A large majority of the students showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history. They could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Theodore Roosevelt.... Most of the students do not have the faintest notion of what this country looks like. St. Louis was placed on the Pacific Ocean, St. Lawrence River, and almost every place else (Fine 1943).
Asked to identify Walt Whitman, "hundreds of students thought he was a band leader," the poet's name apparently calling to mind the popular jazz orchestra leader of that era—Paul Whiteman. On April 4, 1943, the Times plastered this story on page one, next to the other major headline of the day: "Patton Attacks East of El Guettar."
What made these results truly outrageous was the fact that the students tested were college freshmen. At the time, the high school graduation rate was about 45 percent, and of those graduates, only 15 percent went on to college. Thus the Gray Lady had uncovered not just a group of ignoramuses, but an elite group of ignoramuses. Some nation of learners.

Schools as the Culprit

The Times did not blame high schools for the students' shortcomings. The reporters assumed that the kids had once known all this stuff and simply forgotten it. The paper's attitude was typical. Up to the end of World War II, students' deficiencies were not, for the most part, linked to presumed deficiencies in their schools.
Between 1945 and 1957, however, critics fretting over student performance began to attribute learning problems to schools in decline. First, they assumed that secondary education would continue to expand toward universality. How could the schools cope with what were euphemistically referred to as "the new learners"? The psychology of the day held that intellectual abilities were inherited and distributed across the population in a bell-shaped curve. It would be inhumane, the argument went, to frustrate these new, lower ability students with the same challenging curriculum used for bright kids.
The result was "curriculum lite," or Life Adjustment Education, an honest attempt to cope with an ever diversifying clientele. Being intellectually empty, however, it became an easy target of derision, as seen in Arthur Bestor's Educational Wastelands: The Retreat From Learning in Public Schools (1953). Bestor contended (without evidence) that half a century ago, all high school students took Latin or Greek, whereas in 1953, only a quarter of students took any foreign language. Though a historian, Bestor failed to realize that 50 years earlier, only a small proportion of adolescents were even enrolled in high school.

Cold War Comparisons

Also contributing to criticism of the schools was the Cold War, which threatened to become a hot one at any time. Admiral and education reformer Hyman Rickover exhorted: "Let us never forget that there can be no second place in a contest with Russia and that there will be no second chance if we lose." For the first time, schools were seen as an integral part of national security. National security, in turn, rested in part on a newly developed concept, "manpower." We needed engineers, mathematicians, scientists, foreign language speakers. We were not getting them in sufficient numbers and of sufficient quality, while the Russians were. Thus we were in trouble. And schools were to blame.
When, in October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the school critics felt vindicated. "Everyone is aware today that our educational system has been allowed to deteriorate," Rickover wrote in 1958. Early that same year, Life magazine called attention to the "Crisis in Education" in a four-part series comparing U.S. and Soviet educational systems. The cover of the first installment featured student Alexei Kutzkov staring sternly at the reader from Moscow, while in Chicago, student Stephen Lapekas greeted the reader with an easy smile. In school, Kutzkov was shown conducting complicated experiments in physics and chemistry, even reading aloud from Sister Carrie in English class. Lapekas, by contrast, was shown mostly in easygoing social settings. In the one picture of Lapekas doing schoolwork, he is laughing after attempting a math problem at the chalkboard. "Stephen amused his classmates with wisecracks about his ineptitude," the caption read.
Life brought in novelist Sloan Wilson to write a cover essay on the state of affairs in American schools. Wilson echoed Rickover, reciting a litany of conditions that had declined (again, with no real data). "The diploma has been devaluated to the point of meaninglessness," he declared, acknowledging the basic humanity of Life Adjustment Education, but blaming it for the degeneration of our schools into a system "for coddling and entertaining the mediocre."
Our schools would never really recover from Sputnik. In the '60s and '70s, they were blamed for failing to solve a multitude of social problems. In 1989, Lawrence Cremin, the eminent education historian, noted that the expansion of schooling after World War II "has been nothing short of phenomenal." He observed that the proportion of persons holding diplomas had more than doubled, while the proportion of those with college degrees had tripled. And yet, he said, this expansion of schooling "seemed to bring with it a pervasive sense of failure." The question would have to be "Why?" indeed, the contention of a decline was surely not supported by SAT scores and achievement test trends. Achievement test scores were high in 1955 and they continued to rise to record levels until 1965. The number of students taking the SAT had grown from 10,654 in 1941 (the first year of its contemporary format) to almost a half million by 1958. And still the SAT scores gave no hint of their impending fall.

Blind to the Rebound

Beginning around 1965, a number of education indicators did decline for about a decade, then reversed themselves and climbed to new highs. People noticed the decline, but not the rebound. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen reflected the common belief when he wrote that "during the Reagan-Bush years, the country got dumber on just about every test the kids could take." In fact, test scores rose virtually every year from 1975 to 1988, when they flattened out at all-time highs. Even the SAT, adjusted for the changing demographics of the test-takers (using the old scale), has been rising since 1975.
Observers—and, most prominently, Terrel Bell—had simply gotten used to thinking the decline was continuing. As Secretary of Education, Bell assembled the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which was charged not with examining what the data actually said, but with documenting all the terrible things Bell knew were happening. Bell admitted this straightforwardly in the commission's 1983 book, which was a masterpiece of prop-aganda. It was called A Nation at Risk.
A more selective use of data is hard to imagine. For example, the book declared that "There was a steady decline in the science achievement of 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments." This was true. But if one asks "Why science?" and "Why 17-year-olds?" one gets an unsettling answer: was the only trend that sustained the report's crisis rhetoric. The science scores for 9- and 13-year-olds did not drop. For reading and math, the national assessment scores at all three ages were slightly up. Of nine trends (three ages times three subjects), only one showed a "steady decline." The commission picked that one to publish. (One other showed a slight decline.)

Endangering Economic Health

According to A Nation at Risk, things were worse in 1983 than when Sputnik had ascended to the heavens 26 years earlier. That, in itself, would have been bad enough, but Risk also laid out a new responsibility for the schools. Not only were they important to national defense, but they also made us internationally competitive: Lousy schools were producing a lousy work force and this was killing us in the global marketplace. Amazingly, people readily accepted the virtually nonexistent connection between schools and the economic health of the nation. Cremin saw it for the hoax it was:American economic competitiveness with Japan and other nations is to a considerable degree a function of monetary, trade, and industrial policy, and of decisions made by the President and Congress, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Federal Departments of the Treasury, Commerce and Labor. Therefore, to conclude that problems of international competitiveness can be solved by educational reform, especially educational reform defined solely as school reform, is not merely utopian and millennialist, it is at best a foolish and at worst a crass effort to direct attention away from those truly responsible for doing something about competitiveness and to lay the burden instead on the schools. It is a device that has been used repeatedly in the history of American education (Cremin 1989).
The cover of the March 1996 issue of Fortune documented the truth of Cremin's conclusion. That cover featured Alan Greenspan's face with the words, "It's His Economy, Stupid." Still, many people, including educators, accepted the book's allegation and the schools suffered accordingly. When the economy went south in the late 1980s, the schools shouldered the blame. When the economy came roaring back around 1994, schools got none of the credit for the recovery. The critics continued to flog the schools, now including the "failure" of school reform enacted since A Nation at Risk was released. Of course, if schools were still failing, and if schools were connected to the economy, the recovery would have been impossible in the first place.
Another case in point is the media's reaction to the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (National Center for Education Statistics 1996), which reported on the math and science abilities of American 8th graders compared to their peers from other countries. When these results first appeared this past November, most media accentuated the negative: the slightly below average mathematics ranks and scores, rather than the slightly above average science ranks and scores. The Louisville Courier-Journal, for example, devoted 15 paragraphs to mathematics and to science. As is typical in such stories, the Courier-Journal's headline used the word blame.
Only the New York Times and a few other newspapers published balanced stories with neutral headlines. The Times observed that the survey reflected neither the most extreme proclamations of persistent educational decline that have become a part of the political landscape, nor the hopes of some educators that a decade of education "reform" would have produced more striking gains... (Applebome 1996).
I could find no article that pointed out that even slightly below average mathematics outcomes represented a significant improvement over last year's results, when American students ranked 14th of 15 countries. One suspects that if educators ever tested American and Japanese students and the Americans outscored their Japanese counterparts, the headlines would read, "Japanese Students Second; Americans Next to Last."
And so it continues. Recently, I addressed the Second Education Summit, organized by IBM CEO Louis V. Gerstner. Virginia Governor George Allen was also a featured speaker, and he turned to me as he quoted Gerstner: "We can teach them work skills. What's killing us is having to teach them to read." Gerstner and Allen apparently had not noticed that in a comparison of 31 nations, American students had finished second in reading, and that the top U.S. readers—our 90th, 95th, and 99th percentiles—were the best in the world.
And so it will go, I imagine. Presidential candidate Bob Dole was not the only one feeding the fantasy that there was a time, oh, once there was a time.... The tendency to look back not in anger but in longing has been documented generally by Robert J. Samuelson in The Good Life and Its Discontents (1995). Samuelson argues that we have come to expect so much, we are dissatisfied with the lesser, but very real, progress reflected by indicators of social health. Ditto for schools—in spades.
Looking across the century from the Committee of Ten to the present, one sees, save for that decade from 1965 to 1975, an almost continuous upturn in educational opportunity and performance. But people have gotten so used to blaming schools—for anything. The 1993 Adult Literacy Survey divided the results into five levels of literacy, and people, especially media people, clucked over how many adults were in the bottom two levels. They also rebuked the schools for this disgrace.
What the media had failed to notice was that many of these people were not born in the United States, or didn't speak English as their native language, or were old enough to never have gone to high school, or had dropped out of high school, or had visual or other physical or mental impairments so severe that they could not cope with text. Well, if you can blame the schools for people being old or foreign or infirm, you can blame them for anything. And I reckon people will. But, oh, there was a time....

Applebome, P. (November 21, 1996). "U.S. Gets 'Average' Grades in Math and Science." The New York Times, p. 1.

Bell, T. (1988). The 13th Man. New York: Free Press.

Bestor, A. (1953). Educational Wastelands: The Retreat From Learning in Public Schools. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.

Cremin, L. (1989). Popular Education and its Discontents. New York: Harper&Row.

Fine, B. (April 4, 1943). "Ignorance in U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen." The New York Times, p. 1.

National Center for Education Statistics. (November 20, 1996). "Pursuing Excellence: U.S. Eighth Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Perspective." Washington, D.C.: The National Library of Education.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Raubinger, F.M., H.G. Rowe, D.L. Piper, and C.K. West. (1969). The Development of Secondary Education. Toronto: Collier McMillan.

Samuelson, R.J. (1995). The Good Life and Its Discontents. New York: Temer Books.

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