Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bring back the bad old days

Disparate circumstances account for this week’s post. The first is that President Obama, in his recent “State of the Union” address briefly touched in interesting ways upon some questions relating to higher education—the “field” in which I made my career. The second is that I awoke to a snowbound world. Very little is moving yet. The University is actually closed, except for “critical activities”, a category that does not include any classroom teaching, let alone my usual matutinal swim. So I am home, where I shall no doubt remain, especially as the blizzard is supposed to continue through much of the day.

President Obama announced his plans to make higher education more accessible to more young people. Like other proposals in the speech this one stimulated a certain amount of secondary commentary. One strand of commentary—which I have now seen in several versions—is that “higher education should be a right, not a privilege.” There is a parallel here with the claim that has emerged during the current “health care debate”: that for Americans health care should be a right and not a privilege. The concept of higher education as an American birthright, is a fascinating one, and I shall hope to address it within the next month or so. In my opinion, however, there is an obvious prior question.

American higher education is one of the wonders of the modern world. In an age when American manufactured goods are rapidly disappearing from competitive world markets, our colleges and universities remain the envy of the nations. There is probably not a graduate engineering program in this country that could stay in business without its large cohort of foreign engineering students, especially from places like China and India, the very places that are our most ferocious industrial competitors. It takes only half a minute’s reflection to see that there is as much bad news as good news in those enrollment statistics; so for the moment concentrate on the good.

But first things first. There are at present no laws mandating higher education in America, whereas laws in every state establish a requirement of universal public education for children. And when we turn to primary and secondary public education, it is an entirely different story. The proper context here is the cohort of advanced industrial nations, and within it American public education rates somewhere between the mediocre and the pathetic. It was indeed apparent to me for the last several decades of my teaching career that one of the most pressing problems in American higher education was the quality of American secondary education. Before we start worrying too much about whether every American needs a college education, we might do well to try to guarantee that they get a high-school education.

The principal engine of American success has been education. Obviously our colleges and universities here play a great role, but not in fact the greatest. The greatest role has been played by our system of public schools in creating a large educated population. Both of my parents were high school graduates. They often spoke of themselves, in terms of pride, as high school graduates. All that seems like a vanished age. I cannot actually remember the last time I heard anyone say with pride, “I am a high school graduate”. For the truth of the matter is that the concept of the “high school diploma” is increasingly meaningless. My parents knew some Latin. They had studied history, and especially American history, with some breadth. They remembered some algebra. Above all they knew how to read and write the English language. My father, a manual worker all his life, had beautiful “penmanship”, and I treasure the few pieces of his handwriting that have survived. They had read some Shakespeare plays, and knew why Shakespeare might still be important.

As an English professor at Princeton I had the opportunity actually to teach English and American literature to students who, for the most part, were eager to study it and prepared to do so. That was a luxury at least half the English professors in this country do not have. Most of what is taught in the first two years of “college English” in many institutions, and all of what is taught in some, is elementary work that used to be expected of any sixth grader. Remember that fact the next time your local school board boasts about how many computers they have put in the high school. It is quite possible to graduate from high school in this country without having the slightest idea of what an independent clause might be.

I am not really a military history buff, but I do try to read everything that appears in the wonderful “Library of America,” and thus a few years ago I read the memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman was born in 1820 on the frontier in the Western Reserve. He graduated from West Point in 1840, and immediately took up his varied and adventurous career in the military service of the maturing Republic, the most famous episode of which was destined to be the march “from Atlanta to the sea” in the late autumn of 1864.

The book is beautifully written in forceful, unpretentious, limpid prose. Where did this man of action, who spent so much of his life in the saddle or in rough bivouacs, whose chief literary production for most of his life consisted in bureaucratic reports and military communiqu├ęs, develop such a distinguished style? Well, he was in the first place a voracious reader, especially (we are told) a reader of the English Bible, of Shakespeare, of the great classical and eighteenth-century historians (Livy, Gibbon), and of the great contemporary novelists—meaning, at mid-century, Charles Dickens or Herman Melville. Sherman was in fact a college graduate—he graduated sixth out of a class of forty-three at West Point—but he got his essential education in primary and secondary schools in the backwoods of Lancaster, Ohio in the 1830s. What did Sherman study in his rustic academy, described as “the best in the place; indeed as good a school as any in Ohio”? Mathematics, chemistry, physical theory, geography (including navigation and cartography), and accounting, among other things. “We studied all the common branches of knowledge,” writes Sherman, “including Latin, Greek, and French.”

At that time Lancaster, Ohio, was a frontier outpost on the edge of a wilderness still largely occupied by Indians. Sherman was describing the experience of youngsters of the age of thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen. “At first the school was kept by Mr. Parsons; he was succeeded by Mr. Brown, and he by two brothers, Samuel and Mark How. These were all excellent teachers…” Perhaps our educational system could do with a little less “progress”? I recommend some thoughtful, targeted regression.