Reforming Education — No Quick Fix

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Reforming education in the way that the Paideia proposal recommends cannot be accomplished in a short time. An adequate reform of basic schooling in this country cannot be a quick fix — in a future as short as the next few years. I hope I am not unduly optimistic if I say that it probably can become a recognizable reality in this country sometime before this century reaches its midpoint.

When I state all the obstacles that must be surmounted and the radical changes in our educational establishment that must take place before the Paideia reform can be substantially accomplished, the reader may not feel as optimistic as I do. In any event I trust he will agree that a quick fix is out of the question.

The two major obstacles to reform have been mentioned elsewhere. One is the persistent failure of educators to recognize that a proportionate equality of results can be achieved when children who differ markedly in the degree of their educability are given the same quality or kind of schooling. The other is the persistent refusal of the educational establishment to replace the scheme of grading that puts a student in his or her niche on the bell-shaped curve by an assessment of the student’s achievement wholly in terms of that student’s capacity without reference to any other individual’s achievement.

When comparative and competitive grading is replaced by individual and proportionate grading, it will no longer seem unreasonable and impractical to have the less able and more able students engage in exactly the same course of study. Even the preposterous charge that the Paideia program is elitist will disappear, because that charge stems from the disbelief that the objectives the Paideia proposal sets can be fulfilled by the less able students. Once it is understood that the fulfillment will be proportionate, such disbelief will be overcome.

The obduracy of these two obstacles is reinforced by the educational mandates enacted by state legislatures that specify the amount of ground to be covered in various subject matters and by their uncritical, almost superstitious, reliance on the scores students achieve in standardized tests, mainly tests of memorized information. For the educational establishment as well as for the state guardians of schools, test scores are treated as indications of the extent to which the required ground covering has been done. But they are also usually regarded as educationally significant. However, while they may be prognostic of a child’s ability to get through school, passing from one grade to another, or from one level of schooling to another, they do not provide us with an appraisal of the child’s progress in the long process of becoming a generally educated human being — the advance made toward a more skillful, thoughtful, and cultivated mind.

These same obstacles are also reinforced at the high school level by college entrance requirements that put undue reliance on standardized test scores as measures of adequate ground covering in specified subject matters. If the twelve years of basic schooling were, with the Paideia reform, to become a first step in the general, liberal, and humanistic education of the growing individual, many high school graduates, thus trained and cultivated, would have no need to go to college for the kind of specialized technical, preprofessional or preoccupational training that most of our colleges now provide. Since only some students go on from high school to college, college entrance requirements should not be allowed to stand in the way of Paideia’s plan to give all students in high school the same quality of general schooling.

Still other obstacles exist. Many parents have the wrong expectation of the profit to be derived from schooling. They think that the only purpose of schools is to prepare their children to earn a living. While that certainly is an objective to be served, it is, in terms of human values, less important than preparation for citizenship and for leading a richly rewarding, good human life. Even with regard to earning a living, most parents do not understand that in our high-tech economy, preparation for earning a good living is more readily secured by those who can read, write, speak, and figure well and who have learned how to think critically and reflectively, rather than by those given specialized job training in vocational training courses.

If all these obstacles were somehow to be removed, we would still be left with the inadequate preparation of teachers to perform the tasks set by the Paideia reform. They come from schools or departments of education with the minimum education and training they need to be certified by the states, but that bare minimum is definitely not enough for most of them to be effective coaches of the basic intellectual skills. They may be totally in the dark when it comes to the kind of teaching that is involved in Socratically conducted seminars about great or good and always difficult books dealing with basic ideas and issues.

A report of the Carnegie Foundation recommended the abolition of the undergraduate bachelor of science degree in education leading to the state certification of teachers. Schools of education should become research institutions at the graduate level of the university and not places for the training of schoolteachers. Those planning to enter the profession of teaching should have four years of general, liberal education at the college level, and then three years of practice teaching under supervision. They, too, need coaching if they are to develop the intellectual skills involved in teaching and also learning, for the best teacher is one who learns in the process of teaching.

To become an effective Socratic conductor of seminars, to become an effective coach of the intellectual skills, and to become a didactic teacher who not only lectures effectively but is also able to engage students in discussion, takes a long time even for those who have had a better education and training than most of our teachers have experienced. In schools that have opened their doors to Paideia, where we have attempted to do something about the enlightenment and training of the teachers, progress is slow. We are compelled to counsel patience and persistence. Teachers must be prepared to accept the amount of time it will take for them to feel comfortable in their new roles.

Finally, the reigning values of our society are hardly congenial to the objectives of the Paideia reform. The pay of teachers must become competitive with that of other equally demanding occupations. The professional status of the schoolteacher must be given the respect of the community in the same measure as that given other professions. Above all, money-making and other external indices of social success must become subordinate to the inner attainments of moral and intellectual virtue. The educational revolution that Paideia is trying to promote must be accompanied and supported by revolutions in other institutional aspects of society. For that to occur, ample time must be allowed.

We are thus led to the conclusion that an adequate reform of public education in our school system cannot be accomplished by anything like a quick fix. We suspect that anyone who thinks otherwise cannot fully understand the shape of an adequate reform or all the obstacles to be overcome in achieving it.

A recent U.S. Secretary of education is just one among many who suffer the illusion that a desirable reform of our schools can be accomplished in a few years — if only principals and teachers would enthusiastically accept their recommendations and follow them to the letter. That illusion is evidence of the deep chasm that exists between what they think of as desirable reforms and what the Paideia program outlines as a radical reform of basic schooling from kindergarten through grade twelve and a reconstitution of the whole process of teaching and learning If an adequate educational reform cannot be a quick fix, and if it takes the better part of two generations to achieve it, we cannot avoid the practical questions: that being the case, what should we do? Give up in despair because our hopes cannot be quickly and easily realized? Or do something even if it consists only in the first steps that must be taken in a long march toward that goal?

Well, suppose we wished to travel to a place that was a hundred miles away. Suppose that terminus was so highly desirable for us that we were unwilling to give it up. And suppose there was no way of getting there except by walking. What should we do? On those assumptions, the only answer is: start walking tomorrow in the right direction, and keep on walking day after day.

What would be the analogy in an educational reform — a first step toward the distant realization of the Paideia ideal? It is something I have called the Wednesday Revolution. It consists in taking three hours from the thirty classroom hours a week at all levels of schooling from the third grade to the twelfth, and in those three hours each week having all or most of the teachers in the school engage in two activities: (1) Socratically conducted seminars, and (2) coaching of reading, writing, and speaking.

An hour and a half approximately should be devoted to each. Whatever else the school is engaged in should be relegated to the other twenty-seven hours. The three-hour Wednesday Revolution may actually occur on Wednesday, but it may take place on any other day of the week.

Where this has been done in schools that have welcomed Paideia, the results have been heartening. The combination of seminars and coaching does more than increase an understanding of basic ideas and issues. It has demonstrable effects on the ability of students to read difficult books; in fact, it is only by struggling with difficult books, books over one’s head, that anyone learns to read.

The effects on other intellectual skills — writing, speaking, thinking — are also manifest. Most important of all is the effect on teachers. They find reading the books assigned and conducting the seminar discussions intellectually refreshing and exciting, as compared with the boredom they usually experience with the repetition of the lesson plans that guide their didactic teaching of subject matters.

The Wednesday Revolution is easier to install in the elementary grades from three to eight than it is in the four years of secondary school. That is because of the departmentalization, the specialization, and the electives that dominate the high school scene. Secondary school principals think it impossible to satisfy all their constituents with anything less than a full schedule of thirty hours a week. They do not know how to free up three hours for seminars and coaching — activities that have nothing whatsoever to do with subject-matter instruction.

One suggestion that some of my Paideia associates have made to high school principals was anticipated many years ago in an address I delivered to the National Council of Teachers of English entitled “What Is Basic About English?” In that address I recommended that teachers in the English departments of our secondary schools should restore the liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (which the teaching of English replaced in the secondary curriculum) by devoting half of their teaching time to coaching students in the skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. The other half of their teaching time should be devoted to conducting seminars, for these great or important books should be read and discussed in a two-hour session around a seminar table, not in an ordinary classroom.

The books to be read should not be limited to those written in English. This should not become a course in English literature — its novels, plays, lyrics, and essays. Instead it should be devoted to the great works of history, biography, philosophy, theology, natural science, social science, and mathematics, as well as the great works of fiction in the whole tradition of Western literature — in English translation, of course. Its aim should not be a survey of Western civilization, but an effort to understand the basic ideas and issues in Western thought.

Every seminar should involve at its conclusion the assignment of a short composition in which students would attempt to state how their understanding of the book discussed in the seminar was increased by their participation in the discussion. That composition should be corrected and rewritten until it is well done.

This is the primary job that should be done by English teachers in our high schools. If it were done and if high school principals could also persuade some of their history and their social science teachers to join in this effort with their English teachers, at least in the seminar part of it, that would be the way to initiate the most important part of the Paideia reform in our secondary schools, as the Wednesday Revolution is the way to do the same thing in our elementary schools, from the third to the eighth grade.

The Wednesday Revolution is only a first step in the right direction. But if taken, and if, as the wedge of the Paideia reform, it has the effect of making the principal and teachers of a school, and also its students, parents, and school board, more receptive to other aspects of the complete Paideia program, then the ultimate consummation, though it may still be far off, will tend to become a more and more practicable ideal rather than what it is for most people now — a utopian dream.

It is not only a practicable ideal, it is a practical necessity. In the middle of the last century, when a constitutional democracy in this country was still a hundred years away, Horace Mann wrote:

The establishment of a republican government without well-appointed and efficient means for the universal education of the people is the most rash and foolhardy experiment ever tried by man.

How much truer that statement is today when we now have universal suffrage! Not only the prosperity of our high-tech economy but, even more so, the well-being of our political democracy depends upon the reconstitution of our schools. Our schools are not turning out young people prepared for the high office and the duties of citizenship in a democratic republic. Our political institutions cannot thrive, they may not even survive, if we do not produce a greater number of thinking citizens, from whom some statesmen of the type we had in the eighteenth century might eventually emerge. We are, indeed, a nation at risk, and nothing but radical reform of our schools can save us from impending disaster.

Whatever the price we must pay in money and effort to do this, the price we will pay for not doing it will be much greater.

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