Teaching and Learning
Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School.
by Theodore Sizer.
Houghton-Mifflin. 320 pp. $16.95.
Besieged and benumbed as we already are by proliferating studies of American education, we might fairly wonder what could possibly justify another one. Yet even after nearly two years of commission reports, task forces, presidential hoopla, gubernatorial activism, and a thousand solemn conferences, Theodore Sizer’s book is, initially, a refreshing addition to the literature.
For one thing, it acknowledges and celebrates the existence of private schools, institutions which educate more than four million children but which were banished from the pages of all the recent reports on education. For another thing, it is written primarily from the standpoint of the teacher and the student, rather than from atop some public-policy pinnacle, and its glimpses into actual schools and classrooms are far more realistic—and sympathetic—than those offered by the competition. What is more, the prose is brisk, clean, and nearly free of “educationese.”
Unfortunately, it is also nearly free of educational content. As with a fizzy drink made from chemical sweeteners, the initial refreshment is not accompanied by much nutrition. The compromising Horace of the title turns out not to be the great Roman poet and satirist so well-remembered by veterans of fourth-year Latin, but one Horace Smith, a fifty-three-year-old suburban high-school English teacher who moonlights at a liquor store. His compromise—a real and painful one skillfully drawn by Sizer—is the balance he has struck between the bottomless instructional needs of his too numerous students and what he is able to supply within the constraints of fifty-minute periods and twenty-four-hour days. Horace is no loafer: as Sizer makes clear, he is in fact an exemplary teacher, severely limited in his pedagogical effectiveness by the circumstances within which he must function.
Such problems are real enough and deeply frustrating to the dedicated teacher. Five classes a day of thirty or so youngsters each; students who function at many different levels of ability, preparation, and motivation; short class periods punctuated by announcements, messengers, and record-keeping—this can be pretty discouraging to the person who became an English instructor because he loved literature and wanted to initiate children into its joys.
We instinctively empathize with Horace and want to alter his school both so that he will be able to accomplish more and so that he and others like him will want to continue teaching, mindful as we are that the alternative is a cadre of practitioners entering the classroom not because they love their subjects but because they weren’t smart enough, ambitious enough, or well-enough educated to get better jobs.
But empathy is not enough. The book’s troubles begin with the matter of exactly what Horace’s students are supposed to end up knowing. What should be the content of a good secondary education? This is never a trivial question, and especially not at the present time, when the intense interest being paid to school reform by governors, legislatures, boards of regents, business leaders, even university presidents, has created a rare opportunity to turn the smorgasbord of elective courses in family living and revolutionary movements into some semblance of an orderly curriculum.
Yet Sizer declines to prescribe content. Worse, he comes very close to arguing that the choice of content does not really much matter, that any book or fact or problem or event is as suitable as any other—at least in the hands of a gifted teacher—for coaching an eager pupil in the necessary intellectual plays.
Horace’s Compromise is indeed splendid on “cognitive skills,” both the simple ones (decoding words on a page, handling number problems) and the important advanced ones like abstract reasoning, clear exposition, and analysis. It borrows heavily from Mortimer Adler’s The Paideia Proposal1 and displays comparable sophistication about the nature of various intellectual processes and the pedagogical approaches most apt to develop them. Anyone successfully completing the required part of a secondary education designed by Theodore Sizer would have gained a lot more skills than most high-school students acquire today, and would in that sense be better prepared to cope with the challenges of further education and of modern life.
But he would know very little about the society he was entering, about its heritage, its works of art, its internal tensions or its external threats. He would have acquired little or none of what E. D. Hirsch, Jr. has termed “cultural literacy.”
This bobtailed education results from an insidious combination: Sizer’s beatification of pedagogy itself—the act of teaching—together with a relative indifference to curriculum content, and his minimalist view of “the essential claims of the state” with respect to education. Those claims, he insists, are precisely three: literacy, numeracy, and “civic understanding,” the last a welcome addition here defined as “a grasp of the basis for consensual democratic government, a respect for its processes, and acceptance of the restraints and obligations incumbent on a citizen.” But that is as far as Sizer goes, at least in compulsory education. “Once those minima are demonstrably reached,” he says, “the state has no right whatsover to compel a citizen to attend school” or “to compel her or him to learn anything else.” All subsequent education would thus be voluntary—available, even enticing, but optional.
This vision is as audaciously attractive as it is outrageously inadequate. It may be possible to shrink most of the problems that beset American secondary education by eliminating all youngsters who meet Sizer’s “minima” and thereupon decide they have had enough of schooling. And there is no denying that too many people today—working in offices, wandering the streets, and sitting in college classrooms, as well as those still in school—never do attain minimum levels of much of anything. But do the “claims” of society upon its children really stop short of Shakespeare, Emerson, and Frost, of Plato, Locke, and Marx, of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt? Leaving aside entirely the demands of technological literacy and scientific competency, are we really prepared to conclude, with Sizer, that history, literature, and philosophy are, strictly speaking, electives, and that the entire heritage of Western civilization is merely an educational option, lying outside the domain of that which the society may reasonably oblige its youngest members to learn? Is it really an “abuse of state power,” as Sizer suggests, to require teenagers not only to ponder the implications of the Bill of Rights (which he sensibly advises as a basic text for “civic understanding”) but also to read a bit of Melville, a little Conrad, a smidgen of Longfellow, to examine the conceptions of justice and morality in To Kill a Mockingbird or the wellsprings of character in Abe Lincoln Grows Up?
To be sure, Sizer does not rule out the possibility of such study. He merely excludes it from the compulsory part of education. In truth, his idealized high school, trimmed down to four departments, with far fewer students per teacher, and with the day vastly more flexible than at present, is a beguiling notion, as are his suggestions for the virtual exclusion of vocational training and the deemphasis on athletics and other extracurricular activities. Himself a historian, teacher, and former high-school headmaster (as well as one-time dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education), Sizer depicts a school that would be far more intellectually challenging than most are today. It would be a school populated by outstanding teachers free from the harassments of meddlesome administrators, and by motivated, spontaneously well-behaved students who have already acquired the essential skills and are continuing their studies because they want to.
Some critics have suggested that this imaginary school looks awfully like Phillips Academy, the superb private school that Sizer previously headed. The implication is that Horace’s Compromise suffers from an advanced case of educational elitism. In fact, I believe, the opposite may be more true: the book reflects an extraordinarily optimistic, even romantic, neoprogressivism that is slightly reminiscent of A.S. Neill and Summerhill. Sizer appears to believe both that youngsters will only learn that which they want to learn when they are motivated to learn it and that, given the right institutional circumstances, practically all youngsters will eventually want to learn practically everything that adults might want them to.
Sizer’s feeling for adolescents is deep and sensitive, and his portraits of them as individuals are vivid and affectionate. He correctly points out that a number of schools, blindly following regulations specifying what must be “covered” in-which courses, engage in the utter folly—and unintentional cruelty—of handing an eight-hundred-page world history textbook to “Dennis,” a tenth grader who has never really learned to read; that many a “Miss Romagna” never engages the intellectual participation of “Melissa”; and that it is far too common for “Mr. Brody,” slightly intimidated by his students, to enter into a “Conspiracy for the Least” with them, whereby the teacher makes practically no demands and in return the youngsters refrain from hassling him. But the assumption that seems to underlie the entire book is that (except for those pupils with chronic discipline problems, whom Sizer rightly insists be sent out of school) the institutional arrangements of the high school should accommodate themselves to the impulses and anxieties of the teenage population rather than the knowledge and priorities of the adults who presumably have something to teach. Sizer is ostentatiously non-judgmental about the students, reporting calmly on his observation of drug deals, libidinous displays, even some ugly peer behavior, in the schools he has visited. The only adolescent trait he explicitly condemns is “docility.”
Since the dawn of the 20th century, American education has been riven by two competing approaches: molding the child to the standards and expectation of the school, or shaping the school to the interests and enthusiasms of the student. Horace’s Compromise does not fall completely into the latter camp; indeed, one suspects that Horace Smith himself would be uncomfortable there. But it is there that the author’s sincere reformist zeal appears to focus, and it is in this crucial respect that Sizer differs from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, from most other contemporary school critics, and certainly from the lay boards and elected officials who are now striving to strengthen the educational systems of their states and communities.
Sizer, too, will have a chance to put his ideas into practice. He is moving to Brown University (an institution whose undergraduate curriculum is celebrated for its lack of requirements) to head the education department and, from that perch, to organize a network of public and private high schools that will voluntarily transform themselves into places where Horace will have to make fewer and less painful compromises. We should wish Sizer and Horace Smith well. We should even consider sending our children to their schools, for the teaching there will be superb and the students will all be eager. But will any of them be motivated to read the poems written two millennia ago by the other Horace? And if not, will any of them be obliged to do so, on the grounds that there are some things every educated person ought to know?
1 See the review by Samuel Lipman, COMMENTARY, January 1983—Ed.