The Educational Goals of James B. Conant1
James Bryant Conant, formerly president of Harvard, has been speaking and writing about public schools for nearly two decades. Since his return from Germany, where he was Eisenhower’s High Commissioner and then Ambassador to Bonn, he has been engaged, with the help of a staff paid by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, in an extended study of American public secondary education. This study has produced four short books of rather dry, dehumanized comment and prescription. Slums and Suburbs is in this respect several cuts above its predecessors. Like the others, it is bloodless and condescending, terribly concerned about society, school administrators, and guidance counselors rather than about the education of children. But it does approach reality: Dr. Conant is genuinely shocked by the conditions of life in the slums, and genuinely irritated by the complacency of suburbanites. Where The American High School Today speaks of “our devotion to the ideals of equality of opportunity,” Slums and Suburbs finds “challenges to our American belief in the principle of equality of opportunity.”
Unfortunately, once he has recognized these “challenges”—the disparity between slums and surburbs in skin color, IQ score, home atmosphere, reading ability, chance of higher education, expenditure on schools, etc.—Dr. Conant rapidly backs away. The community, he argues, governs what can be done in the schools; and the Negro slum is a bad community. IQ tests and teacher grades may be class- and caste-biased against the Negro slum child, but they are, after all, “reliable predictors of academic success.” From such information (and much else), most observers would draw the conclusion that our ideas of “academic success” are class-biased, too—but Dr. Conant will have no truck with the subversion of American institutions.
As a result, Slums and Suburbs finally pulls all the way back to a Booker T. Washington theory of Negro education. “The educational experiences of youth,” Dr. Conant writes (in italics, too), “should fit their subsequent employment.” Most Negroes, it seems, are going to fill slightly skilled or unskilled jobs; thus we need occupational programs and vocational schools to take care of them. It is particularly preposterous that “there are schools where Negroes who have difficulty reading English are taking Latin”—a school without Latin will be superior to one with Latin, Dr. Conant argues, “if it has what it should have in the way of remedial reading teachers, guidance personnel, and perhaps social workers.” Latin, of course, is easy to eliminate. But what about algebra or physics, lack of which will destroy any hope of a career as a technician; what about French, which might enable an American Negro to work in Central Africa? In the context of Dr. Conant’s argument—he never criticizes the many Negro district high schools which offer no serious mathematics or science, no modern foreign languages—these subjects are as dispensable as Latin. They are only for “the talented,” that fraction of the population—a very tiny fraction in the Negro slums—which can score well on class-biased aptitude tests.
Low expectations lead Dr. Conant to a horrifying failure of perception in his descriptions of Negro slum junior high schools. “One finds the boys wearing ties and jackets,” he writes. “When spoken to in the classroom, they rise to recite. Passing time between classes may be as short as one minute in order to preserve order in the halls. The school attempts to bring some kind of order to otherwise chaotic lives.” The description is accurate, but this “tight discipline,” which Dr. Conant so admires, is the saddest aspect of a mournful place. There is, after all, a difference between a school and a jail; at the least, Dr. Conant should have noticed that this prison atmosphere fades away in those slum schools where an upgrading project—like New York’s Higher Horizons—has actually taken root and begun to grow of its own vitality.
Dr. Conant has always viewed society as a wholly static affair, in which nothing ever changes except the statistics; the individual exists only as job-holder and vote-caster. To him the statement that “the community largely determines what goes on in the school” is identical with the statement that “educational experiences . . . should fit subsequent employment.” In Dr. Conant’s philosophy, despite many leanings-over-backward, the school merely intervenes between childhood and adult occupation, which is already contained in pre-school inheritance and environment. It cannot open a new world, encourage new hopes, create new skills for use off the job as well as on. But equality of opportunity, if it means anything at all (an arguable proposition), means that beginnings shall not determine endings, that the school shall adapt itself to the child’s environment for the purpose of leaving his future open to opportunities.
Of the three great interacting abstractions in education—aptitude, motivation, and technique—Dr. Conant sees only the first two. He can deal with an idea like programmed instruction (“teaching machines”), which assumes that improvements in technique can increase “aptitude” and create “motivation,” only by a joke about one student getting one A while another gets two A’s in the same length of time. He is impressed by his observation that the same methods for teaching reading produce good results in suburbs and bad results in slums; it does not occur to him that our methods may be so inefficient that only children whose drive to read is quite high can overcome their teachers’ failures of technique—or even that it might be a good idea to try different methods in the different environments.
Basically, then, Dr. Conant sees no hope for large improvements—and where he finds them, he refuses to believe them. Samuel Shepard’s success in the Negro slums of St. Louis, for example, is merely “claimed”; it does no more than raise “the very interesting question of the extent to which motivation can overcome the lack of developed ability as tested by scholastic aptitude tests”; one doubts that “this dynamism can be maintained with the novelty gone.” Dr. Conant’s time sense runs backward only, never forward. He stresses the need to educate the parents of today’s slum schoolchildren, but he fails to see the influence Dr. Shepard’s current efforts may have when we come to educate the children of the children now in St. Louis schools.
This failure of time sense may also account for Dr. Conant’s widely criticized recommendation that the Northern Negroes stay in their Negro schools and stop agitating for the right of transfer to schools in white districts. If the pattern of segregation is to be broken, surely childhood is the easiest time to break it. Children’s attitudes toward members of other races probably do not change much as the result of school experiences, but their fear of other races can be largely eliminated. Desegregation of the schools is over the long run the most likely way to eliminate that discrimination in employment possibilities which rightly distresses Dr. Conant.
Oddly enough, the logic of Dr. Conant’s argument should force him to an integrationist position. If the Negro slum is a bad community, and the community controls what can be done in the schools, then surely society is obliged to shift Negro children to schools controlled by better communities. By Dr. Conant’s own reckoning, efforts to improve segregated slum schools can come to nothing, because the controlling community is unchanged—and, indeed, Dr. Conant has no specific suggestions other than the expenditure of money.
Actually, the school is not powerless before the local community. Our experience with the children of immigrants at the turn of the century demonstrates that the school can upgrade, step by step, the quality of education offered to slum children. There is a strong case to be made for the proposition that such upgrading, something similar to Dr. Shepard’s work in St. Louis, should be required before Negro children are thrown into the academically more difficult world of the middle-class white school. Some of the “new Negro” leaders, who are so eager to bus children around town to school, seem more concerned with the presence of the child than with his education; for all their apparent aggressiveness, they are essentially softer than the NAACP leaders who demanded from the State of Virginia their children’s right to fail. But eventually the schools must be mixed; segregated facilities are inherently unequal. There is no merit whatever in Dr. Conant’s Jesuitical proposition that segregated schools can be equal in the North because the segregation is created by neighborhoods rather than by law. The cat comes out of the bag with a whoosh when Dr. Conant praises an unnamed school superintendent for saying that schools “should not become involved in attempts to correct the consequences of voluntary segregated housing.” Why not? Dr. Conant is willing to give the schools responsibility for the job placement of former students to the age of twenty-one, a far more difficult problem. Anyway, who but a school superintendent and Dr. Conant ever believed that segregated housing is “voluntary”?
However profoundly one disagrees with the slum section of Dr. Conant’s book, one must respect the concern that made him wish to write it. The suburbs section, unfortunately, is far less interesting. Here Dr. Conant returns to the irrelevancies of the earlier reports—measurements of the quality of education by numbers of “courses,” praise for the day broken into seven or eight rather than six “periods,” as though there were something inevitable about the course that meets every day for the same length of time, or something desirable about bells and milling in halls. We are back in the realm of sloppily used technical language (the distribution of intelligence-test scores in suburban schools is skewed to the left, not, as Dr. Conant has it, to the right—“skewed” has a distinct meaning in statistics); of numbers given without their frame of reference (Newton’s average IQ is 110, Scarsdale’s is 126—but Dr. Conant does not mention that different tests, with different standard deviations, were employed to garner these figures); of inaccurate international comparisons (Dr. Conant “cannot envision” an American selective high school that, like “the European schools,” flunks out some of the class every year—though in fact Boston Latin among others does so, while British “grammar” schools in their first four years never flunk out anybody); of concern for administrators rather than human beings (“The main problem in wealthy suburban schools is to guide the parent whose college ambitions outrun his child’s abilities, etc.”—where “the main problem,” quite obviously, is to overcome the somnolence and status-orientation of too-lucky children and get them really interested in their own education).
In one important respect, Slums and Suburbs takes a long step backward. In The American High School Today, Dr. Conant was willing to rate a school’s instruction in English and Social Studies as “adequate” or “inadequate,” basing his “judgment” on “conversations with the teachers, the students, and, in many cases, a visit to one or more classes.” Now he will allow no measurements whatever of quality: “Laymen should not become involved in judging the effectiveness of teachers.” Dr. Conant’s original “ratings,” of course, were unrealistic—in most schools, instruction is much better than “adequate” in some classrooms, and worse than “inadequate” in others. The average is meaningless. But if we are talking about that part of the child’s education that occurs in school, is there anything worth serious discussion except the effectiveness of teachers?
Most of Dr. Conant’s recommendations are familiar, and no one can quarrel with them. More money must be spent on slum schools; employers and unions must be forced to open jobs to Negro applicants; the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges must stop its ludicrous efforts to protect bright children from education; big cities must decentralize the management of their schools (but why only to districts? why not to the individual school, which is where the problems must be solved?). A few of his ideas are striking and new—most notably, his proposal that shop teachers should be former mechanics (as they are in France) rather than people who majored in industrial arts at a teacher-training college, and his suggestion that the suburban schools take responsibility for experimenting with the education of dull children.
One recommendation (placed significantly in the suburbs section) represents a desperate and unfortunate effort at a compromise between the advocates of “high standards” and the advocates of universal education. Dr. Conant proposes a rigorous nationwide examination for entrance to graduate schools of arts and sciences, law, and medicine. The examination suggested, involving fairly considerable competence in all fields of academic study, would kill all hope of valid specialized education in the undergraduate colleges, and Dr. Con-ant’s defense of it—that “the level of accomplishment I am suggesting is less than that attained by the European who enters a university”—is simply untrue. The essence of higher secondary education in Europe is rather intense specialization, and if the ultimate examination involves many subjects, the student is permitted (indeed, expected) to “fail” part of it, without penalty. With all their faults, European schools see that students are interested in some subjects more than in others.
Despite its sloppiness, its reactionary racial undertones (“I for one,” Dr. Conant writes, “would reserve judgment as to the answer to the question whether there is a correlation between race and scholastic attitude”), its renewal of Dr. Conant’s insistence that “the schools are really doing a magnificent job,” Slums and Surburbs will probably be a useful book. Dr. Conant’s natural audience is a poorly informed community with an underdeveloped bump of social consciousness. If nothing in this book will be at all new or startling to people who have been concerned with problems of social class in education, much of it will probably come as a surprise to Dr. Conant’s friends in the ranks of big money and big politics. Progress in education is forced primarily by pressure from the lower ranks—teachers and parents and children, or principals, or conceivably district superintendents, but no higher. Yet Slums and Suburbs may work to diminish the odds against teachers who are gambling for higher stakes than Dr. Conant’s temperament allows him to risk.
What a pity, though, that a man in Dr. Conant’s position should wish to advocate goals so mean and so narrow, so easily accepted by the self-satisfied!
1 A review of Slums and Suburbs, by James Bryant Conant (McGraw-Hill, 147 pp., $3.95; paper, $1.95).