Skills or Frills—Which Will It Be?
On a cold night the man let the camel put its head in the tent. Then its neck. Then its shoulders. Soon the camel was in the tent and the man was out in the cold. So goes the fable. Similarly, as elective courses came into the school curriculum the three R’s were crowded out.
THE basic skills are sadly lacking in today’s schools and “showing enthusiasm for finger-painting is not an acceptable substitute,” a former teacher declared. “The schools have taken on any number of activities, none of which we asked for,” she said. “They’re concerned about students’ emotional needs, their social needs and last of all their educational needs. Discussions on family life, in most instances, are a euphemism for pornography in the classroom.”
Consistent with that last charge, the June 19, 1979, New York Post carried this front-page headline: “X-Rated Sex Lessons for School Kids.” Details followed:
“The Board of Education is preparing to overhaul its sex education program, discussing formerly taboo subjects as early as the fifth grade. Included in the new ‘X-rated’ material would be abortion, homosexuality, contraception and masturbation. . . . School officials feel earlier sex education is needed because of an alarming increase in unwanted teenage pregnancies and venereal disease. Officials are also proposing practical sex information in place of current material which stresses biological processes. For example, students as early as the fifth grade would discuss different methods of contraception.”
Sound familiar? Was not the same argument used when sex education was first introduced into the schools, namely, it will reduce promiscuity and pregnancies? The only thing reduced, the record shows, is skill in reading, writing and arithmetic.
Years ago a poor black girl who complained in class that “Dis boy, he be boverin me” would be corrected by her teacher for slovenly English. But in recent years some call this “black English,” and claim that it is an unwritten language and should be taught in school. Many black parents resisted, knowing their children must become fluent in standard English to compete in the job market.
Many school curriculums are loaded with these elective frills of little value but which make easy courses. Concerned teachers see this as a threat to academic skills. Typical is this statement by a teacher of social studies:
“The elective system which has evolved in many schools has a devastating effect on the learning habits of young students. Fifteen-year-olds have grown adept at shopping for the most convenient, least demanding courses in the ‘supermarket’ curriculum.
Back to Basics!
Dismay over the erosion of academic standards, from grammar school to university, has turned the back-to-basics movement into one of the most powerful forces in American education. In 1977 a Gallup poll asked Americans whether they wanted more emphasis on the basics—reading, writing and arithmetic. A big 83 percent said that they did. Private schools, including religious schools, have boomed because of the people’s discontent with the poor performance of public schools. When the state’s commissioner of education in Florida—which state has some 300 religious schools—was challenged as to why these schools were not forced to meet certain standards, he replied:
“We’re not in a position to talk about somebody else’s standards until we get the public schools in order. How do we have the nerve to call the kettle black?”
A survey was made of 34 high schools that had maintained or raised their scores on the college entrance examinations. They were scattered throughout the nation, from both affluent and blue-collar communities—a cross section socially and economically. These schools tended to have experienced teachers committed to high standards who did not subscribe to “such educational fads as the relaxed teaching environment typified by the so-called ‘open classroom’ concept.” The high-scoring students “take more academic courses—mathematics, foreign languages, English and physical science—than do examinees in the schools with severe decreases.” And the parents strongly support the teachers.
No Shortcut to Learning
Edward T. Hall taught English in America for 28 years. In 1974 he went to Botswana, Africa, to teach it. “I am teaching English,” he said, “to boys and girls for whom it is a foreign language. They are doing better at it than my American students did.” He disagrees with the permissive approach. In Botswana his program is rigid, with no room for frills.
“Old-fashioned? Repetitious? Boring?” he asks. Yes. “Boring drills are as necessary to the ability to speak and write correct English as piano scales are to the ability to play concertos.” In America, teachers fear that they will stifle the student’s “individuality” and “creativity” if they correct his English. He likens this to teaching netless tennis, and says: “We ought to stop playing tennis with the net down, and make students practice the language as they must practice sports or music.”
Hall makes those points in his essay “Why Americans Can’t Write,” published in Human Nature, August 1978. He gives concrete examples to prove his position—excerpts from homework assignments by a senior of a New York City high school and a 15-year-old African student. This paragraph is from the New York high-school senior’s report on the diary of the Jewish girl, Anne Frank:
“This is a idea of a tragedy the reason is that Anne Frank lived through a very hard live. Her family and Anne are German and Hitler doesn’t like germans, so Hitler passed a law for germans to be captured and put to work and maybe even killed.”
From 15-year-old African Mbuso’s essay on prejudice:
“The truth of the matter is that in Southern Africa racial prejudice has been established by a history of several centuries. In Botswana we have just come out of that long history only in the last 10 years of independence. For centuries the white in Southern Africa has been regarding the African as a subject, an inferior and as being unable to think and act in a civilised and cultured manner.”
Little wonder that one of New York city’s disillusioned English teachers said, “The educational yardstick could well be a six-inch ruler.” To make it a yardstick again, the joy of frills must give way to the learning of skills.
[Picture on page 10]
Some college graduates need a return to basics