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A college president goes back to high school - and learns a lot

By Craig SavoyeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 1983


There was a curious addition to the lunch line at Lawrence (Mass.) High School last month. The stocky figure with the Magnum P.I. mustache and curly hair that turned a few heads was not the latest BMOC. He was more odd man out. At 34, Dr. Arthur E. Levine is not your prototypical high school freshman.

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He's not your prototypical college president, either. In fact, the only thing prototypical about him is the college he's president of, and that is one reason why he went back to high school for a week: to find out what a small liberal arts institution like Bradford (Mass.) College must do to make the four-year, $ 40,000 investment it is asking high school seniors to make pay off.

But a funny thing happened on the way to homeroom. All his assumptions about high schools were turned on their head. ''We're blaming the victim for all our problems,'' he says.

He witnessed firsthand the combination of cultural changes and budgetary constraints he says have met, mingled, and fundamentally altered the educational process in the classrooms of American high schools over the last decade.

Indeed, Lawrence is a microcosm of American high schooldom. A multi-ethnic urban high school that sends kids to Yale and Harvard on the one hand and has its share of dropouts on the other, Lawrence was Levine's choice because the challenges it is facing typify the range of problems facing all American high schools.

A few of his reactions:

Budget cuts were transformed from mere statistics to tangible evidence of declining skill levels: ''In one class we had a textbook where the teacher never assigned anything from it. Somebody asked why, and he said it was a terrible textbook, but it was the only one we could afford. In another class we shared textbooks, which means we couldn't take them home. We shared them with another class and alternated assignments.''

Teacher dedication impressed him as near-heroic in light of inferior salaries: ''The average teacher starts nationally at something under $13,000. After 12 years, the teacher is making $18,100. Why would anybody in their right mind want a job like that. You can make more entering a lot of unskilled blue-collar fields.''

A new breed of student provides teachers with challenges few were forced to deal with even 10 years ago: ''I met a young woman in the cafeteria line, waiting to be served. I asked her how much homework she had at night. She said about an hour. I asked when she did it. She said, 'I have to do it in study hall the next morning.' Why? Because she worked from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day and most of Saturday, managing a restaurant. ''I said, 'Who would give you a job managing a restaurant, you're 17.' She said, 'It's my husband's restaurant.' ''

Levine's experience at Lawrence High School did nothing to lessen his ardor for the cause he champions most enthusiastically: liberal arts. But not liberal arts as the failing status quo that it represents at some institutions, nor as the nostalgic throwback it can be at others - but liberal arts as a vibrant curriculum.

Though the tide of vocational training is proving difficult to resist for many colleges, Levine argues that the race against corporate America for the training dollar is a contest higher education doesn't want to enter - in fact, doesn't even want to appear to be competing in, because it can only lose. Already, the amount of money corporations spend on educating their employees every year is higher than the dollars spent by all of higher education.