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Socrates, will you please report to your computer class

By MELVIN MADDOCKS / February 29, 1984



A Latin teacher from our past used to rebuke students who whispered in his class by directing a look of the mildest reproach, twitching his mustache with Charlie Chaplin wistfulness, and saying in a sorrowful voice: ''You're no friend of mine.''

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In French.

It was the French, even more than the rest of the act, that got us.

One day when our French-speaking Latin teacher had done his stylish put-down, and still one barbarian continued to whisper, he raised a finger and announced firmly, ''Whispering is against my policy.''

Nobody ever tested him twice again. Policy! What a rare and therefore awesome word it was in those days!

The fact is, in those days everybody had a policy, so nobody had to talk about it except in emergencies like the second whisper.

Every school, every church, every corner grocery store had a policy so unshakable, so agreed-upon that it would have been poor taste to mention it.

Even parents - can you believe it? - had a policy.

Now almost nobody has a policy, so everybody talks about almost nothing else.

What is our foreign policy? What is our monetary policy? And, of course, once Latin teachers (and others) began to get confused about what schools were for, everybody began to ask: What is our ''educational policy?'' And they didn't mean , No whispering in Latin class, mon ami.

It may be simplistic to argue that if you have to ask what's our policy, it means you haven't got one. Still, introspection has proven to be not unacquainted with bewilderment in the history of education.

In the beginning, everybody knew what the purpose of education was - to produce adults who could read, write, and figure, who loved God and country, and who knew enough not to whisper in Latin class. Then somebody asked the fatal question: How? Thus the ''educationist'' was born, a teacher whose subject is not Latin or algebra or medieval history but ''educational policy.''

The ''educationist,'' correctly observing that children learn when they are interested, got carried away into declaring recklessly: Let education be fun. Why hadn't anybody thought of that before? This may be described as the chocolate-coated spinach theory of education. At the extreme, tots were invited to chart their own curriculum, from kindergarten to graduate school, and you can just bet that the chocolate went up and the spinach went down - along with the SAT scores.

The only thing compulsory was whispering. You had to whisper. You had to express your personhood - that was what education was really all about, as the ubiquitous movie projectors whirred, showing clips of Babe Ruth in History of Sports 1A.

Now, as we all know, a reaction has set in. In education, as in other areas of life, Spartan sternness has returned, at least as an ideal. The Golden Playroom theory of education is out. According to the prevailing wisdom, the only problem you can solve by throwing money at it is national defense. The latest ''educational policy'' is to study Japanese schools. Bad news, kids!

Some busybody has discovered that Einstein, contrary to the myth, scored high in math as a child. That leaves only Sir Winston Churchill as our friendly great-man dunce. More bad news.

Still, you can't go back, can you? So the latest ''educational policy,'' while making gruff, strict noises, appears prepared to settle for a little more functional literacy, and a lot more computer literacy.

Not too much whispering, but not too many Latin classes either. According to a survey by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, students have been migrating by the hordes from humanities to sciences in the past seven years. In ''educational policy,'' as elsewhere, Americans feel more comfortable as pragmatists. And we all may be secretly relieved to set aside, for the moment, the heavy philosophical questions of what and how we should teach, in exchange for the simple imperatives of post-technological tasks - keeping up with the Russians in arms, keeping up with the Japanese in cars.

Those now in kindergarten will be graduating from college in the 21st century , and a little hard, practical training for that supermachine of a world may indeed be in order. But nothing produces social and moral questions like a new invention. Nuclear power, genetic engineering - these are but two of the dilemmas that the sciences create for our consciences to resolve in terms beyond the inquiry of the sciences.

So, although the whole debate - now taking new-old turns - may make us dizzy, there is no alternative. One of the great subjects of education is education itself. Or as our old Latin teacher liked to say between twitches of his mustache: The unexamined life is not worth living.