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

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.

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.

''I visited a community college recently. As I walked in, they showed me their new 34567M machine from Dumbo Corporation. They were so proud. But what they hadn't realized was: If the Dumbo corporation gave them that yesterday, it is already one generation old. We simply can't compete with corporations on the basis of equipment, much less experience.''

It is not difficult to see how colleges have been seduced by the job-training phenomenon. A number of years ago community colleges began to offer vocational training that traditionally would have been learned through apprenticeships, unions, or corporations. Suddenly they were college activities.

Some four-year colleges looked at those programs, which were very successful in attracting a lot of students at a time when enrollments were starting to shrink. At the same time the economy was pushing students toward job-oriented education. The race for the training dollar was on.

What the maverick Levine wants to do is nothing less than salvage liberal arts from the scrapheap of idealism. He is currently implementing the Bradford Plan, which rejects what he sees as the extremes in education - vocational training on the one hand (22 percent of all four-year colleges are now offering degree programs in secretarial science; 25 percent offer programs in police science) and the ivory-tower approach on the other (a recent survey showed 2 out of 3 American faculty members say it is neither very important nor essential to prepare students for jobs) and stake out a middle ground.

''You've seen those lists of what liberal arts grads can do that others can't: Their marriages last longer; they are more satisfied with their lives. They have everything but fewer cavities. In fact, its analogous to going to the dentist and saying you learn a lot about foreign affairs because you spend most of your time in the waiting room reading Newsweek.''

What the former senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is trying to do with the Bradford plan is to make liberal arts practical. By practical, he doesn't mean job training so much as life training. But what exactly is the middle ground he is staking out and how is it different from what a liberal arts education has been about for a millenium?

A forecast by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the typical worker of the future may have four or five different careers. Levine contends that if liberal arts does its job, such crossovers will be easier to make. Statistics already show that liberal arts graduates are the most likely to rise to high managerial positions.

Levine acknowledges that the principal short-term drawback of a liberal arts education is a substantial one: How do you get that first job? Much of his plan is designed to bridge the gap between college and the rest of one's career.

But the core of the program addresses the primary deficiency among students today as identified by Levine: a lack of communication skills. He would like Bradford students to master two human languages: to speak in both words and numbers.

To do that, he has taken the same liberal arts courses, but has cut them up in different ways. Instead of history, math, or sociology classes, Bradford offers a combination of those courses clustered around useful themes and helpful skills. For instance, courses are clustered around computers, technical writing, arts management, and public administration. The same eye to practicality was employed in designing an internship program and a senior-year project. The Bradford plan was only instituted this fall; how well it works will not be known for some time, but Levine remains a believer. ''Liberal arts is our last best hope,'' he says.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.