Diploma dividends: ideas for making education more valuable

THAT perceptive American historian Samuel Eliot Morison once snorted to me that ''too many of today's doctoral candidates are doing their research on the history of the Portuguese cookstove.''

Delving into the detail of history is vital, he said. But future historians and professors ought to research matters that add to our understanding of the broad themes of history, not to our storehouse of trivia.

That point applies to all education, not just history at PhD level. It ought to be central to all curriculum planning. And curriculum - as well as teaching skill - ought to be central to the current push for education reform.

May-June is one of two seasons to catch the public's attention - however fleetingly - on education matters. The other lies just after Labor Day. Graduation and enrollment are landmarks that enlist the efforts of most parents and concentrate the minds of most students.

These school-calendar dates serve to remind us that mankind has intelligence to teach its offspring far more than any other mammal - and does so through a learning period far longer. They remind us also of the exponential growth of knowledge through history: a progression abetted in turn by memory, speech, written records, libraries, universities, computers, and data banks - all extensions of man's capacity to think.

This commencement season has been as full as any with advice to graduating students about ''the real world'' - as if the 12 or 16 years they have spent reading and listening to lectures had fecklessly neglected to cover anything related to reality.

Behind the commencement addresses there is continuing discussion among education leaders about core curricula, computerization, language study, courses on values and ethics, and the blinkered narrowness of pre-law, pre-med, and pre-biz courses. There is also fervent debate on such matters as merit pay, tenure, teacher evaluation, and the brain drain to industry in the sciences.

Except for computerization, all these subjects have been carefully examined during past cycles of American education reform. (Even debate over computer use is analogous to previous discussions of teaching machines, classroom TV, and other teaching aids.)

But what have we learned? And what is the staying power of these reform efforts?

To paraphrase George Santayana, we may be condemned to repeat our headlines if we don't learn from them. Any examination of headlines circa 1946 (after the first major postwar education studies), or circa 1957 (after the Sputnik crisis provoked more studies), shows a striking similarity to recent headlines following last year's spate of reform reports.

''Merit pay for teachers urged'' says a clip on my desk. Its date is not 1983 but March 10, 1958. The main difference is that this era's stimulus is Japanese excellence and falling SAT scores, while the late '50s goad was that Soviet Sputnik, which had likewise punctured Americans' faith in their technological superiority.

Before taking a look at some curriculum ideas that might please Sam Morison, it may be useful to glance quickly at several pendulum swings since World War II.

In the late 1940s, Americans, tired of war and its machinery, disarmed under Truman's defense secretary, Louis Johnson. Then they rearmed again hastily at the onset of cold war and Korean war. Something similar but slower happened in education. It was epitomized first by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's upgrading of the humanities as the nation moved to the arts of peace and prosperity; then by a reversal after Sputnik as attempts were made to MIT-ize schools through new math and new physics.

Next, the coincidence of Vietnam and the jamming of Baby Boomers into classrooms brought a reaction against science and rigor in education. Science became, unfairly, a scapegoat for the dark side of nuclear physics, industrial chemistry, and gene-splicing biology - as well as napalm in Vietnam. That, in turn, led to a deterioration of rigor in teaching and in teachers' colleges, a deterioration that still handicaps many schools today.

Despite that deeper-than-usual trough in the cycle of educational standards, Americans have seen an upturn in student seriousness, housecleaning of many ''soft'' Rocks-for-Jocks courses such as Leisure Studies, and a general return to competitive hard work.

Interestingly, this pendulum swing toward rigor is taking place not only at the national and local level in America, but on the international scene as well. While Americans were worrying that their teachers, students, and curriculum were not as demanding as the Japanese (and possibly Russians), many Western Europeans , Russians, and Chinese were worrying about their own education systems. Even the Japanese fretted about not producing enough ''pure scientists.'' We may not yet be a global village. But trends travel quickly.

Rigor, though, is not an end in itself. It is not simply a fourth R to give fiber to readin'-'ritin'-'rithmetic. It implies a precision of thinking about life's main issues: how school fits into careers, and careers into life; how curriculum ideas fit together.

What are some of those curriculum ideas to which rigor can be applied?

First, look at what might be called the C.P. Snow axiom. Physicist-novelist Snow advanced the argument that people with scientific training understand the liberal arts to a far greater degree than liberal arts graduates understand the sciences. He was doubtless right. Think of the physicists you know who are at home with Bach, Keynes, Matisse, Wright, Eliot, and Toynbee. And then ask how many friends in economic or liberal arts careers know the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the work of Bohr, Crick, or Frisch.

The Snow axiom provides a strong argument that at the freshman year of college (and perhaps the freshman high school year) all students ought to be provided a survey course on the history of science. It should integrate scientific discoveries and their meaning into general cultural and economic history.

A compelling argument can be made, in fact, that freshman year should be rich in integrative history courses: history of the arts, history of economics, development of literature, etc. And those courses ought to be taught whenever possible by the most compelling professors and teachers at each campus or school.

Listen to the most widespread complaints of students:

- That uncertain teaching assistants are fobbed off on them.

- That they weren't inspired early enough in their college (or high school or junior high school) careers.

- That they really didn't understand the broad sweep of civilization soon enough - or didn't grasp the relationship of one subject to all the others, and to today.

- That they jumped into a major before having sampled other career paths.

Even ''cool'' students speak with rapture of a great teacher. Evidence: standing-room-only lecture halls where those famous courses are taught.

Once the general is mastered, the student ought to be able to sample the specific in each major field. After that, she or he is ready to pick a field of study in which to add more of the specifics each year.

But what of the non-major, non-career matters that are so often neglected: values, logic, judgment?

Harvard's retiring dean, Henry Rosovsky, told me with quiet passion last summer that the biggest missing element in college education today was discussion of values and ethics. He and Harvard's president, Derek Bok, have been moving to see that those discussions become part of all fields of study - particularly the high-pressure, big-money areas: law, medicine, business, biogenetics. Presidents Donald Kennedy of Stanford, Paul Gray of MIT, Frank Rhodes of Cornell, and Howard Swearer of Brown are among other leaders addressing these questions.

More can be done to stimulate discussion of values at the secondary school level. Students can talk about lively case histories involving ethical dilemmas without raising worries about establishment of religion in the classroom. And that could lead to filling another gap in modern secondary schooling: teaching students to be wiser, more shrewd consumers.

This does not imply learning how to do comparative lab tests of bubble-gum brands. It means, rather, teaching by discussion how to be a perceptive, critical reader of a newspaper, magazine, or important book. Or a perceptive, critical watcher of TV, listener to campaign speeches, or scanner of drug advertising claims. These areas are contentious but important. And at least some time given to this area of logic would mesh with the study of scientific method C. P. Snow felt was widely needed.

The above ideas provide an outline, not a program. They do not tackle teacher pay or teacher-college reform. The major national studies of the past year provide dozens of other ideas on teacher incentives and curriculum. If local school boards and college administrators persist in reform efforts, Sam Morison's ideal of an education rich in meaning and spare in cookstoves should come closer to reality.

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