California's persuasive crusader for better schools

CALIFORNIA'S superintendent of schools, Louis (Bill) Honig, is a politician, a salesman, a patriot, and, last but not least -- a children's advocate. He's also very outspoken: ``The intellectual leaders in this country have dropped the ball,'' he says. ``Common civic goals -- like helping public schools -- don't interest them.

``We make something as boring as soap appealing in TV commercials,'' Mr. Honig says, ``and we make something as inherently interesting as history -- with its drama and characters -- very boring in the classroom. That's got to change.''

To do this, Honig hopes to awaken the dormant sense of ``mission'' he feels many teachers have traded over the past 15 years for what is known as ``the deal'' -- a tacit understanding between teacher and student that ``if you keep quiet, I won't work you too hard.''

For Honig, teachers are not mere custodians of children, but ``cultural ambassadors'' charged with the serious, ennobling task of introducing the young to their common democratic heritage, and to ``the best that has been thought and known.''

Critics call such lofty ideals ``the Gospel according to Honig.''

Bring up those critics who say his reforms are too difficult or elitist, and Honig is likely to quote Browning: ``A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?''

Honig's own upward reach has beenHONIG32HONIG1 a bit unorthodox. In the late 1960s, he quit a successful law practice to teach underprivileged children, partly to help solve the racial unrest of that time. As he puts it, ``The world could survive with one less lawyer, but one more teacher might make a difference.''

He taught for four years, later became a district superintendent, then served on the state board of education.

A tall, rangy man with a thinning swirl of gray hair and an almost boyish enthusiasm for his subject, Honig is as tireless and unpredictable as the ocean breezes that blow through his native San Francisco. He's constantly on the prowl for new ideas -- quotes Kant and James Madison, visits Mortimer Adler's Aspen Institute, confers with filmmaker George Lucas of ``Star Wars'' fame on the future possibilities of learning through the video capability of computers.

Californians, in great numbers, love his blend of style and substance. He is receiving national attention as an education leader. This month, The Phi Delta Kappan, journal of the scholars' honor society, called Honig one of the four leading educators in America today.

Another of the four leaders, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says Honig, one of the few elected state school chiefs in the country, ``represents a new model of what a state leader can be. He's got a totally different style. He reads a lot, thinks a lot -- makes the issues come alive.''

While some observers say he lives in the clouds and others find him a shrewd political schemer, none argue that Honig hasn't, almost single-handedly, put California in the vanguard of education reform.

In 1983, when the watershed ``Nation at Risk'' report first alerted America to the ``mediocrity'' of its public schools, California, under Honig's lead, had already been working in the reform vineyards for a year, striving for ``traditional education.''

Yet the traditional education Honig is working to establish is not a back-to-basics return to rote learning. It's a complete overhaul of the curricula -- an attempt to replace the watered-down lessons students now receive with a livelier, more thematic approach -- one that encourages inquiry and critical thinking by giving students a ``deeper impression'' of a subject.

Once elected, Honig wasted no time parlaying his newfound popularity to practical effect. In 1983, with the backing of legislators, parents, business people, and unions -- the biggest groundswell of grass-roots support in recent California history -- Honig forced Gov. George Deukmejian to capitulate and double California's annual education budget from $400 million to $800 million.

Honig used the money in part to jack up teacher starting salaries dramatically, and begin work on new ``higher-level curricula.''

Yet underneath his determined push for higher-quality schools lie some larger motives Honig discussed recently at his San Francisco town house.

He feels it isn't just public education that has been threatened by neglect and questionable pedagogy but, more important, the critical role education has played in keeping American democracy healthy. Regardless of the twists and turns public schooling has taken in the past 150 years, Honig says, it has always kept children connected to the basic ideas behind the American system. Today, he feels this is threatened.

``Democracy is always problematical,'' he says. While there is a modern tendency to be ``cavalier'' about it, democracy is ``always one generation removed from extinction,'' he says. Sustaining the republic has always required conscious effort, Honig says, noting that the Civil War was fought so that, in Lincoln's words, government of, by, and for the people ``shall not perish from the earth.''

In the rest of the 1980s and early '90s, Honig predicts, a bloodless but very real historic battle will be waged to keep the schools from failing. ``We are being tested,'' he says. Democracy cannot function without the collective will of the people -- neither can public schools. Maintaining schools ``will take a fight.'' If the current reform movement does not rise sufficiently to make the needed changes ``during this go-around,'' the system may not survive. We squander this historic trust at the expens e of the common good.

If Honig's message has an urgent ring to it -- it is intentional. He may be popular, a crowd pleaser. But he has come to some sobering conclusions about the future of the school system. Hence, the title of his new book: ``Last Chance for our Children'' (reviewed in the Monitor Oct. 7).

But education's extremity, Honig believes, is an untried area of opportunity to ``forge a healthy consensus between the political left and right.'' If the reform effort is to succeed, he says, ``we will need a little less `I Did It My Way,' and a little more `We Shall Overcome.' '' People with different views ``can find agreement'' around the issue of better schools for children.

Currently, Honig is worried that interest in reform will slacken. ``The enthusiasm about reform, the funding, the legislation, the news articles, are all important,'' he says. What has not yet happened is the difficult task of ``actually delivering a high-quality education.''

The next wave of reforms must begin to confront the question of how subjects are taught -- must work changes ``deep in the system.''

So far, ``we've done the easy stuff,'' Honig says. ``Now it's going to get harder.''

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