US absorbs a second education jolt

AMERICAN SAT scores are up slightly. More college students say they want to become teachers. Teacher pay is rising in many communities. Los Angeles schools are going to be in operation year round. Looking at those headline items, one might conclude that the second great educational shock since World War II is producing some results beyond the issuing of major reform proposals by educators and foundations. A closer look leaves doubts though.

The first shock, the so-called Sputnik crisis of 1957, delivered revisions of math, physics, and biology curricula and a year or two of public and congressional anxiety about education. But attention flagged. Test scores began to decline. Curriculum rigor was sapped. Pass/fail grading and increasing numbers of baroque elective courses left many students to browse their way through higher education. One result: The lack of rigor produced an acute shortage of skilled math and science teachers at the grade and high school level.

Then reaction set in. The second shock began to dawn on Americans. Unlike Sputnik it didn't happen suddenly. It was more pervasive and has proved more lasting in impact. It has no one name, but could be called the Sony crisis, Toyota crisis, or Seiko crisis.

In simplest terms what this second alert did was show Americans what resulted from an educational system that produced large numbers of first-rate managers, engineers, linguists and applied scientists. With the exception of the linguists, all those Japanese accomplishments mirrored classic American images: penchants for pure and applied science, managerial practicality, production-line innovation, and invention.

But when the Japanese played back the American image they had improved on the nation-of-tinkerers, Edison-Ford-Sloan-Watson-Bell Labs-Deming-Boston Consulting Group pantheon. They had done so in part because of hard work in the school system. The standard clich'e held that the average Japanese high school graduate was generally equal to the average US college graduate. Statistically the reason was clear: Japanese students were in class about 240 days a year; their American counterparts about 180 days. Like Japanese workers, Japanese students put in Saturdays.

US colleges -- reacting to Vietnam-Watergate malaise, petroleum and stagflation jolts, and Pacific competition -- rushed to reinstall ``core curriculums'' and reexamine the rigor of teaching. Students followed suit, moving in large numbers into pre-professional courses, computer science, business schools, and even the hard work of engineering and science departments.

Where, overall, does American education stand several years after the latest shock and self-examination burst across headlines and congressional dockets?

It's risky to generalize about a system as varied and decentralized as that existing in thousands of school districts as well as small private colleges and huge state universities. But some generalizations seem both fair and useful.

First, at a much earlier stage students ought to be given survey courses in history, the history of science, and the history of economics and the arts, so that they can see how all specialized courses fit together and fit into ``real life.''

Second, the sequential flow of courses in grade and high schools ought to avoid aimless repetition.

Third, both students and teachers at school and college level ought not to shy away from ``difficult'' courses like the sciences and math or ``impractical'' courses like music and art. One advantage of the extra days built into the Japanese system is that the Two Cultures named by the scientist/novelist C. P. Snow -- science and the humanities -- don't have to become an either/or choice. Japanese students study both sciences and arts in rigorous form. And their need to master foreign languages becomes a virtue not a chore.

Learning another tongue adds muscle to memory. It is not, as some charge, rote learning. It involves understanding another system of logic and structure, not just an added vocabulary.

The latest UCLA-American Council on Education study of the aims of 280,000 students at 546 colleges and universities shows a continuing rise in those intending to study business (up 2 percent to 23.9 percent). It indicates a decline in those aiming at computer science (halved in the past two years to 4.4 percent) and those selecting engineering (down in three years from 12 percent to 10 percent). And also a turning away from the humanities.

To some extent such studies must be taken with a grain of salt. But the trend away from engineering and computer science would be worrisome if continued.

The rude fact is that many of the corporations all those business majors want to join or found are likely to be technology-related. Beyond that lies a more fundamental matter: Shying away from subjects on the science side of C. P. Snow's great divide is symptomatic of an unwillingness to be disciplined and rigorous about education. That applies to music and art as well as physics. No civilization can remain great if it succumbs to a way of life that esteems business speculation, lottery fantasizing, and educational shortcuts.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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