The rise of administrators, and the fall of the humanities

The phrase ``from each according to his ability, to each according to his need'' was penned by Karl Marx. Yet 45 percent of the public-school students polled recently thought those words came from the United States Constitution.

Perhaps that's not surprising: Two out of 3 American high schoolers also can't place the Civil War in its proper half-century. Many are unaware that Spanish (not Latin) is spoken in Latin America - or that there ever was a World War I.

Little wonder, then, that the state of humanities education in America - particularly the teaching of history, literature, and foreign language - has come under scrutiny. The process began three years ago, when the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) published a report by then-chairman (now US Secretary of Education) William Bennett titled ``To Reclaim a Legacy.''

That report focused on higher education. Now, in a study issued yesterday by the current NEH chairman, Lynne V. Cheney, the other shoe has dropped. ``American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation's Public Schools,'' sums up the problem at the pre-college level in the words of Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz: ``A refusal to remember.''

It's a much-needed report. Whether its reverberations will be widely heard, however, is hard to gauge - for three reasons.

The first has to do with a lack of public concern. Most of the national attention has focused on failures in math and science teaching. Less weight has been given to failures in the humanities.

What's needed? A tightly reasoned statement about why, at the public-school level, the humanities are essential.

This report moves in that direction. Dr. Cheney does speak of the need to recapture a shared consciousness of the past, so that ``the ideas that have mattered to us'' as a nation can become ``a kind of civic glue.''

She worries, too, that a focus on process has driven out content, in the mistaken belief that ``we can teach our children how to think without troubling them to learn anything worth thinking about.'' And she zeroes in on the inanity of the school textbook, the worst of which she describes as ``an overcrowded flea market of disconnected ideas.''

Those are points worth making. Yet one puts down her brief 40-page report wishing for fewer anecdotes, less repetition, and a more carefully thought out statement about why memory matters. That, then, is the second reason this report might not set up the necessary reverberations: It could have gone deeper.

But the third reason is the most interesting. This is a report sparked, in 1985, by a congressional directive to a federal agency (the NEH) dependent upon congressional appropriations. Written for a Democratic Congress by a Republican who knows how Congress really works (her husband is Rep. Dick Cheney [R] of Wyoming), it skates warily around the one issue that needs to be hit head-on: the question of the centralization of educational policy, away from local initiative and toward state and federal control.

To be sure, Mrs. Cheney touches on the issue. She complains, rightly, that the 20-plus states that adopt textbooks on a centralized basis force publishers to produce bland prose glutted with nice, safe facts. And she sets forth an appalling statistic:

Between 1960 and 1984, while the number of public-school teachers grew by 57 percent, the number of curriculum specialists, supervisors of instruction, and other central-office bureaucrats grew by almost 500 percent.

Why that burgeoning bureaucracy? Part of the problem lies in top-down regulations, flowing relentlessly from federal and state systems. Many of those regulations are well meaning, as the tectonic shifts in American society force schools to pick up dozens of responsibilities - from day care to family-planning counsel - once provided by the church and the family. But the result is a fog of government-imposed paper work - and a corresponding 500-percent increase in nonteaching staff.

That, of course, is not an answer that center-left lawmakers want to hear. This report tactfully places the blame elsewhere. But the fact is that the humanities - the area of study that most proudly proclaims the virtues of individuality, freedom, and independence of thought - stand in diametric opposition to the dulling platitudes of bureaucratization. The humanities, more than any other part of the curriculum, most challenge the presumptions of centralization and conformity. One could put it even more baldly: If you ever wanted to centralize power, you would first need to snuff out the humanities.

That makes the issue sound too conspiratorial. In fact, what's going on is simply an unconscious sapping of the will to think hard, be unique, and cleave to the values of the untrammeled human spirit. So Cheney's recommendations - that more time should be given to the humanities, and that textbooks should be better and teachers more knowledgeable - are perfectly valid. But they miss the mark. What matters in American education today is not that some courses are not as good as they should be. What matters is that education has been taken away from local educators, parents, and children and delivered to distant ranges of administrators. It has become a process for ensuring conformity. Correct that, and the humanities will increasingly be in demand.

What students don't know

About 8,000 US high-schoolers nationwide took a multiple-choice test for a federal survey in the spring of 1986. A sample of test questions and results:

1.When did Christopher Columbus discover the new world? (32 percent could not place the date before 1750).

2.When was the United States Constitution written? (39 percent could not place it within the correct half century, 1750-1800).

3.When did the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor? (40 percent could not place it within a four-year period, 1939-43).

4.What is Magna Charta? (69 percent could not identify it as the foundation of the British parliamentary system).

5.Who wrote ``Crime and Punishment'' and ``The Brothers Karamazov?'' (84 percent could not name Dostoyevsky).

6.Who was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence? (Only 14 percent could not name Thomas Jefferson.)

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