THE most necessary task in American education in the next 10 years is to build a new ``moral and intellectual authority'' in the schools. So says Gerald Grant, chairman of the sociology department at Syracuse University and author of a seven-year study on the character of American high schools. Schools need to hold onto gains in civil rights and economic fairness achieved over the past 20 years, Grant says. But at the same time they must renew the rich sense of community, academic seriousness, and creative teaching too often lost during the period.
Such renewal, he says, is decidedly local. Blue-ribbon state commissions and national school-reform efforts have been important. But the key players in creating a strong moral and intellectual atmosphere or ethos in schools will not be legislators, specialists, or bureaucrats - but teachers, principals, and parents, he states.
``School reform has real meaning only in the construction of a particular world,'' Grant said in a recent interview. ``Federal and state lawmakers can prescribe change, but it has to happen in the life and operation of a school.'' In a twist on the typical scholarly approach (and one reason many leading educators are paying attention) Grant's ideas are based on his own classroom experience as well as extensive research. In 1980, he set out to write a book on what makes a good school. Unable to explain to a meeting of local superintendents what to do about a school that, like many others, had become decentralized and morally rudderless, in 1983 he decided to teach there for two years - an experience that made him scrap six chapters of his study.
The school he writes about, Hamilton High in Median, USA (actually, Nottingham High in Syracuse, N.Y.), is a kind of Everyschool - a place that has gone through social revolutions (desegregation, mainstreaming, student rights, court intervention, sexual equality) as well as a destructive breakdown of moral and intellectual authority. The story is typical of many high schools in the United States.
Grant was stunned by how little the staff of Hamilton knew this basic story or its implications - knew how important (and invisible) structures, relationships, and understandings within the school had ``deconstructed,'' to use his term.
Along with students and teachers, Grant wrote an in-depth biography of the school, ``The World We Created at Hamilton High'' (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.). The book examines how the ``idea of authority'' got ripped apart and suggests how it might be renewed.
Built in 1953, Hamilton was a modern upper-middle-class suburban school designed to get students into ``good'' colleges. The dress, behavior, roles, and values of students and teachers were typical of the optimistic Eisenhower years. The yearbook was divided into such categories as ``We Were Eager To Learn'' (students) and ``They Led Us To Achievement'' (teachers). Of the 350 seniors in 1960, two were black.
By 1968, things had come apart. Court-ordered desegration did not make for successful integration. Blacks got ``basic'' classes; whites got college-prep. Racial tension mounted, spilling into window-smashing riots. A teacher was knocked unconscious. Anxieties over Vietnam, drugs, sex, and violence created a lawless atmosphere. Morale flagged. Two principals in a row quit. And by 1971, so had 72 percent of the teachers.
``Let the students decide'' was the unwritten slogan of the '70s. A new principal tried to liberalize the curriculum with electives like ``Search for Self'' and ``Fun with Cinema.'' Supreme Court rulings led to grievance panels partly administered by students. Teachers looked the other way on matters of behavior. Students cut classes frequently. Standards of right and wrong became relative; values became something merely to ``clarify.''
While an egalitarian moral order based on justice was being federally imposed on the school, says Grant, the old, internal moral order based on mutual responsibility was collapsing. The result was a brittle legalism, an emphasis on procedure: legions of specialists filling out forms in triplicate. Respect and dignity were replaced by goals of achieving percentages and following guidelines.
``Adults fell back on a purely legal, technical view of their responsibilities,'' writes Grant, which meant ``keeping the peace,'' avoiding ``engagement or demands in the way of either moral or intellectual standards.''
Grant finds this ironic since the original impulse for civil rights, born in black Southern churches, depended heavily on a rich culture of song, ritual, memory, honor, community, and vision. It is through these qualities that the moral and intellectual climate in schools will be restored, he says.
How to get there? Again and again Grant returns to authority - a concept that has been viewed with suspicion, as being tied to indoctrination, force, or coercion. True authority is the correct exercise of power, Grant says, and is necessary in teaching self-rule. Schools, he says, cannot establish legitimate authority without teachers and principals who are engaged in issues and details ranging from policies on absence to methods of teaching virtue.
Yet Grant's research shows that ``most teachers never talk about the most basic aspects of their work.'' Schools have improved since 1980, but the authority vacuum remains, he says.
Grant offers two practical reforms:
Decentralize. Return power and autonomy to local schools. Allow them to develop unencumbered by the increasingly top-heavy central office management and bureaucracy. Magnet and ``choice'' schools where principals can take initiative and develop a unique school character are examples.
Give teachers control of their profession. Make them responsible for curriculum, tenure, mentoring, and relations among themselves. Teachers who themselves exercise little self-government are less apt to contribute a positive sense of authority.
Excerpt from `The World We Created at Hamilton High'
The social revolutions that swept through Hamilton destroyed the old order and created great doubt and confusion among the faculty and staff about the exercise of the authority on which both the intellectual and moral orders of the school depend. Teachers and school officials themselves were the object of new laws; they were indicted for their failures to create the conditions of equality of opportunity that society now demanded. They were confused, ambivalent, and demoralized.... Long after the violence had disappeared, the effects of an increasingly bureaucratic and centralized school system were felt at Hamilton High. ``I don't make the rules; I enforce them,'' the principal told students in the 1980s. These were revolutions generated elsewhere, and the principal increasingly felt he was a middleman, a manager who interpreted the rules rather than one who bore a significant responsibility for making a world.