Schools for the Future

COMPARED with previous US heads of state, President Bush is ``the education president.'' No previous president has spent even the modest amount of time on schooling Mr. Bush has - though, as with his claim to be ``the environment president,'' the label may reflect more what party leaders identify as a top public concern than a long-abiding love for the subject. So what's new in politics? The White House is slowly consolidating some of the gains of school reform in the 1980s. The appointment of Lamar Alexander as secretary of education is an excellent move. So is the idea of making school choice a major cause - though if the idea is to include public money for church-based schools the case must be made better than it has been.

Last week the president's $690 million six-point education plan was submitted to Congress. Bush himself visited a special high-tech ``school of the future'' in St. Paul - one of 535 proposed ``new American schools'' that will stress innovation. In typically American fashion, Mr. Bush told the crowd in St. Paul that there have been enough ``studies ... commissions ... blue-ribbon panels ... white papers'' and it was now time to get down ``to the business of inventing new schools for a new world.'' (That' s what many educators have been trying to do since Sputnik and the new math.)

Much of the impulse for school reform in the past decade has been tied to American business's concern that its work force be better prepared. Good education has often been seen as synonymous with a good economy. And as the effort to improve schools continues, new technologies will be introduced in the classroom, and more partnerships between business and public schools may arise. Whittle Communications Inc. of Tennessee, for example, purveyors of the controversial Cable One commercial news channel for t he classroom, plans to create ``for-profit'' schools. Xerox, IBM, and Alcoa are advising the White House on new work-force training programs in schools.

Yet education is more than job-training. Federal, state, and local officials concerned about the future shouldn't lose track of what education is about - what its primary virtues are. The real value of education is the learning and practice of truthful inquiry. The idea that education exists in order to provide better career possibilities is an unfortunate half-truth.

More attention must be given to the implicit and explicit ways that values are communicated to students. Commercial values are not the same as, say, family values, or religious values. Social thinker David Riesman argues well that education ought to be ``countercylical.'' That is, it ought to provide a protection and ``counter'' to the world's modes.

Young humans aren't empty-headed beings waiting to have their minds filled. People are innately intelligent, and this must be the starting point for the teacher, who draws out that intelligence. Technology can help, but it isn't a substitute. Shakespeare saw deeply into the human character - long before light bulbs.

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