Thursday, June 20, 2024

One Wants One's World-Class Cafeteria Trays

One way I can tell what I ought to write about is that a topic nags at me for a long time.  This example goes back five years, to Edmund White's 2018 book The Unpunished Vice (Bloomsbury).  In May 2019 I wrote about White's confusion of cultural absolutism with cultural relativism, his youthful infatuation with premodern Japanese culture. It would be tempting to call this confusion fashionable, if it weren't so widespread and enduring.

In that post I wrote that I intended to discuss some disparaging comments White made about the US educational system.  If five years seems like a long time for me to be bothered by them, notice that White was still fussing about something that had happened over sixty years earlier. 

I went to a Deweyite public grade school in Evanston outside Chicago, where no grades were handed out, only long written comments by teachers on how successfully a student was realizing his potential. That whole system of education was scrapped after the Russians launched Sputnik 1 in 1957; Americans feared they were falling behind in the Cold War. But in that happy pre-Sputnik era of "progressive" education, we were contentedly smearing finger paint, singing a cappella two hours every week, helped along by our teacher’s pitch pipe, and trying to identify Debussy’s Jeux or Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in music appreciation class. Richard Howard, the poet, and Anne Hollander, the costume historian, had attended a similar public school in Cleveland. A poem of Howard’s starts with the line "That year we were Vikings."

Far from being the whole system of American education in those days, progressive schools were a tiny minority, and remained so.  If White hadn't been living in an upscale suburb, he wouldn't have attended a Deweyite school, even in Chicago.  His father was rich and his mother was a psychologist, both of which had something to do with his placement in such an environment.

As for Sputnik, it gave reactionaries another club with which to belabor American schools. But if they had been dominated by feel-good, academically vacuous trends (or if Deweyism had really been incompatible with academic success), it would have taken much longer than it did for the US to put its own satellite into space.  Explorer I was launched in January 1958, three months after Sputnik. The US had a large aerospace system in place already -- where did all the test pilots who went on to become astronauts come from? -- as Gerald Bracey among others explained:

Thus there were lots of reasons for the Russians to accomplish space flight ahead of the U.S.: Our neglect of ballistic missile development for 6 years after World War II; our two-many-cooks approach once we did get serious; the internecine rivalries among the services; the disregard of [rocket pioneer Robert] Goddard's achievements; and Eisenhower's thinking about long-range space policy.

None of these reasons had anything to do with what was happening in schools. It didn't matter. The scapegoating began almost immediately.*

I use Bracey here because he goes on to detail the scapegoating.  I'm old enough to remember the praise of the Soviet educational system that followed, including the five-part series in Life magazine comparing an American high school student, derided as lazy and aimless, to a driven, brilliant Soviet counterpart.  Bracey tracked down the American who, stung by the notoriety, went on to become a jet pilot, but couldn't find the Russian kid, who may not have even existed. I believe that the pro-Soviet trend expanded from the right-wing Life to such elite media as Reader's Digest; nowadays, of course, it's East Asian schools that are supposedly leaving our kids in the dust.

White's an excellent writer, and I've read most of his books, often with pleasure.  But he loves to gripe, inaccurately, about cultural relativism, political correctness, and feminists.  Sometimes he has an arguable point, but usually, as here, he's fantasizing.  


* Gerald Bracey, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality (Educational Research Service, 2009), 37-38.