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Visions of American Education

Tuesday, February 1, 2000

SIR, — The October/November 1999 issue of Policy Review contained an attack on my work and on me by Mary Eberstadt. Though much of the article, "The Schools They Deserve," centered on my recent book, The Disciplined Mind, Eberstadt failed to indicate why a book about precollegiate education should bear that title and focus on the scholarly disciplines. I therefore begin my response by describing the rationale and argument of the book.

Too much of recent discussion about American education has focused on technical and instrumental aspects — vouchers, unions, length of school year, and the like. Too little has focussed on why we should educate students at all. Formal schooling has several purposes, of course, but I believe its most fundamental purpose should be the inculcation of the major ways of thinking that have been crystallized in the disciplines. Specifically, I argue that, by the completion of secondary school, all students should have a reasonable sense of what it is like to think scientifically, mathematically, historically, and artistically (that is, to have command of at least one form of artistry).

Let me give a few examples of what disciplinary thinking is, and what it is not. A mind disciplined in history should be able to apply analogies from one period to another, to evaluate conflicting documents, to analyze possible causes of pivotal events. A mind disciplined in science should be able to dissect an experiment, relate data to hypotheses and hypotheses to theory, and distinguish claims with warrant from those that lack empirical support and those that by definition cannot be subjected to testing. It should go without saying — though I must say it — that individuals cannot master such disciplinary thinking unless they have basic literacy skills, know a body of relevant facts and concepts, and have reasonable habits of study. However, there is no necessity for a common canon, nor for mastery of many disparate facts and concepts. Disciplinary thinking can be acquired — indeed, I believe that it can only be acquired — through intensive study of one or more significant bodies of knowledge.

Disciplinary thinking should not be confused, therefore, with taking a specified sequence of courses in a subject area or with accumulating lots of information in an encyclopedic fashion. These pursuits are neither necessary nor sufficient. To inculcate disciplinary thinking, educators must seek to develop the specific skills mentioned above — understanding of hypothesis testing, ability to make appropriate historical analogies, and so forth — and determine whether students are able to exhibit these skills. The acid test is whether students can perform competently not with materials to which they have already been exposed, but rather with new and unfamiliar materials. So, for example, understanding of the preconditions that led to the Holocaust should help a student think about the parallels (and non-parallels) to recent events in Bosnia or Kosovo; understanding of the principles of evolution should help a student think about whether genetically-engineered organisms or computer viruses operate by the same principles as classical Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) evolution.

Alas, as chronicled in my earlier book, The Unschooled Mind, even good students in good schools typically do not exhibit disciplinary thinking. They can reproduce the answers that they have memorized; but they are unable to apply skills and strategies to new materials. Indeed, they approach such materials in ways disconcertingly similar to "unschooled" students who have never studied the discipline.

Let me explain why disciplinary thinking poses such difficulties. The most natural way to think about learning is to assume that we are born with a single kind of mental architecture — let us analogize it to a large barn — and that the purpose of education is to fill that barn with as many items — read "facts, definitions, concepts"— as possible. Most students, teachers, and policy-makers share this belief, as does (I believe) the influential educator E.D. Hirsch.

Disciplinary thinking is not natural, however. In many ways, our spontaneous forms of common sense and common nonsense are "non-" or "anti-disciplinarian." Science flies in the face of appearance and common sense (the earth is not flat; we are not created at one historical moment) and so do the other disciplines (negative numbers do not exist in the world; people who look very different from us may experience just what we feel, etc.). To extend the metaphor, an education in the disciplines consists of razing the barn, in large measure, and in constructing a set of more complex architectures. Each discipline has its own architecture, and particular facts and concepts only acquire significance within that architecture. Otherwise, in Alfred North Whitehead’s appropriate figure of speech, they are simply "inert." Happily, however, the disciplinary walls are permeable, and it is possible to use the same facts in various disciplines and to combine disciplinary methods. Constructing the major disciplinary buildings is hard work but it can be tremendously rewarding, as most disciplinarians will attest; human beings in the contemporary world feel disempowered when they are unable to engage in disciplined thinking.

I must mention one final complicating factor. It would be easier to master the disciplines if all human beings learned in the same way. One curriculum, one pedagogy, and one form of assessment would suffice. However, it is now commonly accepted that individuals do not all exhibit the same intellectual strengths, styles, interests, difficulties, and profiles. Educators can either ignore these differences or take advantage of them. My own view is that it makes sense to try to teach students in ways that are comfortable for them. Moreover, all students benefit when topics and themes are approach-ed in a number of ways. Drawing on my own theory of multiple intelligences, I have sought to show how the very differences in how we think can be an ally of, rather than an obstacle to, good thinking in the disciplines.

While we could decide to forget about training the disciplines, I think that this would be tragic. Built up painstakingly over the centuries, the disciplines represent the best thinking of human beings on questions of consequence — who we are, where we come from, what we can aspire to, what will happen to us, the congeries of topics often summed as "the true, the beautiful, and the good." They alone allow us to make sense of the world and to go on to raise new questions and to make fresh discoveries. Moreover, mastery of the disciplines represents one of the few tasks that schools may be uniquely suited to handle. Already, much learning can take place on the Internet. I refer whimsically to the Millennial Palm Pilot which will provide all factual information on oral or written demand. But only steady cumulative work on a number of gritty issues, with regular assessments and feedback on the part of knowledgeable disciplinarians, will bring about some mastery of major disciplined forms of thinking.

The patient reader, who has read not only Eberstadt’s attack but also the preceding lines, may wonder which book Eberstadt was writing about. In 15 printed pages, Eberstadt managed to avoid explicating my major argument. Indeed, the word "discipline" is absent! Instead, her argument proceeds roughly as follows:

1. Much of the damage done to American education was done by progressive education.

2. Despite his denials, Gardner represents a contemporary version of the sins of progressive education. As such, he is a contributor to further problems.

3. Gardner claims to be a democrat but actually he is (apparently advertently) supporting an elite education. The students he is concerned about are privileged students who will acquire basics no matter what they study. He is ready to sacrifice the very disadvantaged students that he claims to care about.

As the saying goes, I hardly know where to begin. The account that Eberstadt offers of progressive education is a total caricature, which does not resemble the accounts of responsible historians like Lawrence Cremin, Patricia Graham, and Ellen Lagemann. Progressive education had its sins and its foolishnesses, but the work of Francis Parker, John Dewey, and their followers represented a sincere effort to recognize how children learn, to honor the differences among children, and to build democratic communities. Some progressive practices endure in our country — as they should — but progressivism hardly had widespread influence, as Eberstadt concedes. If anything, the sins of American education should be attributed to the rote drill-and-kill, scattershot processes which have dominated education in this country and which are much less prominent in our chief competitors in East Asia and Western Europe.

But in any event, I don’t consider myself a progressive or a traditionalist; as should be evident, I partake of several intellectual strands. Basic literacies, habits of hard work, high standards should cut across such rhetorical divides — and I defy Eberstadt to quote thinkers who oppose basic literacies or who espouse laziness or low standards. I sense straw men and women here.

Eberstadt is dead wrong when she describes the education that I favor as designed just for an elite. Did she fail to understand my subtitle "An education for all human beings"? Precisely because the kind of education I favor has often been withheld from disadvantaged children, I insist on this point. I make no bones about my view that all children ought to learn to think in disciplined ways — that’s what education should be about. Only because I know that not all individuals share this vision do I reluctantly embrace the idea of a small number of educational pathways, amongst which families would choose.

Eberstadt attacks not only me but my close colleague Theodore Sizer. In our ATLAS project, carried out jointly with James Comer and Janet Whitla and our respective organizations, we have been developing an educational pathway that features understanding in the disciplines. Eberstadt does not mention the New York and Boston educator Deborah Meier — and with good reason. That is because Deborah Meier is a one-person refutation of Mary Eberstadt’s argument. Both in the Central Park East schools in Harlem and in the Mission Hill School in Boston, Meier has constructed an education around important, in-depth study of topics, which yields a disciplined mind. Her ideas and practices have been crucial for Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools and for my own work with the atlas project and with Harvard Project Zero. None of these educational interventions have been directed toward elites, and indeed the chief focus has been on disadvantaged youngsters in public schools around the country. The facts are arrayed against Eberstadt; what is left, untouched, is attitude.

In view of the gap between what I’ve written and what Eberstadt has critiqued, I hope that readers will turn to my own writings, particularly The Disciplined Mind and Intelligence Reframed. I have elected not to use my space here to go through her own piece page by page; but I must note that there are errors of fact or interpretation in nearly every paragraph. Those interested in a more extended critique of Eberstadt’s words are encouraged to consult my web site:


Co-Director, Project Zero
Graduate School of Education
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.


Professor Gardner, as befits the author of multiple intelligence theory, is himself graced with numerous and extraordinary talents. Here, he exhibits the one called chutzpah.

First, he devotes most of his lengthy reply to a disingenuous defense of "the disciplines," which are — let the record show — no more under siege in "The Schools They Deserve" than poster paints or drinking fountains. Only then does he let fly, in the penultimate sentence of his letter, the grievous charge that "there are errors of fact or interpretation in nearly every paragraph" of my essay — and goes on to say that he has "elected" not to share them with us here!

This see-my-website tactic, which increasingly disfigures public discourse, really must stop. It’s obvious what most professors would do if presented with a student paper containing an extravagant accusation of error and no evidence of it, just an invitation to visit a website. Why has this professor resorted to such gambits, when they are so manifestly beneath our readers, our writers, and (in his better moments) Gardner himself?

I have a guess: The educational philosophy he and like-minded colleagues represent is indeed taking a beating these days, and not only in the pages of Policy Review.

In response to what substance appears to be present in Gardner’s reply, let us begin with the matter of taxonomy: If Gardner is going to vex himself over being placed in the "progressive" tradition, then he ought to know that just about every single other commentator observing his work has characterized it the same way I did (though some, to be sure, prefer to call it "neoprogressive" or "ultraprogressive" instead). But these scholastic distinctions needn’t detain the rest of us. Some ducks may insist they are really rabbits, but that doesn’t mean the duck-rabbit actually exists.

Second, and contrary to what his letter insists, "The Schools They Deserve" was neither designed nor executed as a personal attack on anyone. Rather, the piece attempted to solve what I regarded as a kind of sociological puzzle: How had it happened that, at the precise time when school districts across the country were embracing new tests, higher standards, and otherwise repudiating progressive educational ideas, those same ideas were enjoying a revival elsewhere, in the elite private schools? Gardner himself, as I and every other observer of this trend has noted, is the preeminent figure in that renascence, so naturally I quoted and explicated his ideas in some detail. But those ideas, if I may be forgiven for saying so, were offered up as mere instantiations of the phenomenon I was trying to describe, not as its platonic form.

That the ideological gap I described between elite schools and the rest does indeed exist is a fact beyond dispute. The trend in most school districts these days, as the Washington Post summarized the scene in September, is toward "the ‘standards-based movement,’ which has seen nearly every state first adopt academic standards then begin creating customized tests to determine whether students have met those standards." At the same time, the educational theories in vogue in the best private schools, where Gardner’s popularity is but one case in point, aim in the opposite direction — against grades, against standardized testing, against a canon or particular body of knowledge children must learn, and for practices like student-run classrooms, hands-on, performance-oriented activities, self-assessment, group work: i.e., the familiar progressive project.

So the divide I described is out there for all to see. One does not refute its existence, as Gardner hopes to, by insisting that private schools are not the only petri dishes for progressive researchers; to the contrary, I explicitly noted that "some of those schools are public" and that "there is no shortage of funders or educators interested in trying Gardner’s ideas." The fact that educational experiments of this sort are conducted with apparent ease of access on the some of the nation’s poorest and most vulnerable students is significant in its own right, and bears reflection.

In the end, I suggested three possible explanations for the popularity of progressive ideas in elite schools. One had to do with parents and their resistance to bad news — a resistance that arguably increases the more they are paying for it. A second explanation for this popularity was sociological — because most of the students in these schools, enjoying as they do what E.D. Hirsch has called "the second school" at home, are less likely to become casualties of such fads than are other students. A third explanation for progressivism’s appeal in such places, I suggested, was institutional. For decades, progressive doctrine has been the reigning educational philosophy in all the best schools of education and among almost all the nation’s leading educators. Because of that institutional monopoly, "teachers, headmasters, and others who pride themselves on staying au courant will likewise gravitate to the same ideological home base."

It is plain from Gardner’s response that he does not find the question of the popularity of progressivism in elite schools interesting — any more than he is moved by the lack of enthusiasm, to say nothing of occasional outright hostility, toward progressivism in non-elite circles. Certainly he does not offer an explanation to compete with mine. I think he would learn something by looking more deeply into the sources of these contrasting views. For many parents — particularly those with fewer choices and advantages than others — school constitutes the bulk if not the entirety of the opportunity their children have to make something of their lives. Those parents can tell when that opportunity is being squandered.

Professor Gardner "defies" me "to quote thinkers who oppose basic literacies or who would espouse laziness or low standards." A few months ago, he wrote in the New York Times, "I don’t care that much if one can name the planets" because "one can always request that information from a Palm Pilot." He may not care, but most parents do care, and vehemently. Progressive educators do not understand why, and their failure to empathize is costing them dearly. It is why the progressive vision is losing.

Washington, D.C.

The Fifth Branch

Sir, — Bravo Zulu (Navy slang for "job well done") to Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute for his superb article "Military Supremacy and How We Keep It" (October/November 1999). Thompson did an outstanding job of explaining the need for the United States to reverse its decade-long dismantlement of its armed forces.

After reading Thompson’s superb article, I came out with a greater appreciation and clearer understanding of the future roles and missions of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. The purpose of my writing is to mention the roles and missions of the U.S. Coast Guard when discussing the topic of maritime supremacy.

The Coast Guard may be the fifth and smallest branch of our armed forces, but it nonetheless has a vital role to play in our nation’s defense. The twenty-first century will find the Coast Guard on the front lines against some of the threats mentioned in Defense Secretary Cohen’s 1999 Annual Report. God bless carrier battle groups and the F-18, but they are not as effective as Coast Guard cutters are against asymmetrical threats such as environmental terrorism, illegal migration, and illegal narcotics smuggling, to name just a few.

In his 1999 State of the Coast Guard address, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. James Loy used the analogy of a dull knife to describe the readiness crisis confronting his sailors and aviators. He pointed out that even the sharpest knife in the drawer can easily become dull by too much use. For example, deployments of fixed-wing aircraft have more than doubled in the past five years and cutters are now deployed more than 180 days away from their homeports.

The age of the Coast Guard’s ships, planes, and equipment is equally troubling. Some of their cutters like the Storis first saw action in World War II. Three separate classes of other medium and high cutters along with several fixed-wing aircraft are also approaching block obsolescence in the next several years.

This country’s neglect of the Coast Guard must come to an end. The Coast Guard deserves the same treatment as its sister services when it involves the investing of precious tax dollars into rebuilding the U.S. military. Unlike the Pentagon, which received a well-deserved increase in spending for fiscal 2000, the Coast Guard did not fare so well.

The perfect remedy for the Coast Guard’s readiness woes is its Deepwater Mission Project. Deepwater is the Coast Guard’s plan for modernizing its fleet and aircraft for the twenty-first century. Why Deepwater?

While the demands for Coast Guard assets are increasing, the Coast Guard’s capability to meet these challenges is decreasing because of antiquated cutters and aircraft.

President Reagan had it right when he said, "I believe it is immoral to ask the sons and daughters of America to protect this land with second-rate equipment and bargain-based equipment." Unfortunately for all of our branches of the armed forces (Coast Guard included), his words have fallen on deaf ears.

Legislative Director
Conservative Action Team
Washington, D.C.