The Real World of the Public Schools
reviewed by Donald J. Arnstine - 1973
The nation's schools are currently a public punching bag. In The Real World of the Public Schools, Harry Broudy lands a number of solid blows, but not in the carping manner of today's more vocal critics. He does not charge "oppression," as the educational critics of the left are wont to do, nor does he charge "no-account fraud" after the manner of the political critics of the right. Broudy's attack is based on the tenets of classical realism, a philosophical point of view for which he has served as a chief proponent for more than a generation. Grounded in a system of thought that has itself undergone centuries of refinement, his criticisms of schooling are more temperate, more precise, and probably more defensible in the light of the evidence than is most of today's clamor.
Beyond the fashionable critiques and remedies that are currently attracting attention, Professor Broudy finds real troubles in the "real world" of schooling. To prepare the way for his own observations, he first denies the cogency of the claims of the people he calls the "new humanists" -- writers like Holt, Kozol, Goodman, and Friedenberg. (That these men would in a locked room soon be at one another's theoretical throats is not considered by Professor Broudy.) Their proposals cannot reform schools because their emphasis is on unlimited freedom, unlimited alternatives among educational activities, and happiness as the goal of teaching. Broudy charges that these aims allow for no standards of judgment; that is, if one is permitted to do anything, then one thing is as good as another. Improvement cannot come unless one has standards by which to judge change, and while rap sessions may produce happiness at the moment, they offer no assurance of solving either educational or social problems.
But neither has Broudy much confidence in the ministrations of the U.S. Office of Education, the philanthropic foundations (Carnegie, Ford), or the burgeoning education business. Suggesting that this "new establishment" has its own axes to grind, he observes that its leaders (drawn from "a very small stratum of society") have lately demanded accountability from schools while they themselves remain accountable to no one. This establishment initiated a series of trend-setting educational programs: for excellence in the late 1950s and early 60s, for disadvantaged youth in the late 60s, and for accountability and open classrooms today. Yet for all their expense and publicity, these agencies fail to account for either the threat they posed to school-teachers, or for the persistence with which educational bureaucracies protect their traditional ways of doing things.
The real troubles that Professor Broudy finds in schooling are of three kinds. First, there are educational inequalities which neither performance contracting nor voucher plans will ameliorate. Second, the majority of today's teachers have neither the training nor the competence of professionals. And third, the emphasis on relevance in schooling and the effort to teach readily transferable concrete things is misguided, for it ignores the only factors that can produce intelligence in action: abstraction and generalization. Each of these areas merits a closer look.
While Professor Broudy offers little in the way of analysis or recommendation with regard to racial inequalities, he attends closely to the great disparities in financial support for schools. Since the weight of property taxes falls most heavily on home-owners and renters, and since different localities vary enormously in their ability to raise money for schooling, Broudy recommends the income tax, collected at state and federal levels, as the most equitable source of school support.
In the course of discussing educational finance, Broudy considers voucher plans and the concept of accountability in education. For parents who do not think they are getting their money's worth out of their local public schools, it has been suggested that vouchers be issued which the parents can "spend" at any school of their choice. This has been called a "free market" educational system, wherein "better" schools would attract larger enrollments -- and thereby receive greater support -- and "worse" schools would experience declining enrollments. Broudy devastates the voucher system with a series of arguments, several of which are equally applicable to the concepts of performance contracting and accountability.
To begin with, he points out that the best schools may not be the survivors of a voucher-based competitive system, any more than the best automobiles or the best cosmetics survive in the free market. Further, he brands as a myth the belief that privately controlled schools are any better or more experimental than schools which must submit to public control. Me also observes that schools supported by publicly funded vouchers would have to be equally accessible to members of all minority groups. The bureaucracy that would be needed to guarantee such equal access would rival the bureaucracies that currently control public schools.
Professor Broudy notes that a system in which parents choose schools for their children to attend simply shifts responsibility for education from the schools to the parents, who would have to make wise choices. He argues similarly against performance contracting which, he claims, creates a "moral holiday" for school boards and school personnel, since they can shift the blame for failure to the contractor. He suggests that parents cannot judge the quality of schools any better than they can judge the quality of physicians. Hence their opinions would very likely be made on the same basis as they are now—schools that are patronized by the children of the successful social classes, whatever their quality, are judged to be good schools. Finally, Broudy observes that even experts in the field of education are not able to agree about which schools are the better ones. Thus the idea of a voucher system's giving parents a real choice is absurd.
Professor Broudy sees little hope of holding schools accountable unless their particular function is clearly identified and agreed upon, and unless there are clear and acceptable standards concerning what is worth learning. Since we lack such agreements, there is nothing for which the schools can be held accountable. Broudy further argues that schools cannot reasonably be held accountable when teachers lack the autonomy to make decisions. This docility of teachers (which existed at least "until very recently") heralds the second category of troubles in Professor Broudy's real world of schools. Broudy likens teachers to restaurant cooks, preparing meals according to a prescribed menu from a given set of recipes. He claims it is a "mischievous illusion" to call teachers professionals.
Broudy mentions two reasons why teachers are so ineffective. First, they are asked to do too much by those who fail to realize that a teacher cannot love thirty children all at once and cannot model a set of values for a community that itself is divided in its allegiances. Second, the education of teachers has virtually been reduced to apprenticeship training under the pressure of politicians, private foundations, and the U.S. Office of Education. As a result, teachers lack the theoretical background without which they can neither understand their occupation nor deal intelligently with circumstances that are inevitably in flux.
Broudy's solution to this problem is a radical one. Describing most educational workers as "white collared classroom operatives," he proposes that it is practical to give a thorough professional training only to a small elite, perhaps 15 percent, of those who will teach. In addition to getting a general liberal education, some specialized study, and a background in educational theory, this elite would receive special training in pedagogy through laboratory experiences, clinical teaching, and an internship. Professional teachers trained in this way would then do educational planning, administer schools, and monitor the work of the majority of educational workers, the less thoroughly trained and lower-paid paraprofessionals. This division of labor would be facilitated if the bulk of formal instruction (didactics) was first programmed by professionals and then monitored in use by the paraprofessionals. The truly professional teachers can focus on the more difficult task of helping children to discover knowledge for themselves (heuristics) and the more sensitive task of creating an appropriate emotional climate for learning (philetics).
This approach to staffing a school is similar to what has been called "vertical differentiation." According to Robert Bhaerman ("Is the Vertical Virus Bugging You?" American Teacher, Vol. 57, No. 2, October 1972, pp. 9-10), teachers dislike arrangements offering higher pay and greater authority to a minority of their colleagues who, as it usually turns out, spend the least time with pupils. While sensitive to the weaknesses of other innovations that teachers perceived as threatening, Broudy seems not to have accounted for this similar weakness in his own proposal.
Perhaps the worst of the schools' troubles in Professor Broudy's estimation is the fruitless quest for relevance at the expense of teaching the cultural heritage and disciplined bodies of knowledge. He points out that much of what is called irrelevance in studies is simply a function of students' being unable to see the connections between their studies and other, more immediate concerns. This is an intellectual shortcoming in students, not a failure in content selection by the instructor, who properly focuses on generalizations and principles. Rather unsympathetically Broudy writes, "For the impatient student, [the instructor's] exercises are irrelevant to his own criteria of what is important, namely, an ability to become indignant about black poverty and enthusiastic about Nader's crusades."
Broudy claims that what is really relevant to effective living in a modern technocracy is a sound, general education, one which abstracts from a multitude of contemporary particularities in order to bring to the student principles and generalizations of great power. Such an education will offer knowledge in a well-organized form, an acquaintance with the value hierarchies by which men have made and will continue to make decisions, and practice in the processes of collective deliberation.
Only such a general education will provide the flexibility needed in a rapidly changing world, and only such a general education will help people find appropriate satisfactions that are no longer offered by occupations which have been routinized and emptied of personal significance. General education will help the workingman acquire a taste for intellectual and aesthetic enjoyments and "a will to seek them out in the public museum, libraries, concert halls. . . ." (Broudy is not the first to express this sentiment; that workingmen may enjoy beer and bowling as much as executives enjoy martinis and golf has never discouraged educators from trying to lead both groups to life's finer things.)
Professor Broudy develops the imputed power and utility of a general education into a defense of public schools in a modern democracy. He observes that cultural pluralism may lead to chaos and conflict if it does not exist within a context of some common public values and goals. Arguing that Americans do and must share many common values, Broudy offers these as the justification for a system of universally attended public schools. He does not discuss the deep value conflicts that have surfaced in American culture in relation to racism, pacifism, and free enterprise capitalism or their effect on what Gunnar Myrdal called "the American creed." But this omission does not necessarily weaken his case. The disappearance of some values held in common may not entail abandoning universal public education. Public schools could, one supposes, teach the young to think critically about the differences.
It will not be easy to expose all students to an education composed largely of generalizations drawn from organized bodies of subject matter knowledge. For Professor Broudy, the key to success is to bring "the abstraction level of the task into congruence with the abstraction potential of the
student." If this means "make the material easy enough for the child to understand," it is sound advice. Yet understandability is not a sufficient condition for a worthwhile education; the student must also care about what he is doing.
Most people do not take readily to scholarship; they find other things to do than study. On the other hand, most scholars (not all of them, fortunately) are not interested in the affairs that concern most people. Thus it is not easy to conceive of so scholarly an education being thrust upon people who might prefer to drive trucks, sell insurance, cut sheet metal, or even teach children. Professor Broudy is not always altogether clear about his own position on this matter. In one place he writes, "The reform of the educational system .. . can be viewed more profitably as the redistribution of didactics, philetics, and heuristics in the various segments of the system. . .." But in another place Broudy suggests, "If social dislocations continue to deform children faster than societal mechanisms can straighten them out, then it is silly to proclaim that a more efficient method of teaching reading or a change in the composition of the school boards will redeem the children and the social order to boot." Social dislocations have indeed hurt our children; it may be well worth asking whether a better method of presenting organized subject matter knowledge is what educational reform is about.
The Real World of the Public Schools ends with a plea to take education in America "with greater seriousness" and to provide it with more money, more respect, and more discipline. But Professor Broudy does not make it clear to whom this plea is addressed. Perhaps the absence of an audience that could make a difference prompts Broudy to conclude with his "master question": How do we "set such change going at a sufficient depth and on a sufficient scale to make a difference in the system as a whole?"
From Horace Mann to Sidney Marland, educational leaders have wanted to make a difference "in the system as a whole." Few if any succeeded. The trip is a long and arduous one from the chambers of leadership, through the channels of the educational bureaucracy, to the nation's classrooms. In making this long trip, even the best of ideas lose their distinctiveness. As Broudy himself observes, the educational system protects its functions, and the bigger the system, the more impregnable the protection.
Readers unfamiliar with Harry Broudy's earlier writings (Building a Philosophy of Education; Paradox and Promise) will find here a wealth of carefully framed ideas seen in a very contemporary educational context. Quite apart from doctrinal allegiances, Broudy's work can be valued and used as a model of informed competence seasoned with genuine concern. His ideas, like those of others, are not likely to help us change "the system as a whole," but educators informed by ideas like Broudy's may initiate significant changes in their own schools and school systems. Perhaps a multitude of local changes will help us break our habit of worrying about changing the system as a whole.