The Public Perception of Education
In the Winter 1976-77 issue of the College Board Review, education journalist Fred M. Hechinger tackled the question of who, or what, is to blame for the public's disillusionment about the value of education
If ever there was an Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite of the education beat, it was Fred M. Hechinger, who covered education as a writer and editor for the New York Times for more than 30 years. From his first column, published on August 9, 1959, through his last, which ran on December 19, 1990, Hechinger celebrated the best of education while shining an honest, and sometimes harsh, light on the missed opportunities, lags, and ugly realities failing America’s students. “I tried to celebrate the islands of excellence,” he wrote in his final column, “but I could not overlook the sea of neglect and apathy that threatened to wash over them.” In reflecting on Hechinger’s “vigorous tenure” at the paper, Times managing editor Arthur Gelb said the journalist “was the voice of wisdom, reason and conscience in the often-volatile world of education.”
Hechinger died in 1995, and 25 years later his legacy still looms over the world of education journalism. That’s in large part thanks to The Hechinger Report, a non-profit news organization whose website launched 2010 and quickly established itself as a top-tier education publication. But anyone who follows ed journalism to any degree has heard the name Fred Hechinger and knows the shadow he casts. So it was exciting to unearth this piece, published under his byline in the Winter 1976-77 issue of the College Board Review.
The unflinching, unsparing Hechinger is on full display, with the journalist reflecting on the state of public education—and the public’s view of it. (It was based on a speech Hechinger delivered at College Board’s 1976 National Forum.) It’s at once an artifact of its post-Watergate moment and a mirror of our own. Hechinger grappling with why so many in the public hold a dim view of education—and the powers enabling it—is as powerful today as it surely was then. He takes a wide view of the topic and considers it from all angles before coming to some tough conclusions and ways to address them. “I am firmly convinced that those who write education off as a matter of low public priority are dead wrong,” Hechinger writes. “The politicians who overlook education as an issue and the editors and … programmers who think the public has turned away from education are ignorant of some of the strongest currents that have affected American society in the past and have not lost their force today.”
That observation sounds eerily familiar. (And right on cue, EdWeek recently published a piece with the headline “Has the Public Turned on Teachers?”) Of course, the best education journalist of his generation, flexing his abilities in the prime of his career, has something to teach us about the forces shaping the experiences of this generation of students—and the narrative about education in our time.
In 1830, The National Gazette, a newspaper published in Philadelphia, warned in an editorial that those among the "mechanical and working classes," who have already been moderately successful, consider a school tax evil. Such a tax would make them feel that "they had toiled for the benefit of other families than their own." "We have no confidence in any compulsory equalizations," wrote the Gazette. "It has well been observed that they pull down what is above, but never raise what is below."
Compare this statement with the words of Horace Mann: "Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the condition of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery."
The public perception of education since then has been veering almost constantly between those two extremes. Periods in which the schools were viewed as the answer to all problems have been followed by periods when education was seen as a failure or a frill.
We are in such a period of frustration and shaken confidence now. To say that education is not perceived as a matter of high national priority is to state the obvious. When President Ford, last year, reviewed the options for New York City on national television, he pledged that in case of default the federal government would keep all the essential services going. The essential services were fire and police protection and sanitation. The schools? You answer that one. The City University? You may recall that, when the money ran out, it shut its doors. The public response was less than a stampede to demand the reopening of the nation's largest urban university.
In the course of the 1976 Presidential debates, education was barely mentioned—and not discussed at all. Politicians last year clearly felt that the investment in education as an issue would bring no return at the polls. And so—silence. Except for occasional forays into busing which, if you will forgive my narrow view, does not seem to me any more education-related than the way I make it to my office in the morning is much of an editorial function.
It is difficult, under such circumstances, to remember that only a little more than two decades ago the schools were the great rallying point. The National Citizens Committee for the Public Schools had created a network of nonpartisan support forces. Education was perceived as the essential foundation of post-war America.
Public-spirited industrialists went to court to prove that corporations were not only entitled, but duty-bound, to allocate some of their profits to the support of the nation's colleges and universities. The G.I. Bill of Rights transformed the college-going habits of countless American families. Following the pattern established by the Morrill Act, many of the remaining barriers of class and wealth were dismantled. The baby boom made the schools the center of the new suburban sprawl. Good communities were synonymous with good schools. Real estate values rose and fell with reports on a town's quality of education.
Education journalist Fred M. Hechinger
Self-doubt, Conservatism, Retreat
I need not sketch for you the details of today's reversal of that picture. Schools are closing. In an era of no-growth or decline and retrenchment, the public mood is one of self-doubt, conservatism, retreat. A reincarnation of The National Gazette might well gain its readers' support with an editorial warning against the expenditure of public funds for the benefit of other people's children. The recent furor against free tuition suggests little current enthusiasm to pay for the education of other people's children.
In its view of the elementary and secondary schools, the public is frustrated by high taxes and a sense of failure. The anger against cost is undoubtedly aggravated by the fact that in most localities school taxes are the only expenditures on which the voters retain any voice at all. A vote against school taxes often becomes a vote against high taxes in general.
The sense of failure is undoubtedly heightened by the fact that failure today is more visible, less easily swept out of sight. The drop-out no longer is readily absorbed by the economy. The non-reader is harder to overlook in these days of published reading scores. I understand well why the school establishment was so angry, more than a decade ago, when I first caused the hitherto secret reading scores to be ferreted out by Leonard Buder and published by the New York Times.
I have never regretted my role in that move toward full disclosure. What is unfortunate is that the public tends to respond to documentation of failure by seeking easy scapegoats and patent-medicine answers. We are quite efficient as a nation of score-keepers (as the College Board knows as well as any other group of experts) but we are much less sophisticated in our efforts to interpret the scores. More often than not, the public goes off on an angry offensive, while the profession hides behind the barricades of a defensive status quo. (The College Board's resort to an in-depth study of the causes of the decline in the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores constitutes a sensible departure from such counterproductive confrontation.)
In the present phase of public disenchantment, the simplistic pamphleteering by many revisionist scholars and educationists has done little to guide the public perception of education. Slipshod research spiked with neo-Marxist bias has undermined public faith in education's role as "the balance wheel." Unveiled with much fanfare, such reports have given added ammunition to the political right-wing intent on proving that to support education is to waste money on other people's children. It is an unhappy coincidence of history that the New Left's alleged proof that schools don't work was sprung on the American public at precisely the moment when a triumphant political right wanted to undermine public support of education.
And so we are left with shaken faith, doubts—and a rerun of an old educational soap opera that might be titled "Can Johnny Escape from the Wicked Open Classroom and Find Success and Happiness in a Return to the Basics?" This is not the time and place to argue the relative virtues and sins of progressive and traditional classrooms; but any appraisal of the public perception of education today must take into account the fact that once again the people's judgment is being clouded by the absurdities of an ideological debate.
That debate will never be resolved until the focus is at last placed where it belongs: the training of able teachers and the organization of schools in which those able teachers are allowed to teach in their own fashion, without silly restraints imposed by ideology, management, or unions.
The sexiest topic today appears to be "The Case Against College." The public view, if we are to believe its reflection in the talk shows and in public print, appears to be that we are educating not too few, but too many. Having second thoughts about the profits to be derived from crime, the American public seems now to have concluded that college doesn't pay. I shall not bore you with the statistics concerning the declining returns on your child's tuition dollar. Tell those figures to the high school drop-out who is looking for a job. Or put it as a footnote to the latest report on out-of-school and out-of-work Black youths.
An Intellectual Sell-out
The College Board has asked me merely to address myself to the public perception of education—not to argue with that perception. Yet, I cannot comment on what the public feels about the value of a college education without at least suggesting that higher education itself bears much of the blame for creating the wrong yardstick by which it is now being judged. It was inexcusable for the higher education imagemakers in the days of affluence to build their case on the dollar returns that supposedly flowed from the college degree. It was an intellectual sell-out then; it is the basis for the public's current disenchantment now that the jobs are not plentiful and now, too, that the teamsters and the plumbers have managed to narrow somewhat the dividend gap between the union contract and the sheepskin. Isn't it an old Biblical truth that those who live by the bottom line shall bottom out by the bottom line?
There is little question that the image of higher education still suffers from the American people's lingering memory of the rebellious Sixties. Many of those who were outraged by the student uprisings have not buried their grudge; and those who admired the students' reformist zeal are dismayed by campuses peopled largely, as one dissenting undergraduate recently put it to me, by miniature lawyers, doctors, and corporation executives.
From either point of view, the public perception of higher education leaves much to be desired. The college president may be counting his blessings while students are absorbed in the pursuit of success; the pragmatists among the public at large may cheer these students' determination to concentrate on the courses that seem to point to the most promising careers. And yet, there seems to me cause for concern as that latest American evangelism—Management by Objectives—invades the campuses. I am sufficiently heretical to believe that MBO, despite its short-term promise of cost-efficiency, is a long-term threat to imagination, creativity, and inventiveness—in education as well as in business. In the end, it will not be to higher education's advantage—neither in terms of image nor of active support—if the campuses are increasingly perceived as staging areas for employment in the professions and other careers, as high-class vocational schools rather than as centers of learning, research, and inquiry.
It would be dishonest of me to discuss the public's perception of education without reference to the news media. More than ever before, the line between what is and what the media actually report is blurred. Except for the students', and their parents', own worm's-eye view of education, the public knows only what it is told in print and on the screen.
There is no question in my mind that the news media—not all but in composite—often err both by way of wrong emphasis and inadequate coverage.
Excessive concentration on poorly substantiated but flashy attacks by educational revisionists has distorted the public's view. Sensational attacks are too often allowed to outdistance reasoned response. Moderate, nonideological reports and books dealing with education are either not reviewed at all, or assigned to the small coterie of militants who thus are given disproportionate influence in the shaping—or misshaping—of the public's perception of education's problems and accomplishments, successes, and failures. Sounds from the soap boxes of the left and the right are allowed to drown out the voices of the liberal center. The public is left with a distorted view of the realities that confront the academy and the teachers.
An elementary school classroom full of children eagerly raising their hands to volunteer or answer a question, circa 1965.
From the media point, moreover, the excitement has gone out of the education story. The calm after the flamboyant Sixties has persuaded too many editors and TV programmers that education deserves little space or time. In true chicken-egg fashion, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine whether the media ignore education because the public lacks interest or whether the public lacks interest because the media ignore education. The effect is to deepen the void. Searching documentaries on education have become a rarity. Even my own newspaper, which still covers education more diligently than most others, has abandoned its regular weekly in-depth treatment of the field—as have the news magazines.
And yet, I am firmly convinced that those who write education off as a matter of low public priority are dead wrong. The politicians who overlook education as an issue and the editors and radio/TV programmers who think the public has turned away from education are ignorant of some of the strongest currents that have affected American society in the past and have not lost their force today.
The public may veer this way and that under momentary political or financial pressures. But the people viewed as individuals—as parents or as children—have not really changed their basic view of school and college. In selfishly reactionary moments (and we are living through one such period now) they may let the mean disregard of those other children's rights gain the upper hand—may actually make some headway with the case against college for those other children. But there is no change in the peoples' perception of education's crucial role in the lives of their own children and grandchildren.
The challenge then is to harness once again the power of the dream of what we want for our children's and our country's future—to turn it into a new national drive to hitch the public perception and the political strategies to that dream.
The challenge is to put an end to the public's and the politicians' view that there is no longer any overriding need for the universities as a resource in the nation's service.
The challenge is for people and institutions to organize themselves for such service and to dare again to move forward, and, if need be, to let the politicians and the media bring up the rear.
The challenge is to resist those who are calling a retreat from open access to education in order to return to a stratified society, based on privilege rather than on talent. If the past is any indication, the American people will again respond to a view of education that so inspired Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann—a view that rejects the theory that the schools are impotent and that opportunities are permanently closing for our children—a view that instead reaffirms, as every parent does, that education is still the invisible frontier to the future. If for the moment, the public ignores these historic facts, you in the profession and we in the media share the responsibility for dispelling that ignorance.