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1-12 May 1998

Vol. I, No. 30

Feature Article

Leading academics to focus on education standards at Partisan Review conference

by Cliff Bernard

"I'm quite concerned with what goes on in education," says Edith Kurzweil, editor of Partisan Review, "mostly with the various contortions people go through without facing the most important issue -- standards, starting at the most basic level."

She's not the only one who's concerned, of course, and few deny the sorry state of education in the United States. Her misgivings, and the concerns of 16 leading academics, will be the focus of the Partisan Review conference Education and Integration: Europe and America, scheduled for May 8 and 9 at Boston University. The conference will address four issues: The Impact of High School Preparation on College Education, The Core Curriculum as Intellectual Motivation, Administering the University of the Future, and Comparing Ways of Dealing with Meritocracy in Democracy.

Participants in Education and Integration: Europe and America

  • Bernard Avishai from the Harvard Business Review
  • Robert Brustein, professor of English at Harvard University and artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge
  • Helga Deppe-Wolfinger, vice president of Johann Wolfgang-Goethe University and a specialist in third world and gender studies
  • Chester E. Finn, Jr., cochairman of the Educational Excellence Network
  • Nathan Glazer, professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education
  • Rita Kramer, author of Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America's Teachers
  • Edith Kurzweil, editor of Partisan Review
  • Steven Marcus, an authority on the Victorian age and on psychoanalysis
  • Jerry Martin, president of the National Alumni Forum
  • Michael Meyers, director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition
  • David Pryce-Jones, novelist and historian
  • Kurt Scholtz, superintendent of schools in Vienna
  • C. Vann Woodward, Yale University professor of history emeritus
  • Igor Webb, author of Against Capitulation and From Custom to Capital: The English Novel and the Industrial Revolution
  • Jon Westling, BU president
  • Peter Wood, BU associate provost and associate professor
  • Agnes van Zanten, senior researcher at Paris University and authority on the sociology of education and the impact of educational reform on institutions
Participants will debate ways of reversing the consequences of declining educational standards on society and explore the long-range economic effects of a poorly educated workforce unable to compete with its foreign counterparts. Sessions will concentrate on how to enrich educational content and inspire teachers to move away from hackneyed or doctrinaire approaches, and suggest how administrators might facilitate such plans. Education and Integration will also attempt to depoliticize these issues, making it clear to the public that higher standards in education should not be treated as a matter of political leverage or bipartisan compromise.

"I've invited Kurz Scholtz, superintendent of schools in Vienna," Kurzweil, a conference organizer, says. "He's a social democrat, very liberal, but he believes in standards." She explains that Scholtz, in integrating waves of immigrant children, many with social and educational problems, into the Viennese school system, never lets standards fall. Students who need it receive assistance with their work, but are ultimately held to the same standards as native Viennese children.

"They work hard. No excuses are made. If they don't make the grade, they're kicked out."

According to Kurzweil, the approach bears fruit, with few children failing, and most quickly raising themselves to Viennese standards.

The issue of standards has to apply to U.S. teachers as well, she says, maintaining that teachers today are too narrowly trained, and that once fixed in their specialty, they resist innovations that might undermine their position. "Teachers need more knowledge of what to teach, rather than how to teach," says Kurzweil. "There are various interests -- people who don't want to lose their jobs. We're not antiunion, but there is a need to recognize that people who aren't good at what they do shouldn't be there."

"In teaching," she continues, "context is essential. Only when teachers have wider knowledge than the books they teach can they add context. The point is that unless high school is improved, students will never get what they could get out of college."

The other conference participants draw on a wide range of experience and expertise, from psychoanalysis and sociology to history and administration (see sidebar). Kurzweil says the general thrust of the two-day discussion will be to explore the underlying problems in education in the United States, and to expose the special-interest ideas that obscure the issues.

"Ultimately," she says, "what we want to do here is get the issues aired, without portraying the conference as a political event."

The conference will be held at the George Sherman Union and is free and open to the public. For further information, call Partisan Review at 353-4260.