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What are we teaching our kids?

Publication Date: 2005-08-21

When the Shattuck article first appeared, I introduced it on this site with brief commentary.

By Hamilton E. Davis
Times Argus
August 21, 2005


Last spring, the New York Review of Books ran a 5,000-word article titled "The Shame of the Schools," illustrated with a Norman Rockwell drawing of an old-time school master conferring an academic award on a bespectacled young boy. The thesis was that Vermont's elementary and secondary schools have no curriculum at all, thereby rendering specious its claim to be delivering education based on specific academic standards. The article also suggested that the same situation might be common throughout the country.

The setting for the article was the Mount Abraham Union High School district, based in Bristol and encompassing the towns of New Haven, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro. The author was Roger Shattuck, now 81, who lives in Lincoln. Shattuck wrote his piece based on research carried out while he was a member of the union and district boards from 2000 to 2004.

There hasn't been much reaction to the Shattuck manifesto in Vermont ? the New York Review of Books probably doesn't have a wide readership in the state. It has percolated through the education community, however, which appears to hate it. That's not surprising, for the Shattuck piece attacks tenets of the Vermont system: the principle of local control and so-called constructivist educational philosophy, which emphasizes broad concepts and student self-esteem over student discipline and mastery of facts and skills. Moreover, the article implicitly denigrates the whole performance of the Vermont public school system.

It is to say the least unusual for a single local school board member in Vermont to roil the system like this, not to mention commanding a small but prestigious audience in one of the country's most important intellectual journals. So, who is Roger Shattuck?

A native New Yorker, Shattuck graduated from Yale after World War II. In 1950, his career took wing when he was chosen as a junior fellow at Harvard, a three-year program designed to be an alternative to a doctorate and one of the most prestigious appointments in American academia. He spent most of his career teaching French literature and culture in various universities ? Harvard, the universities of Texas and Virginia, and Boston University.

His reputation rests, however, on the books and scholarly articles that have flowed from his pen over the last 50 years. His books include "The Banquet Years," a study of the artistic avant-garde in France around the turn of the last century, a book that is recommended by the Encyclopedia Britannica; a second major work was "Forbidden Knowledge: from Prometheus to Pornography," which ranged more widely, from existentialism in Camus to the Faust story to an assessment of the Marquis de Sade.

In 1975, his study of Marcel Proust's magisterial novel, "In Search of Lost Time," won the National Book Award. He also edited two books on Helen Keller and wrote a book-length study of the wild boy of Aveyron, a young French boy who lived in the woods as a child around 1800 and was never truly socialized, an issue that helped form the basis of special education in the United States.

For the New York Review of Books, meanwhile, he wrote in considerable depth on a variety of subjects, including the history of aviation, Flaubert's classic French novel, "Madame Bovary," and assessments of books from Saul Bellow's "Humboldt's Gift" to works by Thomas Pynchon, William Gass and Evan S. Connell Jr. and the poetry of Rimbaud, W.S. Merwin and Emily Dickinson. And he jousted regularly with other writers and scholars on issues such as the relevance of the Dada and Surrealist movements in art and the implications of Darwin's work on evolution.

This recitation, already lengthy, touches only on the high points of Shattuck's work over the last 50 years. On that basis, therefore, a fair answer to the question of "Who is Roger Shattuck?" is that he is one of the most prolific and important American thinkers of the 20th century. Well, then, why is he picking on Vermont schools?

While Shattuck has spent much of his career teaching in various universities, he has long maintained a base in Vermont. In the early 1960s he and a friend and colleague at the University of Texas, William Arrowsmith, bought a farm on Forge Hill Road about a mile north of Lincoln village. The property consisted of a farmhouse on 40 acres, high country that looks east to the high pyramid of Mount Abraham and slopes off to the south toward the New Haven River, which flows along Lincoln Road toward Bristol.

Their two families summered there for a few years, but in the late 1960s a nasty political squabble broke out on the University of Texas campus, where Shattuck was teaching at the time, and he decided to leave. Rather than seek another teaching job, he brought his family ? his wife, Nora White, and their four children ? to Lincoln, determined to live off his writing. And they dug right in to the community.

First, they had a log home built across the road from the old farmhouse. White, a former professional dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, began to give free ballet lessons to the local children. As for Shattuck, he ran for the local school board in 1974, losing to the school bus driver, Herbie Parker. And he continued writing.

A short, trim man with grey hair and a beard, Shattuck recently sat in a sun-drenched room of his home and reflected on his career and on the muted storm that has blown up over his views on elementary and secondary education.

As he explains, his first major project in Lincoln was the book on the wild boy of Aveyron. The boy, who appeared to be about 12 or 13, apparently had lived like a wild animal in the woods in southwest France about 1800. Villagers captured the child, and he was cared for in Paris for several years, where a doctor tried to teach him to speak and then tried to educate him. This effort essentially failed, but this experience, like the Helen Keller case 100 years later, was an important precursor in the areas of cognition science and education.

The book on the wild boy was well received, but Shattuck works slowly and deliberately, and it was difficult for him to make a living. "I didn't have a job," he recalled. "I didn't have any money and there was no mother's skirt to hang on to. I couldn't even deduct my moving expenses up here."

So he got a job teaching at the University of Virginia, returning to his first love, French language, culture and literature. But a powerful sub-theme by then remained his interest in education, its processes, its nuances and its central role in our society. For the next 25 years, he worked extensively on these issues.

His first major step was his appointment to a group called the National Humanities Faculty, which was based at Boston University. The group's purpose was to send university professors out into public high schools to work with the teachers and students there; the idea was that the professors would expose their secondary school colleagues to sophistication and rigor.

"I felt very uncomfortable with the idea, with the assumption that university teachers had things to say to high school teachers rather than the other way around," he said. So instead of lecturing on, say, Joan of Arc or some exotic issue in his own field, Shattuck obtained a copy of the classic Francois Truffaut film on the wild boy and took it out to several high schools. He showed the film to the students and their teachers and simply asked for questions.

And the kids were simply mesmerized by the film, he says. How could the boy have lived in the woods, they wanted to know. What right did the villagers have to capture him? Why did his masters in Paris treat him the way they did? These were issues that had intrigued Shattuck when he wrote his book on the subject. He was also fascinated by the more subtle questions: Why couldn't determined people teach the boy to speak? And how does culture get transmitted from adults to children?

To delve deeper into these questions, Shattuck began in his own work to read the literature on Helen Keller, the deaf and blind girl in the American South in the early 1900s, and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, who together defined the principles of courage and resourcefulness in teaching in moving from profound ignorance to education.

Shattuck believed that he saw in these cases and in his own teaching experience the importance of memorization, the importance of voice and the spoken word, and the power of language to underpin culture. He also began to read widely in the education literature, particularly the work of John Dewey, an educational theorist, who set up his own experimental school in Chicago in the early 1900s.

Shattuck carried out this work through the 1980s and early 1990s while teaching at Virginia, and subsequently in a part-time appointment at Boston University. But by 2000, when he had returned full time to Lincoln, he wanted to get closer to the actual systems of education. So he ran for the union district school board. This time he won.

Shattuck spent the first year on the Mount Abraham board just trying to keep up with the flow of administrative business, from budgets to teacher negotiations to school security. But his enduring interest was curriculum.

In the New York Review article he says there wasn't much interest in that subject on the board. So he began looking into it on his own, reading the background material and visiting classes, mostly in English and history.

"These visits gave me a vivid impression of overcrowding, of teachers without their own classrooms and pushing overloaded carts like the homeless, of poorly and noisily ventilated classrooms, and of the constant demands imposed on teachers for patience, firmness and imagination," he wrote.

"But I found it impossible to discern a coherent sequence of content guiding the classes, not even different sections of the same course. It would require months of class visits to gain an adequate sense of what is being taught in my school."

So he shifted his attention to the materials that were formally in place to deal with curriculum. The overarching document, he found, was the Vermont Framework of Standards, a guide established by the state Education Department that applies to all Vermont schools. The standards, Shattuck wrote, are vague ? "bland, hortatory" statements about what students should know and be able to do. But the standards seemed to him far too broad to be helpful. They would say that the students should study fiction ? for example, "nature and nurture" ? without providing any real sense of what was meant by these terms.

The second relevant document is called the Curriculum Guidelines, developed at the school district level but supposed to mesh with the statewide standards. The teachers mostly ignored these documents, Shattuck wrote, for what he said were good reasons. "They propose no course of study, no coordinated sequence of subjects within core fields. No simple list of items such as osmosis and Martin Luther King, Jr., and, one hopes, Martin Luther," he wrote.

"I'm not saying that our district curriculum is watered down or lopsided or old-fashioned or newfangled. "I'm saying that these 600 pages contain no useful curriculum at all."

Shattuck was also scornful of the emphasis in the curriculum documents on teaching style; he quotes them as recommending an inquiry approach, which is based on constructivist principles." Constructivism, he wrote, refers to the "half truth that full understanding occurs only when students learn for themselves from hands-on experience without direct instruction or teacher intervention."

The problem with this philosophy was illuminated by the experience of John Dewey, according to Shattuck. Dewey started out, in effect, as a constructivist, with the child rather than the teacher the core of the learning experience. But he began to modify that view as soon as he opened his experimental school in Chicago. He concluded, finally, that education rests on two interacting factors: the immature mind of the child and the organized knowledge of the adult.

Competing theories of education tend to take one of these sides or the other, Shattuck says, whereas Dewey concluded that you need both, a single process that incorporates the curiosity and inventiveness of the child and the formal knowledge of the teacher. Dewey, Shattuck says, "allowed practice to guide theory to a sturdy synthesis."

In Vermont, however, the educational establishment has come down clearly on the side of the primacy of the child at the expense of content and intellectual discipline. That is the reason, he says, why the two curriculum documents cannot provide the answers to the question: "In what grade are the following materials taught: the solar system, Athenian democracy, dangling modifiers, the Founding Fathers. Such items do not even appear."

The situation described in the New York Review of Books article was based on Shattuck's research between 2000 and 2004, the period he served on the board. In fact, the circumstances have changed somewhat since that time. In the past year, the state Department of Education has issued what it calls grade level expectations that move at least somewhat in the direction of a more specific curriculum.

The expectations were issued in response to the federal requirements for testing under the No Child Left Behind legislation. Shattuck said he has looked at the grade level expectations, without studying them in depth, and is unimpressed. They simply add hundreds of new pages to an already huge pile and hold little prospect that teachers will have a clearly marked course to follow. "I don't think it helps at all," he says.

If this critique is valid, what is the effect of the lack of curriculum? Did we ever have such a thing?

In the United States in the past, Shattuck says, curriculum was mainly embedded in standard textbooks; the intellectual content was developed in significant measure in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with rigorous schools in Boston playing a major role. An example of these standard texts was David Muzzey's work on American history.

In the middle of the 20th century, however, educators moved in the direction of what they called standards, an effort to add rigor to the school system and to better compete with European and Asian students. The movement also reflected academic pulling and tugging: History, for example, gave way partly to other disciplines such as sociology, psychology and anthropology, and morphed into social studies. English in many cases became language arts.

Whatever its intentions, the standards movement has drifted into irrelevance, because it is not accompanied by a specific curriculum, he says. There are specific books to be read and specific topics to be mastered, but no broad, clear-cut curriculum. This fact, he asserted, lies at the root of the teacher discontent about the No Child Left Behind legislation: Their bitter refrain is that they must "teach to the test."

"If there is no coherent curriculum to teach and base tests on, then one has to teach to (someone else's) test," he wrote.

Shattuck proved this to his own satisfaction when, as a board member, he was asked to give a brief talk to 20 or so of Mount Abraham's honor students. He opened by saying he wanted to give them a little test.

"Raise your hand if you can tell me four things about Homer. OK, anything about Homer," he recalls saying. A couple of hands went up.

"How about 'Walden'?" ? the classic work by Henry David Thoreau. Nothing. "Can you recite 10 lines of poetry?" Nothing. "Can you give me the first words of the Declaration of Independence?" No.

Shattuck says that he can't demonstrate the effect of a lack of curriculum on elementary and secondary education, but that he believes it is damaging across the board ? to elite students as well as those who do not go to college. It hurts in practical ways. A mechanic must know how to make basic mathematical computations. A sales representative must be able to write a business letter. A voter should be able to read editorials in a newspaper. It's not that there is no education going on, he says. There is, but it could be much better with real curriculum.

Shattuck says he does not expect his manifesto to inspire the adoption of a strong curriculum; it is especially difficult in light of the strong tradition in Vermont of local control. But it could be done within a given school district, he says. One way would be to purchase a curriculum developed by some outside vendor.

His own choice would be the Core Knowledge Sequence, which was developed by E.D. Hirsch, a professor at the University of Virginia. This curriculum is very detailed and traditional and is used in nearly 500 schools in the United States and is under consideration in that many more. Another possibility would be the international baccalaureate program, which is based on European educational programs and is in use in some U.S. high schools. Adopting one of these programs would boost the quality of education in the Northeast Addison district, he says, but he doesn't expect it to happen.

Shattuck has been somewhat puzzled by the personal reaction to his proposals: There hasn't been any. Nobody has been unfriendly, he says, but nobody talks to him about it either. Some reaction is coming in from people who have read a form of his essay that was printed this spring in the American Educator, the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers. Many senior teachers agree with him, he says, about the lack of curriculum, but there is considerable doubt about the Hirsch off-the-shelf curriculum.

That's pretty much where the issue stands today. Shattuck has made his case to the local school district, to the national intellectual community with his piece in the New York Review of Books, and to the 800,000 teachers who subscribe to the American Educator. The question remains whether his words will have any direct impact on his own school system or on any of the school systems across America.

Hamilton E. Davis is a Burlington writer.

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