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EXCELLENCE AND THE BASICS Maxine Greene Teachers College, Columbia University We are at risk. We are endangered, they say. By what? By mediocrity, by Japan's "fifth generation" computers and the knowledge power they presumably contain, by losing economic primacy in the world, by our debt to foreign interests, by our deficits, by becoming — despite missiles and lasers — vulnerable to attack. Confronting threats that evoke a latent paranoia, we have on previous occasions identified a single cause and conceived a simple remedy — more often than not one having to do with school achievement. Sometimes it has been progressive education that worried us; sometimes neglect of the 3 Rs or the "basics"; or indifference to spiritual values; or (and this is the best, the most easily deployed) declining test scores. But below the surface, more often than not, there have been more fundamental, vaguer fears — of critical thinking and the unrest that might follow, of contempt for the verities, of ignorance of the essentials, of a felt destabilization of society due to attempts to equalize. Since the evidence of decline in achievement is questionable (granting the importance of more attention to mathematics and science), I think we have to view what is being proposed with a clear sense of context and be careful not to lose sight of what we say we cherish and of what we actually know. It is a good thing to have the spotlight turned on education again and a good thing to spark a national dialogue; but it must not be a dialogue whose terms are set by commissions and media; nor should it be infused with false promises, unsupported generalizations or cliches. It ought to be the kind of public dialogue that allows for the articulation of multiple vantage points and diverse commitments, even as it takes into account longings not easily allayed: for security, community, virtue, and the reassuring tokens of old sustaining faiths. Not only do we hear little of pluralism in the reports; we hear nothing of ethical concerns and moral perplexities. There are merely nods in the direction of equity and fairness; I am not sure if justice is mentioned at all. No serious -22- -23attention is paid to art experiences or image stores or to the role of imagination. Nothing thoughtful is said about individual pursuits of possibility, or about the kind of human connection once described as "making music together." "Merit," yes, left cautiously undefined; "high standards," yes; "common learnings" rendered as a list of basics rather than as general education; "time," yes, treated as a plastic substance to be extruded, stretched, cut up into particles, tied to tasks, no longer treated as duration, as a stream carrying the traces of the past, flowing toward what is not yet. The "return to basics" movement, with its emphasis on minimum competencies, performance, and the rest, was a peculiar regression, an effort to reconcile demands for equity with the persistent desire for the easy solutions of earlier times — the 3 Rs of recollected childhood, free of frills, uncomplicated, measurable and manageable. Equality could be seen as the lowest common denominator, output could be measured against input, and schools would be assembly lines validated by quality controls as a rationale for the withdrawal of federal funds — especially those used for remediation, what was called "affective education" and (worst of all) value education. We began to hear talk of "maximum competences," mutterings about excellence linked to cognition, about the softening effects of government support; and there was a subtext, indicating that we could not be equal and excellent too. Also, I think that the factory and assembly line paradigm was becoming anomalous, what with the sudden upsurge of images of a high-tech society, the corporate pressure to computerize, new and shiny visions of efficiency (with grim pictures of closing factories in the background, not to speak of disappearing unions), and a conception of effectiveness linked to good management, requiring no intervention or supports from above. In this "fifth generation" new world, the assembly line mentality was a liability. The newly minted social reality needed newly minted, technically and cognitively oriented schools, staffed by teachers superior to those just barely able to teach...


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