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The following tape recorded program is distributed through the facilities of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. Oral essays on education, a dynamic radio series designed to present leading personalities of our society as they attempt to discover the scope of problems which confront modern education. This week, Dr. James Tintera, Michigan State University College of Education, interviews Mr. Fred Heckinger, educational editor of the New York Times, author, lecturer, and critic, who discusses the challenge of a common understanding. And now here is Dr. Tintera. The feeling that we have had from several writers and yourself included in many of the things you have said, that a good deal of emphasis needs to be placed upon some of the more cultural some of the liberal arts aspects of our educational system, which you care to analyze the relationship of scientific technological events.
And I don't want to say versus because this is obviously untrue. No, I think this is terribly important. I'm glad that you specified that you don't want to call it versus because I think one of the worst mistakes we have made in the past has been to assume that one is against the other. As a matter of fact, I, myself, consider myself a fairly typically product of a liberal arts education. And I know that because of this old assumption that the two are separate in terms of my own upbringing and schooling, I have been turned into a total illiterate in the field of science and technology because the separation used to be made, I was given all the humanities. I was given all the languages, all the history, all the sociology. But since it had always been assumed that it's one against the other, you see, there
was a very little emphasis in my education on mathematics and science. And I think as a fully educated person, I should have both, you see. Now I think in the future, the importance ought to be in an understanding that everything, whether it's mathematics and science or history and geography, everything is affected by the world we live in. So we need more emphasis rather than less on an understanding, for instance, of history and the social forces around us. But we need it in a way, again, that's very deeply affected by what has happened to the world. Take the example of history. I think it was Professor Woodward of Johns Hopkins' historian who said that our teaching of history today is just as outdated as our history of some of the sciences was a few years ago. All of our historical interpretation in the past was based on such ideas as wars being
the extension of diplomacy. This is total, this is nonsense today. We know that this is no longer so. Wars today, as we know future wars would be on the extension of anything. This is the extension of everything. Therefore our understanding of war as a force in history has to change in the future. But this is true in all other areas. It's true in the areas of the relationship, for instance, of art to modern life, of even the poet to modern life. Take again a very simple example. This is the one that C.P. Snow uses in two cultures in the scientific revolution. He says, and I'm not quoting him exactly, but he makes the point that even the modern poet, T.S. Eliot, is so far out of date in his concept of the world and his poetry that he, remember, said, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
And C.P. Snow says, the likelihood today there is that if the world ends at all, it would be much more likely to end not with a whimper, but with a bang, you see. Even the poetic image changes as the world changes. But regardless of how you look at the future, how you look at the so-called balance of the curriculum, the important plea I would have is that it shouldn't be a balance at all, it should be a fusion. There should be a common understanding among all people of what man's history means, what the purposes of man in terms of sociology and economics are. And then fuse this with the understanding of the scientific world around us.
Do you find yourself struggling personally, making an issue of understanding of the scientific of the technological events and trying to relate those knowledgees that we can grasp to the world around us and looking at scans at our educational system because is there evidence there that this is being attempted at the present? I don't see any now, I'd like your reaction to this. I see far too little of it, I think we just in the beginnings of making that attempt. I think in a way, perhaps as I look at young people today and especially children today, trying to find that key much more effectively than the older people are because they see the world around them has changed. They see that to understand even the simple things in modern life, they need a much broader understanding than we used to have in the past.
Now, whether we can give them the key or not, I don't know. There isn't any doubt in my mind that this whole question of understanding the similarities, this is important, this gives us a kind of variety of backgrounds which together give us much greater richness. But I think we are beginning to learn and we may be learning it a little painfully, we are beginning to learn that the similarities of man's history, something that we overlook at our own peril, to use a specific example, when the students sit in strikes, the lunch counter demonstrations began, a newspaper interviewed the student leader who had started this movement.
He turned out to be an 18-year-old intelligent, quite normal, Negro college student. He was asked how he fresc up the idea. He said he got the idea by watching a television program which told the story of the struggle of India for freedom. He had followed Gandhi's life. Now, here is a perfect example of the similarities in man's aims in totally different cultures, and also I think the similarity of their chance for success. And this is something that in this field, as in any other, we must take into account as we approach education today worldwide, similarities in the background of man's struggle of man's
aim for a better life are terribly important. And we of all people should know it in our approach to education because we have created what I think the sociologists today call the revolution of rising expectations. We have made these expectations rise. And we again have to be the leaders, not only in creating these expectations in terms of material well-being and high standard of living, but in terms of leading toward a common understanding of these problems in our own education system. We have given the world, among other things, the mass education idea. We are now faced for the first time, I think, with a new challenge of fusing this mass education idea with the kind of quality education which in the past it had been believed could
only be part of a system of selective education. This leads us into probably the most revolutionary challenge growing out of our own success. This challenge that you're referring to here, in terms of what's happening in America and as you see it, what has happened recently to American education, is there something in this European pattern of education that we can benefit from directly or is it primarily indirectly or is the question the reverse? Is there something that we should be putting into this European pattern which would benefit everyone? Well, the European pattern, of course, has already begun to benefit a great deal from our greater fluidity of education, the British school trend since the passage of the Education Act of 1944 which in effect brought universal public education to Great Britain for the
first time, followed very closely the American pattern and the present British debate over education, again, is very similar to our debate, one of the great issues in England right now, our question of whether the comprehensive high school is preferable to the separate high schools, vocational, technical and academic. So our influence has been tremendous, our influence in the underdeveloped countries has been even greater, where universal elementary education at least and potentially universal secondary education has become the aim very closely linked to the whole idea of popular government or self-government. What can we learn from Europe? I think one element that we can learn which I've already hinted at before is the whole idea of continuity in education, the idea that there's an orderly pattern in learning,
that it isn't quite reasonable, no matter how well it may sound ideologically, to permit children to pick their own educational course, to let even to let children influence their educational course very significantly. So that you start out with one area of comparison with Europe, where essentially a course of learning is charted. The second point is that Europe has, of course, put a very high premium on excellence in education. It has been able to do this by a device which we reject and I think rightly reject and that is selection at a very early age. European educators will frequently tell you that this selection is entirely according to talent and merit.
It doesn't work that way. When you have early pre-selection almost automatically, those with a better financial background, with an older social standing, are in an advantage. They are able to tutor their children, to push them more, to motivate them much earlier in their lives, to want to go on to high school and then to university, so that the selection is undoubtedly waiting. There's no question about this. But does that mean that it's entirely a question of one or the other? I think we can learn to the extent that we can see what you might achieve with able minds. Even if those able minds are only the property of, or in Europe, I suppose it averages to about 10 to 12 percent of the population.
The question we can ask ourselves, and I think we've begun to ask ourselves, is if we were to continue to retain education as universal as it is now and within that universality, lead to the same kind of excellence, all those within the total population who are capable of grasping that excellence, then you would, I think, enter into a completely new realm of learning. I think we are moving in that direction in some places. We are doing it by special programs of selectivity within the schools, which at one time, not too long ago, was considered by many to be undemocratic. We are beginning to learn that there's nothing undemocratic about providing the best kind of education for everyone without insisting that everyone has the same kind of education. This is, I think, what we are beginning to learn from the European pattern, that an intellectual
elite, if you may call it that, is undemocratic only if it is based on factors other and the ability of the child to join that elite. Now you mentioned some of the dangers that you get into and the reactions of people. Without trying to trap you, let me give you a typical such reaction, and I'd like to hear what you have to say about it. According to what you have just said, and within the framework of what you have just said, do you feel that the United States is equal to better than or less than some of the more advanced educational European nations? Well, if I take the country as a whole, I'd say the question just can't be answered. I think we're turning out in some of our better schools, our best schools, people who, on every level, would be able to compete with their equivalents anywhere in the world.
We are undoubtedly turning out in some of our graduate schools, people who can hold their own with scholars and scientists anywhere in the world. But I don't think that is really the issue. I think the issue in modern education, or in education in the modern world, is how much talent do we waste? I think the issue is, to what extent can we compare with other countries in making the best kind of education available to those who can take advantage of it, and to what extent do we compare with other countries in motivating people to want to take advantage of it?
Now, if you take, for instance, the extreme of Russia in comparison with us, and look at the problem of motivation alone, then I would answer your question, we are doing very badly in comparison. Why? The reason is very simple. The Russian child, any Russian child, and any parent of any Russian child, knows that there is literally only one means of breaking out of misery. The choice is quite that simple. It's either a hope for a relatively comfortable, promising life through education, or the absolutely certain threat of a wretched life. In other words, you have a built-in motivation. Every child, no matter where he lives in Russia, wants education, wants to go as far as
possible in education, because this is the upper mission ticket to being someone. This is about as concrete as you can get. This is about as concrete as you can get. Now, on that level, we have no means of comparison, or let me put it this way. We have no way of competing with it, because by the same token, every reasonably intelligent American child knows that he is going to have a far more comfortable life than his Russian counterpart, even if he drifts through school with a low C. On that level, we can compete. The consolation might be that X years from now, when the Russian standard of living is high as ours, if it ever gets to be that way, they may have the same problem as we have. But right now, this is very little consolation.
This is a question of how do you get people to want to learn, how do you get them to want to avail themselves of the best education possible, and how do you get them, and this is more important to demand a demanding education. Let me be again specific about this. Last year, last summer, one of our great states tried to get the legislature to change the state law, which, as of that time, as a matter of fact, is of this time, prevents the state university from using any kind of selective test for admission whatsoever. The university presidents wanted that law to be changed. They wanted to make sure that they could pick among those who wanted to go to college,
those who were prepared to go to college, in the legislative hearings over this issue. One of the state senators put the question to the university presidents. In this form, he said, if you were to introduce the tests that you are proposing, isn't it true that there would be some high schools in our state, which, henceforth, would be very unlikely to be able to send any of their youngsters to the state university, because they fail to offer even the courses, which this test would require students to have taken. The college president, the university president, had to answer honestly that this was true. The state legislator replied, therefore, then, I will have to vote against this change of the law, because if we did this, if we passed this law, we would deprive some youngsters in the state of equal educational opportunity.
You see, this is exactly the point of the fallacy. This is the point of the lack of understanding. Children are deprived of the educational opportunity because certain high schools in the state don't give them the chance to study what they might want to study if they were, again, motivated to do so because this is what the university demands of them. Our problem is to permit people to demand the best kind of education rather than to attempt to downgrade institutions by creating the fiction that equal educational opportunity is created by permitting everyone to attend. To create the equal opportunity by making it possible for everyone to expose himself to an education.
Now, the high school that doesn't offer foreign language, the high school that doesn't offer physics, the high school that doesn't offer a sound English curriculum, that is the school that's limiting educational equality. Many people, as they have looked at education and many more than I feel comfortable about, have said, what's the sense of pouring money into education? What's the sense of putting our great attention upon it? When as we view the educational pattern and the system is 50 years behind the times anyhow, would you relate to your thinking to this critical evaluation and comment, please? I think there's no question that the time lag between new ideas and what we do about the Mr. Tremendous, I think it's been said that changing a curriculum is like moving a cemetery and this is one of the things we are up against, as for the opportunities
we have today. Let me again use a concrete example. This is the one that always sticks to my mind as documenting what we could do and what we miss by not availing ourselves of it. About a year or two ago, I think it was the University of Southern California made a film. This could be television because there's no difference between film and television and application, really. That film was called the face of Lincoln and all it did was to show a teacher. But he happened to be a very unusual teacher. He was a sculptor and he was a historian. The film which took 20 minutes showed this man with a block of clay and in those 20 minutes
he shaped that piece of clay into the face of President Lincoln. As he did this, he told the story of Lincoln's life, that's all there was to it. It also happened to be a lesson that nobody who saw it will ever forget. It's a perfect documentation of what we can do and what we miss by not doing. It happens to be an extreme case because it happened to be a story of a unique teacher. There's probably only one man of his kind, one man with this ability. But translate this into not just the unique talent but the exceptional talent. Read it into what we can do by capturing the great lesson. By capturing the teaching of a teacher who can do specific things specifically well and using it for the widest possible audience.
Think of it in terms of that high school we talked about which can't afford to provide the courses that are needed to get its youngsters into college. We always told that television and recording and film and the other technology devices can possibly replace the teacher and do the job as well as the personal attention of the good teacher to the student. But that is in the argument. The point is that the school that doesn't have the teacher isn't doing the job at all. And the second point is that the school that has the mediocre teacher isn't doing the job either. And then there's the third school, the school that has good teachers, but good teachers
who are humble enough to know that they could do a far better job if they had the aid and the assistance of greater teachers because there's always a greater teacher somewhere. Most of the schools that could really avail themselves of what modern science and technology has put it out is possible. And we can certainly do with the television, with tape, with all the means of electronics at least as much as we've done for foreign, with the book, if accepted the book as an indispensable part of our education system of our whole teaching idea, why not make these new additions to our arsenal of learning equally part of our schools instead of saying what one professor said when he was asked to take part in a television teaching experiment
and refuse to do so. And he was asked why he didn't want to lecture on television. He said, if I did, I'd have to rearrange my notes. I think can benefit a great deal all of us if we rearrange our notes a little. That was Mr. Fred Heckinger, educational editor of the New York Times, well-known author, lecturer, and critic, discussing the challenge of a common understanding of the elements in our educational structure. Mr. Heckinger was interviewed by Dr. James Tintera, Michigan State University College of Education. Next week, Mr. Heckinger will return to analyze the financial support factor and ask what price creativity? Join us then. Social essays on education was produced by Wayne C. Wayne and Patrick Ford. Distribution is made through the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.
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Oral essays on education
Fred Hechinger
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Michigan State University
WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
Fred Hechinger, educational editor of the New York Times, on "A Common Understanding"
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The thoughts of distinguished Americans in a survey of American eduction.
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Interviewee: Hechinger, Fred M.
Producing Organization: Michigan State University
Producing Organization: WKAR (Radio/television station : East Lansing, Mich.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 61-3-6 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:36
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Chicago: “Oral essays on education; Fred Hechinger,” 1961-01-05, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 13, 2024,
MLA: “Oral essays on education; Fred Hechinger.” 1961-01-05. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 13, 2024. <>.
APA: Oral essays on education; Fred Hechinger. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from