William Benton, Henry Chauncey, Fred Hechinger

Little Red Schoolhouse

VTR Date: March 1, 1959


March 1, 1959
NBC Television

Moderator: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Senator William Benton, Fred Hechinger, Dr. Henry Chauncey

ANNOUNCER: The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today: “Little Red School House.” Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, historian, teacher and author of “A Documentary History of the Unites States.”

HEFFNER: On November the 3rd, 1957 we on The Open Mind did a program entitled “Science and Survival in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.” My guests that day were atomic scientist Donald J. Hughes, Saturday Review editor, Norman Cousins, and Senator William Benton. Well, that morning a news story broke and we were able to bring it to the public, the fact that in the late editions of the papers there was the announcement that the Russians had sent up their second and more successful Sputnik. Well, since that time certainly Sputnik has tended to revolutionize our thinking if not our actions in regards to the subject American education. And the evaluation of American education that has gone on has been treated here many times on The Open Mind. Now, today we want to talk about a particular aspect of this question of American education, and it’s education for survival. As a matter of fact the subject which we call “The Little Red School House” was prompted by reference to Fred Hechinger’s new book, “The Big Red School House”, a comparison study of Russian and American education. Today I want to talk about education and survival and I think my guests are particularly well qualified to do this. Let me introduce them to you right now. My first guest is the author of “The Big Red School House”, Mr. Fred Hechinger, who is also associate publisher of the Bridgeport Herald and education editor of Parents Magazine. And my second guest is former United States Senator, William Benton, publisher and Chairman of the Board of the Encyclopedia Britannica and of Britannica Films. And my third guest is Dr. Henry Chauncey, president of the Educational Testing Service, which, among other things, gives college entrance examinations. Well, gentlemen, I think I’ll ask the topic question and put it to you Mr. Hechinger since you’ve recently done this study of the Eig Red School House and that is, how would you evaluate the respective educational structures of the U.S. and the U.S.SR. in terms of this question of national survival.

HECHINGER: Well, I’d put it this way, that the Russians aim not just for survival, they aim for power, they aim for growth, they want more than just the defensive position of survival, they use education, they use learning, they use the schools as a weapon and they use it in plans which may be equivalent to the five year plans and may be longer plans, but they use it for that purpose. We don’t even begin to use it for survival; we are using education now as though we lived in an age of leisure and comfort.

HEFFNER: Does the implication of these remarks mean that the Russians, who are doing even more than survive with their education will remain strong and possibly overpower us since we are not even concerned in our education structure with survival?

HECHINGER: Well, that’s certainly their aim and I think unless we can realign our forces, and I don’t mean overthrow everything we are doing in education, but again find a real road to excellence, to striving for achievement, then obviously we’ll be overpowered not by just the Russians but by anyone who wants.

HEFFNER: However, I would ask Dr. Chauncey and Senator Benton whether they agree with this and how they would define survival, because I know that before the program began that they had some questions about using the word. Dr. Chauncey?

CHAUNCEY: Well, I would like to say in the first place that I think we have to recognize that historically American education has done a remarkable job. Nevertheless, in the mid-20th century we are faced with a far more complex job that education must do. We’ve got a tremendously complex society, we’ve learned that education to be effective has to be different for students of different levels of ability, different abilities and interests and therefore, there is a tremendous challenge to lift education to a completely new plateau from what education has been like before.

HECHINGER: Could I just add something to this, Dr. Chauncey? I completely agree. And one element of this, this new concept that we’ve got to get into our educational thinking is the arrival of science as an important element. We’ve got to think of general education and liberal education as embodying science and in a much more real way than it has in the past.

CHAUNCEY: I agree entirely, in fact I thought in your book you underplayed that particular thing.

HECHINGER: I didn’t mean to.

HEFFNER: Senator Benton, how do you feel about this question of survival in terms of the emphasis upon science in the Russian system? And we are talking because you three men know about the comparison between the Russian educational structure and ours, about this.

BENTON: Well, I may be partly responsible for the talk about survival applied to our educational system because I came back from Russia four years ago tremendously impressed by what I’d seen and what I called the Russian training system. I’ve said it isn’t an educational system it’s a training system. Every Russian boy and girl is trained to the best of the Russian system’s ability to train him to do what he will do best for the service of the state. They’re not interested in the happiness of the boys and girls, they’re not interested in developing them as happy and contented citizens, they’re interested as Fred Hechinger puts it in his book and has just put in on this program, in their power position and how can each individual and each student help the Soviet gain in power. I happen to think that — well, now, if I can plug one of my enterprises, the Great Books of the Western World, published by the Britannica, we don’t sell those books to people on the theory you’ve got to read these books in order to survive, this isn’t and never has been the purpose of our system. Fred Hechinger in his book, and I think Fred should get the lead and get the play in this program as the author of this excellent book, has a wonderful section on the American dream. Well, the American dream isn’t a concept of survival. The argument about survival has been pushed at us by the growing power of a country that publicly announces it’s dedicated to destroy us and which is using education towards the end of building its power and towards the end of our destruction. So this is an extra argument for looking at our educational system, for reviewing it, for trying to improve it, but it’s merely an extra argument. If all Russia opened up and was swallowed by the Pacific Ocean, I think we should be reexamining our education system because I think it’s in very bad shape and in a most unhappy state of disintegration.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s accept that for a moment Senator Benton, but go back to the point that you made that the Russians are training themselves in terms of the possibility of the destruction of their enemies. Well, now, what posture do we take in this regard? Do we turn ourselves then to prevent that destruction?

BENTON: Well, I think Fred Hechinger, who’s an expert educational writer, perhaps the most distinguished in the country, I think Fred Hechinger has an extra argument as he advances it so brilliantly in his book, to examine the problems of money applied to the education system, because unhappily some of our congressmen will listen to the arguments of survival and danger when they won’t listen to the arguments applied to the pocketbook of the American dream. He has an extra argument applied to the control of our educational system. Fred points out in this book that there are 50,000 separate school boards in this country controlling our educational system and out of this diversity of control, it is true we have diversity of education and we have a great deal of very bad education.

Well, I guess what I’m asking you gentlemen is whether you think we need more sacrifice of diversity, however you evaluate it, whether we need change our structure so that we too can turn ourselves for survival.

BENTON: I don’t think that we should in any way emulate the Russians. Their system may be suited to their society but our society is greatly different. I do think that there is a national interest in education, an interest that is related to individuals of every state of the union. There’s a human worth to the boy and girl.in Alabama or Mississippi where the state may not be able to provide the kind of education that every child in this country should have at the present time. But we have 14 states in the country that don’t even require any mathematics in high schools, not even one year of mathematics. Now, you’re the tester, you’re the expert tester, how are you going to test the boys and girls of these 14 states on mathematics when they’re not studying any mathematics in the high schools? That’s a question that does apply to survival, but I think it applies to the development of the American dream as well because I think Dr. Rabi of Columbia is quite right when he says every boy and girl should study his mathematics because if he doesn’t he gives up all chance to become a doctor, to be a scientist, he gives up all chance at age 18 to decide he wants to be an engineer. There are other arguments for mathematics besides survival.

HEFFNER: Dr. Chauncey, I believe you had…

CHAUNCEY: I agree that it’s not a very satisfactory situation if there’s no mathematics studied in the high school but this is a complex problem as to how you deal with it and I was bringing up what I conceived to be the first important national responsibility and that is to help in the financing of education over the country as a whole. It’s important for the welfare of the individuals, it’s important for national security. Forty years ago we passed a child labor amendment because we felt that no child should be deprived of the privileges of education by early employment. We did this on a national basis. The state basis had not solved the problem. We have the same situation in education today. We need to be sure that in every state there are adequate funds to do the job. Now funds aren’t all and Fred has mentioned this in some of the points in his book.

HECHINGER: Well, you see, I also feel very strongly that we talk about diversity and of course it’s important and we don’t want to create a system of uniformity the way the Russians have, but we constantly confuse diversity with chaos. We believe that by simply leaving everyone to his own devices, by permitting, as Senator Benton has said, some schools not to teach certain things at all, we permit chaos and what we must move into now is a system that is diverse in terms of the different branches of excellence, the different peaks of excellence that different schools may achieve but that’s still in addition to providing an over-all standard to which schools can conform.

HEFFNER: But, I think again that we might make a mistake if we avoided the question — you gentlemen may ell have the same answer to this — in terms of what you just said, that we don’t want that kind of unitary control here, but doesn’t the question have to be raised, may we not have to agree that we may not want it but we have to have it for survival.

HECHINGER: I don’t think we need the kind of uniformity that we see in the Russian system, we need…

HEFFNER: Not push button uniformity, no, but how much do we need?

HECHINGER: We need a national agreement, and I tried to hint at this, a national agreement on some minimum standards in many fields to which we can force all our schools to rise, and we can do it by…

HEFFNER: Do you gentlemen agree on that point? Forcing all our schools to rise to this level?

BENTON: Mr. Heffner, I’d like to interrupt to read a quotation. I’ve told my two fellow participants I wanted to read this quotation on this program. This is a quotation from Bob Hutchins, Dr. Hutchins, former president of The University of Chicago. He said this a couple of weeks ago when he received the Sidney Hillman award here in New York City.

“History will have trouble with American education in the twentieth century. It will see a people who say they are dedicated to education and who are the richest in the world, indifferent to education and unwilling to pay for it. It will see an educational system that delivers less education per dollar than almost any other, saying that all it needs is more money. The people and the educators are united only in this, they both want education without pain, either intellectual or financial. History will find it hard to explain how a nation that is one, a nation in which the political subdivisions have no relation to social or economic life,” -this is the 48 states and the 3,000 counties and the 50,000 school boards – “no relation to social or economic life and little to political life, can entrust its future to these subdivisions by relegating education to them. That’s survival. History will smile sardonically at the spectacle of this great country getting interested slightly and temporarily in education only because of the technical achievements of Russia and then being able to act as a nation only by assimilating education to the cold war and calling an education bill a defense act.” One more sentence, one more.

“We might as well make up our minds to it if our hopes for democracy are to be realized, every citizen of this country is going to have to be educated to the limit of his capacity and I don’t mean trained, amused, exercised, accommodated or adjusted, I mean that his intellectual power must be developed.” I read that because I can’t say it that well, that’s why I read it. That hits me because this puts my beliefs better than I know how to…

HEFFNER: All right, now history may smile sardonically that we were raised to this effort or impelled or compelled to this effort by a threat from outside but the question still is what do we do now and when Mr. Hechinger says, force the schools to bring themselves up to this level, the question is, is this what you gentlemen agree to?

HECHINGER: I said to a minimum level, don’t forget that.

HEFFNER: All right, it may be but don’t forget you’re still talking about forcing them to come up to a certain level.

HECHINGER: Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: Dr. Chauncey?

CHAUNCEY: I think it’s very hard to force people to do things and a minimum level is hard to establish and most of us should exceed a minimum level. I mentioned a minute or two ago the national interest on the financial side. I would like to also mention on the leadership side. It seems to me that it is of the utmost importance that the leading scholars, scientists, teachers in the country work together to develop model curricula that can be made available to all schools for them to adopt or adapt in accordance with their particular needs. If we help them in this way, they can do the job providing we also supply the funds.

BENTON: How would you do that? I mean, I’ve suggested in a speech in Kansas City last month, a national commission on education with the money to issue annual reports to review the curriculum annually, to put out material of this kind and to keep putting it out every year to stimulate the state school boards of others toward the ends you have in mind. Fred’s got a suggestion in this too.

HECHINGER: I suggested a national board of advisors who would…

CHAUNCEY: I think we need here a national research institute of working people not just a commission that meets every once in a while and looks at the situation. Actually this idea was first propounded by Paul Hanna of Stanford University and there is some possibility that this idea will be carried out under the auspices of one of the foundations.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you gentlemen — may I interrupt just to say this, that I still have the feeling that there’s some beating around the bush…

CHAUNCEY: I think so too.

HEFFNER: All right, now you say, sir, adopt or adapt, as they will. But now I will assume that you three gentlemen would probably agree on the kind of school structure with diverse elements within it, that you would accept, whether it had four years of Latin or four years of mathematics or whatever you want within it. Once you had arrived at this, would you not seek to impose it, and I don’t think this is necessarily a bad word, but impose it upon the national educational structure.

CHAUNCEY: First of all, when I said model curricula, I purposely used the plural because in any one school there’s got to be different curricula for individuals of different levels of ability.

HEFFNER: When they don’t adopt or adapt, what do you do?

CHAUNCEY: Nevertheless, there are great variations in the conditions in each community and I think we’re much better off to rely on models plus the power of the voluntary effort in this country than we are to try to impose a particular curriculum on all of the schools.

HECHINGER: I would agree with this but we have certain levers which we can use and…use far better, and this is what I mean by force. We have used levers in the past such as the college admissions requirements; we’ve used levers in places like in New York State where we’ve used the Board of Regents and their requirements. We can, as we have in the past, use all sorts of means, of making the schools want to give us a kind of program which will lead to a rounded education. We need to do this, the second point that Dr. Chauncey made, we need to have in our schools leaders rather than simply administrators. I think one of the –I try to make this clear — one of the sort of automatic denunciations of our own system is the fact that we call the top men in our schools, school administrators. Administrators make things run, leaders create ideas. We want people who won’t say as again I’ve quoted him this – as one state superintendent has said -it’s just as important to learn how to drive an automobile as it is to learn to read.

We don’t want to create a society in which it is as important to have a smooth ride as to be able to read a book.

BENTON: You have another good quote from a school superintendent in here Fred. He was asked to give a particular course to high schools and he said, “Well, if there’s enough demand for it, I’ll give it”. That’s not leadership, that’s…

HECHINGER: That’s the administrator.

BENTON: That’s the administrator…

HEFFNER: Then, Senator Benton, what would you do in terms of this question about imposition?

BENTON: I think we’ve got to have more leadership at the federal level and I’m willing to face up to it. There’s a beginning in the Defense Education Act. There’s some tentative steps towards guidance to the states on some standards. In other words, the state of Pennsylvania brings its plan down to the Health, Education and Welfare Department and it has to agree to do certain things of it’s going to get the money appropriated by the Congress under the Defense Education Act. Now, similarly the community of Pittsburgh will have to do that when it deals with the state getting the money. We’re stepping very hesitantly forward in this field, because the mythology of education is the great values in these 50,000 local school boards. It is hidden from public view, their great dependence on the Commissioner of Education in Albany, who really has a lot of authority.

CHAUNCEY: You don’t want to get rid of the school boards though?

BENTON: Oh, no no no – he has a lot of authority over the public schools of Armonk, believe me, much more than in Connecticut, much more than the Commissioner in Connecticut has over any of our public schools.

HEFFNER: Well, Senator Benton, I’d ask you this. You have the state of Pennsylvania reporting to or getting approval for if it is to get funds from the Federal Government. You have the City of Pittsburgh reporting to the state.

BENTON: Not reporting to, that’s too strong a word. I’m not trying to give a totalitarian pyramid at all. But I don’t think we should dish out the $900 million, which is involved in the Defense Education Act without an effort to improve standards. Now, the problem is how do you do that in line with a general ignorance in the United States of these problems?

HEFFNER: Well, yes, but you see I wanted to carry it one step further, and that is the relationship between the citizen, the parent and the student to the board of education which in turn has to worry about its funds because it has to be concerned with the standards that have been set by the City of Pittsburgh, which has to be concerned with the standards set by the State of Pennsylvania, etc…

CHAUNCEY: I commend the League of Women voters for its efforts in this field right now. But if the League of Women Voters does everything it can possibly do for 25 years, it won’t affect over 5% of the 50,000 school boards. It takes more than volunteer effort at the local level!

HEFFNER: Well, I was referring really to the relationship of imposition of will by the final official factor and the parent and the child. Do we finally say, we’re not going to succumb to the demands of the parents, that all you gentlemen have really commented upon at times, well certainly Mr. Hechinger you have most recently in your book and in the speech last month, Senator Benton, are demands that we – our school system supply the kind of education in driving and the kind of gymnasium that can be used for dances, etc. When do we tell the parent no?

HECHINGER: Well, I think this is my fundamental criticism. And I don’t want any government control of curriculum. I do want educators in charge of the school, who have enough knowledge of their field or have enough of a sense of philosophy of education to be able to approach their communities and say to them, this is good education and I hope you will work with me. And to have the independence to give up their jobs if the pressures are such that they’re being forced to give shoddy education. There is no excuse for…

CHAUNCEY: Well, I don’t want to be terrified by slogans here. It’s a slogan like this 11I don’t want any government control of the curriculum” – that has helped bring the disintegration we now have in the American school system.

HECHINGER: But I still don’t want government control…

BENTON: But what -who’s the government? Are you talking about the Federal Government, or the State Government? Believe me, the commissioner of Education in Albany has a lot to do with the curriculum in Rye, New York. Is that government control of the curriculum?

HECHINGER: It’s government control if…

BENTON: Are you against that?

HECHINGER: Then you’re for it if it’s good. Then you’re for it if it’s good and you’re against it if it’s bad…

HECHINGER: If it’s really outside political control, tied to federal, to state aid, then it doesn’t.

BENTON: I know Commissioner Allen in Albany and I think he’s one of the leading educational leaders of the country.

HECHINGER: I would agree with that and I agree with the…

BENTON: I often wish he had more control. I often wish he could give greater leadership and had greater control. And I think it’s a bugaboo to be afraid of Commissioner Allen. What’s he doing – he’s not going to put in a totalitarian system and have our kids marching around in uniform or anything else.

HEFFNER: Dr. Chauncey?

CHAUNCEY: When he was once concerned about federal control I said, well now how large does a country have to be, a unit have to be when one begins to be afraid of it. You see, in New York State, you’ve got a pretty big unit here, it’s about one tenth of population of the total country. Nevertheless, I think historically we are devoted to local control and that it would not be in the interest of better education to make a sudden change in this at the present time.

BENTON: Well, you can’t make a sudden change because the climate of opinion won’t let you.

CHAUNCEY: But the federal government can take a much greater part in education than it has so far and it’s got to put in huge amount of funds not a small amount in order to do the job.

BENTON: There’s still some beating around the bush going on here.

HEFFNER: I have a very real feeling because I think of this quotation from Mr. Hechinger’s book, in which you quoted one of your colleagues who went to Russia with you, Dr. Chauncey, Dr. George Z.F. Baraday. He said “The spirit the Russians have, has galvanized them. They’re young and they’re working hard here. No one is excited anymore, we have all this and we’re going to throw it away because we won’t work. Nobody seems to want to work anymore. Don’t change the system in America, change the people we must select and educate teachers better. I see our reforms as a holy war rather than a mere juggling of courses. Here the system is perfect, the set-up is ideal, but the guts are gone! Let’s get the guts back.” And I gather you go along with this point of view.

CHAUNCEY: Well, I don’t think that the reason they work hard in Russia is because the curriculum is imposed from above, it’s because they know that their income twenty or thirty years later and their prestige depends on how well they do educationally. It’s the incentives. A person can’t fool around in education and then become a salesman and make a lot of money. In Russia you make money by doing things that require a lot of education and that’s the reason they work hard.
HEFFNER: I think that this is really getting to a point that…

BENTON: Hell, do you think our students work hard enough?

CHAUNCEY: No, I don’t think they do.

BENTON: Well, now how are we going to fix that? Are we going to let these 50,000 school boards wallow around trying to fix it indefinitely? Or are we going to develop techniques at the private level and the government level that will help get it done?

HEFFNER: Why don’t we let Dr. Chauncey answer that.

CHAUNCEY: Well, my findings are that across the country students are beginning to work harder, there is a tremendous movement in this direction.

HECHINGER: But it isn’t just techniques. We need also, and this is I think why some students are beginning to work harder, we need a national feeling and climate, and this has to be done through the boards, through the parents, that it is essential to work hard.

HEFFNER: We have about a half a minute left. I want to ask Dr. Chauncey, do you think from your testing, that there has been a change and that the intellectual content is going up?

CHAUNCEY: I can’t tell this. There isn’t an adequate sample on appropriate kinds of tests across the country. I wouldn’t be able to answer that question just off hand like that.

BENTON: At the private college level, though, the Yale of today that my son just graduated from, is indisputably intellectually way ahead of the Yale of my day, where the anti-intellectual virtues were looked up to and the captain of the football team was much more revered than the valedictorian. We are changing at the college level in this respect at least. That’s an encouraging sign.

HEFFNER: That’s a very nice note to end on and I thought everyone looked back to his own college days and thought no one’s as good as we were. Thank you so much Dr. Chauncey, Senator Benton and Mr. Hechinger.

BENTON: I congratulate you on this program, Mr. Heffner.

HEFFNER: Thank you. We’ll be back on “THE OPEN MIND” next week when our subject will be “Government by Publicity.” See you then on The Open Mind.

ANNOUNCER: WRCA has just presented “THE OPEN MIND”. Your Host on the Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner. Mr. Heffner’s guests today were Mr. Fred Hechinger, Senator William Benton and Dr. Henry Chauncey. If you have any comments or questions on today’s program, or if you have any suggestions for future programs, please send them to THE OPEN MIND; WRCA,; NEW YORK 20, NEW YORK.