Former New York Times education journalist Fred Hechinger discusses American education.
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GUEST: Fred Hechinger
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And this is the second of two programs with my old friend Fred Hechinger as he prepares to retire from The New York Times but not from what must continue to be a brilliant journalistic career in pursuit of excellence in American education.
Now, Fred, last time we were talking about cabbages and kings and a lot of things relating to education generally. I promised someone in between the two programs that I would not bring up DeWitt Clinton again. But earlier this year in March 1990 when Bruno Bettelheim died, you wrote a very interesting piece about him entitled “Remembering Bruno Bettelheim, a Friend to Children and Champion of Learning.” We’re talking about schools now, and we are talking about learning. And you wrote here, “Bettelheim opposed the idea of making learning easy. Interesting yes, but not easy. ‘If a teacher tells children that the lesson is easy,’ he warned, those who fail will consider themselves hopelessly stupid and those who succeed will not gain much satisfaction.’” And you wrote further on about the, to some extent, about the visuals that are used now in classrooms and in… You and I have talked about visualization via television and its impact upon schools in our times and upon learning. And I wonder whether you think we have burdened ourselves and our children with this total involvement with the visualizations of this medium, the beady red eye of television.
HECHINGER: I think we have to some extent. I don’t know whether there’s any way of getting around it because like the automobile the television is here and we can’t do much about it. But yes, I think the, it’s not only television, it’s, for instance, textbooks. Textbooks have not always become better but they have become more illustrated. And…
HEFFNER: As a result of television?
HECHINGER: Well, I think, yeah. I think it’s a combination of things. Clearly television completes with what the schools are doing, and the schools then feel that they have to become more visual too. I don’t see anything wrong with being visual, if you do it in the right way. I think there’s a lot that could be done in school with good film and good television to inspire discussion, to take children to places where the teacher can’t take them. But I think a lot of the visualization is sort of mindless, it’s just because there’s a picture. And that, of course, doesn’t help very much. There was a movement a while ago, a few years ago, and I’m not sure that, it may still be going on in some places, but it never took hold, but I thought it was quite interesting. It was called “scripting.” I don’t know whether you recall that.
HEFFNER: You mean taking the…
HECHINGER: Yeah. The teacher got an actual script from one of the television networks. Several networks worked with it. And the teachers would get script for a show that was in the making. And the children would work that that script and discuss what would be improved and how it could be changed. And then they were asked by the teacher the, it usually was an evening program, the evening the show was on, to watch the show and then compare it to the things that they had proposed, and was it better or worse. Now that’s a good way of using the medium because it combined reading, it combined editing, it combined quality judgments. And it seemed to me almost a way of using the medium in the right way. I don’t think it ever became really a mass movement although it may still be used in some places.
HEFFNER: Back in the Fifties when television came into its own and so rapidly became a major influence in American life, I remember a cartoon showing us in the future, Cyclops, with just one eye in the center of our foreheads so we could focus on the television, and a nation that obviously wasn’t reading. Now, this has pretty well come to pass, hasn’t it?
HECHINGER: Yes. And there was something else that was happening, you may remember, that in the Fifties too largely sponsored by the Ford Foundation. There was one, there was one town, one school in Maryland…
HECHINGER: Haggerstown, Maryland, that was totally wired for television. And the idea was that great teachers or good teachers would produce their own shows and thereby make them available to all the children. But it never went anywhere. And I think the reason it didn’t go anywhere was that it competed with the technical better production outside.
HEFFNER: Which leads me, of course, to ask you what you think about the Channel One experiment, no longer an experiment. The effort to bring news programs and the commercials that go with them and pay for them, presumably, into America’s schools now.
HECHINGER: Well, first of all, I have serious problems with bringing commercials into the classroom via television. As a matter of fact, if I were, if you want to carry this on to its ultimate conclusion, if I were a textbook publisher, I would say, “Well, if they can have commercials on television that kids have to see, why can’t I put commercials in my textbooks and get paid for it?” I’m not advocating this, but it seems to me this is the foot in the door. But beyond that I really don’t think that teachers should be told, and children too, but teachers particularly, that at a certain time every day the children must watch a program. Teachers really should be in charge of what they are doing. And if they want news programs, if they want to use it in their classroom without commercials, there’s nothing to prevent them from taping, say, that McNeil/Lehrer Newshour or any other public program that’s, you know, specifically for what they want to do. I don’t think a television station should dictate to a school what and when something must be seen. There was a – again I go back to the Fifties – in the school reform movement then, again it was a foundational sponsored thing, I think it was Ford. It was something called the Midwest Television Project, Midwest Airborne Television Project. There was a large DC-7 plane that circled a six-state area all day long and sent programs into the classrooms of thousands of schools. Now, it didn’t last very long because, for the same reason. It tried to tell the teachers what they must do at a certain time. It didn’t ask the teachers what they needed, what they wanted. And it collapsed. It used to be referred to as educational crop dusting, and it sort of floated away. But I feel the same way about this.
HEFFNER: Even though, Fred, look. I’m appalled by the Channel One idea, although I’m interested in the fact that The New York Times has certainly not set its editorial canon against it.
HEFFNER: It says, “Let’s see what happens, which…”
HECHINGER: That doesn’t mean that I approve of it. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Okay. All right. You won’t take responsibility for that. It did shock me to see The Times editorializing in that way. But let’s look at the argument. It said, “Our children know very little about the world around them.” And you will grant that. “Therefore we want to bring them news programs that can familiarize them with the names and the faces and the pictures and the news and the information. We can’t do that unless there are technical facilities in the schools to do that.”
HECHINGER: SO they provide them.
HEFFNER: SO we will provide those facilities. We will provide the satellite equipment, we will provide the television sets, free of charge. The only charge will be, presumably, to the students, and as you point out, to the teachers. That the schools that accept these sets, and they love to have them, also have to watch the programs which are accompanied by commercials.
HECHINGER: In the real world that’s called a bribe.
HEFFNER: Well, in the real world we do bribe a great deal.
HECHINGER: That’s right.
HEFFNER: Now, Fred, you admit that we sometimes refer to those as incentives, right?
HEFFNER: Okay. You and I don’t like this Channel One idea…
HEFFNER: …so we were willing to refer to it as bribes. But it’s an incentive for the school to get itself into this act. Now, it would seem that there are a number of people who appear to buy this for the very simple reason that the dollars that, as you said in our last discussion, are not available for the schools are available here.
HEFFNER: What do we do? Do we reject the incentive?
HECHINGER: No. No, we don’t. You know there are other examples, other incentives. IBM provides a great deal of computer material to the schools free of charge. And it supports but doesn’t force the schools to use what I think is a very good program which is called Writing to Read, created by a retired school administrator, a very able person. And you could use it on other computers. And as I say, IBM recommends it, it provides the machinery, it’s a perfectly good program. It doesn’t advertise IBM other that that the machine comes from IBM. But that’s different, you see. I don’t have any problem with that. If he teachers think this is a good program to teach children to read and write, which I think it is, not only the program, but there’s nothing wrong with it, then that’ san incentive and I don’t have any problem with that.
HEFFNER: All right, but let’s go back to Whittle and Channel One.
HEFFNER: Before it had competition from other cable news opportunities that don’t carry commercials…
HECHINGER: That’s right.
HEFFNER: …it was simply saying, “Hey, look. Are we going to continue to reject the technology of the future? Are you going to be Luddites who reject all the goodies that can be brought with, that come with technical advance?” And the answer seemed to be, “No,” for a number of schools. Here in the State of New York I believe it was banned and…
HECHINGER: That’s right.
HEFFNER: …and in the State of California…
HEFFNER: …it was banned. But otherwise schools were simply saying, “Look, commercials are what the kids are used to. It’s not going damage the little darlings any more than what they see on television at home does.” Of course, I think it does.
HEFFNER: “Let us use it and take the money” – you call it a bribe, you call it an incentive…
HECHINGER: No. I can see why some schools would accept it. It doesn’t mean that I approve of it. You know, basically, obviously if… I think Turner gave the schools the equipment without any requirement to use either commercials or any particular program. Fine. But basically let’s face it, if this is important, if this is an important part of school today, and I think it is, there is certainly shouldn’t be any school without a VCR today, then I think this schools must provide it, whether the parents pay for it or the school board pays for it…
HEFFNER: But they’re not doing that, Fred.
HECHINGER: Well, they do it in some schools, they don’t do it in others. But you can’t… What worries me is to say that anything that we can’t afford, if somebody comes in with a, call it whatever you want, incentive, on the basis that you are going to use a certain program then you are in deep trouble. I mean, what would prevent some political or religious group to give a school all kinds of whatever, libraries, books, on the proviso that its particular program must be brought to the children as a captive audience? It could be labor, it could be management, it could be anything. It could be a religious group. I just think that the schools should keep that kind of thing at arm’s length.
HEFFNER: I don’t disagree with out. I’m disappointed that there are those whom we know and love and like who feel otherwise. Let me not belabor that point. Let me ask you about something else. You were here at this table 30 years ago talking about a program, we did a program called “The Little Red Schoolhouse.” And you remember you and Senator Benton were discussing making a comparison between Soviet education, the little red schoolhouse…
HECHINGER: Big red schoolhouse.
HEFFNER: The big red schoolhouse, and our own. IT was at the time when Americans were terribly upset by the contrast between the success of their own educational system and that of the Soviets. Setting aside the Soviets for a moment, how does what we do in our schools contrast with what Europeans, people in other societies, European societies, the East, do? Where are we in comparison to them?
HECHINGER: Well, we are behind them in a number of important areas. We’re certainly behind them in mathematics and science. And we are behind them, we’ve always been behind them in foreign languages. We are probably ahead of them, ahead most of them in terms of the percentage of children who go through the secondary schools. I think that’s an advantage. Now, you can say that many of them go through secondary schools don’t learn very much. That’s true also. But it’s the right start. It doesn’t shunt people into different categories of lives at an early age. I think in that respect we are ahead. And our top kids, the top eight or ten percent or so, in our secondary and our high schools are really doing quite well. And even in comparison with good schools abroad.
What troubles me is that we tend to make comparisons. And please don’t misunderstand. I think our schools need to be vastly improved, and we have problems that some of the other societies don’t have. Although France, you know, has some of the same problems now that we have because it has become a more heterogeneous society. A lot of kids drop out, a lot of them don’t learn to read and write. And they are beginning to be worried about it. Britain certainly has the problem. The homogenous societies don’t have that much of a problem. But what troubles me is that we tend to make comparisons with other countries and then sort of give the impression if we only did it their way we’d be all right. We did that with the Soviets. And I tried in the Big Red Schoolhouse to make the comparisons but at the same time point out that we are different societies. There are a lot of things we ought to be doing differently, we are doing differently. We are doing now the same thing with the Japanese. If you substitute “Japanese” for “Soviet Union” in some of the reports that I read now they would almost be the same reports of the Soviet Union in the Fifties after Sputnik and so forth. And I don’t think we should overlook that our societies are different. We don’t want to be like the Japanese. We want to learn certain things from them, yes, but we don’t want to regiment children in schools to a point that the Japanese. We want to learn certain things from them, yes, but don’t want to regiment children in schools to a point that the Japanese are doing it. The children in Japanese schools, we talk about the long hours they spending school but that doesn’t tell half the story. After they finish school they go to cram school in the afternoon. I don’t think we want to do that. The Japanese are now looking at our higher education system because their universities are a disaster because the kids are so burned out by the time they reach the university that they have a four-year kind of holiday in the university. And their careers and their lives are determined not by what they learn in university but which university they’ve been accepted to. We don’t want to imitate that. Japanese actually, you know, they’ve bought one or two American colleges in the middle West. They want to…
HECHINGER: Bought them, the whole college. And they want to run, they want to see what it’s like to run an American college. So what I’m trying to say is that yes, we ought to look at all systems, and we ought to pick up some things from all of them. And yes, we do have to compete with them. We do have… If we don’t, if we fall behind we are falling behind on our own terms. We need mathematics and science. We don’t get enough of it. We are being saved right now in mathematics and science by an influx of people from abroad who can do it. But we won’t always have that. So yes, we need improvements. On the other hand, you look at our graduate education, it’s still the envy of the world. People come from all over the world to attend our universities.
HEFFNER: If we do raise our sights somewhat – and I didn’t mean that in terms of quality – but move from the schools themselves, from K-12 to the college experience, what is your own feeling about what is happening on the campuses now in terms of the, not the disruptions a la the 1960s, but this extraordinary phenomenon of racism? How do you explain it?
HECHINGER: You know what’s happening?
HECHINGER: What’s happening is what always happens on college campuses. Our society has changed, there are certain real problems in the society, racism has reared its head again in the society and it does in the colleges. The colleges are no different from the rest. They are a little more vocal sometimes, but they are not… When the colleges were fighting against the War in Vietnam a very substantial part of the society outside the colleges was fighting against the War in Vietnam. The colleges reflect. They draw kids from the society. That doesn’t make it any better. Obviously it’s horrendous to me to think that on a college campus you have the problems that you have in Bensonhurst or whatever, wherever it is. But it doesn’t surprise me. If you look at the history of American campuses, it was always a reflection of the society. Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t on the campuses also people, people are head of the society. I mean, there are still, my guess is they’re still more forward-looking, socially conscious people on the college campuses than then there are on the outside. They don’t make the news, of course, you know, and I’m not suggesting that the news about the racial incidents should be kept away from us. We certainly should know about it. The only way we can fight it.
HEFFNER: You don’t think then that what is happening on the campus, that is that there is, oh, I don’t mean a nurturing, but that for some reason what is not happening to quite the same extent in the rest of society is happening on the campus. You were saying it’s really a reflection.
HECHINGER: It’s happening on the society as a whole. It’s happening in society as a whole. I think again, I think again, I think part of it is we are now in a period of relative economic decline and that always makes people nastier than they are in a period of prosperity. They become more competitive. Groups set themselves against each other. I think if our economy turns around and we, you know, move forward again, these things will change.
HEFFNER: There was a letter to the editor of the – Oh, no, it was an op-ed piece in The New York Times yesterday, the day before, the other day – two recent graduates of Columbia College, my college. I won’t go back to DeWitt then. They were talking about, in a sense, the separatism on the campus.
HECHINGER: Oh, yes.
HEFFNER: And I am aware of that in my classes and it is something new.
HECHINGER: Yes, it is something new. And it’s in part, I think, it’s inspired by people who have a political agenda.
HEFFNER: Do you think…
HECHINGER: I think it’s part of that. It’s, people really build a political agenda on separatism, in a sense. And it’s too bad, but it’s happening. And again this may change. It’s certainly a long way from Martin Luther King’s view of the society, and…
HEFFNER: But Fred, a moment ago you talked about this as a result of the economic pressure of our times.
HEFFNER: The economic pressures of our times are, among the groups we’re referring to, are minimal, it seems to me, what compared to times when there was much less of this kind of activity on the campus. There has to be something else…
HECHINGER: Well, we went through a period during the Civil Rights Movement…
HECHINGER: …which inspired kids. Inspired people on the outside too. I mean, let’s face it, the big civil rights news were the march in Birmingham and so forth. But that was not college campus. College kids were involved and inspired them. And I think there was a leadership to inspire them, and that’s another issue. I thin college student, like all young people, older people too, react to leadership. And the people are speaking out of, you know, there were some terrible things happening on some campuses. But there was leadership that gallivanted the young people, gave them something to link up with. There’s very little of that today. Where is it today? Who is speaking out for the kind of society that you and I are deploring no longer existing on the campuses? Who are the leaders?
HEFFNER: So you’re talking about our society…
HECHINGER: I’m talking about society… You can’t separate… You know, I’d like to look at the whole spectrum. We were talking about the schools and the colleges and the problems the schools face and the problems they face because they society has changed and the family has changed. I think that one area that we haven’t even touched on. If we want answers, if we want to get to the next century in good shape, the answer has to come at birth or before birth. We are not doing anything for the little kids. We are sending kids to school, we are sending the poor kids to school who haven’t had the advantage that the ordinary affluent kid has every day at home. You read to your children, didn’t you?
HEFFNER: Uh hum.
HECHINGER: Out children never went to bed without being read to. What a difference it makes for a child that has had that advantage and the child who hasn’t had the advantage. And we have not institutionalized in any way the advantages that must be given to disadvantaged children.
HEFFNER: Fred, a subject for another program.
HECHINGER: Okay. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: This one has come to an end, and I Want to thank you again for joining me, Fred Hechinger.
HECHINGER: I enjoyed it very much.
HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you, you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7997, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, good night, and good luck.