William Honig

The Politics of Education

VTR Date: October 16, 1985

Guest: Honig, William


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Bill Honig
Title: “The Politics of Education”

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Now, recording this particular program here at KQED, San Francisco’s outstanding public broadcasting station, seems wonderfully appropriate to me, for my teaching career began almost 40 years ago just across the bay at the University of California at Berkeley and today’s guest is one who promises, in some quite controversial ways, to stand American teaching very much on its ear, making the politics of education a concern for us all. Bill honig is the California Superintendent of Public Instruction who recently encouraged this state’s board of education to reject every single seventh- and eighth-grade science textbook offered by the nation’s major publishers. Why? Because they avoid controversy and conflict with some state’ fundamentalist and creationist elements by watering down their presentation of Darwinian theories of evolution, by “dumbing down”, as former Education Secretary Terrel Bell has called the, by now, widespread process of diluting texts, making them noncontroversial so that perhaps no one will take exception to them, and presumably, everyone will buy them. Well, as Superintendent Honig has noted, clearly for ideological reasons, textbooks at all levels have been clipped, cropped and culled of any distinguishing content, style, or point of view. Because when textbook buyers talk, textbook publishers listen. But turnabout, presumably, is fair play. And now California itself is resorting to the tactics of the marketplace to have its own way with America’s publishers, leading one to wonder how students and scholars will fare in this struggle for existence.

Mr. Superintendent, is it fair to use those same tactics?

Honig: I think it is…I think it’s our responsibility to establish some criteria, standards of quality, general standards. And if you don’t establish these standards, then you leave the field vulnerable to the people who are going to object. And then you’re pushed this way and that way. So what we’ve done is involved the whole educational community. What do we mean by topflight science? What do we mean by topflight literature, history, mathematics? Get a professional consensus, translate that into criteria, communicate that to the publishers and then adopt books according to those criteria.

Heffner: But how does this differ from the kinds of pressure that have been brought by other states, by Texas in the past, by other states too?

Honig: Because the pressure is coming from an overall judgment of excellence and quality. We take a look at those science books. Basically, what was going on – not necessarily a fight between evolution and creationists, that was where it erupted – but the real issue was a quality issue, an issue of quality. Here’s what we think our books should reflect if we’re going to convey to students an understanding of modern biology. You can’t understand modern biology unless you see it through the prism of the theory of modern evolution. These books watered down that presentation. You couldn’t grasp the subject.

Heffner: Well if there is going to be a survival of the fittest in this conflict, who do you think is going to survive? Who’s going to come out on top? How will evolution pick the best textbooks?

Honig: I think those of us who are fighting for these standards will eventually win because it’s now nationwide. We had a conference last year, and we talked about the literature books. This wasn’t science, it was literature and mathematics. Now, literature and reading books have also been narrowed. The stories aren’t there, the interest isn’t there. They’re skill-development oriented, not content oriented. And we conveyed that to the publishers. We had all the districts. We had nationwide participation. And there was agreement among the educators, “Here’s what we’re looking for”. And we conveyed that to the publisher. So I think we’ll get the books.

Heffner: You say “Nationwide agreement”, and yet, isn’t it true that materials have been taken out of texts, Shakespeare has been edited, for any number of reasons, because of the protests of certain groups about certain materials? How do you handle the conflict between what would now seem to be a somewhat authoritarian position on your part in opposition to the opinions of parents in one state or another, in one community or another? Don’t they have the right to have their children read texts and read books in the libraries that reflect their own values?

Honig: Well I think “authoritarian” has a double meaning. There’s an authority of a discipline and that authority comes from people who are enmeshed in that discipline. The best people in reading, for example, or literature, have said to us that this is what works with children, you’ve got to have stories that grab them, that engage them. You have to have our best literature put before them in a variety of ways. You have to teach comprehension. The books have to be written so you can grasp them. They have to be written in considerate text, is the way they put it. There’s a variety of measures of quality that the professionals say should be there. Now, if a parent objects and says, ‘I don’t want good stories for my students,” or, “I don’t like Romeo and Juliet because I’ve got a problem with the language,” I think we have a right to say, “This is what it takes to convey our deep values, our basic beliefs, the beauty of the language, to get students engaged and interested, these are the stories we need.” And if we don’t say that, the result is that commercial publishers will water down texts to sell them, because they don’t like the rejections. And they need us to stand up for what’s right if they’re going to sell us the right books.

Heffner: Yet, Superintendent Honig, in your recent book, “Last Chance for Our Children: How You Can Help Save Our Schools,” in a sense – and I don’t want to be unfair – in a sense, you say that the experts, over a period of a generation, were wrong, and we have one last chance. And you parents, the majority of parents, have a chance to undo what those experts did. Now, there’s some reconciliation needed here, it seems to me.

Honig: Well, I do think the experts in education took us on the wrong track. And those of us who now fighting to get us back on track have some control over education. And we forged an alliance with parents who believe the same way. What I’m saying is it’s not that, if you talk to parents about literature or history, and you explain to them what’s at stake, they have no problems with teaching about the founding of this country or about the Civil War, or making sure students get the kind of literary experience that’s necessary. That is consistent with their point of view and, I think, consistent with the point of view that I espouse in this book. There is a core idea, a sense of what the physical world and the social world and the ethical world and these broader societies are about and that our job, both as parents and as educators and as teacher sis to help connect the broad range of our students to these worlds. And to do that, you have – you’re a cultural ambassador – you have to know something about the culture, about the society, about the political world, and put that in such a form that you connect the students with these broader issues. Bland books don’t do that. Books that are written to avoid controversy or objections don’t do that. So there is a certain authority that comes from two, three, four thousand years of cultural development. And I think we owe it to our students – all of them – to at least let them know what we’re about.

Heffner: Yet you talk about an agreement, on physical matters, on what the content should be, and the physical sciences, etcetera, but you also talk about the ethical world. And I was very much interested in a similar point that you make in your book. You say, “What might that guiding morality look like? No doubt the key concepts would include such broad principles as the sanctity of human life, respect for the dignity of the individual and the importance of the family, and personal moral effort.” That leaves an awful lot of room for interpretation as to what you mean by the sanctity of human life. Now, there are great disputes going on in this country at this time, about the meanings of those words. How do you resolve these conflicts?

Honig: Some you’re not going to. Abortion: you are not going to get agreement at this time in the history of this nation about what’s right and what’s wrong. The differences are too great. So, I think you have to treat that issue more gingerly. But the broader issues of what holds us together as a people, as a nation, as a society; I think there is agreement. Honesty, compassion, tolerance, good sportsmanship, civility, magnanimity. These are values, whether in history or literature or biography, that we do agree with. And I think we owe it to our children to give those values, or transmit those values in a variety of situations. Especially, I think, it’s important in a democracy. It’s not just we’re preparing students for the economic world out there that’s rapidly changing, which we talk about in the book, and we have to have a sophisticated curriculum to get them up to those levels. It’s deeper than that. In a democracy, we depend on individual choice, on conscious choice to live an ethical life or according to some higher standards, if we don’t help them encounter those ideals, they’re not equipped to make that individual choice. They really don’t have the ability, the perspective to do that. And that is crippling for minority students, for lower-income students. It is also dangerous to this democracy. We depend, if you go back to Jefferson, you go back to Montesquieu or the founders of this country, they are very clear that democracy only works if you have large numbers of people taking on the burden of higher quality or ethical living.

Heffner: You know, having read about your – and I haven’t been a Californian in many years now –and having read your recent book there’s no question in my mind that I would put the fate, my fate and probably that of my children, in your hands as a teacher. But I think I’ve heard, in a long lifetime now, it said over and over again, “I don’t get angry. I get even”. I’ve heard it enough to indicate to me that some of the values that you accept and that I would embrace too are not those of a great many people in this country. And you make a very easy assumption about what our basic values are. And I wonder how you can do that quite so easily.

Honig: Well, I think you’ve got to distinguish or make a distinction between ideal values. Not the reality. Obviously, we never live up to the ideals. But schooling, education, is really putting your best food forward with the new generation. That’s what it’s all about. We package those things that we’re shooting for and try and put them in a form that will grab our students both intellectually and emotionally. That’s our job. And I think that’s our job as parents and that’s our job as educators. So, the curriculum, the instructional program that we place before students, should be chock full of what life should be like according to our views, our ideals, our beliefs. Now, we have some very potent beliefs in this country, or in humanity. We do believe in moral courage. We do believe in individual ethical effort, that that’s important. We do believe in honesty or tolerance. These are sophisticated values that have grown up over long cultural periods. They, as I say in there, we are always one generation away from losing those values.

Heffner: but, you know, Mr. Superintendent, when I taught history, I would have to distinguish between history and heritage. And one can find in our history many, many, many indications of periods and times when the values that you embrace and that you’ve mentioned here, and that you mention in your book, have not exactly been those that I have been lived out in our actual history. Different though our heritage. Our heritage, that of Jefferson, the values that you state. Don’t you think if at any one moment you scratch the people of this country you might find them embracing what would seem to be values that are antithetical to those that you list in this book?

Honig: The may embrace them, they may act according to those values. I think we have to get back to human nature. And I talk about a broader public philosophy which is based upon a view of human nature.

Heffner: whose sense of what human nature is like?

Honig: Well, I think we have some general agreement about that. There are parts of us that are evil – what you’re talking about – we’re crass, we’re selfish, especially in this country, in the individual development, and go pursue your own ends. That’s the beauty of this country; it’s also one of our dangers. This country is a tension between two major human wholes: individual and self aggrandizement; and also the common social community purpose. We try to put the two together, and that, I think, is where we get the dynamic tension in this country. But, if we understand that, then, of course, we’re not perfect. This is not a utopia. The point is, do we have the best shot at the good life, given our form of government, given the way we look at things? What I say in here is, we are not doing the job of transmitting that broader purpose, that broader ideal, to our students. Can they get up, as a high school graduate, and give a five-minute defense of democracy? I think that’s as good as an SAT. That’s as powerful a measure as an SAT exam. Can you say what’s right with this country, what’s wrong with it, where we’ve lived up to ideals, where we haven’t, where we’re vulnerable as a democracy, and give some historical perspective? I don’t think you’re a citizen unless you can do that. And I don’t think most of our students, at the high school level, even at the college level, can pass that kind of test. That’s what I’m talking about in this book.

Heffner: But, you know, remember back in the Korean War when the study was done of the incredible number of turncoats, American turncoats, there were, prisoners who had accepted brainwashing. And the discovery was made, the number was quite so large because there was no such sense at that time.

Honig: They didn’t have it. Exactly. They didn’t have that core. We are vulnerable, as a society, as a democracy, unless we are able to instill that intellectual and emotional allegiance. That old-fashioned, traditional word, “allegiance”. There’s something to it.

Heffner: And yet, there are those who feel that a creationist approach to the nature and descent of man is fundamental to informing the value standards of our children and for that reason they don’t want to have the kinds of textbooks that you want to have. Now, what do we do about that?

Honig: Well, I think that’s a misreading of the situation.

Heffner: Why?

Honig: Because the – you’re right – that the people who object to evolution read into the idea of the theory of evolution a godlessness, a lack of purpose. We grew up from nothing. There’s no final purpose and therefore, it means there are no values, no morals, no religion. I don’t think the religious people say that. In fact, the testimony before the board was just the opposite. Evolution could be god’s way. It’s an elegant solution to the development of our higher powers.

Heffner: You didn’t choose fundamentalists, did you, to come before your board and offer their opinion?

Honig: They were there. They were there.

Heffner: But that isn’t what they said, is it?

Honig: That’s not what they said, but there’s a difference of opinion even among creationists. If you want to talk about it in a variety of ways, god’s creation, in god’s time, could be the alpha and the omega. It could happen all at one glimpse. Whereas we, as humans, perceive it in linear time, and we see it over a period of time. I mean, you talk about broader religious ideas. The point is, in science, you cannot understand modern biology unless you understand the theory of evolution. You can’t understand that if you water it down and don’t get the Darwin and Leaky and Lucy and Australopithecus and all those kinds of areas. You have to have some background. Just the way that you have to have in history. You have to have a sense that the people that came to this country, many of them, came here for religious purposes. The Great Awakening. There’s a part of our history that’s religious, and you have to understand that too. So it’s not the right or the left or two or three parents here that have objections. It’s forging a consensus, in a pluralistic society, of what values we can agree to, and make sure our students encounter those.

Heffner: Yes but the consensus in a great many communities is probably a consensus that is somewhat different from your own. And that leads me to ask you how you feel about the right, the prerogative of parents in a certain community to limit, very severely, the books that are going to be in the school library, expressing the majority will of that community?

Honig: I think one of our traditions in this country is that the majority can go so far. Then there are also some protections against the minority. And those of us in education, I think, have to stand up and say, “We think it’s important that students encounter a broad range of ideas, a broad range of materials”. And that we will, in the curriculum, in the instructional program, we will make sure that they encounter these basic values and ideals, because it’s so essential to a democracy and to our quality of life. They should also develop the ability to think and critically analyze situations. So you’ve got a double effort that you’re trying to do. You’re trying to transmit a culture and a basic idea. But our culture is a revolutionary culture. It puts great stress on the individual, on individual rights, on individual development, on conscious choice. And that will not work unless it’s combined with this base. And that is a tricky path to walk. If you go too far on one side, you get, as you say, authoritarian. “Don’t question it, don’t ask me about it, just learn it.” On the other side, if you do what we did I the ‘70s and late ‘60s, which is “There are no values; everything is equal to everything else, and we can’t take a stand on what’s important,” that’s just as destructive to children and to this country. You’ve got to have a flavor of both camps.

Heffner: You know, the interesting thing is, a moment ago I talked about the huge number of turncoats in the Korean War. We’re talking now about 1950 and the few years following, before the ‘70s, before the permissiveness, presumably, of the ‘60s, etcetera. How do you account for that?

Honig: I think we’re always, democracy is always problematical. We’re always struggling to inculcate or get large numbers of our citizens to understand what it’s all about. I’m not saying education was terrific in the ‘50s. I think we had huge gaps. There were large numbers of people left out. There were minorities that weren’t getting a quality education. What’s different now is that, for economic reasons, people are starting to understand, we don’t compete unless we get large numbers of our young people to higher levels. The only technical way we know to do that, the pedagogical way, is a strong academic program for a broad range of students. So we have to teach history, we have to teach literature. That has a double payoff, because not only do you get the development of the skills and the ability to think and analyze where we’re going to b competing, you also get, you also have the opportunity get these broad ideas in a broad range of students. And that’s what I think we’re after.

Heffner: There are comparatively few people – there are such, I think – comparatively fewer and fewer who would argue with that point of view. The sciences, history, mathematics, the heritage of our literature, etcetera. But when we get to the question of values, you’ll have to admit that there is a wide diversity of opinions here. Phyllis Schlafley, for instance, who doesn’t want your teachers teaching her children or other children morality. Now, if she should be numbered, eventually, in the majority, will you accept the majority will in this instance?

Honig: Well, we’re a democratic institution, education. But I just don’t agree that that will ever be the majority in this country. When you look at the polls, for example, basic skills, reading, writing and communication, number one, 92 percent of parents want that. Values, beliefs, ideals, 86 percent, 89 percent.

Heffner: Sure. But they’re talking about their values, their beliefs, and you’re talking about yours.

Honig: But I don’t agree with you on that one. I think…I’ve got personal experience. I taught in San Francisco in a ghetto area, Hunter’s Point, with the remnants of the ‘60s hippy population, two diverse groups. And we were able to get 95 percent agreement from those groups on what kind of curriculum we should have for their students. Honestly, initiative, basic ideals. We have a lot more agreement in this country than as a parent because of all the diversity. But underlying it is some agreement about what’s important.

Heffner: But, Mr. Honig, you live here in California, and I live in New York, and there is a vast world in between. And I wonder, if you were to be transported to…

Honig: Iowa?

Heffner: …a southern state.

Honig: The South? We’ve had this conversation with southern people, parents or teachers. There’s no disagreement to the southern state about do we teach American history and civic virtue and the values on which this country is, DeToqueville is a favorite of yours. I think those, I think high school students should encounter those ideals. There’s a common body of powerful tools that we can use to equip our students. And the controversial pars that we’re all aware of from the media from reading the newspapers, and so forth, those are important, how you analyze those. And people have deep feelings and I think you have to pay attention to their families and family values. But a lot of what we believe in has a common consensual base.

Heffner: What do you want to do – if I may move a bit, but not that far – about teaching sexual education in the schools in a way that would impact upon the epidemic of AIDS?

Honig: I think you teach it, number one. I think you teach it in a value oriented, in other words, in a family values. There’s a responsibility it’s not just, “Here’s your body and do what you want with it.” This is a human action and there’s consequences and responsibilities. And I think that’s the way you teach about AIDS. First of all, “Here are the facts. Here’s how this disease is transmitted.” I think we’ve got to teach that to students, because they’re going to die if we don’t. Some of them are going to contract this disease. The other part of it is, I think, you’ve also got to show that you have human responsibilities in sexual behavior. It’s not just pursuit of your own wishes or happiness. There are other people involved. And that context for sexual education, I think, does have broad support in the public. That’s the consensual support I’m talking about.

Heffner: There is certainly a moral point of view that’s going to inform what you teach through, isn’t it?

Honig: I would hope so. When you look at morals, it has a bad connotation nowadays. But what it really means is, there are consequences of your actions. You cannot just think about yourself, you’ve got to think about the broader side of it.

Heffner: Is that what morality means?

Honig: That’s what it means to…

Heffner: there are consequences?

Honig: Morality means you shift your vision from yourself to a broader society and take into account other people around you and think about what effects your acts are going to have on them, and you attempt to discipline those basic desires we all have. We have aggression, we have selfishness, we have parts of us that are pulling us in one direction – and that’s good in some senses, because you have the initiative and the drive and the individuality you have to this country – we also have communal needs. We have social or moral needs that are deep inside of us to think about the broader social purpose. And, as I said earlier, you can’t have a democracy without people paying attention to those broader values and struggling on their own to live according to those ideals. It doesn’t happen. It won’t happen.

Heffner: Why do you think Education Secretary Bennett has – not gotten in so much trouble; he can take care of himself –but why do you think he has stirred up quite as much opposition where he has stirred up opposition?

Honig: Well, I agree with him on some of his, the basic direction or the vision, but I think he has sometimes been too bellicose about the whole issue, or defined these values too narrowly. When he talks about a common, “Here’s the way this country was created, and here are things that our students should know, “I’m with him all the way. When that all of a sudden gets into a political agenda of…

Heffner: Like what?

Honig: …of prayer in the schools or tax credits or voucher programs, then I think that you are corrupting a broad-based consensual position in this country which we have to install as a driving force behind education, and using it for a narrow political ideals or objectives. And that, I think, is unfortunate.

Heffner: Don’t you think the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone here and that there is a real relationship between these positions.

Honig: If I make one point on this show, the point I’d like to make is that there is a moderate position, a middle position, on ethics and values and morality. And that, in fact, I would argue, if we can’t get a broad, moderate position, and stand up for those ideals, then there’ll be a vacuum. And into that vacuum will come the more extreme positions, the fundamentalist positions, the positions from a variety of sources. There is an underlining philosophy, a public philosophy in Walter Lippmann’s phrase, that drives, or should drive us, as a country. Schools are part of that broader public philosophy. Our educational philosophy should stem from that broader ideal. And that philosophy, we have to, each generation, we have to keep it alive. We have to nurture it. We have to express it and articulate it. And the intellectual leaders in this country. I think, have fallen down because they don’t talk about these things. You don’t talk about them in the universities, they don’t write books about them often enough. And we are left, we are dry. We don’t have the support, as teachers, as educators, from that community in keeping this alive. Coleridge had a point, I think, 150 years ago when they were talking about what are going to be the forces that keep a modern society going. And he talked about education. He also talked about the intelligentsia, a lay clergy, and the avante garde. Now, our intellectuals now are the avant garde. They tear things down. They’re specialists. They make way for the new. But the lay clergy which he talked about, keeping our cultural life for each generation, that’s where we need some attention.

Heffner: Mr. Honig, I know from reading “Last Chance for Our children” that you’re an optimist. And I guess if we had time to go into what bet you’re making as to whether we’ll carry this all off, the answer would be, “We’re going to make it”.

Honig: I think we are.

Heffner: Thank you so much for joining me today, Superintendent Honig.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”