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Jefferson's Children

by Leon Botstein

Published 1997

While Leon Botstein is certainly an academic, the president of Bard College, this volume does not seem to be targeted towards a narrow academic audience. The book begins with a discussion of the inaccuracy of largely conservative nostalgia for United States' past. He accurately notes that there is little optimism for the future, despite the fact that in reality by numerous measures the United States has gotten better. He argues that we should not find the notion of grade inflation as a disingenuous because numerous athletic records are consistently improving and therefore we should not find the notion that grades are 'improving' is surprising. That can be somewhat debatable because unlike the 100M dash it is a bit difficult to be certain that academic standards have fallen without records of the work that students did which except for exceptional work is generally not kept for more than a year or two in case of clerical errors. Botstein continues with a good explanation of where US schools have fallen short by noting the increasing professional opportunities for women have made getting quality teachers more difficult. This is a certainly far superior explanation of the problems in schools than the traditional liberal polemics that involve vague accusations of underfunding.

Chapter two, Language and Hope, seemed to be the oddball chapter in the book insofar as that it doesn't deal much with education which is the general theme for the rest of the book. It argues about linguistic uses of the word 'hope' and a few other words, but serves little purpose towards the book and frankly could be cut out of the book without any loss.

Perhaps the most noteworthy notion is Botstein's new American high school. He begins chapter three with the usual discussion about the negative feedback that teens receive, but he comes upon an interesting observation in that the whole notion of K-12 education where there is mandatory education until the age of 18 is dubious. It holds back for the idea of a bygone era when teens reached sexual maturity at an older age. While some may argue with the notion of sexual maturity being indicative of 'maturity' it is clear that our expectations are now outmoded and that we should have children reach 'adulthood' at an earlier age. This is a an accurate statement although by itself is a somewhat questionable conclusion. Nevertheless Botstein comes to the conclusion that education ought to be K-10 so that teens would graduate at 16 as opposed to 18. The much maligned middle school would be eliminated and school would be divided into the elementary school K-6 and the secondary school 7-10. His arguments for implementing his plan are rather compelling. Individuals could enter the work force at 16 and easily return to schooling while they were still young. In addition it would empty the classrooms of thousands of classrooms with students not doing anything that would benefit them towards their adult life. Because students would be attending mandatory schooling for 2 fewer years the schools could increase per pupil spending on the same annual spending and hence get better results. One statement that is not stocking for California, but perhaps much of the rest of the country was on page 121. Botstein observed that a 1996 Carnegie Foundation report declared that the B.A. degree in education was a poor preparation for teaching. Botstein argued that all teachers ought to have degrees in the subjects that they teach. While this conclusion may come to a shock to many liberal Democrats including John Edwards and John Kerry who have rallied against NCLB requirements for certification in subject proficiency, Botstein clearly recognizes that subject knowledge is critical. (California recognized the bane of the undergraduate major in education and eliminated the major in the 1960s)
The final chapter details an overhaul of college general education. The plan is so broad as to be impossible to complete in four years and hence Botstein argues that college should be extended to four years not reduced to three. While it is interesting it would cost students millions of dollars in additional tuition, decrease degree completion rates, and keep students out of the economy longer. Botstein makes a weak defense of affirmative action as being useful in creating new opportunities for women and minorities, but does nothing to show its continuing necessity. Even his claim of expanded opportunities isn't very well defended.

Overall the suggestions for changes in K-12 education seem worth exploring, but for such an intelligent academic as Botstein this book is a bit of letdown. Despite its flaws the book is still makes a few interesting points, although it may only be interesting to those who haven't read much else of various educational reform literature.