Fulfillment Of Educational Needs

The American High School Today, by James Bryant Conant (McGraw-Hill, paper, 96 pages with appendixes, $1), is reviewed by Frank E. Gaebelein, Headmaster of The Stony Brook School.

Here is an important and refreshing study of a subject of great concern to the nation. The current debate about the adequacy of public education emphasizes the timeliness of Dr. Conant’s report. The fact that the book, clearly the product of a first-rate mind, is written in language free from the pretentious phraseology that obscures so much educational literature makes it refreshing reading.

Dr. Conant’s ready acceptance of the assignment of the Carnegie Corporation to study the American high school bespeaks his high sense of public service. The report, though coming from a former president of Harvard University and a United States ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, shows not the least condescension toward what some lesser intellectuals might consider a humdrum inquiry, but rather reveals the author’s sincere respect for his subject. The recommendations and conclusions are marked by strong commitment to intellectual standards and a great deal of good sense that cuts through the tangle of suggestions for improving our schools.

According to Dr. Conant, the comprehensive American high school is potentially an adequate instrument for meeting the varied educational needs of our youth. His first-hand investigation of a wide sampling of schools in 18 states shows that even now certain public secondary schools are fulfilling with conspicuous success their function of training young people in accordance with individual abilities. And it is his considered and urgently advocated conclusion that, with a single major shift in national educational policy and with the application of certain specific recommendations, many more schools will provide effective training for the youth of their communities.

But what is a comprehensive high school? Dr. Conant defines it as one “whose programs correspond to the educational needs of all the youth of the community.” Because the generality of American children are expected to have a secondary education—an expectation for which this nation is unique—our public high schools are, with few exceptions, comprehensive in nature. That is to say, they undertake to combine within the limits of single schools, programs of college preparation, business education, and different kinds of vocational training. To be sure, in some of the larger cities, special academic (college preparatory) or special vocational schools exist. But in general the American high school must exercise a diversified function.

Article continues below

It is Dr. Conant’s conviction that no high school graduating less than one hundred students a year can operate effectively on a comprehensive basis. Financially and administratively, he insists, the small high school is not in a position to cope with the realities of a comprehensive program. Requirements for teachers to man the various courses, to say nothing of the need for equipment, prevent small high schools from meeting needs that range from stimulation of the academically gifted to training the equally worthy but nonacademic pupils. The result is that in many schools gifted pupils are faced with meager offerings in science, mathematics, and foreign languages, while those with special vocational interests suffer under courses for which they have neither aptitude nor interest. Yet of the 21,000 public high schools in the nation, there are only 4,000 with graduating classes of more than one hundred. As for the majority of 17,000 high schools, they are simply too small for effective comprehensiveness.

In the light of such facts, Dr. Conant proposes widespread consolidation of school districts to cut down the total number of high schools to 9,000, thus greatly increasing their size. To do this would entail nothing less than a major change in educational policy, a change that will not be readily made. Dr. Conant admits, “geography may sometimes be legitimate justification for a small high school, but too often it is merely an excuse. Human nature—not geography—offers the real explanation.” And, it should be added, human nature, occasionally manifest with the fierce intensity of community pride in the local school, will not easily bow to enforced consolidation.

A large part of this report consists of 21 definite recommendations for improving the comprehensive high school, providing it is of adequate size. Dr. Conant’s conclusion is that we need no radical renovation of the high school of five hundred or more students but simply its strengthening within the present “basic framework.”

These 21 recommendations range from the suggestion of a full-time counselor for each 250–300 pupils to the provision of developmental reading programs. Of particular significance are the recommendations of courses for academically gifted pupils—the top 15 or 20 per cent as determined by standardized testing. Here the author prescribes a program consisting of four years of mathematics, four years of science, four years of English, four years of a single foreign language, and three years of social studies—plus electives. He believes that able students should be taught in separate classes (with the exception of senior social studies which, for the sake of democracy, should be a cross section of the varied abilities in the school). He insists that gifted pupils need to work harder than they commonly do, and that they are capable of handling 18 courses in four years, 15 hours of homework a week. For the highly gifted (the top 3 per cent) he would prescribe advisers of a tutorial kind, and would demand the taking of Advanced Placement Tests for college credit in upper-class subjects. As for the bulk of the school population, the requirement for graduation regardless of the program chosen would include four years of English, three to four years of social studies, one year of mathematics, and one year of science.

Article continues below

When it comes to the thorny question of marking pupils, Dr. Conant urges strict grading of able academic students. He would have teachers insist on high standards of achievement for gifted pupils, and would not have them hesitate to give failing marks for poor work. On the other hand, he would have passing in the general education courses determined on the basis of effort as related to ability. A realistic touch is the recommendation that high school diplomas be accompanied by a durable transcript of courses taken and grades earned, and that diplomas of honor pupils contain a special notation.

It is obviously beyond the scope of this review to discuss all of Dr. Conant’s recommendations. Educators will have questions about some of them. For example, the classification of music and art as elective courses requiring no outside preparation is unrealistic. It was one of Dr. Conant’s most distinguished predecessors, Dr. Charles William Eliot, who said that music is the best, mind-trainer in the curriculum aside from geometry. But no pupil ever gained any degree of mastery of a musical instrument in a few class sessions a week. Nor can proficiency in drawing or painting be attained without long practice.

Regardless of different opinions about details, Dr. Conant’s recommendations as a whole are notable for their common sense. He suggests nothing that is impossible of application within the context of the American secondary school today.

In considering the broader implications of this report, we become impressed with the fact that an author’s silences are often eloquent. Two of Dr. Conant’s silences speak volumes. For one thing, this candid and practical study of the American public high school completely bypasses the whole life-adjustment theory of the curriculum. The author takes no notice of views of education that subjugates intellectual discipline and mastery of content to socialization of the curriculum. While in no place does he tilt at progressive education, it is plain that he is on the side of schooling that demands learning in depth and particularity. In his proposals he shows his awareness of individual differences among pupils. The rigorous academic program is only for the scholastically gifted, but he also asks for general education and vocational subjects a degree of achievement compatible with the ability of those who take them.

Article continues below

A second eloquent silence relates to the field of moral and religious values in education. Here Dr. Conant has nothing to say. For him—at least in this study—public secondary education is exclusively a matter of the head. Apparently he sees high school education as wholly secular. At a time when America needs to be deeply concerned for the recovery of the moral and spiritual power that made this country great, he has no word about the education of the heart. To be sure, his study is primarily academic; yet the omission remains significant.

What, finally, may be said of the bearing of this report on Christian education? The obvious assumption is that a high school with a graduating class of at least one hundred and with a renovated curriculum is actually comprehensive in meeting pupil needs, when the fact of the matter is it gives little or no place to spiritual values. With all our admiration for Dr. Conant’s clear thinking and high-minded devotion to intellectual standards, those who are committed to Christian education can grant to the high school, as he defines it, no more than a truncated comprehensiveness. Along with sympathetic recognition of the unresolved tension between religion and secularism in public education, we must insist that, if man is more than an intellectual animal, then truly comprehensive education cannot continue to ignore eternal verities.

Yet having said this, let us also acknowledge that Christian education has much to learn from Dr. Conant. Responsible Christian educators must consider the fact that most Christian high schools are small—so small, indeed, that few of them are of sufficient size to provide a variety of programs qualifying them as effectively comprehensive in Dr. Conant’s use of the term. Yet the Christian community is no different from the secular community when it comes to the diverse abilities of its youth. “God sends rain upon the just and the unjust,” and the proportion of academically gifted and nonscholastic minds in Christian communities is not noticeably unlike that in secular communities. A school may be small and do one thing extremely well. Some of the most distinguished academic work in the country is being done in certain independent college preparatory schools, very few of which meet Dr. Conant’s criterion of a graduating class of one hundred. But these schools make no claim to comprehensiveness; they are also selective in admission policy and specialized in program.

Article continues below

Small as it is, however, the Christian school must face with great seriousness the implications of comprehensive secondary education. It may elect, as some have done, to be a good college preparatory school to the glory of God. That is a worthy aim. But it can only be effectively accomplished by selective admissions, thus ruling out the large number of pupils who are not academically gifted. The unavoidable fact is that Christian secondary education must find ways of broadening its base. If gifted students from the Christian community are to be given a God-centered academic training, then non-academic pupils should have the opportunity of a God-centered vocational or business training. What is urgently needed, therefore, is additional Christian vocational schools together with many more Christian high schools large enough to serve adequately all of our youth. Honesty compels us to admit that secondary schools today are the poor relations in the family of Christian education. One would not subtract a dollar from the support of Christian colleges, Bible institutes, Bible colleges, and theological seminaries, all of which are doing indispensable work. Yet Christian education will never reach maturity, let alone meet its obligation of comprehensiveness, unless it develops more secondary schools capable of meeting the needs of all of its pupils.


Education And Service

A Pillar of Cloud, by Mary Miller (Mennonite Board of Education, 1959, 260 pp., $3.75), is reviewed by Paul Erb, Editor of the Gospel Herald.

Hesston College is a small junior college operated since 1909 by the Mennonite Board of Education at Hesston, Kansas. A Pillar of Cloud is the detailed account of the struggles and triumphs of this school during its first fifty years. It is a story of vision, of divine guidance, of courage and accomplishment, which probably could be written about many another such a denominational school. To the non-Mennonite this can be an enlightening picture of the evangelical faith, the conservative cultural traditions, the passion for learning and service of the Mennonite people. It shows that the positive convictions, the martyr consecration, the evangelical fervor of their Anabaptist fathers is still alive. A good example of educational pioneering.

Article continues below


Communication With God

They Teach Us to Pray, by Reginald E. O. White (Harper, 1958, 204 pp., $3), is reviewed by Eric Edwin Paulson, Minister of Lutheran Free Church.

A reviewer must exercise constant restraint lest he exhaust his supply of superlatives on books of only moderate value. However, here is a volume about which even the more discriminating reader will find little to criticize. At first glance the arrangement of topics in an alphabetical order may seem a bit strained. Yet as each discourse develops a phase of prayer exemplified in the life and experience of an individual, this apparent artificiality is forgotten.

In this book we see great personalities of the Bible in reliance upon God under strange and trying circumstances, and we learn about the nature and purpose of prayer as the writer reconstructs the scenes and circumstances of the scriptural narratives. These sketches abundantly demonstrate that truth expressed through the medium of human personality is far more readily grasped than that clothed in the abstract terminology of the essayist or theologian.

The chapters are of such uniformly high quality that it is difficult to single out one or two for special mention. Those dealing with Jabez and Hezekiah seem to be particularly notable examples, however, of original and imaginative interpretations of otherwise obscure characters in the Scriptures. Preachers who find biographical sermons a good medium for teaching spiritual truth should find this volume of considerable value.

Persons accustomed to the rather prosaic style found in much evangelical literature today may object to the polished language of the author. Yet anything as beautiful as the Gospel deserves to be expressed in clear and attractive English. When erudition, devout scholarship, and spiritual imagination are combined with fine literary style the result can be extraordinarily effective, as this book proves to be.

Article continues below



Creative Giving, by Hiley H. Ward Macmillan, 1958, 170 pp., $3.75), is reviewed by Faris D. Whitesell, Professor of Practical Theology, Northern Baptist Seminary.

The author is an idol smasher. He tries to smash the great denominational Diana of the Ephesians—tithing. Admitting that tithing has produced vast revenue for the churches and the kingdom of God, Ward still thinks it is a wrong principle by which to implement stewardship. In fact, Ward does not like the whole idea of stewardship, or proportionate giving of time, treasure, and talent. A Christian should not give a portion, no matter how big, and claim the rest as his own; he should give it all to the Lord, and seek the Lord’s guidance and direction in the use of it.

The writer does not believe that tithing was the practice of the Apostolic church or of Christianity generally until some three centuries after Christ. Tithing was pushed hard for a thousand years or more. The practice lapsed after the Reformation and was not revived again on a big scale until about a hundred years ago.

Tithing is legalistic and a Christian is under grace. Ward knocks out the familiar Malachi 3:8–10 as having application today by saying, “If a Christian takes this verse literally, he can be a tither or even a 30 per cent giver and still be a thorough robber of God” (p. 36). Jesus did not endorse tithing in Matthew 23:23: “ for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (RSV). But, “Even if Jesus had been a rigorous tither during his ministry, it would not have much bearing on Christian procedure, for Christians are neither Jews nor Jesus” (p. 39). In fact, “there is no directive from Jesus that Christians under grace ought to give tithes,” says Ward (p. 43).

Christians should give creatively, not legalistically or proportionately. Creative giving is spontaneous, responsive, uncoerced, total, empathic. It is the response of love to love and is “the giving most consistent with the unrestricted and unprompted action of the Spirit” (p. 19). Creative giving involves decision, encounter, freedom, and loyalty. “Giving in response to Christ, welling out of the soul of an individual, coming from a sense of joy or urge apart from motive or calculation is spontaneous. It is real giving …” (p. 112). “Creative giving involves sacrifice, a person’s total endeavor, his personal attention, his constant, spontaneous decision” (p. 162).

Article continues below

How will people give creatively? Author Ward makes these suggestions: use the laymen, employ plans that are creative, allow spontaneity, encourage projects, decentralize organization for handling funds, educate the youth, throw out the word “stewardship,” highlight the virtues of creative giving, develop creative worship services, present true stories of sacrifice, do not underestimate the role of emotion in giving, relate church architecture to giving, and of course avoid any kind of unchristian giving which would bring dishonor to the name of God.

Controversial is a mild label for this book. The author writes vigorously, pungently, and evangelically. He completes the argument for his view by raising every conceivable objection, and then demolishing it. Ministers and church officers should read the book. The reviewer doubts that it will cause emphasis on tithing to be lessened or the practice to decrease; but some ministers after reading it may preach on the subject with less dogmatism than previously.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.