ARE WE STILL MAKING CITIZENS?
Democracy requires a commitment to the public good. But for a long time now, our citizens have been taught to see themselves as only private actors.
This article was published in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in the spring of 2015. Read online here.
by Leon Botstein
by Leon Botstein
Education—as well as its political consequences and place in society—is not a subject about which I know much beyond the experience of working in education. I am to education what a volunteer combat officer is to war (in contrast to an officer who attended West Point to study the art, science, and history of war). I have fought in many types of wars—an appropriate metaphor given the conditions in which education is expected to take place and the goals it is supposed to achieve. What I know comes from the field of battle.
What that experience has taught me is that the purpose, challenge, and substance of education in a democracy are defined by two questions: How ought we to live, side by side, not as lone individuals but as citizens? And how can we, through education, help individuals answer that question? Answering these questions is hard, particularly in the United States, where many seem to view citizenship as a burden and even an unfortunate necessity. The rampant distrust of government and the public sector has become overwhelming. We sidestep the question and defend education in purely economic terms, linking education to work and productivity. Nonetheless, citizenship is more than economic; it is a defining political fact of life, one that even in its neglect can’t be dismissed. And active citizenship, embraced with some measure of critical enthusiasm, may be an indispensable foundation of justice, freedom, and civility.
Hannah Arendt’s view of education in America was based on an imagined comparison with her own biography. Her generation of European émigrés, who came to the United States during the years surrounding the Second World War, developed a love affair with the political ideal of America, if not with America itself. America was a nation in which citizenship could be acquired by anyone; citizenship (and therefore patriotism in its most palatable form) was defined by loyalty to a form of government and the rule of law, not blood or soil. Among those things distinctly American that émigrés—notably Hans Weil (author of a book on education admired by Arendt) and Christian W. Mackauer, one of my teachers (and that of Anthony Grafton) at the University of Chicago—liked most was the fact that the American public school system, by any reasonable comparison to the systems of their former homelands, was fundamentally not authoritarian. A child, so the American progressive educators who held sway in the 1930s and ’40s believed, should be able to express him- or herself as an individual from the very start.
Learning was achieved not by rote, or by spoon-feeding a set of standardized materials; learning emerged out of active trial and error—by doing. For example, in one of the legendary progressive elementary schools founded in the 1930s, very young children were taught to operate a manual letterpress (placed prominently in the classroom), setting moveable type in order to motivate a love of books, the desire to read, and a sense of the beauty of words by designing and printing their own writing. This approach, sadly, has been under attack for decades. That kind of learning does not happen as much anymore in public school systems, having given way to teaching as repetitive drilling, based on crude, reductive textbook accounts of traditional subject matter linked to so-called “high-stakes” standardized testing.
But in contrast, during the Progressive Era, teachers believed not in today’s Common Core, but in something called a highly individualized “child-centered curriculum.” The purpose was the development of curiosity and skills, and cultivating the need to know. As part of this pedagogical ideal, the child, who knew nothing and could do nothing, was nevertheless entitled to express him- or herself; it was believed that only though active exploration and making mistakes would questions be inspired, ignorance discovered, the motivation to pursue knowledge heightened, and ideas, methods, and information be remembered. For all their snobbery about America as a land of unkultur, the thoughtful (if somewhat sentimental) intellectuals among the European refugees recognized the value of American pedagogy, if for no other reason than its potential merit as an instrument of political education for the sake of citizen engagement in a free society.
These Europeans encountered America at a time when there was considerable hypocrisy about demographic diversity, particularly on the matter of race. Nevertheless, in the midst of segregation and institutionalized racism in the 1940s and early ’50s, and in large measure because of it, white America appeared quite diverse and tolerant from a European point of view. The country seemed intent on harmonizing the “melting pot” of immigrant white-skinned citizens through public schooling.
From the émigré perspective, the attraction of the anti-authoritarian and egalitarian character of American education was therefore twofold. First, there was the premium placed on independence of thought, particularly as each child grew older. Second, and more importantly, independent judgment and the will to express it—the effects of a successful progressive education—were valued in terms of how well one learned to live as a citizen. A good education was neither purely cognitive nor solely based on subject matter or skill, but linked in both instances to legitimating the right of each individual to express judgment. The nation by its very self-definition was pluralistic and diverse; citizens—in the best sense of Rousseau—were not born. They had to be made. The Progressives understood that therefore the right kind of public education—a modern version of Horace Mann’s mid-nineteenth-century nonsectarian “common school”—was needed. Education was the experience that could transform private individuals with diverse faiths and origins into equal citizens in a democracy.
The American Way of Learning
What the European émigrés discovered was a reality that partially resembled these principles. They saw from the outside, as it were, how vital the connection is between how we structure our schools and our capacity to maintain a functioning pluralist democracy. John Dewey, America’s greatest thinker on education since Mann, guided the ideology of public education. For Dewey, the justification for the proper pedagogy was not primarily political; his conception of teaching and learning derived largely from an epistemological conceit within Pragmatism. But for the European émigrés, the contrast between the school systems from which they came and the school system in the country in which they arrived—the virtue and attraction of American educational practice—was significant in terms of its political consequences.
In those years, the defining factor in the American system was the idea of a single, unitary public school system in which everybody enrolled. All citizens went to the same sort of schools through to the end of secondary school. Private schools were an elite phenomenon and relatively insignificant. Most European public systems, by contrast, were intentionally segregated by ability, creating distinct groups beginning at age 11. The state, using examinations, divided the school population into varying categories, each of which maintained a different track. The majority of citizens never completed school beyond elementary school. Some percentage went on to vocational schooling. A very small segment of the population went, as adolescents, either to a humanistic academic high school (Gymnasium) or to a less prestigious practical and science-oriented high school (Realschule) and received a secondary-school diploma. A Matura or Abitur, the diploma from these two types of secondary schools, permitted an elite student to enroll in the university.
Consequently, the unitary public school system that kept all children together until college and that built citizens of character, devoted to democratic values, was viewed by the émigré generation as a marvel. American education appeared to fit the idea that the nation and democracy were tied to a homogeneity of rights, and that diverse constituencies could not only obtain equal legal status but through education achieve the means to realize it in economic and social terms. Citizenship via a nominally nondiscriminatory and standard process accessible to all irrespective of birth, religion, ethnicity, or even language was unheard of in Europe, but it—and the concrete advantages education added—seemed possible in America.
Higher education was no less eye-opening. Undergraduates delayed specialization and studied more than one subject. They were, from the start, asked to do far more writing that called for the expression of their own arguments and judgments. What was equally shocking to a European was the way in which the American university system seemed immensely flexible and open to new ideas. There was not a rigid hierarchy with one professor running each “faculty.” Young scholars did not have to wait for their elders to retire or die. The university was able to create new fields and new positions. Not only was there less hierarchy and formality, but in graduate education there was even less deference to authority than in the public school system. The dissenter, rebel, and ambitious entrepreneur were prized more than in Europe. In terms of graduate education and academic career advancement, American university practice still stands in contrast to that of Europe.
That was the good news. The bad news was that the academic standards by which the American common school system operated seemed horrifically low. The price paid by the democratic culture of the American school system, the émigré observers concluded, was the low level of shared culture achieved at the end of secondary public education. Freshmen could not read or write properly, and they possessed little understanding of literature, art, philosophy, or history. The thinly veiled (at best) snobbery of the mid-century émigré scholars simply exploded when their members (such as Werner Jaeger, Leo Strauss, and Kurt Wolff) came to teach American college students.
Outside of the realms of science and engineering, the Americans—students and professors alike—seemed provincial, naive, and disoriented (consider, for example, the depictions in Nabokov’s 1957 Pnin, a thinly disguised account of his years at Wellesley College). They seemed to get little right and displayed astonishing cultural ignorance. This merited condescension. What they had to say did not engage the grand historical intellectual tradition, and, from the point of view of the émigrés, Americans in the academy were materialistic and tone-deaf to vulgarity. And so a few of the émigrés (Jacob Klein at St. John’s and Heinrich Blücher at Bard) allied themselves with the opponents of the Progressive movement, including Robert Maynard Hutchins and Stringfellow Barr. They favored core general educational requirements and limits to the free elective system, since they perceived a need to introduce American students to the noble traditions of learning and culture that seemed to hold little place in the curriculum of the American public school. For the émigrés, the absence of knowledge or cultural understanding was the result of a distorted progressive emphasis on a misleading separation of content from method.
Since the 1930s, when a majority of Americans began to attend high school, a similar concern has arisen with increasing intensity. The notion that public schools fail to provide sufficient basic knowledge surfaces every few decades. The result has been a series of “back-to-basics” curricular movements. After the shock of Sputnik, the pride of place in progressive pedagogy assigned to ways of learning—to method—began to be challenged fundamentally. The focus in public policy, particularly in the 1980s, shifted to testing for content; in the past decade, the emphasis has been on science. Educational reformers now seek to define what all people ought to know, and when the proper subject matter should be taught and learned. However admirable the connection between progressive public schooling and democracy was supposed to be, the fatal flaw in American education was that people were encouraged to think for themselves, but they knew nothing. So what could they think about?
The overemphasis on method notwithstanding, the progressive legacy should not be forgotten or shortchanged. Its stress on nurturing independent thought, self-confidence, entrepreneurial and innovative ambition, and above all the ability to negotiate in a shared school setting with peers from different classes, religious groups, and ethnicities remains the right objective. Ironically, the fact that the quality of political discourse has declined over the very decades in our recent past that have witnessed the erosion of confidence in progressive pedagogy should inspire us, as a society, to redouble our efforts to forge the connection between American education and American democracy that defined the Progressive movement and captivated the refugees from European fascism.
Can the Common Public School Survive?
The mid-twentieth-century perspective on American education shared by Arendt and her contemporaries is only partially relevant to the situation we now face. Until 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan, no one took seriously the prospect of dismantling the public school system and challenging its virtual monopoly throughout the 50 states. Now we do. One of the consequences of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was the creation of a charter school movement in the South as a means to evade integration. The popularization and legitimization of the idea that the American public school system has failed and therefore ought to be deregulated and differentiated, largely through privatization, gathered momentum not only from the legal defeat of segregation but also from the revulsion at the counterculture of the late 1960s and early ’70s that inspired the “culture wars” of the late twentieth century, with which we still contend.
We are now caught in the throes of an anti-government movement that is 60 years old and that started with an attack, fueled by a fear of racial integration, on the notion that all children should attend a public school. Race and class interests, and the growth of suburbia as a refuge from integrated inner-city school systems, came to a head in the late 1960s. The 1968 teachers’ strike in New York City was a watershed in the decline of confidence in the historic role of public schooling as a key to fostering citizenship.
This article appeared in Democracy: A Journal for Ideas
THE ARTS AND AN OPEN SOCIETY
December 2, 2014
Let us accept the following characteristics as representative of an open society. An open society is marked by the rule of law that protects individuals and minorities. It safeguards freedom of expression and movement. Governments of open societies are placed into power and removed through democratic means. They maintain an independent judiciary and most often a legal separation from sectarian religious doctrine. The open society is therefore a place in which dissent flourishes, skepticism and criticism thrive, where speech and not violence is the primary instrument of politics, and where there is no such thing as heresy; a high degree of transparency about government also exists, as does a protection of privacy and individual rights. Whether an open society requires a certain minimum measure of social justice in economic terms---the absence of extreme poverty and grotesque wealth—on the assumption that radical economic inequality threatens the stability of a just and open politics, is an awkward but open question. It is clear that in an open society radical inequality can flourish. In short, market capitalism—regulated, to be sure—is compatible with the open society.
But crucial to the open society is the role of language and public space in politics. The state does not possess a monopoly in the formation of civil society or in the creation and control of education or civic entertainment, from sports and the circus to institutions of learning, research and preservation. Dissenting opinions and a pluralism of thought ought to thrive.
In this context, the phrase “arts and culture” refers to those activities that have long traditions, quite variable followings (in terms of numbers), public activities and public outcomes that are not commercially viable in market terms. They are minority phenomena and merit protection and support, from the state, from majorities and from markets. Often the activities of the arts and culture—from poetry to performance art---are linked to so-called “high” cultural traditions that date back to antiquity (to the invention of writing) or to endangered forms of so-called “folk” (and often oral and rural) culture as opposed to popular commercial culture.
It should be understood that the distinction between “high” or genuine “folk” art and popular culture is not one of aesthetic judgment, but sociological. By “arts and culture”, one is therefore not speaking of Bono, Beyoncé or the films that come out of Disney, Warner or Bollywood. These boundaries are as a matter of course blurred. Jazz was once commercially viable, but is no longer. Light opera, operetta and Broadway have bifurcated histories. Gilbert and Sullivan, Offenbach, Emmerich Kalman and Oklahoma have migrated from the commercial to the realm of culture that requires patronage and subsidy, and they no longer have a politically significant audience. Yet how is one to regard Les Miserables (the musical) or Andrew Lloyd Webber?
The very distinction between high culture and popular culture creates the main problem. The “high” culture practices—from art making and collecting, poetry writing, dance, independent filmmaking, electronic arts and theater to composing and playing acoustic instruments—are particularly in Europe derived from a history that includes aristocratic and imperial patronage and therefore habits from the era of absolutist monarchy. It is only in imitation of the English aristocracy, learned at Queen Victoria’s wedding, that the continental aristocracy turned away from culture to sports and hunting as the primary markers of their social class.
Just as the aristocracy was abandoning culture during the first half of the nineteenth century, the middle classes stepped in the breach. They were extremely eager to emulate the time-honored habits of the ancien regime. By the advent of fascism, it was clear that the traditions of aesthetic and cultural practice—Bildung and Kultur—had become defining but de-politicized hallmarks of social distinction and self-worth among the middle classes. The middle class civility presumed to derive from the arts and culture turned out to be bankrupt, corrupt or irrelevant; it was entirely compatible with collaboration with radical evil and barbarism in modern times. The education and cultivated sensibilities of the bourgeois not only represented no obstacle to the worst horrors of modern “closed” societies, but they also became prestige emblems within one party dictatorships, particularly in the Soviet Union (and later in the Soviet Empire) first under Stalin and subsequently for the succeeding four decades.
The behavior of cultured and educated elites under Hitler and Stalin stripped all plausibility from the 18th-century conviction that there is must be some connection between the good and the beautiful, and therefore between a humanistic and aesthetic education (as argued by Schiller) and the allegiance to freedom, individual autonomy and the notion of rights and tolerance. In the wake of World War II, an understandable prejudice about high culture surfaced in a sophisticated neo-Marxist form in the West that in turn stimulated a radical modernist avant-garde. The cultural commitments and proclivities of an elite, not an elite of birth or wealth, but an elite of merit, wealth and learning were scorned as marginal phenomena in an unjust world and irrelevant to politics, particularly in the 1960s.
This point of view may now, however, be misplaced and obsolete. Arts and culture may turn out to be more than decorative, more than arbitrary matters of taste and routes to fame and wealth. They may now have a political relevance and utility. Europe and North America are places in which there is a vital life of arts and culture that is inherently dissenting with respect to the dominant politics and mores of the day.
The contemporary engagement with arts and culture, particularly among the young, is in the first instance a reaction to the undeniable fact that the world of mass culture, dominated by massive commercial enterprises of entertainment and communication threatens the values of open society. The threat of tyranny and closed regimes has never been exclusively from above, but also from below, from intolerant majorities. This sympathetic acknowledgment of the validity of pessimistic warnings from a “conservative” intellectual tradition—which includes Plato, Burke, Tocqueville and Burckhardt—seems indispensable if we are to confront the failures of contemporary politics in Europe, the dissatisfaction with liberal democracy in the post-Cold War era and the ease with which not only prejudices but falsehoods dominate and achieve popularity, particularly in American politics.
Truth, however provisional in the natural sciences, is often counter-intuitive, and capable of being understood only by a comparatively narrow segment of society. Its capacity to win the hearts and minds of all citizens, no matter their education, has proven weak. Education through the extension of literacy has not made the body politic more immune from the politics of fear or inspired more critical reflection on matters of national identity and the notion of the “other” and therefore immigration. Some other persuasive means of galvanizing the body politic on behalf of the values of an open society is needed. Just as a way must be found to communicate the consequences of science, might we not explore a way to influence popular sentiment and culture using the extensive traditions and contemporary existence of arts and culture that inherently underscore cosmopolitan sentiments, curiosity, and the embrace of novelty? Do the arts and culture not offer an alternative to a quite uniform diet of entertainment and commercial culture whose political impact is rather to secure the status quo?
It may be then (by analogy to science) that although the activities of artists, writers, musicians and scholars are not viable in a commercial sense and reach only small segments of society, they nonetheless have the potential (as in the past) to develop a symbolic and influence in politics and society. Do they not then deserve patronage in the name of “open society”, not merely from the state but also from non-governmental sources? One of the singular ironies of Europe today is that it has a continuing tradition of high art creation and consumption, albeit every more under siege in terms of funding, that represents a counterweight to national frameworks. A high percentage of the makers of that art and culture, and their audiences represent those who are among the most determined and loyal citizens of an international order, and of the idea of Europe. They represent a powerful antidote to nationalism.
Consider the subversive potential in the quite valid claim that the tradition of art and culture has been crucial to the development of national identity. Consider Hungary, for example. The musical tradition of Hungary as represented by Haydn, Liszt, Bartok, Kodaly, Dohnanyi, Ligeti and Kurtag—for all its self-conscious appropriations of emblems of national identity—has been at the same time a disruptive source of cosmopolitan allegiance in direct conflict with xenophobic chauvinism.
The vital presence of a literary, visual and musical art and cultural community becomes inevitably a fact of dissonance to the “illiberal” in a nation. Bartók fled Hungary in response to the fascist misuse of his research into folk music and the attempt to co-opt his compositional debt to Hungarian materials. The ostentatious re-interment of the remains of Hungary’s most celebrated composer from New York to Budapest during the last days of communism indicates the lingering prestige and fear of the potentially destabilizing influence of the high art and culture tradition. For all the official effort to appropriate Bartók (and his recalcitrant modernism) in Hungary, even today, on behalf of an illiberal definition of the Hungarian—(and comparable efforts regarding Shostakovich in Putin’s Russia)—as well younger composers in the Bartók tradition, the end result, as in the Soviet case (consider the career of Schnittke) is failure. Bartók and Ligeti represent today a resistant and dissenting element of national pride that can and is made to work against intolerant populism.
The Hungarian example of long traditions of high art and culture that possess the potential of resisting provincialism, uniformity, conformism and reductive nationalism and also invite a cosmopolitan and international sensibility on behalf of the individual, freedom of expression, unpopular causes and unconventional views, has a parallel in each of the European nations, primarily in their major cities. Why is that potential on behalf of a post-nationalist international politics and a truly non-trivial cosmopolitan civic spirit not being cultivated? Would it not be proper, on behalf of an open society, to attempt to connect the art and culture traditions to the dynamics of mass democracy, and seek to use the traditions to broaden, within a populist framework, the values of dissent and rebellion against imitation and conformism? It is time to revisit, perhaps not in a normative philosophical manner (i.e. asserting an ideal of beauty) but in an instrumental sense, the possibility of forging a connection between art and culture on the one hand, and public life on the other in a manner that influences positively conceptions of national identity, attitudes to minorities, respect for dissent, the beauty of nature and the sanctity of the human. Let us abandon the vulgar Marxist contempt for art and culture as little more than superficial emblems that grace the façade of exploitative individualism. Let us not let the failures of the twentieth century blind us to the power of art and culture in the twenty-first, especially within younger generations. Part of the task, particularly in the visual arts is to counteract the influence of the buying and selling of art, at the very high end, through the act of collecting of art as financial assets, as well as the power of centralization in the production of film and popular music.
Therefore, artists and society must forge a link between aesthetic freedom and ambition to political freedom and dissent. Social foundations and agencies must utilize the exceptional power of the imagination and the imaginative within communities and thereby underscore the sanctity, through the broadened encounter with arts and culture, of the life of the individual life and the importance of civility. This will create new constituencies for the use of language (written and spoken) in more than routine and journalistic patterns, thereby exposing the limits of the current political discourse, particularly on the question of identity.
LEARNING IS LIKE SEX — AND OTHER KEY REASONS THE LIBERAL ARTS REMAIN RELEVANT
November 6, 2014
by Leon Botstein
by Leon Botstein
Technology, particularly in the information sciences and biology, has placed science and engineering at the forefront as timely and useful areas of study. And the sustained loss of manufacturing jobs domestically and the prospects of increasing mechanization — replacing humans with smart devices and robots — have fueled a sense of panic about the relevance of the liberal arts, notably the traditions of learning in the humanities and social sciences. So here are a few things to remember as the discussion continues.
Look at all the winners of the Nobel Prizes in science over the past 50 years. You will find people for whom the humanities, social sciences and the arts —were critical and central to their work and life. In short, there will be no discoveries and breakthroughs without pioneers whose ambitions are fueled by matters outside of the realm of science and technology, narrowly defined.
To be honest, the defense of the liberal arts and humanities rings a bit hollow as colleges and universities often do not actually do what we claim to do. We, as a group, tend to do a poor job of delivering the humanities and social sciences to students. Departments mirroring a system of specialized disciplines, as in a graduate university, define many undergraduate programs. Those disciplines are often self-serving bureaucratic enclaves that once represented discrete boundaries in research and scholarship. This system has become rigid and out of date, particularly as a basis for an undergraduate curriculum. Students come to college interested in issues and questions, and ready to tackle challenges, not just to “major” in a subject, even in a scientific discipline. They are interested in the environment, in understanding genetic inheritance, in tackling disease, poverty, and inequality, even boredom. They are interested in humor, beauty, communities and the past. What do we so often find in college? Courses that correspond to narrow faculty interests and ambitions, cast in terms defined by academic discourse, not necessarily curiosity or common sense. The liberal arts curriculum in most institutions does not match the interests and the ‘need to know’ on the part of students. The problem is not with the subject matter, ideals, or content of the liberal arts and humanities, but with the delivery system.
Let’s take the so-called crisis of confidence about the liberal arts and humanities as the chance to reform and revitalize what we teach and how we teach. Let’s stop preaching. On the matter of teaching, the only aspect that is truly threatened by technology is bad teaching, particularly lecturing. The institutions that are most threatened by technology are those that rely on large lecture classes and graduate assistants.
Teaching and learning are basic human experiences. Consider teaching and learning, for a moment, as analogous to sex. Technology has no doubt added opportunity and diversity to the experience, but it has not rendered the basic transaction obsolete, and it is not about to. Furthermore, the true experience of teaching has remained pretty stable for centuries. What happens in a seminar today, whether in physics or literature — discussion, argument, close reading, speculation — has remained the same despite all the momentous changes in technology since the 12th century, from the book to the moving image to the computer.
There are two dimensions to a genuine liberal education that must be considered but are often ignored. First is the proper approach to learning how to use language — to read with a rich capacity to interpret and interrogate texts, and to write. Second is to insure that all students in the liberal arts become literate in science. We place the liberal arts in peril if we do not integrate the sciences and mathematics (and that includes computer science) into the substance of the humanities and social sciences. Consider history. The history of design, medicine, science and technology are natural ways to connect science and the humanities. That connection needs to go both ways. We cannot permit our students in the humanities and social sciences to be ignorant of science any more than we can allow scientists to develop too narrowly in terms of the fundamental issues of culture and society.
Colleges and universities also must find ways to bring the visual and performing arts into the liberal arts, as practice and not mere objects of study and as more than peripheral and decorative additions to literature and history.
We need to do what we say and stop defending and bemoaning. That will be hard, since it goes against bad habits and so-called “tradition” and vested interests, but reform is essential. The reform that is needed is not cosmetic but fundamental in terms of the organization of faculty and the curriculum. The relevance and utility —let alone the substance — of the liberal arts (which include the sciences, by the way) are not in danger.
The danger lies only in the way we go about making the case and delivering on the promise of the liberal education.
Versions of this article appeared in The Washington Post and The Hechinger Report.
SAT IS PART HOAX, PART FRAUD
The following article was published in Time Magazine on March 7, 2014. Read online here.
by Leon Botstein
by Leon Botstein
The president of Bard College says recent changes to the SAT are motivated by the competition that College Board has experienced with its arch rival, the ACT, rather than any serious soul searching
The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents.
The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician—and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.
And why do we remain addicted to the College Board’s near monopoly on tests? Why do they have an undue influence on college placement? These tests actually violate the basic justification for tests. First, despite the changes, these tests remain divorced from what is taught in high school and what ought to be taught in high school. Second, the test taker never really finds out whether he or she got any answer right or wrong and why. No baseball coach would train a team by accumulating an aggregate comparative numerical score of errors and well executed plays by each player, rating them, and then send them the results weeks later. When an error is committed it is immediately noted; the reasons are explained and the coach, at a moment in time close to the event, seeks to train the player how not to do it again.
What purpose is served by putting young people through an ordeal from which they learn nothing? Is the SAT a reasonable representation of the ideals and benefits of learning? No, it makes a mockery of them. Given the possibilities explicit in modern technology, a college entrance examination could be developed in which the test takers in real time could be told immediately if they got the right or wrong answer and guided to a program that might help them understand why they got a question right or wrong. Such a test would be like a chess match, where the clock stops after a move is made. And although the pressure of time—the need to excel under pressure—applies legitimately to pilots, generals and surgeons, is it really so important? Why not give students the time to think, research, and learn as they answer serious questions whose answers demand careful thought and knowledge? Those are the skills that are rewarded in college, and in life.
What is needed is not minor so called improvements to the SAT, but an entirely new generation of testing instruments that utilize modern technology not only to measure the performance of our students but also teach them.
That being said, the new changes to the SAT are harmless. No one will be asked arcane ugly words that have no use. No one will be penalized for guessing, which is a relief since intelligent guessing is a vital life skill that needs encouragement. (It is also nice to see that the College Board has chosen to emulate Bard’s new alternative essay entrance exam that has students read important historic texts and write on them.) The changes to the math section are welcome since they turn that part of the SAT more to fundamental areas of quantitative reasoning.
These modest reforms will do little to stem the rising tide against the College Board and its SAT. There is more and more resistance to pressuring students and parents into paying money to take a senseless exam that claims to be objective when in fact the only persistent statistical result from the SAT is the correlation between high income and high test scores. The richer one is, the better one does on the SAT. Nothing that is now proposed by the College Board breaks the fundamental role the SAT plays in perpetuating economic and therefore educational inequality.
The justification behind the SAT has been that it is an objective instrument of ability to succeed in college, when it is not. But the truth is less principled. The SAT is used by selective institutions to help them sort applicants and justify dismissing many from consideration. SAT scores also have become an integral part of another money-making racket—college rankings. The victim in this unholy alliance between the College Board (a profit-making business masquerading as a not-for-profit educational institution serving the public good) and our elite institutions of higher education are students and our nation’s educational standards.
The commonsensical truth is that the only legitimate test is one where a question is put forward and an answer required with no options or hints. The one major reform in the new SAT seems to be the dropping of a required essay. This is ironic because the one thing colleges need to know in their admissions process is how well a student can think, construct an argument, and persuade. Asking a student to sit down and write essays in an examination setting might be an excellent way to discover an applicant’s command of language and thought. This one potentially useful piece of evidence has been made optional.
The SAT will continue in its revised form to face challenges. It is part hoax and part fraud, albeit a profitable one. The College Board, however, is not entirely to blame. David Coleman is to be admired for trying to rescue an outdated, sinking ship. The real responsibility for our sorry state of affairs regarding college entrance examinations rests with our colleges and universities themselves. The elite institutions have willingly supported an alliance with the College Board to make their own lives easier, and we Americans seem to have accepted this owing to our misplaced love affair with standardized testing and rankings as the proper means to ensure educational excellence.
The time has come for colleges and universities to join together with the most innovative software designers to fundamentally reinvent a college entrance examination system. We need to come up with one that puts applicants through a rigorous but enlightening process showing what they can and cannot do, and what they know and do not know, all in an effort to reverse the unacceptable low standard of learning among high school graduates we now tolerate and to inspire prospective college students about the joy of serious learning.
Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College and the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra.
SPEECH TO THE AMERICAN ACADEMY IN BERLIN ON ITS 20TH ANNIVERSARY
Leon Botstein delivered the following keynote speech on October 8, 2014 at the American Academy in Berlin on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the institution.
Ladies and Gentlemen! Please understand that if I were prone to nightmares, one would certainly be an invitation to follow Max Raabe on a public stage. I cannot imagine a more daunting circumstance in which to give any kind of talk of any length.
I have long been a fan of Max Raabe. Not only is his capacity to perform so utterly elegant and he so innately and fabulously musical, but he has unearthed an entire repertoire that has vanished. For those of you who can’t get to sleep and have a good Internet connection I recommend all the Max Raabe material that is available on YouTube. Max Raabe, in my experience, has redeemed insomnia. Among the items most worth seeing is a documentary of Max Raabe on his first trip to Israel. It is a remarkable documentary, one in which elderly survivors are in tears as they hear music they have not heard in decades but they know by heart. Many—if not most—of the creators of the music that he sings, both the lyrics and the music, were Jews, and when the Nazis came to power this genre disappeared. He has reconstructed it with the Palast Orchester in a fantastic way. His is a great achievement not only as performance, but as authentic musical archaeology, one that brings something forgotten back to life.
And if one was ever in search of a witness to the transatlantic partnership between Germany and the United States, it can be located in the music of the 1920s and early 1930s that Raabe performs. The style is unthinkable without the American influence. Consider Walter Jurman (1903-1971), the Viennese Jewish songwriter who appropriated American models and whose career took off in Berlin during the 1920s. After fleeing to America after 1933, he went on to compose for Hollywood (as you just heard)—including for the Marx Brothers. Max Raabe has provided us a multi-layered example of the transatlantic symbiosis that sustains the American Academy. It was worth the entire trip to Berlin.
In 1907 the German economist Werner Sombart wrote an article comparing Berlin and Vienna. He wrote it because during that period Berlin had become quite arrogant about itself and looked down on its rival Vienna. Sombart took aim at all the anti-Viennese Berliners. He described Berlin as essentially a soulless place that was completely mechanistic, where people were only interested in time, power and money. The worst insult he could hurl at it was that it was rapidly becoming New York—the symbol of materialist modernity.
In contrast, Vienna was a place of culture and Kultur, and the jokes Berliners made about the Viennese and Austrian habits—their Gemütlichkeit and their Schlampigkeit, all of this familiar stuff, were simply evidence of the stupidity, the arrogance, the dangerous blindness and material greed of Berliners. Kultur was the distinct essence of all good things German.
It is fascinating that when Sombart insulted New York as the historical destination point of Berlin’s culture, what he didn’t fully realize is the extent of the history of interaction between Germany and America. That experience constitutes the pre-history of the Academy. The Academy has a Vorgeschichte, if you will, because, as many of you know, in late nineteenth century America, Germany was the most important cultural influence on what became America. Our universities, originally somewhat imitative of the British, were completely transformed after the Civil War by an American embrace of the model of the German university. In New York City in 1900, there were probably 150 German newspapers and periodicals; one could survive in the City of New York speaking German. If you went to the Metropolitan Opera you had no need to speak English. When Anton Seidl conducted there he needed no English, and when Gustav Mahler came to take over the New York Philharmonic in 1907, the year of Sombart’s essay, there was likewise no necessity for him or for Alma to learn a word of English.
Apart from the German-speaking religious communities in the Midwest and the South that came into being after 1848, there were choral societies all over the country, as far as San Francisco-- Liedertafel, and Männergesangvereine. They were all directly imitative of a German tradition initially liberal and later virulently nationalistic--
constituents of the Deutsche Sängerbund that first developed in the 1840s here in German-speaking Europe.
This all came to a very abrupt end in 1917. Yet when we think of this city in the 1920s,—the Berlin that one can see clearly and candidly through the Russian novels of Vladimir Nabokov who lived here at that time—the influence of America, and the migration of Americans to Berlin, continued not only in science and music but in painting, architecture and popular culture. The transatlantic exchange and communication for which the Academy stands have indeed a very long history.
Ironically, the most important pre-history for the American Academy in Berlin is the rise to power of Nazism, and the emigration of a whole cadre of German intellectuals, scientists and artists to America, some of whom returned after 1945. For those of us who grew up in the United States after the Second World War, the American university would be unrecognizable without figures such as Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss, and Werner Jaeger the classicist; Hans Morgenthau in politics, at Columbia Franz Neumann, and, of course, all the Frankfurt School members, including T.W.Adorno (who returned), and Max Horkheimer. And of course one cannot forget the obvious: the emigration of scientists, among whom Einstein was by far the most prominent. In the visual arts, Hans Hoffman, Josef Albers and Max Beckmann come to mind, (as well as Lyonel Feininger, American born of a German musician, who moved to Germany only to return after the Nazis came to power) and in my own field, in music, young talents including Lukas Foss and Andre Previn, and Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, for whom the Music Academy right here is named, who was actually forced out of the United States together with Bertolt Brecht in the late 1940s. And there was of course Arnold Schoenberg whose uncontrollable arrogance was a parody of an unquestioned sense of German superiority in matters of high culture that came along with the post 1933 emigration.
As a Jewish child émigré myself who was not from German stock, I grew up with the well-known joke about the encounter of two dachshunds in Central Park. They meet and sniff one another, and both figure out that they are German-speaking. One asks the other where he’s from. Vienna, he says, and the first one replies, “I’m from Berlin”. The Berliner asks, “how do you like it here?” They both end up complaining about the Wurst, the apartments, and the fact that Central Park isn’t quite the Tiergarten or the Volksgarten. After this bemoaning, the Viennese concedes that it is after all not too bad, considering the alternative. The Berliner agrees but adds: “yes, all that isn’t really important, but what really bothers me is that in Berlin I was a St. Bernard”. We grew up in the shadow of this tremendous cultural German emigration—particularly of writers, (consider Heinrich and Thomas Mann and Carl Zuckmayer)—and the radical transformation of the American university.
The end of the war revealed the extent of Germany’s cultural loss. What is interesting is that German intellectuals after 1945 tried to figure out why the German universities and German cultural institutions, from museums to opera houses and orchestras (particularly in Berlin) and indeed the German intellectual and artistic community, in many different ways both heinous and utterly thoughtless, collaborated with the Nazi regime. The result was a sense that perhaps there needed to be an effort to reform the German university. Jürgen Habermas, in the later 1940s, argued that what the German university ought to do is imitate the American, and institute something that we would recognize as the liberal arts or the college experience in the United States, and try to reform the way in which the professors were appointed and courses of study organized. Inspired by the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism he suggested that the hierarchical, authoritarian system, the kind of education of extreme obedience that Walther Rathenau described experiencing as a young man, in a critique of the German educational system that he wrote before World War I, be abandoned. If one could find a way, Habermas argued, to reform the German school system and university so they would be more like the American (on the assumption that the American common school and university, in its hybrid form of English and German, were somehow contributors to the sustaining of democracy), there might be a chance for democracy in post-war West Germany. Although this did not come to pass, in the midst of the Cold War, clearly in West Germany, the transatlantic dialogue continued, partly motivated by the extreme fear and danger represented by the Cold War and by the Soviet Union.
To turn now to Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall: what is astonishing, as I stand here in the garden of this house, is that the most important post-unification effort to renew and sustain the transatlantic dialogue, the American Academy, is the creature of a very unusual nostalgia, a sentimental echo of the nostalgia we heard so wonderfully evoked by Max Raabe, and that is the nostalgia of the German Jewish émigrés of the 1930s and 1940s. The Arnhold family, the Kellen family, Richard Holbrooke himself, Henry Kissinger, Gary Smith’s parents, like so many American émigrés of German Jewish origin, unlike their fellow Jewish European refugees, retained a tremendously deep affection for the place from which they were expelled. Despite everything, they remained attached to the image of Germany. No equivalent of the American Academy in Berlin funded by survivors and descendants of Polish Jewry, is imaginable in Poland, and nothing like it is remotely thinkable for Russia or the Ukraine, at least certainly not sponsored by the Jewish emigration from those places.
Gershom (or rather Gerhard) Scholem used to claim that there was no “symbiosis” between Germans and Jews in the years between the 1780s and 1933. I am not quite sure he was right. Why did these German Jews who were forced out actually return in the 1990s with the idea of putting an institution into place that would sustain, after the end of the Cold War and German unification, the transatlantic dialogue and exchange of ideas and of people between their new welcoming Heimat America and the old one, Germany? The answer goes back to Sombart’s critique of Berlin’s conceits and his privileging of culture as a major aspect of what Berlin needed but lacked.
The German Jewish emigres held fast to the belief that Bildung and cultural attainment, including an aesthetic sensibility, were instruments of civilizing people and the world. This ideal was an extension of a late nineteenth-century and very widespread belief that Germany was a kind of pinnacle of true humanistic civilization placed in the middle between the raw barbarism of the Russian to the East, the effete superficiality of the French, and the crass materialism of the American to the West.
The dachshund and St Bernard exchange implicitly reveals this conceit. For example, all of us who studied music with émigrés constantly heard about how terrific it all had been in the old country, and we, as Americans, were considered simply unwashed and kulturlos, and hopelessly resistant to true cultivation. Even my parents—Ostjuden who never lived in Germany—looked at America with a kind of horror at America’s vulgarity, as if such vulgarity had not existed here in Germany. Germany before 1914 put itself forward politically and culturally as a kind of a broker between East and West as a cultural ideal. Friedrich Naumann’s concept of Mitteleuropa, which was a serious idea for many a great social scientist and keen mind, was rooted in Germany’s pride in its cultural and scholarly pre-eminence. It revealed the glib conviction that Germany and particularly Berlin would become the cultural capital of the world, perched between these two extremes, America and Russia. Sombart’s critique of Berlin was fueled by his frustration at Berlin’s failure to grasp its proper destiny.
Ironically, after unification Germany has indeed re-emerged as unusually powerful and the essential instrument of Europe, economically, politically and culturally. Placed between America and Russia, Berlin is and will doubtlessly remain for decades to come the cultural capital of Europe, a cosmopolitan destination point for artists, young people, students, and the place of dominant cultural institutions. But in this political context, one might ask, to what end?
The American Academy was built through German Jewish philanthropy and enthusiasm on the premise that the answer lies in some connection between culture and civility, between art and culture and the way we conduct our lives in the public space of everyday life. The irony of this belief is that it has survived not only among the victims of the failure of that connection, but despite the complete disproving of the link between culture and civility. It was during the Nazi era that culture, and its attributes among its devotees—Geschmack, Bildung—offered no barriers to barbarism and no barriers to hate and to the unthinkable. Indeed, the elites of culture and scholarship collaborated. So, why did the survivors of this colossal failure return to the premise that culture mattered in politics?
I think the American Academy was created explicitly to give the role of culture and the arts in politics a second chance. The work that Gary Smith has done with the Academy initially may appear on the surface be about politics, (including the hobnobbing, if I may say so, with foreign ministers and ambassadors and other power brokers), but it is not; that is really not what the Academy has been about. The fellowships at the Academy represent the core belief that through the arts, education, scholarship, literature and research, through what we call the humanities, the development of the Geisteswissenschaften, the development of sensibilities and thought processes that are speculative and are imaginative, that somehow there will emerge a connection between the flourishing of those activities and the way we conduct our political and personal lives. At its core the Academy under Gary’s tenure stands for the proposition that there is a link between democracy and freedom and learning, a link between learning and art making and the defense of freedom, especially in the contemporary world and particularly in the public space that has changed very dramatically with modern technology.
The Internet is, after all a large, undifferentiated sewer of self-expression, in which it is impossible to distinguish what’s true from what’s false. In it all sort of items look alike. And we, the users ever more addicted to it, rather than having a dialogue with others, end up, with the help of Google’s algorithms and Amazon’s manipulation, just confirming what we already believe, and visiting sites with which we are already comfortable. So the massive technological expansion of freedom, communication and self-expression has actually led to a kind of incrustation of conformity. The more we have access to more information and data, can say anything we want, and blog to our heart’s content, the more we become predictable, ordinary and imitative.
And it is not enough to have inner freedom, just as inner emigration was helpless during the Third Reich. To assert that one is immune to the constant assault from the web of technology (I won’t buy a product because I’ve seen a blip ad while trying to navigate my way from Dahlem back to Berlin using Google, because of the belief that I can resist it) is unconvincing. Since inner freedom is not enough, the Academy has become devoted, in my view, to the proposition that precisely in the modern, technological world the face-to-face encounters, the work of artists, and the expression of ideas by individuals in real time and real space will actually emerge as the last vital bastion of dissent.
We may talk a lot about freedom but very few of us use it. We say we like dissent but we really don’t like to hear somebody say something we don’t already believe. I have not met or seen a politician whose mind was changed by evidence. In our country we talk a lot about democracy and we have candidates debate one another in a mockery of what is a debate. I would vote—no matter what her political position might be—for any candidate who in a debate, faced with a set of arguments and evidence, said, “you know, now that I have listened, I concede that I might be wrong.”
Inspired by the highly sentimental and idealized hopes of Americans of German Jewish origin, the American Academy has become a kind of crucible, a meeting place, where people can figure out how to resist what’s happening in the world beyond the forms of inner emigration that flourished under Stalin and Hitler. That technique of inner emigration, using the imaginative capacities of poets, particularly musicians, kept some measure of freedom intact, and survived under the radar screen of censors and tyrants. But after 1989 we know that this is not enough. The purposes of dissent, dialogue, scholarship, finding that things which have been held to be true may not be true, whether in history or in the natural sciences, but for this Academy particularly in areas of philosophy, and politics, require and demand an intrusive public presence. Thought and expression are vital in ways that cannot be only interior; they must be exterior and in the public discourse. This Academy is devoted, in an idealistic and nostalgic way, spurred on by a generation that saw the death of the dream that Kultur and Bildung would lead to a civilized world, to restart that process.
The German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, herself an émigré to America, challenged the conventional distinction between the word (speech) and the idea of action. She argued, idealistically, that speech is and must be a form of action. What this Academy is dedicated to, in a generous and eclectic definition of speech, including making of visual art, of music, performance, and of course literature and scholarship in the fields that Fellows come to work in, is the proposition that speech is indeed a form of action and should be politically engaged.
The tremendous irony and beauty of the music you heard from Max Raabe, with its tremendous twists on the classical tradition, and its inner jokes, is that it is part of a long tradition of using music and comic theater as modes of dissent and social and self-criticism. Its challenge to the conceits about romance and sexuality, and its undermining of the clichés of self-important individuality and notions about what is morally right and wrong, help show the way forward. The goal of the Academy can only be approached in a transatlantic way within the patterns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of an exchange back and forth, not forced by emigration or by tyranny, but exchange encouraged voluntarily. Two societies, German and American, that are democratic, and pluralistic, might actually come to believe that Berlin, particularly because of its history and its immensely bright future, can become a place in which the connection between culture and freedom, and culture and justice, can be reshaped in a way that does not render all that we do in the arts and humanities irrelevant and merely private.
That is the future of the American Academy, in my view. It is also the legacy that Gary Smith so ably has left us with. I want to thank Gary, all the Trustees of the American Academy, all its benefactors, and its Fellows for making this place possible, and for redeeming the cherished hopes of those who fled from this very place, not willingly but who nonetheless have now come back, some only in spirit, to finally, we hope, make possible a dream brutally destroyed in 1933.