Address by Fred M. Hechinger
"The University's Neglected Task"
December 5, 1991


Thank you very much, Jim, for this flattering and wonderful introduction and for your applause. You know, John Gardner has said the wise speaker savors the applause that he gets before he speaks.

It's been a wonderful day up to now. I feel a little like the man who has lived through the Johnstown Flood and spent his life speaking about that event. When he finally died and went to heaven and St. Peter welcomed him at the gate, he said, "I'm very happy to be here, but before I settle down, I would like you to call everybody together so I can deliver my lecture on the Johnstown Flood." St. Peter said, "That's alright. We can arrange that; but I want to warn you that Noah will be in the audience."

Now I find myself here surrounded by Noahs with whom I spent the morning listening to wonderful talks and speeches, and I will try after that great day to speak very briefly, especially since I know that I am really talking to the converted. But even though you are converted, you are the ones who will have to spread the word and deliver the message.

Before I get to the message, I'd like to do a little history. Not more than five or six years ago when I was at the Times, I got a letter one day from a teacher who wrote that he had been most interested in a page one story in the Times that told about a distinguished professor at a major institution who had reinterpreted some important Biblical events a student of Middle Eastern history and had reinterpreted them in line of certain natural phenomena and disasters that had since come to light. The teacher wrote that he was very interested in that story particularly since he himself had several years earlier come to the same conclusion in his research but nobody wanted to listen to it or print it. He enclosed in the letter a copy of a high school newspaper of that early date which, in fact, did tell very much the same story as the story on page one of the Times. Then he concluded his letter: "Of course, nobody wanted to listen to me because, after all, I was only a high school teacher." Now, I think these two stories tell some of the problems that we've discussed today, tell some of the problems of the relationship between teachers in the public schools and teachers in higher education. In criticizing what's wrong with the schools, we always tend to blame the teacher. You remember in the 1950s it was Professor Besta who used his university credentials to blame the teachers in the schools for creating what he called an educational wasteland. Then, in the 1960s something happened, largely because of Sputnik and the fear of the United States being surpassed by the Soviet Union. At that time, that earlier time of efforts at school reform, professors from the universities did take part, step down to help the high schools. There was Zacharias at MIT in physics, Bentley Glass at Hopkins in chemistry, and I think I remember some mathematicians at Yale. Harvard's President Conant joined the school reform movement, and great books and great programs were produced, new teaching materials.

But there was one problem: The classroom teacher was generally ignored. As a matter of fact, many of the materials that were sent to the schools were advertised as being "teacher-proof." Now you can imagine if a manufacturer who made surgical instruments sent his sales people to doctors offices and tried to sell those instruments as being doctor-proof, you can imagine what would happen to that. At the very end of this reform without the teachers, one of our major foundations supported or created something called the Midwest Airborne Television Project which consisted of a large airplane, a DC- 7, circling over a six-state area all day long and beaming television programs to thousands of classrooms in those states without ever having checked with the teachers, what they wanted or when they wanted it, and eventually, that program went out of business after some of its critics referred to it as educational crop dusting.

What we are doing today shows that things have changed, that something is being realized, that the teacher is not only the key, but the teacher also generally works and lives in isolation. Yale, 15 years ago, broke the defeatist pattern that teachers really are not the important part of any attempt to reform the schools and, working directly with the high schools and now even with elementary schools, the teachers were brought into collaboration as you know with the college faculty. The fact is and we have heard it today and we have known it for some time teachers will not act as professionals until they are made partners in profession. A few years ago Claire Guadiani, then at the University of Pennsylvania, created a movement which got college teachers, elementary school teachers, high school teachers together just to meet socially once a month, the way doctors and lawyers meet in their county and other organizations, and it made a change.

The Yale example, I think, is important because, first of all, the prestige of the institution and, I will add only somewhat facetiously, perhaps because it has no school of Education. I stress that in a way because I've been on advisory boards to other institutions, one of them being Stanford and Stanford was a good model. It was a good model in dealing with six neighboring school districts, but Stanford has a graduate school of Education and so the arts and science faculty always sort of felt, let the school of Education take care of it. At Yale, as you know, the faculty of the entire institution has taken part in this important project. What I'm trying to say and incidentally what Donna Dunlop stressed this morning is the important message that education ought to be a seamless fabric from birth through graduate school and beyond and, all along the way, teachers matter on all levels first, the first teachers the parents who read to their two-year olds, then the underpaid and overworked child care worker, the kindergarten teacher, the teachers in the schools at all levels and, finally, you at Yale and other colleges and universities, you the people at the top of the pyramid. In this collaborative, you don't look down condescendingly or in scorn at what the schools are doing, but you are only the intelligent and caring few.

We were told today that nationwide some 450 professors are taking part annually in similar collaboratives. That sounds impressive and considering that only a few years ago, there were very few, if any, it is impressive. But it's only one-tenth of one percent of American faculties and that, it seems to me, remains the university's truly neglected task. If you think things need to be improved, reformed, step down from your elevated positions, tell your colleagues who have not stepped down yet, and find out how you can help. Higher education faculties have been given a lot of advantages and it's only right for them to share them with the teachers in the schools. The benefits will come back to them in the form of better students.

You have truly pointed the way. Jim Vivian has built something of great importance. This morning, an elementary school teacher spoke of some six year olds who are already experts in certain fields and ask questions that she, the teacher, answers with the help of Yale professors. That's collaboration. A professor said that the Institute has given him a new insight into the schools, and he added that it also has allowed him to work with adults, rather than only with college students. A teacher said, "We are organized to death," speaking of her schools. The collaborative means freedom. "The curriculum part is wonderful," she said, "but also a hotel room of my own, and I can soak in the tub and read a book. All of that other professionals have long taken for granted. As a matter of fact, they may even have had a jacuzzi." One teacher this afternoon said, "we are hovering at the brink of real change." You in the collaborative can help these teachers to make it to the other side of the brink into a new world of education.


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