(See Cover) When the school bells rang this fall, they called more than 54 million young people better than one-fourth of the U.S. population to the pursuit of learning. This volcanic eruption of pupils from the post-diaper toddlers and the blue-jeaned teen-agers to the bearded or button-down collegians dramatizes a remarkable phenomenon in U.S. life.
Sixty-five years ago, when the U.S. population stood at 76 million, a thin 6% of the nation's 17-year-olds graduated from high school, and only 4% of the college-age youths were in college. To day, with the U.S. population grown by nearly 40%, to 195 million, an impressive 71% of the 17-year-olds are getting their high school diplomas, and about 30% of the college-age population is in the classroom. To pay for all this, Americans are spending $42 billion this year, and to make education work, they are providing 125,000 schools, 100,000 administrators and 2,000,000 teachers.
In short, that was no anachronistic school bell that rangthat was the educational explosion, the sound of a roaring pursuit of learning that has never been matched either in quality or in numbers in U.S. history.
The Debate. While there is plenty of reason to be proud of the accomplishment, no one is satisfied. Neither the new generation nor the parents, nor the academicians for that matter, can quite grasp the totality of the revolution in U.S. education. The sheer numbers alone stun them. The task of deciding what a good education should be, and what ought to be taught, and when and to whom it ought to be taughtto say nothing of how education should be financedposes tremendous problems and precipitates endless debate.
"A whole generation is being sacrificed!" complains Critic Paul Goodman, who is the current idol of campus rebels. "The schools have become a universal trap" in which "there is so much sitting in a box facing front, manipulating symbols at the direction of distant administrators." Yes, concedes Caltech President Lee A. DuBridge, "We are in troubledeep trouble." But, he adds, it is not the fault of the schools. "We are expecting too much of our schools and too fast." Emphatically no, declares Admiral Hyman Rickover, the foremost gadfly in the groves of academe. "We have the slowest-moving school system in the civilized world. Precious school hours are wasted teaching children how to make fudge, twirl batons, drive cars, budget income, handle the telephone and catch fish."
Smashing Barriers. The one thing about which all educators are in agreement is that yesterday's education no longer suffices for today. The rate of technological change and the development of new information is so great that educators scarcely know what to make of it all, let alone how to get it taught; next week's scientific discovery can make last week's textbook obsolete. Even future vocational demands are unpredictable; not long after Los Angeles vocational schools developed a program to train keypunch operators, new machines came along to make the keypunchand the operatorssuperfluous.