It seemed for a while that all the critics of U.S. public education, so vociferous since the war, had just about shot their bolt. Then came Sputnik. Last week two distinguished engineers lashed out again at the slovenly ways of the American high school and college.
The Harsh Fact. "The trouble is," said former President Herbert Hoover in Manhattan, "that we are turning out annually from our institutions of higher education perhaps fewer than half as many scientists and engineers as we did seven years ago. The greatest enemy of all mankind, the Communists, are turning out twice or possibly three times as many as we do. Our higher institutions of learning have the capacity to train the recruits we need. The harsh fact is that the high schools are not preparing youngsters for the entrance requirements which must be maintained by our institutions training scientists and engineers."
Today, said Hoover, there is the "too prevalent high-school system of allowing a 13-or 14-year-old kid to choose most of his studies. Academic freedom seems now to begin at 14. A youngster's first reaction in school is to seek soft classes, not the hard work of science and mathematics. Also, he has a multitude of extracurricular activities that he considers more beguiling than hard work.
"You simply cannot expect kids of those ages to determine the sort of education they need, unless they have some guidance. If this nation is not to degenerate intellectually and to lose its strength for daily life and defense against our enemies, the taxpayers, the school boards, the Parent-Teacher Associations had better wake up."
The Overvalued School. Another trouble, said Rear Admiral H. G. (Nautilus) Rickover. in Detroit, is the "misconception of the worth of the American high school. We have always overvalued it. It comes out that we have many more children in high school and in college than [Europeans] have in secondary schools and universities, and this makes us proud. But all of these comparisons are meaningless, because the European secondary school graduate has learned more than most of our college graduates; and as to the high school diploma, the less said about it the better.
"One cannot even compare the number of hours spent in our high schools with those spent in any European or Russian secondary school. There, an hour at school means an hour of uninterrupted serious work; here there are assemblies, errands to be run, trips to survey various adult activities, checking on the fire department or the bakery, and much time goes into preparing the school play. Every pupil in a European science-mathematics secondary school has nine years of one foreign language and six years of another. Yet many of our high schools teach no foreign languages at all. Some American high school graduates never get beyond quadratic equations, but every graduate of the European science-mathematics secondary school must be familiar with differential and integral calculus, analytic geometry, application of mathematics to physics and spherical trigonometry."