Editorial: Experiments Enhance Education By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday August 30, 2005

For those of us who have spent a substantial part of our lives in or near educational institutions—and that’s most of us in Greater Berkeley—the approach of September always feels like the real New Year. Even for small children it’s the chance to start over again and to get it right this time. Over the weekend we attended a small gathering marking the tenth anniversary of the deaths of Page and Eloise Smith, who 40 years ago spearheaded some significant attempts to get education right.  

Page, a distinguished historian who was teaching at UCLA at the time, became the first provost of Cowell College, the first college of the University of California at Santa Cruz. The model was to be Oxford, California-style, and the plan was that students and faculty would form small learning communities within the larger institution. It was seen as an antidote to the mega-university on the corporate model which was starting to dominate the other campuses of the University of California, notably Berkeley and UCLA. There were many educational experiments conducted at Santa Cruz in the first few years, notably narrative evaluation of students instead of letter grades and a core curriculum grandly called “World Civilization” which attempted to incorporate most of human history in a course taught by several professors as a group. Not all, or perhaps not most, of these experiments are now considered to have been successful by current academic theorists. Page Smith himself didn’t last even 10 years at UCSC, resigning in disgust at the decision of the academic bureaucracy to deny tenure to a valued colleague, and yet his former students who spoke at the memorial on Saturday continue to believe that their education was an outstanding success from their personal perspective.  

No discussion of education is complete without pointing out the Latin root of the word, from the Latin educare, to lead out. The job of education, contrary to the philosophy of No Child Left Behind, is not to stuff students with poorly grasped facts and figures to be regurgitated verbatim on tests. It is instead to encourage them to make the most of their inherent gifts, in the context of the past to be sure. The University of California bureaucrats have spent the last 40 years trying to destroy this ideal at Santa Cruz, to turn the school into another feeder for whatever industry is trendy at the moment, first Silicon Valley and now biotechnology. What survives to this day nonetheless among some of the students at the University of California at Santa Cruz is a vigorous curiosity and an irreverence toward the conventional wisdom which dead-serious competitive Berkeley students increasingly lack. It’s not a coincidence that among the Daily Planet’s liveliest staffers and contributors at least four were educated at UCSC.  

Eloise Smith, Page’s wife and co-conspirator, was a fine painter who made her major contribution to education with the program she started in 1977 to bring art to California prisons. She believed that participation in the arts offered inmates the best way to develop the self-respect which is essential for rebuilding life after incarceration. British critic John Carey, in his recent book What Good Are the Arts?, says that the most important, or perhaps the only, way that art “improves” society is in prison programs, and he quotes several criminology studies to prove his point. It’s an idea which has been widely recognized since Eloise Smith launched her prison art program, though not, unfortunately, by the state of California, which defunded it in 2003. 

Most educational experiments don’t survive for very long, at least in their original form, but many of them seem to be “successful” nevertheless. This might have something to do with the nature of experiments. Industrial psychologists in the nineteen-thirties documented the Hawthorne Effect: At an electrical plant, workers took part in a series of experiments with different ways of doing their jobs, and to the surprise of the investigators, almost everything worked. One commentator described the results as “an increase in worker productivity produced by the psychological stimulus of being singled out and made to feel important” because workers knew that they were participating in an experiment. What was good for workers then is probably good for students now.  

Conceptual rigidity is the enemy of true education. As soon as would-be educators get locked into The Right Way to Do It, à la NCLB, they’re probably getting it wrong. That’s why the people who are trying to create a bit of ferment at Berkeley High School with programs like Small Schools and Academic Choice deserve community support. Even if no particular program gets it exactly right, chances are that 40 years from now today’s students, like the original UCSC students, will report that they’re better people—and better educated—because they participated in an interesting experiment in 2005.