2. “Back to Basics”

I tried writing a brief article about Back-to-Basics movements. At first, it didn’t work. Back-to-Basics movements have been haunting me for twenty-five years, and my thoughts and feelings about them could fill up a book. They are based on points of view that are as hard to pin down as the “open classroom” concept. I think two things they all have in common are the feeling that schools today are neglecting something important and the sense that they used to pay better attention to whatever it is.
So I’ll work on the word “basics,” and then examine what “back” has to do with it. When we use the word “basics,” I think it helps to think of “frills” as the direct opposite. A curriculum based on “basics” teaches children important things that aren’t easy, but are worth the effort. A curriculum full of “frills” spends too much time making sure things are fun and exciting, and lets kids coast from grade to grade without getting what they need. I hope that is a fair distinction.
My basic objection to “basics” is that to me, its use implies a static view of education. A quick look at the past two hundred years reveals an evolutionary trend in curriculum. Reading started out as a “frill.” How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm now that they’ve read a book? Noah Webster et alia decided that we ought to have a uniform way to spell each word, did some good PR, and as a result, children have slaved over spelling lists to learn Webster’s code. In spite of all the slaving, to most adults and children, the code is still a well-kept secret. And any mathematician worthy of the name knows there’s nothing static about math. We define “basics” as we move along. Howard Gardner’s work on intelligence may give art, music, movement, self-concept, and human relations new respect. I foresee a day when mainstream critics of public schools bemoan the fact that some children graduate from high school unable to respect themselves or relate to other people. A lot of us already quietly bemoan the fact; maybe we’re a silent majority. Have I made my point? Basics change, and opinions about what is basic vary.
Now for the word “back.” Every time I hear “back-to-basics,” I wonder whether I’ve missed something. When were basics? People often refer to the 1950’s as a time of vintage basic education. Are we going to bring back Ted, Sally, Puff, and Spot? I went to school in the 1950’s, and was lucky enough to learn to read, write, spell, compute, etc. anyway. I was a “smart” kid. There were about six of us in my class. The rest of the class envied and pitied us. We got lots of praise and ridicule. If you were one of the “smart” kids, perhaps you think it was your “basic” education that made you that way. I don’t think so. I think you were lucky, as I was. And maybe, like me, you graduated from high school unsure about yourself, and insecure about friendships.
I’m no longer so threatened by back-to-basics movements. Partly, it’s that I don’t have to prove myself each year; I’m not getting paid any more. But more to the point, I know we can’t go home again; even if we reach consensus on what the basics are, I’m sure we can’t get there backwards.

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