The Iowa Board of Regents wants to close the University of Northern Iowa's Price Lab School in Cedar Falls.
Local citizens have filed suit to delay the decision, arguing that the Board does not have legal authority to close it. Jeff Reinitz, "UPDATE: Lawsuit seeks to overturn Price Lab closure," WCF Courier, March 27, 2012 ("A group of educators, parents and residents is asking the court to overturn the Iowa Board of Regents decision to close Malcolm Price Lab School as part of budget cuts last month."). Gregg Hennegan, "Confusion reigns over legal authority to close Price Lab; Over 2,000 pages were released under an open-records request by The Gazette, KCRG-TV9 and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier," The Gazette, March 29, 2012, p. A1 ("Part of the confusion on the issue is that two code sections are in play. Chapter 265 deals with laboratory schools. Another, 256G, calls for a research and development school housed in Price Lab. Democratic state senators and representatives from Black Hawk County argue that Price Lab must exist to be the location for the research and development school. The lawsuit says that because the Board of Regents was not granted the legislative authority to establish a research and development school, it does not have the power to “disestablish” the school.")
The closure is even more sad and ironic given UNI's proud history as a teacher training institution: Iowa State Normal School, 1876–1909; Iowa State Teachers College, 1909–1961 (the name by which I knew it as a boy); State College of Iowa, 1961–1967; and, finally, the University of Northern Iowa, from 1967 to the present.
The story reminded me of the commencement address I delivered June 1, 1972, on the occasion of the closing of the University of Iowa's University Elementary and High School. The full text of the transcript of those extemporaneous remarks are here. I was an FCC commissioner at the time, and returned to my home, and the school that had been my home for 13 years, to try to provide a bit of levity on that very sad occasion.
You'll have to go to the source, linked above, for the levity. What's excerpted below is the portion addressing the value of such schools.
I cannot know now about the Price school, as I did not know on that occasion about U High, the degree to which an individual experimental school is living up to its potential, its mission, and meeting its goals.
The comic, Lewis Black, has a routine regarding the ozone hole. Angrily he shouts, "We've got rockets. We've got Saran Wrap. Fix it!!" That's the way I feel about experimental schools. I don't know that there is anything wrong with the Price school. I haven't heard that there is. But if there is, "Fix it!!" Don't close it.
Because what I am willing to contend I do know -- now reinforced with a term as school board member in Iowa City -- is that the idea of experimental schools is as sound now as it ever was. They deserve more support, not less, and certainly do not deserve to be closed.
Here, then, are excerpts from my thoughts about that idea, from the remarks I subsequently titled, "The Last Commencement Address: The U High Idea" -- as applicable today to the "Price Idea" as they were then to U High:
"The Last Commencement Address: The U High Idea"
June 1, 1972
(Excerpts; with highlighted quotes in bold)
How do you measure, how do you describe, an institution like the University Schools?
"We spent less on the University Schools throughout all those years, in fifty-seven years, than what was spent on the single set of video tapes that we know as 'Sesame Street.'"It's really not much at all in terms of money--at least not the kinds of money I've been accustomed to administering the last few years.
The total budget for all of the fifty-seven years of the school's existence--based on a doctoral dissertation I looked at--I project to be about six million dollars. Six million dollars for the whole fifty-seven years is approximately twenty percent of the FCC's budget for one year.
And the FCC's budget is one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. We spent less on the University Schools throughout all those years, in fifty-seven years, than what was spent creating the single set of video tapes that we know as "Sesame Street."
Nor is the school much in terms of land and buildings. We have now returned this evening--fifty-seven years later--to a spot just across the yard from where the school was originally. And then in the 1920's it moved down the street to where you all went to school. We still don't have an auditorium. We have to gather at McBride Hall for our last commencement.
No, I think an institution like U High is very difficult to program on a computer or enter on a balance sheet, because basically it's an idea--an idea and the people who shared that idea and participated in it.
"The only way to think in terms of the impact of an institution like this is in terms of the people whose lives it has affected, and the ripples it produces throughout the rest of society."And we shouldn't forget ourselves, I suppose, the alumni of U High, a group that now numbers about twenty-five hundred, including you as of this evening.
Because the only way to think in terms of the impact of an institution like this is in terms of the people whose lives it has affected, and the ripples it produces throughout the rest of society. The effect of U High is felt whenever one of its former staff members goes elsewhere and begins training professors, who teach teachers who teach students. Because in that way his or her influence ultimately spreads a thousand times beyond what it was in terms of a handful of students who were privileged actually to be in their classroom for a semester or so. There are hundreds of of former U High staff, students, and student teachers, who are today university presidents and deans of schools of education, professors and teachers and officials of educational institutions and associations--officials of one kind or another.
The effect of U High has been felt not only through people, but also in terms of the teaching materials and new teaching methods and texts that have been evolved here.
Indeed, I think it's somewhat ironic that U High really began at the behest of the President of the University, Walter Jessup, because of the difficulty he was running into in trying to do some educational experimenting in the public schools. They wouldn't let him do it the way he wanted to do it. And his reaction was very much like that of Howard Hughes. You'll recall Howard Hughes was once staying in a hotel out in Las Vegas and he didn't like the service, so he just bought the hotel. Well, that's kind of what President Jessup did, as Emil Trot recalls it, who was one of U High's first students. He said, "If that's the way you fellows are going to be, all right, I'll just start my own school." And he did.
"The accepted methods of teaching today all had to begin at some time, and in some place; as often as not, when you track it back, it turns out that the place was U High and the time was about twenty years before the ideas were believed to be safe enough to try in the public schools."Because what President Jessup realized, as I think almost anybody knows who has ever had to deal with large bureaucratic institutions--whether it's the military, or school systems, corporations, government agencies, whatever it is --a television network--is that it's not really a place where genuine creativity and intellectual activity can take place. People who are hired to do a job, to carry out a mission which they do not control, may be superb at what it is they've been hired to do, but they simply don't have the time, the talent or the temperament to expend a lot of effort in challenging the basic assumptions of their own institution.
* The concept of speed reading, which enjoyed a boom nationally in the late 1950's and early 60's, was first tried out on us by Dr. Jim Stroud in the 1940's. I doubt that the testing of such a radical experiment would have been approved by any school board in the nation at that time.And so on and so on. The accepted methods of teaching today all had to begin at some time, and in some place; as often as not, when you track it back, it turns out that the place was U High and the time was about twenty years before the ideas were believed to be safe enough to try in the public schools.
* It was the staff of U High that developed comprehensive curriculum guides in the late 1930's and 1940's that could not be developed within the public school system within the state of Iowa, and guides which were still valued by teachers in and out of the state some thirty years later.
* The concept of interdisciplinary team teaching was evolving in the 1920's and 1930's at U High some twenty years before it became widespread throughout the schools of the nation.
* The work of Dr. Ralph Ojeman in giving junior high school students an awareness of basic psychology was carried out at U High in the 1940's.
* Iowa has pioneered in the field of testing and many of those tests were tested first at U High. This is now one of Iowa City's major industries, as you may know.
The list goes on and on and on:
* foreign language teaching in grade school,
* techniques in music instruction,
* research in physical education (I saw the other day that Lou Alley had written an article or speech about techniques of physical education in the year 2000--so we're still looking ahead in that field),
* new curricula for teaching the sciences,
* innovation in teaching spelling to grade school pupils was done by Ernest Horn here,
* English in high school (Dr. Carpenter's great efforts),
* and new approaches to mathematics by Dr. Price and others.
The trouble with U High was that it was all done naturally and relatively quietly. U High has never had an Office of Public Information, it never hired a public relations firm, and, to my knowledge, no principal ever called a press conference. And it was that natural sense of concern and commitment, of excitement and adventure about life and about education, that was naturally passed on by the permanent staff of U High to us, to the student teachers and to the junior staff.
Kozol describes in a book called Death at an Early Age how some public schools, almost sadistically, drive any creativity and curiosity and sense of individual worth and development out of their wards.
My wife, who attended the University Schools with me, has told me similar stories over the years about things she has witnessed in public schools where she has taught in Virginia, California, Texas, the District of Columbia.
My own experience is limited to that of a parent; but I must say it has often left me in a state of despair about the quality of education offered my own children by public schools that often brag of their national superiority.
I don't mean to suggest that there aren't good public school teachers. Of course there are. There are a great many who are competent, who are concerned--many more than are ever recognized or thanked or adequately compensated. But I think they all feel the oppression of a bureaucratic system of which they are a part, and none can really feel that he or she is a part of an exciting adventure at the frontiers of educational innovation. Whatever the public schools may be, they are not that.
Even if one is willing to concede that no justification can be offered for providing an elitist education to a privileged few Iowa boys and girls who attend the schools as students, it seems to me that teachers--at some point in their career, and for however short a time--ought to have been exposed to such a faculty and student body.
"Somewhere, in the seventy-billion-dollar, barnacle-encrusted, bureaucratic industry that goes by the name of 'Education,' somewhere in amongst the concrete buildings and the computers and the layers of administrators, somebody better be watching to make sure that the torch of learning has not gone out entirely. If that is not to be the University of Iowa, so be it. . . . But as anybody knows who has tried to keep a camp fire going all night without a match, you can start it up again by blowing on one red hot coal, but once you are left with nothing but ashes you're just going to be blowing dirt into your face and into the darkness."Somewhere, in the seventy-billion-dollar, barnacle-encrusted, bureaucratic industry that goes by the name of "Education," somewhere in amongst the concrete buildings and the computers and the layers of administrators, somebody better be watching to make sure that the torch of learning has not gone out entirely.
If that is not to be the University of Iowa, so be it. We certainly have lots of company. Lab schools are closed all over the land. It's a respectable position.
But as anybody knows who has tried to keep a camp fire going all night without a match, you can start it up again by blowing on one red hot coal, but once you are left with nothing but ashes you're just going to be blowing dirt into your face and into the darkness.
I don't for a moment think that a lab school can single-handedly reform public education, but it can help.
"School is where you learn about freedom and democratic or popular control. It's the last time you'll hear it mentioned, let alone practiced. . . . Teachers encourage you to challenge assumptions, to ask basic questions. Employers, you will find, fire you when you do."The fundamental problem, of course, as you will soon discover, is that there is a basic conflict between the values of genuine education that you have been taught at University High School, and the values of the corporate state into which you are now--or in a few years--going to move.
* School is where you learn about freedom and democratic or popular control. It's the last time you'll hear it mentioned, let alone practiced.Two alternatives are basically available, neither of which do I find very acceptable.
* Learning gives you a sense of your unique, individual worth. But your value to the economy--as a consumer and an employee--is not as an individual, but as a predictable piece in a mass merchandised economy (as a consumer), and as a reliable machine in an industrial state (as an employee).
* As your education progresses, you are given more and more choice and control over selecting your own activities and goals. This is called maturity. Once you graduate, however, you are expected merely to execute predefined goals under the close direction of others. You have virtually no control or choice over what you produce, how you produce it, or what it's used for.
* Teachers encourage you to challenge assumptions, to ask basic questions. Employers, you will find, fire you when you do. Paul Goodman has described your dilemma under the descriptive title, Growing Up Absurd. If you haven't read it, you might enjoy it.
One is to simply drop out. John Prine has a delightful little song in which he puts that bit of advice with the line, "Blow up your TV"--which always delighted me for a starter--"Blow up your TV/Throw away your paper/ Move to the country/ And build you a home." Well, that's not really bad advice, but it's not really going to solve the problem either, because for most of us, at least, it's not very practical.
Now another solution is to try to modify the educational system, and, as Kozol and my wife will tell you, that now appears to be the most widely accepted solution. If we could only train young people in school to really like Barbie dolls, motel decor, neon signs along suburban highway shopping centers, television programs, Detroit cars, hair spray, and Coca Cola, then they won't be so frustrated when they get out.
I saw a film the other day about how they do it in South Africa. It's very similar to our system. It's the way in which they sustain apartheid there. Essential to the state of society upon which the life and economy of that nation is based, is the enforced ignorance of its blacks. They are simply not permitted to see the swimming pools, and tennis courts and schools that their labor, and misery, support.
No, I don't really think that the answer lies in seeing to it that no one in our society--students or student teachers--ever get a glimpse of what a subculture of truly dedicated free minds and educational researchers might look like. I don't think keeping people from that vision is going to solve the problem.
I think they should be given that spark, that vision, that dream, against which to measure their daily lives. John Gardner, whose two books, Excellence and Self Renewal, may very well be among the most important of the Twentieth Century, has said that a nation that does not value excellence in its plumbers as well as its philosophers will find that neither its pipes nor its theories hold water.
No, I believe it is work that must change, not quality education.
The work place is today, as it was in the time when Brandeis described it, the place where we have the greatest abridgment of citizens' rights.
Workers and consumers, you and I, simply must be permitted to exercise greater control over the products, as well as the means, of production. And gradually, in some places in this country and others, that principle is being extended. Because a democracy simply cannot survive when it forces mature people to spend their lives dying in their jobs. We cannot give people the right to grow, and question, exercise discretion, and control their activities for only the twelve years of their lives that they are in school--and that only if they are lucky.
"A citizen cannot be repressed and treated as a machine subject to authoritarian control eight hours a day all year long and then suddenly perform as a mature person of judgment for eight minutes every four years when he or she enters the polling booth."A citizen cannot be repressed and treated as a machine subject to authoritarian control eight hours a day all year long and then suddenly perform as a mature person of judgment for eight minutes every four years when he or she enters the polling booth.
Well, that's the challenge that confronts you, I think: to put the U High idea into practice, to live your life in ways that argue more eloquently than words or buildings, that those who preceded you as staff and as students were right to have invested in U High what they have.
And, I'm sure, that you will do.
And, as an addendum, now on the fortieth anniversary of those remarks: Iowa farmers have always been a smart lot. You have to be in that business. And two basic bits of advice any one of them could give you are: (1) don't sell off your topsoil (or let it erode away), and (2) don't eat your seed corn.
If only our officials and administrators had as much wisdom. For the educational innovations made possible by our nation's lab schools are the top soil and seed corn that represent America's only hope of growing one of the world's best educated, most innovative, productive and happiest people on Earth.