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New signs of common ground

Americans have long lamented the state of public education, writes Andrew Delbanco in The New York Review of Books, giving as example a complaint from Horace Mann in 1845 that students under his direction wrote "absurd answers... errors in grammar, in punctuation and in spelling." Whether American schools are in decline, however, is a complex question, as are any proposed answers. Delbanco looks at two of many books now offering partial or full solutions to the problems of American schools. Both authors under review, Mike Rose and E.D. Hirsch, "feel besieged, but from different directions," Delbanco says. In "Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us," Rose feels education is under assault from "number-crunchers who want to measure everything by tests and thereby reduce education to a 'knowledge-delivery system.'" Hirsch, a leading figure in the Core Knowledge movement, in "The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools" fears "the 'anti-curriculum' crowd, people he regards as deluded by the romantic idea that children somehow possess innate knowledge that can be released through play or self-paced learning." Despite differences, what is heartening to Delbanco is that from opposing ends of an ideological spectrum, both are disposed toward common ground and moderation, surely needed if public education is to continue as an engine for democracy in this country. "Otherwise," Delbanco writes, "we will remain caught between the usual warring parties."

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