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Back to school -- and beyond

For those who still like to believe that life is an orderly train committed to running on schedule, September is a comforting month. Close call, but once again the neat little month will lead to the World Series, without which 1981 would surely have fallen into ultimate chaos. And now, barring other strikes, September '81 can be safely associated with that other seasonal ritual every security-blanket traditionalist thinks of as, "Back to the Little Red Schoolhouse."

But how -- as we keep telling ourselves every September -- the Little Red Schoolhouse has changed! A student's schedule appears in the form of a computer print-out, mailed to the home a week ahead, presumably for confirmation by one's home computer. There are electives like Russian and Science Fiction and, of course, Computer Technology, all taught by PhDs -- if not more.

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The old-fashioned library is wired up: an audio-vi sual resources center.

There is an Olympic-size swimming pool where a small dark echo-chamber known as The Gym used to exist, giving off its fragrance of sneakers and antiseptic. Outdoors eight tennis courts, a cinder track, and the usual playing fields stretch to the horizon -- occupying almost as much space as that reserved for the student's cars.

This September the schoolhouses of the affluent '70s seem like mansions where owners who can no longer afford the taxes peer down the gravel driveway from behind velvet drapes, waiting for the next creditor to come through the wrought-iron gates.

And speaking of September continuity-and-change, there is the Big Red-Brick Schoolhouse known as college."Tuition costs up, student aid down," sing the headlines in their minor key. In college it is the pocket-book that receives the higher education -- and higher, and yet higher. Those bills from the bursar's office constitute a correspondence course on inflation. According to the College Scholarship Service, the cost of attending a private four-year college has risen from an annual average of $6,885 to $7,685 -- a jump of almost 12 percent from 1980. The total bills from September to June at an Ivy League college will run between $11,000 and $12,000.

As if all these cost-and-cosmetic changes were not enough, curriculum reform is followed by counter-reform.

In education, as elsewhere, we have the permanent revolution.

Everything is questioned until everybody forgets the original question.

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At worst, the basic social contracts appear to have broken down between students and teachers, and teachers and parents, and everybody and the administration, with all parties looking at the others as if to say: "What do theym want from me?"

And yet, in spite of all this -- in spite of the fact that Johnny probably still can't read (and maybe by now his teacher can't either) -- it is September and certain ancient hopes rise again. Let the red schoolhouse dissolve into red ink, let the ivory tower turn into white plastic, the September heart still believes:

That knowledge is better than ignorance.

That the mind that is informed becomes the mind That understands.

That the mind that understands becomes the heart that cares -- about beauty and goodness and other words we are almost embarrased to pronounce. And about other human beings.

In September we are ready to believe that all teachers are Socrates and all students are Plato and it's only a matter of time before everybody learns, at last, the lesson of the Little Athenian Schoolhouse: that truth and virtue and happiness are pretty much the same thing.

Every September, underneath all the changed surfaces, the pursuit of reason once again becomes an act of faith.

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