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Socrates, will you please report to your computer class

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A Latin teacher from our past used to rebuke students who whispered in his class by directing a look of the mildest reproach, twitching his mustache with Charlie Chaplin wistfulness, and saying in a sorrowful voice: ''You're no friend of mine.''

In French.

It was the French, even more than the rest of the act, that got us.

One day when our French-speaking Latin teacher had done his stylish put-down, and still one barbarian continued to whisper, he raised a finger and announced firmly, ''Whispering is against my policy.''

Nobody ever tested him twice again. Policy! What a rare and therefore awesome word it was in those days!

The fact is, in those days everybody had a policy, so nobody had to talk about it except in emergencies like the second whisper.

Every school, every church, every corner grocery store had a policy so unshakable, so agreed-upon that it would have been poor taste to mention it.

Even parents - can you believe it? - had a policy.

Now almost nobody has a policy, so everybody talks about almost nothing else.

What is our foreign policy? What is our monetary policy? And, of course, once Latin teachers (and others) began to get confused about what schools were for, everybody began to ask: What is our ''educational policy?'' And they didn't mean , No whispering in Latin class, mon ami.

It may be simplistic to argue that if you have to ask what's our policy, it means you haven't got one. Still, introspection has proven to be not unacquainted with bewilderment in the history of education.

In the beginning, everybody knew what the purpose of education was - to produce adults who could read, write, and figure, who loved God and country, and who knew enough not to whisper in Latin class. Then somebody asked the fatal question: How? Thus the ''educationist'' was born, a teacher whose subject is not Latin or algebra or medieval history but ''educational policy.''

The ''educationist,'' correctly observing that children learn when they are interested, got carried away into declaring recklessly: Let education be fun. Why hadn't anybody thought of that before? This may be described as the chocolate-coated spinach theory of education. At the extreme, tots were invited to chart their own curriculum, from kindergarten to graduate school, and you can just bet that the chocolate went up and the spinach went down - along with the SAT scores.


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