An earlier version of this essay was originally published in educational Horizons, Summer 1991.

Solemnity and Seriousness:
Ritual in American Educational Theory and Practice

Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.

edited 10/13/11

I think it was the late Paul Goodman who noted that Americans are solemn about schooling but seldom serious. One day as I was driving home from work, I came to see that he was right. It was no epiphany such as St. Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. There was no blinding light. It happened matter-of-factly as I was tuning my car radio.

The first button I punched brought me then Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. School reform, he was asserting, did not require more resources. It was, he solemnly declared, largely a matter of raising educators' expectations. I had already had my daily ration of sophomores discussing pedagogy, so I punched Bennett out and tuned in an all-sports show. Here a call-in show host was asking for recommendations to improve the Philadelphia Phillies. Dozens of callers responded. What struck me was that no one offered slogans, panaceas, or simplistic solutions. They laid out detailed prescriptions carefully calculated to develop that delicate balance of defensive and offensive capabilities required to win baseball games.

These fans knew that significant benefits have significant costs. Those suggesting trades, for instance, recognized that to get a first-rate fielder or pitcher, you had to trade a first-rate something else. When one unrealistic listener suggested trading a utility infielder for a starting pitcher, it provoked nothing but derision. "Tell Bill from Narberth to get serious" one caller sneered.

I momentarily switched back to the station I had started with just to see if anyone was telling Bill Bennett to "get serious." No one was. It was then that I fully realized what Goodman had been talking about! The baseball callers were serious. Bennett, on the other hand, was merely being solemn.

It is altogether too easy to do that with schooling. That's why Bennett got away with assertions that were so simplistic it was embarrassing to rebut them. Put him on this all-sports station with similarly unrealistic suggestions, and Bennett would have been hooted off the air.

The Persian Gulf War offers another example of the utility of the solemn/serious distinction. Imagine President Bush suggesting to the Joint Chiefs that they could defeat Iraq by merely encouraging this expectation in U.S. troops. They would have thought the president had taken leave of his senses. Similarly, no one had to tell General Schwarzkopf that Desert Storm required a well-planned, balanced strategy. He and his staff spent months in meticulous preparation, putting into place their tactics, feeding, clothing, fueling, munitions, transportation, medical and maintenance programs, schemes of maneuver, targeting intelligence, and so forth. Why? Because they were deadly serious.

If anybody in the U.S. Department of Education or the various state education agencies is involved in a similarly serious endeavor, I have yet to meet them. Sure, their political bosses make solemn sloganistic pronouncements about "educational reform." (For example, the United States must lead the world in science and mathematics education by the turn of the century.) But the tasks that would support these reforms have never been laid out. Worse, the resources required for their accomplishment have not even been brought up for serious discussion.

Just mention school reform and it really encourages this sort of solemn silliness. Consider the National Cornmission on Excellence in Education. Its report declared: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."[1] But if things really are this grave, why did the Commission fail to consider that schooling is only a small part of a much larger educational system in which the family is the primary teacher.

For all Commission members know, it isn't even the schools that are failing. It could be a massive failure of the nation's families that is chiefly at fault. Remember what James Coleman found in the mid-nineteen sixties when he conducted a massive survey of more than a half-million school kids nationwide:

One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child's achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.[2]

And let's not forget Christopher Jencks' famous findings after similarly extensive research in the nineteen seventies:

Children seem to be far more influenced by what happens at home than what happens at school. They may also he more influenced by what happens on the streets and by what they see on television. Everything else -- the school budget, its policies, the characteristics of the teachers-is either secondary or completely irrelevant.[3]

Could any really serious reform report ignore such findings? I don't think so.

Like most other reform recommendations, A Nation at Risk also offered suggestions without serious consideration of what they might cost. I'm not just talking dollars and cents here, although that is commonly overlooked, but costs in lost opportunities to do other things. The Commission on Excellence recommended, for instance, stiffer doses of mathematics and science at the expense of things like driver education and home economics. But there isn't enough driver education and home economics to make a real difference. To increase substantially the time and resources available for science and math, a lot more would have to be sacrificed. The Commission dodges this reality.

The Commission's members even failed to clarify what sort of "excellence" they were championing. Was it the best effort of individual students or the distinctive achievements of outstanding students that they were after? They also left us wondering if they favored a "fair play" or "fair share" conception of educational equity. Yet, unless they assumed that fair play automatically leads to a fair share, this issue is of central importance.

Seriousness required the Commission to address all of these matters. Solemnity only required the pontifical sloganeering that it published.

The seriousness/solemnity distinction even helps us understand why schooling easily takes on an absurdist character. Here is an example. A friend and colleague recently told me of a faculty meeting he attended in a big city middle school. The principal reported that he was terribly troubled by a sudden increase in absenteeism. Large numbers of kids had recently begun skipping school. He asked his faculty what remedy it recommended. A long discussion ensued during which my friend became distracted. The principal noticed his inattention and asked, "Well, Mr. R, what do you think we should do?" My friend said he needed to know which kids were absent. The principal tried evasion, but a novice vice principal volunteered the answer. The absentees were almost all kids who had already flunked their present grade the previous year. It seems the district's central administration had decided that no child would be retained in a grade for more than one year. The kids had gotten wind of this new policy and decided school attendance was no longer necessary.

Despite this revelation, the principal pressed on, and the teachers, accustomed as they were to absurdity, pressed on with him. Eventually it was agreed that monthly pizza parties would be conducted for kids with perfect attendance records. The parties had no impact on school attendance. Apparently absentees regarded a month of perfect attendance too high a price to pay for a slice or two of pizza. However, the principal was able to report solemnly to higher authorities that his school was addressing the attendance problem.

Kafkaesque faculty meetings like this are commonplace. And they are solidly rooted in a lack of seriousness, because this is the medium in which absurdity sprouts best. I used to teach in a junior high school where many of the kids could barely read, but our principal almost never mentioned that. Instead, he solemnly discussed things like how to prevent pencil sharpeners from becoming overly full (apparently regurgitated shavings dull the blades) and how to regulate properly the opening from window shade to sill. He even passed out detailed notes on these matters and then read them to us -- in a monotone. (I always found it remarkable that his toadies were able to maintain the appearance of interest.) He sacrificed an hour and a half of instructional time a week to this theater of the absurd. Was he serious about schooling?

Sometimes the absurdity spawned by this ubiquitous lack of seriousness is really too dumb for words. Unfortunately, its commonality and the solemnity that is its companion combine to dull our senses. That is why teachers are sometimes moved to tug on the sleeves of the authorities and plead for recognition of the obvious. For example, offering pages of persuasion and formulaic calculations to convince power holders that a teacher's time "is a key variable in any calculation of the costs of education."[4]

In the solemn but unserious world of the schools, such "reminders" seem particularly urgent. Sadly, however, they are not. Powerholders already know a teacher's time is limited. They are just not serious enough about what the teacher is doing to care. (By the way, these are often the same folks who solemnly tell us that pedagogy is the noblest of callings but would never seriously encourage their own children to enter teaching.)

The general lack of seriousness that suffuses schooling is an educator's particular affliction. It does not leave us devoid of dignity and significance, mean and mired in hopelessness, because we still have serious effects on our students. But it does demoralize us, divert our attention from vital complexities, and make an already tough job a whole lot tougher.


1. National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, DC: GPO, 1983), 5.

2. James S. Coleman et al, Equality of Educational Opportunity (Washington. DC: GPO, 1966), 325.

3. Christopher Jencks, Inequality: A Re-assessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 255-56.

4. Micky Bolmer, "A Teacher's Total Work Time," educational Horizons 69 (Winter 1991) 68-71.