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Admiral Rickover and the Roots of “Reform”

March 1, 2015

Since I retired I have volunteered as a teacher for several courses in the Adult and Continuing Education program at Dartmouth and served on their curriculum committee. One of my students in a course I offered on public education policy asked if I would be a “guest lecturer” on a course he will be offering on Admiral Hyman Rickover in the fall. I was dimly aware that Admiral Rickover had several outspoken ideas bout public education in the late 1950s and early 1960s… but until I read his book Education and Freedom I didn’t realize that he could be characterized as one of the “fathers of school reform”. Rickover asserted in the late 1950s that “education is the most important problem facing the United States today” and “only the massive upgrading of the scholastic standards of our schools will guarantee the future prosperity and freedom of the Republic.”

Rickover based his conclusions about our failing public education system on international comparisons, comparisons that predated the standardized assessments used today but came to the same conclusions: we were falling hopelessly behind and in the future our economy would suffer and our power would diminish unless we took immediate action.

Rickover’s solution to this crisis: adopt the superior European model whereby our country reverses the movement away from the “traditional school” where the best minds are culled out and educated separately to the “permissive school” where all children are given options at the secondary level. Rickover characterizes this movement toward permissiveness as a decision made by “the American education establishment” with “no evidence… of a clear mandate from the American people to make this far reaching and disastrous change”. The permissiveness he decries is the result of adopting Dewey’s progressive ideas that advocated a “…pure “democratic” education which insists on the inefficient, time-wasting comprehensive school”.

Rickover bases his ideas for reform on the assertion that “Our forefathers wished to remove all unnatural, that is man-made barriers to the free development of man and to the full growth and exercise of his faculties”. In his mind, the introduction of “adjustment” (his term for heterogeneous grouping) was reminiscent of the French revolution where the guillotine was wielded to make everyone else “more equal”…. and the “educationists” were the ones wielding the blade.

Near the end of this life Rickover established the Center for Excellence in Education whose high-minded mission is “to nurture high school and university scholars to careers of excellence and leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and to encourage international collaboration between and among leaders in the global community“. This mission is congruent with the broadest aspect of his thinking in the late 1950s and the thinking of many of today’s school reformers… but some form of sorting and selecting is implicit in the thinking of those who advocate “excellence” and those who advocate for the expansion of deregulated for-profit charter schools. Nurturing those who want to pursue STEM studies is unquestionably good, and providing opportunities for children of engaged parents is also good… but in order for our schools to improve across-the-board and for our democracy to thrive going forward we need to have fully engaged learners in ALL schools… and that requires less sorting and selecting and more efforts to reach disaffected parents and children.

Oh… and one more thought about the crisis Rickover foresaw: the students he was concerned about were those of my generation.  And, as it turns out, the Russian education system he touted at the time he was writing turned out to be far weaker than he believed and the other systems he touted have not turned out or held onto the great minds as he predicted.  As long as our country continues to provide an opportunity for all children to succeed it will continue to develop the minds of all children and be a magnet for those who seek opportunity. If and when we sort and select like our “competitors” we will quickly cede our leadership in innovative and creative thinking… and that’s when we will fall behind.


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