Potemkin Schools

Myths surrounding the life and death of Catherine the Great run the gamut from salacious baloney (however enchanting for schoolboys and college sophomores) to excellent stories that, like all good myths, convey the essence of truth in narrative form. One of the best is of Grigory Potemkin, the official in charge of Russia’s newly conquered southern regions in the latter part of the reign. He built fake villages of facades and imported peasants for the Empress Catherine to see during her travels there. The object of the fakery was to impress her with the riches of the South and to justify their being conquered. Though the “Potemkin villages” almost certainly did not really exist, their mythical existence illustrates the timeless archetype of official fakery made to support false claims.

From the steppes of southern Russia we turn to two high schools that could reasonably be called Potemkin villages of learning. The examples I give are from the 1970s, so we are talking about a phenomenon that does not have a very recent genesis. A friend of mine on the West Coast, wishing to do his small workingman’s bit for the support of the schools and people of his neighborhood, agreed to take on as his construction assistant the salutatorian of the local high school. The attempt ended in failure, with my friend regretfully dismissing the student. He was ready to work, and he was eager, but he could not use a tape measure, could not read off fractions, and could not add or subtract them. The other was a graduate of a large urban high school in the East. He, too, was salutatorian (notice no “a”: these boys were graduated before schools started naming valedictorians in litters). He had applied for admission to my college, where I, sitting on the College Admissions Committee, saw his academic record. His story is sad, too. In the 1970’s the SAT had scores running from 1600 for seniors who walked on water to 400 for those who were alive and breathing but could not find the lake. This salutatorian’s score was in the 500s. There was no question of admitting him, but we felt sorry for someone who could find himself graduated as the second-most distinguished student of a school that did not teach him even how to manage a minimally satisfactory score on a multiple-choice test.

The Potemkinization of testing had not yet started to make “advances” such as the “recentering” of SAT scoring or the setting of “proficiency” exams by which random guesswork can yield a promotion from one grade to the next. Even now, some testing retains a pre-Potemkin integrity. Hence the PISA test scores or the scores of International Baccalaureate assessments, which are not obliged by local considerations to certify as genuine any panoramas of fakery.

But the Potemkin schools: when did they start? I am not a historian of education, but my guess is that the phenomenon started to be significant when the Life Adjustment Movement[1] in education found itself in the late 1950s and early 1960s having to trim its sails in the wake of Sputnik and the Communiss Challenge. We decided that if the Communiss were not going to bury us, we would have to stop offering three-year courses, with content repeated each year, in “Home and Family Living” covering such topics as “My duties as a baby sitter” and “How to be liked.”[2] The problem was in recovering ground lost to foolishness, which we turned out not to be able to do.

The late sociologist James S. Coleman in his book Public and Private High Schools identified Catholic high schools as having produced the best results at academic preparation of any large group of schools in the US[3]. He said that the reason for their success was that they acted as “functional communities,” which it turns out could hold kids to account more effectively than other kinds of school with their less all-embracing organization. I think we will find that another step in the degradation of schools was in their decline as functional communities. One of the chief forces destructive of urban Catholic education is now shaping up to be charter schools; and it seems that they are destructive of public education too—this without providing an alternative education that is demonstrably better than what it is destroying[4].

A third source is in the saturation of the fabric of education by baloney[5]. Professor Barzun, who is among other things a historian of education, even offers to explain “Where the Educational Nonsense Comes From[6],” and his explanation is convincing. Well, it is convincing to me, if not to people who continue engaging in discourse of the kind he rightly condemns.

Since these three problems seem nearly intractable, much is to be done if we are going to replace Potemkin schools with schoolhouses in which real teaching and learning take place.

[1] See Chapter 13, “The Road to Life Adjustment,” in Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter. New York: Vintage, 1963.

[2] Ibid., p. 357. My godmother would say, “To have a friend, be a friend,” and she wasn’t even a consultant on retainer.

[3] Excluding the top-flight private college preparatory schools found in places like small New England towns (Exeter, New Hampshire; and Andover and Groton, Massachusetts) or semi-rural Western locations (Ojai Valley, California),

[4] Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, passim.

[5] See my entry under balonist in The Didact’s Dictionary. For a more detailed treatment, see Baloney Bingo, and get up a baloney bingo game of your own!

[6] See the article of that name in Begin Here, U. of Chicago Press, 1991.


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