The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools by Cheri Pierson Yecke. (Praeger  2003) 260 pages.  $50.00


When Achilles went off to the Trojan War, his father told him, “Strive always to be best, to be superior to others.”  This bit of advice, which has been called  the “first commandment” of the “heroic ideal,” reflects its origin on the battlefield where those who were not best ended up enslaved or dead.  Such an ethic can be found in many cultures, but in Greece, as Bowra pointed out, it outlived the heroic age and was sublimated, becoming in the Golden Age the “pursuit of excellence” in every realm.  It thus played an important role in the achievements of the Greeks in art and architecture, in tragedy and comedy, in philosophy and science, and in poetry, mathematics, literature and history.  Later the Stoic philosophers made virtue (moral excellence) the highest good.  As the classical tradition and the Judeo-Christian tradition merged to form the Western worldview, the emphasis on always doing one’s best was strengthened by admonitions from the Bible, such as the sayings of Jesus, ”Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” and ”To whom much has been given, much will be expected.”  Thus the pursuit of excellence became an integral part of the Western tradition, contributing much to its unique vitality. 

To my knowledge no one has doubted the propriety of pursuing excellence; after all who would want to recommend mediocrity?  No one, that is, until quite recently.  Welcome to the bizarre world of the middle school as revealed to us by Cheri Pierson Yecke in TheWar Against Excellence, the subtitle of which is The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools.   It’s the world of  brain periodization,” “brain-based curricula,” “identity development,” “detracking,” “untracking,” and “transescents.”  It’s a world where “progressive” educators know better than parents what’s best for their children (Parents aren’t  up to date on the latest findings in Ed. Psych.) and high ability students are urged to “succumb to peer pressure and strive not to achieve, or they will risk making their classmates look bad---and their actions might even go so far as to force the non-motivated students to work harder!”

            Dr. Yecke’s book, the fruit of seven years of research and writing, is not only a work of impeccable scholarship, it is an expose, guaranteed to make the blood boil of everyone who is interested in genuine education and the future of our country.  It is carefully organized, well written, and exceedingly well researched and documented.  (One chapter of 32 pages has 137 end notes; another of 22 pages has 130, and there are ten appendices.)  As Dr. Yecke says, it is a story that had to be told, and a story the basically tells itself through quotations from books, articles and papers delivered at conferences. 

The saga begins as Yecke, the mother of two academically talented daughters

and a middle school teacher herself, became disillusioned (to engage in understatement) with “self-proclaimed experts” and their “pseudo-wisdom” who turned the middle school into an “activist movement designed to force radical social changes, regardless of the values or desires of parents, students, or members of the community at large.”  Yecke returned to graduate school, and earned her doctorate so she could deal with the “so-called experts” as an equal.  And that is what she does in this tough, hard-hitting, and much needed book.

            The middle school made its debut in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  The National Middle School Association (NMSA) was founded in 1973.  To most citizens the  appearance of middle schools meant simply a new way of organizing the classes: 1-5, 6-8, 9-12 instead of the traditional 1-6, 7-8 and 9-12.  But for the champions of middle schools it was much more---it was a movement.  They saw, rightly of course, that a new structure is easier to change than an existing one.  Hence they planned to use, and have been using, the middle school as a “testing ground” to change, first the whole educational system, and then society itself.  As one prominent activist, Paul George, put it, the middle school has become “the focus of societal experimentation, the vehicle for movement towards increased justice and equality in the society as a whole.”  This involved de-emphasizing academic achievement and focusing on alleged personal and social needs of students.  As two “authorities” (Johnson and Markle) argue,  “By systematically applying attitude change techniques, the chances of developing desirable attitudes among middle school students can be improved.”   Professor George’s goals are even clearer: schools “are not about taking each child as far as he or she can go.  They’re about redistributing the wealth of the future.”

            In an attempt to justify the dumbing-down of the currriculum, the social engineers, starting in 1978, made use of a loony, mad scientist theory called “brain periodization.”  This first cousin of phrenology claims that “brain growth reaches a plateau around the ages of 12-14 at which time ‘the brain virtually ceases to grow.’”  Hence during this “learning plateau period” it was considered dangerous to introduce “new and challenging material” which could result in “negative neural networks to dissipate the energy of the [challenging] inputs.”  The NMSA “formally endorsed” this theory in 1981, and the theory reigned supreme for ten years.  Even after it was admitted in 1993 that “there is no supporting evidence” for it, its influence lingered on and lingers on even today, sustained by ideology but not by science.  Parents who complain of lack of rigor, low expectations, and student boredom are considered “difficult,” and papers are delivered at conferences advising teachers how to deal with them.

Meanwhile, the most able students, left high and dry and bored by the abolition of “ethically unacceptable” gifted and talented programs are kept busy with “cooperative learning” and peer tutoring.  The utopians did away with spelling bees and honor rolls (and in England musical chairs) hoping to breed “competition out of the next generation.”

Yecke reveals many more things that are being done by middle school educators (and one could add “progressive” educators in general) that are profoundly disturbing.  Let me list a few:  Their attempt to achieve social justice by “making everyone equal” (this means equal outcomes, not just equality of opportunity).  Their blanket condemnation of competition without distinguishing its different forms, some of which have great social and personal value.  Their disparagement of academic achievement.  Their use of cooperative learning to promote group identity  at the expense of individual identity.  Their romantic notions of human nature and their naïve utopianism.  And finally, their use of our children to advance their revolutionary social agenda.  It is sad to learn that the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Foundations have played a major role in all of this nonsense.

I conclude with a comment on a word and two observations.  There is in Latin an “inceptive verb suffix” which forms verbs that mean roughly “becoming.”  From the present participles of these verbs we derive adjectives such as luminescent, phosphorescent, obsolescent and recrudescent.  Middle school educators  added this suffix to the preposition/prefix trans- giving us a truly hideous neologism, “transescent,” a pre-adolescent.  (Every movement must have its jargon.)  After being given their own name, middle schools students were seen by at least one educator as a minority group, “neglected, stereotyped and at times exploited” and in need of empowerment.  Coining a words such as transescent is easy---a four-year-old could be called a studescent, a high school senior, a graduescent and a fifty-four-year old person a senescent, but we don’t need these words any more than we needed “transescent.”

            To be as fair as possible, it should be emphasized that Yecke’s book is a critique of what the educational theorists and activists, mostly professors of education, are proposing, rather than a report on what is actually going on in middle school classrooms across the country.  Fortunately, many (one hopes most) teachers, relying on common sense, intuition, and experience,  know enough to ignore the theories they were required to study while earning their certification.,  As E.D. Hirsch has said (and I’m sure Dr. Yecke would agree),  it is ideas that are the enemy, not people.  It is the half-baked theories of professors under pressure to publish that must be exposed, discredited, and rejected.

            Finally, I am only sorry that Chapter 9 on “Ethical Considerations” is so short

(eight pages long including notes).  Nevertheless the right issues are raised, e.g. “Does anyone have the right to use the public schools as laboratories for social experimentation?”  Federal regulations require “voluntary informed consent” from human subjects before experimentation can begin, and parental permission must be given before children can be used as guinea pigs.  “A massive social experiment” has been going on, and rank amateurs have been tinkering with the psyches of our children.  Especially hard hitting is the section on” Radical Advocacy Research”  in which researchers use subjects to advance their own revolutionary goals.  There are also serious “breach of trust” issues, but the ethics of all this calls for book length treatment.


            Finally, I’m sorry that the exorbitant price of this book ($50.00) will prevent many from reading it.  It is a book everyone should read.