I caught a bit of the latest 30 For 30 from ESPN last night. It was the story of the 1989 World Series and the San Francisco earthquake, which many of us watched live and in color on television. The rubble and destruction in the aftermath of that earthquake is an apt picture of our educational system. It has been rocked by a long-wave, slow earthquake the results of which are now plainly evident. In the 19th and 20 centuries educational theorists proposed a revolution in education, away from objective reality and toward a radical subjectivism. It took a long time for these theories to take root and to work out their results but it’s done now. 60 years ago the effects in American education were seen mainly in theoretical textbooks, trendy, urban or suburban schools, though hints of it were beginning to show. 40 years ago there were still teachers and administrators in the system who had not yet subscribed John Dewey’s “child-centered” and affective (“how does that make you feel?”) turn in education, so they retarded the progress of the revolution here and there. Here’s a potted summary of the effect of Dewey’s educational philosophy from an education site:
Student-centered philosophies of education emerged as a response to the limitations of traditional, authoritarian models of education. Instead of establishing schools as places where a fixed base of knowledge is passed from teachers to students, these philosophies encourage cooperation between students and teachers in order to find the best answers to questions facing modern-day learners. According to these philosophies—progressivism, social reconstructionism, existentialism—because the world is constantly changing, students should seek answers through hands-on, experiential learning.
Dewey was a “social progressive” (hint: Marxists love him) and pragmatist for whom education was a tool toward social revolution. Notice how, in the summary above, the notion that the adult in the classroom, who actually knows what he (or she) is doing, is no longer in charge. The idea that a teacher should stand in front of students and, well, teach, is “authoritarian” and is to be replaced by “cooperation” or what our Lord described as “the blind leading the blind.” Memorization of declensions and math tables have been replaced with “hands-on, experiential learning.” The consequences for mass education should be evident to even the casual observer.
Today there is virtually nowhere that the revolution has not taken effect, from big cities to small towns—graduates of teacher’s colleges often begin in smaller school districts effectively proselytizing for Dewey in rural America—and in every suburb in between. Still, one has the feeling that folk are not paying attention, that they’re not fully aware of what has happened, that school districts are absorbing and spending an ever-growing number of tax dollars, during longer school days, without actually educating in return. Who knows what grammar schools are doing now but they long ago gave up what they are meant to do: take advantage of the opportunity of young, willing, minds to memorize, to read, to write, to compute, and to begin to think clearly. That project is meant to continue through middle and high school. In university students are meant to read more deeply, to become thoughtful, intelligent citizens, to prepare to assume positions of leadership.
In reality, the primary and secondary systems today seem mainly concerned with inculcating into children a good self image and apparently the right number of fruits and vegetables. Colleges and universities have discovered that if they pound the drum about the necessity of a college education for financial stability (when, in reality university educations now prepare one for a career as a barista) they can rake in the cash by continuing to affirm the students’ self-esteem while not actually challenging them to learn or to think. Even those profs who want to challenge students cannot afford to do so. There’s too much money at stake. No prof can afford a bad rating on the web or on student evaluations. When the Apostle Paul spoke of the law as a “pedagogue” it invoked the image of a man with a switch in his hand. When the Apostle Paul went to school, students who didn’t memorize their lessons and repeat them correctly received, steady yourself, corporal punishment. Today, thanks to Dewey et al that switch has been replaced with a pillow. Students are now customers and they must be kept happy at all costs and those costs are rising.
There are alternatives. Andrew Canavan sent me a story the other day about Neville Gwynne, the 73-year old best-selling English author, who has come to the realization that the what we call primary and secondary education in England has collapsed. Educated at what we would call an elite prep school (they call them “Public Schools” but they aren’t public in the American sense) and Oxford, Gwynne now says that he wouldn’t send a child to Eton. He says,
Nowadays nobody knows what a noun is, and nobody knows when to use a comma and not to use a comma. When I was young, anybody, no matter what social rank, could write a perfectly spelled, perfectly paragraphed, perfectly punctuated letter of two or three pages….
This resonates with my experience. My grandparents were not highly educated but they could write letters. They used good grammar and punctuation. The education they did receive was effective. They were readers. My father received a better education through high school than most graduate students receive today. The truth is that college graduates, even from ostensibly elite institutions, are no less naturally able to learn than their predecessors but they are less prepared than their predecessors.
As the president likes to say, let me be clear. I understand that there are hard-working teachers out there doing their best and there are parents doing their best for their children. There are, however, serious, underlying philosophical and structural problems in the American educational system of which busy teachers and parents need to be aware. They are serious problems and the solutions to them are radical. Gwynne has embraced homeschooling. He acknowledges that it seems radical today but, judged against a longer historical curve, his approach is the norm rather than the exception. I understand that not everyone can homeschool their children and perhaps not everyone can do so but everyone can begin by realizing that the curriculum being used at their local school probably doesn’t have the same goals for their children that they do. Parents can realize that the people making decisions about their children’s education and welfare may not share their view of the world. Parents need to understand that a school is a pool of values and that pool has become polluted with ideas that are antithetical to a good education. So, it’s either time to get out of the pool or at the very least to rinse off your children when they come home and actively work to undo the mistakes that have been made over the last 7 or 8 hours in school.
What is encouraging about Gwynne is first that he has seen the problem. One cannot address a problem one does not or will not see. Second, he’s had to courage to believe his senses and to say something. One of the greater crimes of late modernity is that it has taught people not to believe their sense experience. Late (liquid) modernity has catechized us all in a sort of Gnosticism. People see real problems and universal sense perception (what we all generally experience as humans) tells them there is a problem but they defer to alleged experts and deny their own sense experience. The truth is, STOP still means stop. Dewey was wrong. He did not have your best interests nor the best interests of your child in mind when he proposed his radical agenda. What he had in mind was a utopian eschatology and, as always, grand plans are fatal for the little people. Just ask the Ukranian kulaks.
San Francisco rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and again after the World Series quake. The bridges of the educational philosophy and practice in this country have collapsed but we need not live among rubble. There are alternatives if we’re willing to understand what is happening and why and if we’re willing to do something about it.