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Democracy in the Schoolroom

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Tags EducationFree MarketsMedia and CultureInterventionism

08/12/2009Fred DeArmond

[Editor - this article appeared in print in 1953]

Progressive education is not a new idea. Jean Jacques Rousseau experimented with it in the eighteenth century, but his startling succession of illegitimate children proved too much of a handicap to get his notions accepted; in the nineteenth century a Swiss preacher, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, declared: "We ought to read nothing; we ought to discover everything," and he set up an experimental school to carry out this theory; and an Italian woman doctor named Maria Montessori developed a system of education in Rome which is now widely known as the Montessori Method.

In each case the object was the same: to give the child freedom and the opportunity to learn "spontaneously." It was a reaction against the hickory-stick, learning-by-rote system that made schooling an ordeal.

How far it has come since then may be judged from the experience of a parent in California who recently visited her small son's school. She found about forty children in the classroom howling and shouting and rushing about like bedemoned elves. "We're having a spelling contest," the teacher informed her. "It's a relay race: each team carries the letters."

Another worried parent visited the teacher because her daughter after four years at school couldn't seem to do the simplest form of addition. "There's nothing wrong," she was assured. "Just wait until the child feels the need." But the bland assurance did not still the mother's misgivings.

The progressive education movement in America began with the philosopher John Dewey. Dewey and his followers believed that education should be tied more closely to the business of living, and that the schoolroom should be as nearly as possible society in miniature. They held that the natural impulses of children could be given more rein; a child develops best, they claimed, if he tastes a great deal of victory and very little of defeat.

From this beginning there grew up at Teachers College, Columbia University, a small group called the "Frontier Thinkers," men dedicated to the Dewey doctrine. Conspicuous names in the group were William Heard Kilpatrick, George S. Counts, Goodwin Watson, Jesse Newlon, Harold Rugg, and George W. Hartmann. They were fervent disciples of reform, and their influence was profound.

The reforms they advocated proved heady ideas for inexperienced or inept teachers, and in the hands of school administrators they could all too easily be carried to unwise and perverted extremes. That, in fact, is just what happened. It was John Dewey's misfortune that the teaching profession followed his innovations not wisely but too well.

Diet of Lollypops

The Deweyites preached that education should be made a pleasant diversion for the students instead of an onerous task, and in time an incredulous lay public learned from its pedagogues of the emotional value of such things as spitball throwing. Children were placed on an intellectual diet of lollypops. As one dissident teacher put it: "There has been a too enthusiastic irrigation of a dry curriculum. Some of us have become little more than professional baby-sitters."

Emphasis away from the essential skills — the three R's — allowed young minds to grow up in a wilderness of weeds. Old-fashioned teachers had insisted on the value of discipline, both mental and moral. When discipline as an educational cornerstone was abandoned, the drill feature was taken out of education. But it turned out that without drilling the average student did not learn to read, write, spell, or figure with facility.

Contrary to the promise of the reformers, these accomplishments did not come spontaneously and easily. Maria Montessori had said that at four years of age a child would effortlessly learn to read, at five he should be dabbling in algebra, and at six extracting cube roots. It just didn't work out that way. In fact, if this failure is not corrected, the three R's may have to be given a place in college curricula. Without these basic tools of learning, higher education is stymied.

On the moral side the results have been equally unfortunate. The old-fashioned school was a sort of replica of life, with the teacher personifying the kind of law and authority which eventually all citizens must recognize. With the coming of what the innovators called "democracy" to the schoolroom, the pupils grew up with an entirely false impression of life. After years of doing as he pleased a young man went to find a job or was drafted into the armed forces, and for the first time ran head-on into discipline and authority. It was a shock.

Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, where the "new" movement originated, reacted strongly against it. It was difficult for him to understand how any such "preposterous doctrine'" ever received a hearing, he declared.

"The plan of action, or rather non-action, would in its extreme form first of all deprive the child of his intellectual, social, and spiritual inheritance, and put him back in the Garden of Eden to begin all over again the life of civilized man. He must be asked to do nothing which he does not like to do. He must be taught nothing he does not choose to learn. He must not be subject to discipline in good manners and sound morals."

Dr. Robert Hutchins, when he was President of the University of Chicago, likewise attacked the tenets of progressive education — in particular, its "democratic" tendency to serve the same mental menu to those of high, low, and medium capacity. The revolt grew to such proportions that Mrs. Isabelle Buckley in Los Angeles attracted nation-wide attention with her "no nonsense" private school, where she went back to fundamentals and required her pupils to work as well as play.

Power Politics in Education

But there was an even more dangerous aspect to the "progressive" movement. Along with their revolutionary methods of teaching, the Frontier Thinkers coupled strongly socialist or collectivist ideas.

At a meeting held at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1933, with Harold Rugg as chairman, power politics was first injected into education. The profit system was asserted to be an excrescence on the body politic, as John Dewey had long believed it to be. At that meeting the Progressive Education Association was made a conscious instrument for attacking the existing system with the object of introducing a new social order in the United States.

Plans for a new curriculum and a new policy of indoctrination in the classroom were evolved. Social studies were to be the propaganda vehicle, the medium for the new short cut to implant "social consciousness" in pupils. Instead of the disciplines of biology, physics, and chemistry, a mongrel subject called "general science" took its place on the curriculum. Civil government, economics, and history also fell before the onslaught.

Nor were these men mealy-mouthed about the means they proposed to use. "I believe we can work with the Communists and at other times with the socialists," Dr. Newlon suggested. Dr. Rugg proceeded with a series of textbooks and teachers' manuals, which through widespread distribution in school systems subtly sought to discredit the traditional free-market economy in this country.

The group penetrated the previously conservative National Education Association, which later announced officially that "dying laissez-faire must be completely destroyed." So efficiently did P.E.A. go about it's self-appointed reform task that the British radical Socialist Harold Laski congratulated the organization on its educational program for a socialist America. "It could be implemented in a society only where socialism was the accepted way of life," he said, "for it is a direct criticism of the ideas that have shaped capitalistic America."

Leveled by Ignorance

How far this political indoctrination has been successful we do not yet know, but we do have means of discovering what the effects of progressive education have been with regard to education itself.

The Gallup Poll reports that nearly forty percent of adult Americans do not know what a tariff is; one in four has not the faintest idea of the meaning of inflation; the term "filibuster" is Greek to half the nation's voters; to two-thirds of them, "jurisdictional strike" is meaningless; only four out of ten know what the Electoral College is. Even more surprising, in view of the modern vogue of travel, is the ignorance of college students about the geography of their country.

Less than half of the students examined by a New York Times reporter in a recent survey had even an approximate idea of the population of the United States. Only seventeen percent could name the states through which one would pass in traveling by the most direct route from Minneapolis to Seattle.

The final indictment of education today is that it has produced a generation that is uncritical of easy panaceas and a ready prey to the demagogue. There appears to be no correlation between the extent of a citizen's education and his resistance to popular fallacies. It is as easy to sell a "bill of goods" to the college man as to the half-literate laborer in the cotton rows.

John Dewey thought he had found a short cut to a system that would train students to think. It has not worked. Says Canon Bernard Iddings Bell: "The products of our schools, for the most part, are incompetent to think and act intelligently, honestly, and bravely in this difficult era." Surely no more sweeping indictment of progressive education could be uttered.

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