Commentary

Cautionary Admonitions From Our Educational Past

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

To a remarkable degree, practice in schools in the 1980's still owes much of its source to the rhetoric of progressivism in education first popularized in the first half of the 20th century. No one today would be likely to describe a comprehensive high school with its variegated curriculum, its moveable classroom desks, and its acceptance of the limited authority of the teachers as a school following the canons of progressive education. Nonetheless, the practices in today's American high schools that receive so much criticism in the works of John Goodlad, Ernest Boyer, or Diane Ravitch, or in the various reports issued in 1983, are embodiments of progressivism in education gone amuck.

Probably no finer education could be imagined for a child than progressive education at its best. Under those circumstances, an intelligent, informed, creative, and sympathetic teacher guided children individually and in groups through academic material in ways that triggered their interest and imagination, and led to their ultimate understanding of the subject, its structure, and its significance. Most of us would seek such an education for our children. But too often--in fact, mostly--the progressive education practiced so pervasively in the period after World War II was not at its best, not fully achieved.

Progressive education, partially achieved, was a disaster for two reasons: First, it focused upon the child and the perceived needs and interests of the child, thereby galvanizing the iron cloak of race, class, ethnicity, and sex as determinants of the child's future; second, it minimized mastery of traditional subject matter as significant, thereby eliminating the prime educational means by which children could achieve a future, if they chose, different from the circumstances into which they had been born.

Recognizing individual differences was a hallmark of progressive rhetoric; but too often, hidden under the guise of such recognition of individualism was in fact a reinforcement of expectations associated not with the individual child but with the child's race, sex, and socioeconomic circumstances. If a child was learning to read slowly, and that child came from a poor or minority family, he or she was likely to be placed in the "slow track," where in all likelihood that child would remain--regularly slipping farther and farther behind his or her agemates in school. It was expected that minority children often did not do well in school, and there was plenty of evidence from psychologists and psychometricians documenting the lower scores on "objective tests" of blacks and Hispanics. In such circumstances, concern for the child led not to increased learning but to acceptance of expected poor performance.

The explanation for poor performance was rarely in terms of the inadequacy of the child, for that would have been too damning, but rather in terms of the inadequacy of the child's environment. "Culturally deprived" was the euphemism used. Somehow we did not find it as damning to blame a society that permitted people to live in poverty without hope as we did to blame the individual. We simply did not set expectations as high for some children as for others. Thus, concern for the welfare of the child, which could have been enormously liberating, became a constriction. Yet as late as 1970, a person as well-established as the Yale University scholar Charles A. Reich provided support for this notion of individuality, apparently oblivious to the social factors that impinge upon educational opportunities: "Each person has his own individuality," he wrote in The Greening of America, "not to be compared to that of anyone else. Someone may be a brilliant thinker, but he is not 'better' at thinking than anyone else, he simply possesses his own excellence. A person who thinks very poorly is still excellent in his own way."

This notion of individuality became the late-20th-century academic rationale for following the 1908 recommendation of Harvard University President Charles William Eliot that schools sort children according to "evident or probable destinies." Such popular expressions gave school people confidence that they were not damaging children's opportunities by focusing their attention upon the child.

Certainly, focus upon the child should be a component of education, but this focus must be perceived as a necessary but not sufficient condition for that child's education. When the antithesis of child-centered is adult-centered--that is, schools organized for the benefit of the adults in them rather than the children--then the focus on children is clearly appropriate. A child who is hungry cannot learn arithmetic easily; a child who is psychologically troubled will find it difficult to study anything attentively. School people are correct in observing that the children who come to them today to be educated are more difficult to educate than those whom they saw in the past. The reasons are relatively simple; they did not see the difficult ones in the past because they dropped or were pushed out of school.

One of the few canons that progressive educators agreed on was their antipathy to the tyranny of traditional subject matter. They were "anti-subject-centeredness," as they frequently asserted. Sometimes the antithesis of child-centered was not adult-centered, but rather subject-centered. Certainly, being child-centered in the school was absolutely consistent with being opposed to being subject-centered. In fact, the former necessitated the latter.

Progressive educators' hostility to academic subject matter was understandable in an age of extensive memorization of miscellaneous and sometimes erroneous information. By the mid-20th century, however, the consensus about what the curriculum ought to include was gone. To continue to be hostile to subject matter was no longer a valid corrective to a narrow view of significant knowledge. Rather, it was an abdication of professional responsibility. Surely, one of a professional educator's primary obligations is to determine what children need to learn in school.

Insofar as we have had in recent years an alternative rationale for education other than the child-centered, anti-subject-centeredness of the progressives, it might be equality of opportunity. Much of the rhetoric of the 1960's was filled with that phrase. But equality of opportunity, however vital a concept, does not address the internal pedagogical and organizational questions of schooling. If equality of opportunity means that poor black children and rich white ones can both attend a school in which they take courses that will help them adjust to life according to their probable destinies, then the disparities in genuine educational opportunity remain great.

For equality of opportunity to become real, the content of the curriculum available to all children must enable and encourage them to become more than they thought they could be. The essence of opportunity is not the ability to meet one's probable destiny but an increase in the options available to a child. The essence of the curriculum must be to expand the children's understanding of the world so that their destinies may be truly chosen, not simply a consequence of their circumstances of birth. Some may choose their "evident or probable destiny," and for them as well as for those who choose an improbable destiny the curriculum will be one that expands, not limits, their horizons.

Such a curriculum is likely to require mastery of English, familiarity with and understanding of well-written and difficult pieces of literature, mathematical reasoning, principles and practical examples of scientific accomplishments, knowledge of the past, the arts, and possibly a foreign language. The pedagogy for accomplishing these demanding requirements will vary greatly among children, but the variance needs to be with the pedagogy, not with the rigor or content of the curriculum.

Traditionally, when we have felt obligated to teach children for whom academic learning did not come easily, we have modified the curriculum to make it easier or, as Mr. Eliot urged, appropriate for their probable destiny. That tactic needs to be changed. The curriculum needs to remain constant, but the pedagogy of teaching must be altered. The responsibility needs to shift from the student to the teacher. Instead of modifying the curriculum to fit the child, now we need to modify the pedagogy, the teacher's task, to meet the child's learning style. The curriculum, filled with the subjects that do endure and do enlighten a child, needs to remain. The means of teaching it to all children will vary.

When we consider suitable goals for our schools and appropriate means of implementing them, we need also to recognize six cautionary admonitions from our educational past.

1. Even if a statement of educational purpose attracts interest and support, its acceptance in the schools as a guide for educational practice will take a long time.

Clearly, such new ideas will be accepted in some schools sooner than in others, but the overall pattern of educational practice in America is resistant to change, as Larry Cuban has recently documented in the May 1984 Harvard Education Review. Such reluctance to accept change is probably, in the last analysis, a good thing because it has prevented us as a nation from adopting some foolish novelties.

Paul Mort, a professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College during the progressive heyday, once observed that educational ideas typically take 50 years to gain acceptance in schools. This time lag means that the goals and priorities for the schools require a timeless quality and should not be specifically limited to the realities of the period in which the reform is proposed. Such timelessness is difficult to achieve, particularly with the specificity we have sought for educational reform. Aristotle's moral and intellectual virtue has the timelessness but not the specificity.

2. Any statement of educational desideratum must not depend for its success upon its full and total implementation.

The nature of practice is that full achievement of the ideal is rarely, if ever, achieved. Therefore, a goal cannot be one that depends for its worth on its full implementation. Rather, it must also be worthy if, as is most likely, it is only partially achieved. That was one fundamental lesson to be learned from progressive education. At its best, which rarely occurred, it was superb; given partial acceptance, which was more widespread, it was woefully deficient. Conversely, the classical, traditional curriculum, while offering less opportunity for individuality and creativity for students when only taught in a mediocre manner, nonetheless leaves a child with a residue of knowledge that is beneficial.

3. As we consider educational goals and purposes, we need to be sensitive to the balance between educational aspirations that will primarily benefit the youngster and those that will principally benefit the society.

Clearly, in many instances both will benefit, but both must be considered separately. For example, the ardent nationalism of Benjamin Rush expressed itself when he urged in Essays on Education in the Early Republic, "Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property," and "I consider it possible to convert men into republican machines." That is as excessively societal as the "do-your-own-thing" narcissism of the last decade.

4. All who set goals for the schools need to recognize schools as the limited, though important, institutions that they are.

Schools are not fundamental agents for reorganizing the society, redistributing income, or even providing the love and care that each child requires. Their function is limited. They ought to be able to instruct children, but the efforts of the school cannot supplant those of a hostile community or family environment. Fortunately, most families and communities are not in violent conflict with the schools, but where they are, such as in a community that has a strong commitment to school athletics rather than academic learning, the school will have a difficult time insisting on its priorities against those of the community. That is one reason it is extremely important for there to be community agreement about the fundamental purposes of schooling, sentiment that is now rare. Education is a far larger matter than schooling, and those who are professionally responsible for the former need clarity and support for the narrower goals of schooling.

5. We now know much more about education and how children learn and how teachers can be effective in aiding student learning than we previously knew.

The gains from research in education, psychology, cognitive science, and the neurosciences are still largely in the monographs, texts, and minds of the researchers. They are not in the practice of the educators but they need to be, for the educational expertise that is now available can be of monumental help as new and appropriate demands are made upon school people to assure children's learning.

6. New goals and purposes for education must involve educators.

If we have learned one thing from the implementation research of the last two decades, it is that top-down reforms undertaken without the participation of those who must carry them out are doomed to failure.

Discussion about either curriculum or pedagogy is vacuous unless we have some agreement about why we educate. Only then can we have some basis for decisions about what the curriculum ought to be and how it should be taught to the children. Therefore, we must break the silence about our rationale for education. Vital as it is to improve the curriculum and to modify the pedagogy so that all can learn, thus making equality of opportunity a reality and not a sham, we must also be able to enunciate what our purpose of education is. Especially, we need to be able to say to schools what their special function is.

We Americans, who are appropriately vociferous in our critiques of education generally and the schools particularly, need to come to fundamental agreement about what we want our schools to do. In reaching that agreement, one group of Americans has a particular responsibility to participate in that discussion. They are professional educators: teachers, principals, superintendents, professors, and college and university administrators. They all need to participate actively in that discussion, providing the expertise about both the vision of education and the means of implementing it that they uniquely have.

Vol. 04, Issue 19, Page 24, 19

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented