"Oh, that's such an old complaint, people have always been saying the schools are failing, every generation repeats it.", which has some truth to it, but like the crack that 'It's not paranoia if people really are out to get you', if you look at the history of the school systems since we instituted them, they actually have been getting measurably worse and worse (by their own criteria) at delivering the Education they promised from the very start, and while progressively delivering less and less of the quality they promised, they've been doing more and more of what they weren't supposed to be doing unto us at all. That those failures have been occurring consistently, nationwide, over successive decades, is an indication that the problems with our school systems have far less to do with the incompetence or bad intentions (though, some of that surely exists, see previous post) of particular localities, administrators, teachers, students, or parents, than it has to do with the fundamental changes to why, what with, and how, we've expected our school systems to 'educate' our students.
Because the problem is systemic in nature, it can't be solved by trying to treat the endless series of bad effects it spawns as if they were isolated bugs to be fixed & forgotten. A consequence of not seeing that our school systems problems are inherent in its very design - in both theory and structure - is that we enable those fundamental flaws to hide safely behind the far more visibly distracting effects of 'we've gotta improve our reading and math scores!', and each such 'fix' leads to still worse problems, each inviting still further fixes, and all serving to make the system which actually caused them, to grow ever more stronger and entrenched. We've taken up that invitation and we've travelled so far down that path, that the actual problems have become more hidden, harder to identify, and easier to mistake as being problems of policy only - hence the ever growing number of gilded Band-Aids we've applied to the arterial bleeds in the quality of We The People's education.
To be fair, it wouldn't be easy to compare our traditional system of education, to the 'progressive' school systems that replaced it, even if we tried - and oh, we have tried. On this one issue, the problem doesn't come from the 'Progressive Education' side of the comparison, as they've always favored having as much of a uniform, centralized, common set of 'standards' as they could possibly get away with - that's their selling point, there's little to no difficulty finding schools that are representative of 'progressive' practices, to compare to the practices of traditional education. The problem comes from trying to find even a single representative example from the side of traditional education, that you'd compare it to. Even in those aspects you'd expect to be fairly easy to compare, in their books and so forth, what would you compare a Common Core 'Social Studies' textbook to....Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War"? de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America"? Even the textbook histories of the 1904 (I've got my Grandpa's school textbooks - here's a link to a later edition of the American History, and English History, which are already showing the 'progressive' factoid'izing of history, but are still vastly superior to what we have today ), were vastly different in form and quality and are not very comparable. And if we skipped over comparing the actual materials used, and tried comparing a measure of their respective results, such as with this often meme'd quiz from Salina, Kansas, in 1895 , that comparison would also leave you with a false impression (more on that in a moment).
|Is it just about the questions?
One of the problems is that even if you could find the graded quizzes used in that particular school, or even a list of the materials and lessons used in getting them, it was very likely not what was used in the next school down the road, let alone in the next town or state. And before you decide to score that as a point for the 'Progressive Education' side, it is extremely important to point out that that was not a bug, but a feature of the traditional system of education, and one of its most important and valuable features, at that. In each location, the individual parents and trusted advisers, in conjunction with the teachers they hired, decided upon what materials would be used, to what extent, and what results were expected of them, and that varied as much from location to location as the people in them did.
If that traditional feature still seems buggy to you, consider the cases of (picking a few names out of a very stuffed hat)... George Wythe, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederic Douglass... hugely well educated Americans such as these, came from wildly differing educations, which were drawn from widely varying materials and means, which were selected by their parents, or advisers (living or authored), as it seemed would be best suited to help them to achieve a common goal of becoming educated. Do you recall from a few years back when Finland was all the rage in 'how to do school!' circles (I touched on what usually went unsaid on that in this post, pay especial attention to the comments)? Funny thing about that, if you bothered to look past the meaningless distractions of giving teachers a 'professional salary', insurance, etc., and looked at what the teachers themselves said they actually did which made a difference in educating their students, they attributed it to teachers having full control over their classrooms, beginning with the material they chose to teach from (they had general cultural targets they had to prepare their students for, but weren't told what materials to use or how to get there), the only classroom tests they used were those they themselves devised, if and when they saw a need for it, and they had close one-on-one relationships with the student's parents, and the teacher had final say on who was disciplined, why and how, and who remained in their classes.
IOW, with at least some participation and consent from parents, their teachers were given the power to Teach by those with the proper power to give it to them, and their students, if they were willing, were able to learn. Predictably, shortly after the international spotlight fell upon them, and the proponents of centralization began to realize that a feature such as that was most definitely a bug in their systems, those conditions in Finland began to degrade. Similarly, go ask a teacher in your nearest school (public and even private) how free they are to select the materials, methods, tests & policies they'd prefer to teach to their students with (Hint: Not very).
While the material that was used by traditional educational methods could include classical texts, and/or various 'Primer's, and/or the Bible, and/or Shakespeare and/or a myriad of other options, the students who could and would learn to read and think through them, would learn through them to recognize what was admirable and what was tragic or despicable, as well as how to recognize what scenarios were more easily resolved with mathematical solutions and how to reach them and how to recognize the difference. By various non-standard means and materials, traditional schools gave students a familiarity with, and an interest in pursuing on their own, what Thomas Jefferson referred to as,
"...the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c...", which informed their understanding of their nation's history, culture, and government. They were able to do that because they weren't told through a rigid chain of command - of legislators, regulators, administrators - that micro-managed teachers & students on what to 'think' with, and how. Simply having the important goal to become educated, and not confusing that goal with meaningless distractions such as getting high test scores (a very recent, and poor, innovation of progressive school systems) or developing workforce or social 'skills', they - parents, teachers, students - were able to decide on the most effective means of reaching it. And as acquiring the basic elements of the Three R's ('reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic') were necessary, they were quickly gotten out of the way with simple, proven methods, so that the primary goal could be reached. The fact that our school systems fail so miserably at even imparting the basic abilities of the Three R's today - despite a century of their 'Top Men' devoting ludicrous amounts of time and resources to over-thinking how to remake the wheel into glitteringly dysfunctional blocks (see 'See & Say') - and even after making that secondary skill into a primary objective, our colleges routinely have to provide remedial classes in those basic skills to incoming students before they can begin any of their other classes.
That an endless series of 'school reform!'s have consistently failed to ensure that even college bound students have rudimentary abilities in basic skills (let alone the level of education those skills should have led them into), is telling you a lot about our school systems today - how closely are you listening?
And here we begin to see what is comparable between these two systems of education, and that is their approach to education. But before getting into those comparisons, first there's another matter we need to flesh out, which is what I hope you're wondering right now: "what do you mean by 'educated'?" I can't tell you how many people - including teachers, administrators, and politicians promising to 'fix things' - that I've stumped with that basic question. Would you go to a doctor who was unsure what was meant by Health, and couldn't tell you what the medicine he was prescribing you was, or why?
To thumbnail my answer to that once again, is that what I'm good with, generally speaking, is what was once understood as being the purpose of educating students, that being to help students develop into well informed individuals with an intellectually integrated understanding of the habits, knowledge and aims of Western Civilization (Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian), with a strong emphasis on striving to live up to its ideals of truth and justice, for the purpose of enabling a student to become a virtuous and independent person capable of living a good life, in a society blessed with liberty. A person so equipped was self-evidently a benefit to themselves & their community, because they tended to be more consciously capable of distinguishing, and choosing to do, what was wise and true. That, and not the schools they attended or degrees accumulated in them, that marked them as being Educated.
Having that goal - or not - is what most defines the two systems approach to education, and I think that will become more clear by asking a question about that oft meme'd quiz from 1895 Salina Kansas, and looking at two different answers to it:
'How many of us can even understand the questions that the Salina, KS quiz is asking, and why is that?', keep your response in mind a moment, as it'll make a good lens to view the matter through. I contend that there is one answer to that, and that to see it as being multiple problems that need to be fixed, means missing the systemic nature of the problem, and locks us into ever worsening results.
Giving us a fine example of missing the systemic for its effects, is Snopes's attempted 'debunking' of the Salina KS quiz. What's painfully obvious, in typical Snopes/Fact Checker style, is that they don't debunk the quiz at all, but instead only complain about it. They complain that those who promote it only do so in order to make us all feel '...dumber than an eighth grader...', and then they take the modern pivot of faulting the quiz for all that it doesn't cover. That's an important point, and a big clue to the systemic problem involved: Their 'debunking' is reflective of the 'progressive' belief that school should 'teach' students everything that they think might be useful to know, and what student's should & shouldn't think about it with, and that teaching students a lessor quantity of those 'things', means they've received a lesser quality of education, which is simply not so. Quantity does not equal, or create, Quality.
That 'Pragmatically Progressive' approach towards useful effects, random and un-integrated facts, socialized approval, and various & sundry useful skills, led us in our initial turn to using education to accomplish numerous other goals than actual education (which goes at least back to Rousseau), and soon ceded more and more ground to the immediate benefits of teaching 'useful skills' to students so they could go out and get a 'good job' sooner and boost the economy. That ushered in the full 'Progressive Education' which began to deliberately, not just turn our focus away from the ideals that America was formed from (and which formed its Founders), but to actively oppose them. Information Skills without the wisdom to employ them well, is a dangerous plan - see the fires in our streets for reference - and yet it forms the nucleus of our school systems.
That approach of seeking to cram minds full of useful facts, and a failure to differentiate between the higher or lower value of the information peddled without concern for wisdom, invokes an educational equivalent of Gresham's Law ('Bad money drives out good') and is what first progressively inflated our school systems' curriculum with extraneous subjects of Home Economics, 'Health', Civics, which led to woodworking, shop & automotive class, and a series of still more irrelevant classes, until the perennial point of 'falling test scores!' reached maximum volume, and those classes (some of which were at least somewhat useful) were dropped, and those classes which had originally begun as having some value and relation to what had been taught in traditional education, and had already been gutted to make room for the 'useful' classes, were then stuffed full of random 'noteworthy' trivia that could be drilled in and scanned for in a relentless series of testing, all of which means packing heads with ephemeral information without wisdom, in order to nudge up test scores and unwisely expand and entrench the school systems even further.
The traditional approach, OTOH, intended only to equip their students with those fundamentals that they truly needed to know, in order to be able to learn and do whatever else they would find worthwhile later in life, and to want to continue doing so, long after they'd left school behind.
And that brings us around to what the actual problem is - the nature of our school system itself.
The process of our slipping further and further from focusing on delivering those traditional capabilities, is what people have been complaining about for generations, and each attempt to fix the problem has failed, because the problem is that in treating the effects, rather than their causes, we cause still more & more of its effects. Central to the actual problem inherent in our schools systems, is the fact that the cause which our our forebears created them to address, wasn't Education!
Our first school systems were created to assuage the fears which the proto-progressives had about the new immigrants flooding into the country (you know, the dreaded Irish, Italians & Slavs, who jarred their uniform sensibilities), which prompted them to propose forming a mandatory system of uniform, centralized, school systems, with which to control and shape the populace - in the 1830's, and that's how old the complaint is that our school systems are failing our students and our nation.
Almost immediately, people attempted to repeal the new school system's structures, but it was too late, as I noted in this post:,
"...Only three years after Massachusetts created their first school board as an entity with the political power to 'oversee' their already existing system of public education, some state representatives, such as Allen W. Dodge, saw what was happening, saw where it would lead, and attempted to put an end to it. As you can see from this snippet of his reaction then, their concerns then, weren't too far from our concerns now:Of course the new schools were supposed to continue teaching students what they would have learned in traditional education, but as the purpose for doing so had changed, the process became one that was performed more for appearances sake, as cover for doing what they were primarily intended to do: Rid students of their 'otherness', and reform them, and their parents, into a more uniform and controllable people. What that 'otherness' was, has shifted wildly over the nearly two centuries from then to now, from the 1830's creation of school boards & districts to control and change unfamiliar immigrants into more useful people, to the post-Civil War Morrill Act's efforts to 'educated the rebelliousness out of them' and put their focus on job skills, to the 'Progressives' who wanted to reshape and reform Americans into what they thought would be a new & improved model of humanity, or the other typical pretexts of "We need to keep up with the new century!...We need to keep up with the Germans!... We need to keep up with the Russians!... We need to keep up with the Japanese!... We need to keep up with the new century!...", our school systems' powers have grown, and have greatly intensified since the opening of the 20th Century, but their goal at least, has not changed in the least.
“After all that has been said about the French and Prussian systems, they appear to your Committee to be much more admirable, as a means of political influence, and of strengthening the hands of the government, than as a mere means for the diffusion of knowledge. For the latter purpose, the system of public Common Schools, under the control of persons most interested in their flourishing condition, who pay taxes to support them, appears to your Committee much superior. The establishment of the Board of Education seems to be the commencement of a system of centralization and of monopoly of power in a few hands, contrary, in every respect, to the true spirit of our democratical institutions; and which, unless speedily checked, may lead to unlooked-for and dangerous results.”[emphasis added]Sadly, they failed to discontinue the imported experiment of politicizing public education, which is exponentially worse today (still, there's no time like the present to correct an old mistake). I highly recommend reading his full report "Report on the expediency of abolishing the Board of Education and the Normal Schools".
With political power established, the new purposes of 'educational systems', began to leap from the state level, to the national level, through a number of national education reform efforts, such as The Morrill Act (1863) which established a Federal role in education, and set up the first prototype for the Dept of Education, as well as what I noted above, the NEA's "Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education" (1913), which set about to dumb down, the already pro-regressively stunted, though vastly superior recommendations, of the earlier "Report of the Committee of Ten", under the chairmanship of Harvard's president, Charles Eliot, in 1893, which they found to be too concerned with content and ideas...."
That primary non-educational goal has led to nearly two centuries of complaints about the poor quality of our schools and their graduates, and they fail even in that for many of the same reasons that authoritarian & socialist efforts lead to police states with little freedom, and markets with a poor quality of products, and vast shortages - it's not because their people are unintelligent, but because the very nature of their systems will not allow liberty and quality to flourish. The Top-Down, centralized, uniform, series of 'standards' and orders, prevent individuals from thinking and acting upon their ideas, and so they eliminate freedom, and deliver little more than an abundance of chaos.
Not only are teaching those traditional timeless principles and truths not the purpose of our school systems today, they couldn't be achieved within today's school systems even if they tried, as a century's worth of reform efforts have surely proven. Education is neither a scientific experiment nor an industrial product nor a tool of societal reform; it cannot be measured on scales or in beakers and cannot be produced in a factory using uniform materials, methods, tools and shift schedules, and no amount of strategic changes can make that so. It requires intelligent people with an achievable goal in mind, who are able to think and act as they see is best, and understand that they are responsible for their choices and actions.
And so after decades of buying time by laughing off people's concerns and fears about our school systems, we've actually reached a point today where transmitting those timeless principles and truths are no longer even pretended to be the purpose which schools are understood to exist for - not even just for appearances sake - to the point that today parents are even warned against listening to their students lessons, or again even to tutor their children so that they don't fall behind.
The problems caused by our school systems may have been less apparent two hundred years ago, but they've been inherent in the nature of the system since its start, and only needed today's circumstances to draw their worse effects out into the open. Their combination of cause & effect has naturally, and swiftly, devolved into the politically correct grab bag of vapid virtue signaling that can be found on the 'About' pages of just about any school or school district's website. Again, this is less an issue of teachers and other people involved in the process (though there's blame to go around there as well), than it has to do with the nature and design of the systems itself.
It is not a healthy system and neither teacher nor student, should be sent back into it.
The 'Old Complaint' is an ongoing threat
The 'old complaint' about schools failing, was, seen over time, the incremental shockwaves of the progressive loss of one layer after another, of what made us civilized Americans of Western Civilization. While at the time people snickered that:
"Not knowing the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, isn't the end of the world!", and of course it wasn't. Neither was it when they next said,
"Not knowing the names of the Presidents, isn't the end of the world!"None of those alone was 'the end of the world!', but just as the old saw about the man who, falling off the top of the Empire State Building, is heard to call out: "So far, so good!" as he falls past each floor, such an optimistic focus upon the moment, is misplaced. All of those facts and ideals which we've progressively lost, one after the other, across time, has meant the end of that world which America could exist in and be understood by Americans. The loss of why and how we once educated ourselves, has progressively transformed us from being an America where our youth were expected to help the elderly cross the street, into an America where it is not unexpected to see our youth berate and even assault the elderly for attempting to cross the street, to which a large number of 'Americans' will applaud.
, nor was,
"Not knowing the Declaration of Independence, isn't the end of the world!"
, nor was,
"Not knowing the Constitution, isn't the end of the world!"
, nor was,
"Not knowing how to read, isn't the end of the world!"
, nor was,
"Not knowing the details of history, isn't the end of the world!"
, nor was,
"Not knowing how to add, subtract, multiply & divide, isn't the end of the world!"
, nor was,
"Not knowing the proper use of grammar, isn't the end of the world!"
, nor was,
"Not knowing proper manners, isn't the end of the world!"
That is what the world looks like, when those purposes, ideals, knowledge and habits are lost to those inhabiting it.
The nature and means of the ideas of schooling that we've saddled ourselves with today, as a result of its non-educational designs, has been the cause of those effects that are disintegrating the whole of what was once understood to be important to be taught and learned. Such means and purposes as these, were and are the very means of detouring teachers and students alike from doing what they once did and should still do. Where we are now, is only the hell that all such roads eventually lead people with little more than good intentions, to.
So stop already.
I would not send a child, or a teacher, to school today. Period. Why would you?