Saturday, August 15, 2020

Schools are closed: Why undo the only bright spot in 2020? - Education or School Systems pt 1

Back to school time? Really?! Don't get me wrong, there are few things more important to our lives and society than getting a good education, and conversely, few things that are more harmful to our lives and society than having a bad education. Yes... there's a 'but' coming, but it has nothing to do with the Coronavirus/Covid19, lockdowns or masks, and everything to do with an abundance of evidence that our school systems, even by their own criteria, have been producing progressively more students who are badly educated, in both rich & poor schools across the nation, and are doing so despite ever expanding systems and rising funding for them. What this indicates is that this issue is not solely a fault of particular parties, administrators, programs, teachers or parents, but is something that is systemic to our school systems as a whole - and that's traceable back to an error we made over a century ago. Mindful that people 'are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable' and will ignore such facts and their consequences for as long as they are able to, I hereby declare my unpopular opinion:
Schools being closed has been the best & brightest spot of 2020 - why on earth would you want to reverse that?
If my opinion shocks you more than the facts that gave rise to it, it seems to me that should shock you about yourself even more, for given the importance of an education, isn't it foolish to expect good education to come from an inherently bad educational system, and even worse to persist in ignoring and promoting it? Whatever feelings you may have on the matter, I strongly suggest that you take this time to give careful consideration to the nature of our nation's school systems, and to whether or not they are fit to send either students or teachers back into, and why.

Assuming that what you mean by Education, is something more than getting a 'skilz certificate' for the job market, what's more important to a good education than test grades, is that it conveys an essential body of knowledge and general understanding which aims that student towards living a life worth living, and equips them with the intellectual means for living it well (does your school do that? These closures have seen alternatives to private and home school springing up across the nation and perhaps involving teachers you already know and trust in the form of Micro-Schools, and more, which can do that). A bad education, OTOH, requires only that students be led to misidentify a handful of good ideas as being inconsequential or even bad, or that bad ideas be misidentified as being good, to aim them towards preferences which conflict with or contradict important general truths. Do only that, and no matter how many good grades, test scores and degrees they get, the arrow of those student's lives will, over time, veer further and further from their proper target (does your school (hello '1619 Project', Common Core, etc...) do that?).

Of course I recognize that the unexpected closure of our school systems is without doubt posing a great disturbance and inconvenience to most, yet it's nevertheless a rare and great opportunity to correct the mistaken experiment that We The People instituted into our school systems over a century ago, and as the opportunities to correct errors such as that are so very rare, we should take advantage of it now, while the current crop of experimenter's ambitions are surprisingly (and temporarily) aligned with our own best interests - keep our students and teachers out of the schools!

The mistake I'm referring to here, was a spectacularly costly one we made in altering the nature of our school systems at the opening of the 20th Century. The fact that we chose to do so - with the very best of intentions - doesn't alter the fact that what we chose, has subjected generations of our students to an unwise experiment; one which the Pied Piper of Progressivism, John Dewey, termed an experiment in a more 'progressive education',
"...The school is often called an experimental school, and in one sense that is the proper name. I do not like to use it too much, for fear parents will think we are experimenting upon the children, and that they naturally object to. But it is an experimental school—at least I hope so—with reference to education and educational problems...."
, and the high school and college graduates and in many cases even teachers, who are currently burning up our cities and tearing down our statues, should be evidence enough that the experiment has gone horribly wrong, and so we should take this opportunity to end it and, repeat after me: keep the schools closed!

Though those particular effects may have been unintended, what Dewey and his fellow 'Progressives' (and he was only the most recognizable face of a large movement) intended their experiment to accomplish, was - flowery language and aspirations aside - to de-emphasize (read: progressively phase out) the methods, memories, habits and ideals that Western Civilization in general, and America in particular had developed from, from the minds of those currently living in that same civilization and under its finest system of government. Well, in case you're curious, what a person is like once they've had most of their knowledge and regard for the manners, morals and civic responsibility typified by traditional Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, removed from them, it turns out they look a lot like people who'd riot in the streets and beat people for disagreeing with them. The reformation of our school systems was a mad and dangerous experiment to perform, but Dewey and his fellow Pro-Regressives (what else do you call people who promote reverting to barbarism?) were full of confidence and lacking in any fear that their good intentions could possibly go wrong - something which someone who paid more attention to history might've called hubris. Thomas Jefferson, for one, would have warned, did warn us, that it is a dangerous matter for a people to become ignorant of who they are and where they came from, because ,
"...If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be..."
Jefferson had urged the importance not only of passing on vital knowledge to the next generation, but also of setting up a suitable system for the transmitting of it, that would keep the schools, their content, and the control of them, as close to those utilizing them as possible (best described by a later term, 'Subsidiarty', where decisions should be made at the lowest possible level or closest to where they will have their effect), as he saw both to be vitally important to providing a good education. And while he did propose to use government to establish a system for creating and maintaining schools (and I'm uneasy with even that), but he did not intend for govt to be involved in education itself, as he was intently focused upon having a limited government, and an educated citizenry's role in how to preserve both, as he put it: "...I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength..."::
"...“1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it.”....”
The 'Progressives', OTOH, opposed both of his points. They preferred consolidation to subsidiarity - it is a feature of their systems, not a bug, that the 'local school districts' they lured the people in with, have consolidated down from 117,108 school districts across the nation in 1939, to just 14,176 in 2014, even as our population has tripled in size. They also much preferred to focus their attentions upon developing 'socialized skills', over giving 'too much' attention to the quality of a students knowledge, for as Dewey often put it,
"...The mere absorption of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness..."
... remember that the next time you see one of those videos of college kids who don't know who America fought in the Revolutionary War or why but are all about a 'Green New Deal', do try to feel thankful that their ignorance was acquired 'unselfishly'. /sarc

The 'Progressives' intentions were from the start, to turn our attention away from, not only those republican ideals of limiting government's powers to upholding & defending individual rights, but away from the system which had made transmitting such 'facts and truths' to the next generation possible. Their new 'Progressive' system, which was very different from the nature of the schools that preceded it, no longer put as much stock in the 'facts and truths' of history, ethics & literature, or in having a solid foundation in how history developed through them - neither did it give much concern to what thoughts such a student was likely to be able to have that would be worth thinking, or worth thinking with, without a command of those 'facts and truths'. If you are one of those who want to keep the schools open, it's worth asking yourself, especially today, whether school systems that leave students without that deeper knowledge, and especially of the fundamentals, does it seem more likely that the thinking of those students it produces would be grounded in sound & solid truths, or serve as a means of echoing popular (to who?) slogans and feelings?

Isn't the answer to that what is all around us today?

But at the opening of the 20th Century, such concerns were still easily brushed off as being too fearfully traditional, too reactionary, to bother with. Reformers such as John Dewey, in his "The School and Society" (1900), dismissed people's concerns about doing away with what were understood to be the foundations of the traditional approach to education, with a patronizing sniff, noting that
"... first three years of a child in school are spent upon the form—not the substance—of learning, the mastering of the symbols of reading, writing, and arithmetic. There is not much positive nutriment in this...."
They recommended against instilling those habits of concentration and persistence, which traditional education taught students early on in order to unlock a lifetime of ability and interest in continuing their own education after leaving school, in favor of a more pleasing strategy of constantly stimulating and cajoling a child's attention (little short of begging for the child's approval) to their teacher's lessons. By means such as these, the student's mind which should have been inclined towards the consideration and reflection which deepens knowledge & understanding, was progressively led in a very different direction through various steps, short-cuts and follow-the-dots exercises, that lead the student around the bare surface of what they 'know', not finding 'selfish' interest and satisfaction in their knowledge, but doing what pragmatically 'worked' in getting the right responses and answers to satisfy someone else's questions; little different from awarding ribbons and scores for performing factoidial scavenger hunts.

The 'Progressive' is less interested in:
Johnny, after being taught and reading from quality material about the American Revolution, finds himself shaking his head and wondering:
'What must have gone through Washington's mind in leading his men to cross over the frozen Delaware, to attack the best soldiers in the world...?!',
than in getting 'scientifically' measurable results, such as:
Johnny, after being given a worksheet for the 'Social Studies: 'America!' textbook 'chapter' on the American Revolution,
Quiz: 'Did Washington cross the
A) Delaware,
B) the Susquehanna, or
C) None of the above
Johnny "... A? "
Teacher: "Good boy Johnny!"
Such Yes/No/Maybe uses of the mind, collectively serve to reduce Western Civilization's crowning achievement of a methodical method of Reasoning, to a sterile process of decision loops (which they wrongly imagine to be synonymous with Logic), and fill a student's head with 'strategies' and flowcharts they're told can be easily referred to later in life when they might find themselves needing to retrieve various data.

This is the sort of external approach, which leads (and led) to viewing masterpieces, newspaper articles and stock reports alike, as 'informational texts' to be examined by strategies of 'close reading' and shallow 'If this, Then that' flowchart steps, which are not teaching students how to be thoughtful, but how to process data and retrieve desired results, while avoiding any deeper thinking and in as showy a manner as possible.

It was that same tendency towards appearances over substance, which led to numerous other 'Progressive' disasters in 'education', such as the 'See and Say' method of sight reading over phonics, and various forms of 'New Math' over mastering simple fundamentals, and the ever popular mockery of logical reasoning that is 'Critical Thinking' (devised in 1943 by one of Dewey's admirers), which have left generations of student lab rats functionally illiterate and innumerate, and critically satisfied in their fondest opinions.

The unseemly fact is that the system which the 'Progressives' rejected and strove to progress us past, was one which understood that there would be no worthwhile thoughts to think of, without first having a deeper understanding of the material involved - that it took more than just having 'facts', and took more than simply storing and retrieving 'information', that instead, fully developing their understanding of concepts meant grasping how those facts and information fit together and served the nature of the concept at hand, enabling their knowledge to become known, an approach which led to more than simply having a head full of data, but a mind whose ideas are integrated so that the student has an understanding of how the world works and how they can face up to, and navigate through it.

That type of understanding does not, and cannot, come from being trained to scan for answers to 'fill in the blank' worksheets, or be assessed through multiple choice standardized tests. Teaching the 'facts' that George Washington crossed the Delaware and later won a war, is a very different thing, from conveying the understanding that because George Washington was the singular man that he was, men were willing to endure great hardships in following him across a frozen river and into battle, and to continue on risking their lives in fighting for the revolutionary ideal which they all shared, of eventually living their lives in liberty - the facts alone are truly meaningless. Such an educational system as the 'progressives' proposed, and which we still practice today, is not capable of bringing students into deeper understanding and wisdom, but is suited mostly to generating shallow feelings and opinions, which transform the human brain into a very expensive computer, filled with an ever growing number of bugs & glitches.

There's a reason for that. And why it is that people wonder why our schools seem overtly hostile to America, I think comes from their not really understanding one or both of them. One solid reason for why our schools cannot be 'reformed' to be compatible and friendly with the ideas that made America exceptional, is rooted in both of their foundings - but as giving a full answer to that would take several posts in itself, and this one is already bursting the seems of its HTML... maybe this thumbnailing of the matter will help:
  • America is a nation whose founders formed it upon timeless principles of Individual Rights that were abstracted from the moral choices involved in the nature of being human, that understanding those 'self evident truths' to be true of all people, required that everyone be treated equally under the Rule of Law, without regard to their wealth or status, under a representative government whose powers were limited to upholding and defending them - and that it would be unjust to do otherwise.
  • Our modern school systems were formed by 'Progressives' who were predominantly followers of the new philosophy of Pragmatism - which along with C.S. Peirce and William James, John Dewey was a co-founder of - and while they differed on points, in general it holds that Truth, as conceived of in traditional Western thought, doesn't exist, seeing 'truth' as being only what seems to work, and seeing Free Will as an illusion of environmental circumstances, pragmatism dismisses the concepts of abstract principles & principled thinking, advocating instead that people should do what seems to work best for them at the moment, and that government should have the power to do whatever experts see as being best for 'the greater good'. At the moment. For the moment. And something entirely different in the next moment.
Now are you beginning to see the problem?

Our school systems are systemically incapable of delivering the good education which America was founded upon and requires, because they were founded upon ideas that are diametrically opposed to each other! Those teachers who do manage to actually educate their students, do so by bucking the system - why would you want to send either students or teachers back into a system such as that?!

You don't have to look far to find evidence of these oppositions, they're right on the surface just behind the words being used. For instance, Dewey often urged that the new object of our "democratic" education was to teach every child "to perceive the essential interdependence of an industrial society" and always to develop "a socialized disposition", which meant in practice that they saw the purpose of their 'progressive education' as being more concerned with sociological and political concerns, than with the conceptual knowledge and wisdom which Jefferson advised as being vital for Americans to understand, and that too we see all around us in the world today.

Such confused purposes as these are systemic to our school systems, they do not lead to providing a good education, they at best lead to a system of mis-education, and as we'll see in the next post, that leads to even more perilously good intentions for a 'Democratic education' for the humane enslavement of the people, for the 'greater good'. Our school systems being closed has been the best & brightest spot of 2020 - don't reverse that, use it to reverse the errors we made so long ago.

Do that, and at least we'll prove that we've learned something good from this most costly lesson.


julie said...

Dewey says:

"... first three years of a child in school are spent upon the form—not the substance—of learning, the mastering of the symbols of reading, writing, and arithmetic. There is not much positive nutriment in this...."

Good grief - I always knew he was an ass, but that's like saying that the first years of a child's life are spent crawling and learning to walk and talk and use his hands, and there isn't much of value in it.

Jeane said...

Julie, that is a marvelous statement, so very clear! It should be an eye-opener to those who agree with Dewey.

Van Harvey said...

Sad, but true.