Sunday, September 11, 2011

Modern Education's Sins

Russell Kirk, written while serving in WWII as a member of the Armed Forces.  Interesting to note that nothing has changed, really, since this essay was written.  Wherein he identifies the reason for the demise of Mr. Chips and the 'oddness' of the Dead Poets' Society.......

There are four sins of public education: equalitarianism, technicalism, progressivism, and egotism.

...We have long been tending to reduce our educational problem to the lowest common denominator. In our anxiety to make equal those whom God created unequal, we have been as industrious, although not as successful, as was Colonel Colt.   ...It does no harm for a teacher to lecture in a tone somewhat lofty for his average pupil; the dull student gains something, the average student is stirred to curiosity, and the intelligent student is pleased. This soldier never learned anything from men who came down to his level; admiration of knowledge, followed by emulation, is more effective. We talk of education for leadership; but actually we educate for mediocrity.

...Our second curse, the popular acclaim of “practical” knowledge, of technical skills, the training of young people to minister to our comforts, is harmful not so much per se as it is incidentally; it occupies precious hours that once were given to literature, languages, and the story of the past...  For manual and domestic acquirements, apprenticeship and practical experience still are the schools of greatest worth

...The doctrines of the “progressive” movement in education are interestingly varied; but the assumption at the foundation of the progressivist system is that there is an easy way to learning....  Who heeds Aristotle and the Greek view of education: namely, that its object is to make man the master of his soul?John Dewey and the lesser gods that sport about him, composing the pantheon of the progressivists, ask, why exercise compulsion upon the school child? There is a very simple way to avoid compulsion: if the child doesn't like the multiplication table, let him scribble with crayons. The line of least resistance is the road to education, it is held; in consequence, the alphabet is flouted as much as possible, resulting in a splendid disregard of orthography; history and politics are metamorphosed into community civics; if a child finds Pilgrim's Progress a bit hard to read at first, give him something simpler. The notion that a student must learn by doing (act A Midsummer’s Night's Dream and not read Hamlet; play with numbered blocks, not stoop to old-fashioned tables of calculation)' is carried to such an extreme that even Bertrand Russell is alarmed...

That egotism which is the fourth curse of our schools lies in the' unjustifiable conceit of a great many teachers. They call themselves liberal, and yet they shut their ears and eyes to all opinion but that which comes from “modern” and “progressive” sources; they prate of freedom, and yet make a closed corporation of their profession....

...A youngster after a dozen years of training in public schools may have found his semesters pleasant enough; but unless he has unusual natural talent and curiosity to compensate for the lotos-eating of progressivism, he will graduate a fool... 

[On colleges]:

...Their incentives to aggrandizement are two: the American passion for bigness, and the administrator's passion for power. In many another field during these past few years we have found that magnitude is merely shapelessness, but many an American college president and dean still measure knowledge by noses, and appeal to the patrons of the arts for a larger stadium. Size and power! What unworthy objectives for men who make a pretense of learning! But these passions are not so despicable as is the ruling vice of men who barter the quality of education for larger salaries as administrators or as teachers, who would institute courses in mule skinning if they thought they could increase thereby enrollment and, consequently, alumni and monthly checks. Love of might and love of wealth are common frailties; but a learned man should be able to rise above them.

...It is not enough, it appears, for the high-school pupil to endure courses in “vocations”; once he gets to college, the dean wants to know “what are you going to study for” and proceeds to fit this square peg into the most nearly round hole at hand. It hardly enters the head of a college professional glad-hander these days that a student might have some faint desire to find knowledge; it is taken for granted that he must be looking for “training.” Alleged training the colleges certainly offer; their catch courses and stuffed shirt curricula are without number. We might think that one could best learn the management of hostelries by working in a hotel; but some colleges offer to teach hotel administration. We used to have good minions of the law who began their career on the beat; now they are supposed to study police administration. This soldier has known good accountants who learned by apprenticeship or a short course at a commercial school; now, we are told, the accountant must be no less than a bachelor of arts....

...If there be sacred cows in modern education, they are named psychology and sociology. It has become almost blasphemy to assail them. But any soldier who has been a year or two in barracks knows how little information psychology, that muddle of physiology and metaphysics, can give him concerning his fellow man or himself; and the man who has met the Japanese can laugh, if he lives, at the glib phrases of sociology, that jumble of history, economics, and sentiment. The cleverest act of the “social scientists” has been to envelop themselves with jargon like a squid's ink, through which few hostile minds have patience to penetrate. Some soldiers, nevertheless, have read both Shakespeare and Watson, have essayed both Livy and Laski; and they know that they would rather have Falstaff with them in the foxholes than the Behaviorists, that they learn more from high old Roman virtue than from feral man. The social sciences are another short cut to learning, and the educational short cut is as full of pitfalls and labors and deceptions as is the usual geographical one. But psychology and sociology are fine words, and our colleges pump air into these bladders with a will.

Here he quotes Harry Hopkins, a big-shot in the FDR Administration:

Every college and university should he turned completely into an Army and Navy training center. . . . The women, too, should remain in college only while they are being trained for their part in the war effort. High school hours should be shortened so students will have more time to work, especially on farms. Some students should quit high school entirely. I can see no reason for wasting time on what today arc nonessentials such as Chaucer and Latin. A diploma can only be framed and hung on the wall. A shell that a boy or girl helps to make can kill a lot of Japs

....Conant and other [college] presidents view with raptures the munificent federal grants-in-aid proposed for ex-soldiers who may wish to attend college after Armageddon; Alexander Meikeljohn writes in the New Republic: “The federal government should bargain with existing colleges for the education of young women and men in time of peace just as it is now bargaining for the education of soldiers in time of war.” The American worship of the great idol Panacea is displayed here. Is there virtue in federal money to reform a system of education? Will not academic competition for public favor be supplanted only by competition for federal favor? What reason have we to suppose that the machine of state at Washington will have as much sympathy with liberal learning as have the regents of a state university or the directors of a private college?

You will recognize a foreshadowing of Solzhenitsyn here:

...In this war, fought in the name of liberalism, very few think of liberalism of knowledge. We need an Epictetus to remind us that freedom of the mind is more important than freedom of the body. If our thoughts are not liberal, we shall not know how to rule, once we find ourselves masters of the world's destiny. More important still, we shall find the taste of victory bitter, for the emptiness of our minds will be the more unendurable, once the hot excitement of battle has passed. The time has passed when we were compelled to fight for our bread. Now, when, at last, we have the leisure and the wealth and the power to spread truth and knowledge, we arc in danger of turning to Mammon rather than to Minerva....

Over the years, I've had a number of 'teaching' experiences in grade- and high-schools, and in the arena of adult education (loosely speaking.)

(I suppose that those experiences were really as an adjunct, for they were in specialized areas.) 

I am empathetic with Kirk; his angst is well-placed.  Students of all ages, parents, and other faculty politely but firmly resisted and/or quietly ignored pursuit of excellence (with some exceptions, of course); insistence on knowledge of the fundamentals and of growth in literary/artistic pursuit is, frankly, regarded as a strange obsession, or, perhaps, as merely 'kinky.' 

We see and marvel at the greatness of coach Vince Lombardi, who was, after all, a teacher; we do not understand why he was great.  He insisted on fundamentals and the pursuit of excellence based on those fundamentals, folks.  There's nothing more to it than that. 

Lots more at the link, worth the time.


Anonymous said...

So, Walker was wrong this morning on the Gousha show when he said we need to prepare students for technical education to meet the needs of the workforce that is out there right now? Or maybe it is not as simple as that. maybe the world has changed since WWII and you are the one that has not changed.

Which is worse a world that evolves and challenges us or following a person who resists change because it doesn't fit his/her preconceived notion of how things should be?

Declaring yourself grumpy and difficult is cute if you are just the old guy in the coffee shop, but when you take your outdated ideas to the internet and try to influence people on a larger scale it is pathetic.

Dad29 said...

Yes, Walker was wrong--in a way.*

Trade-school is just that: trade-school.

Invoking "Progress" and "Evolution" does not, by the way, make you into some sort of Prometheus.

Rather, it makes you tawdry.

If Walker thinks that the State should provide trade-school, that's fine. But he should also think that the State should provide a REAL education in grade- and high-school as a foundation.

Dad29 said...

(Insert asterisk before final graf.)