Friday, November 28, 2008

Getting Educated, So to See

There's a line in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, spoken by Roark at his trial in the novel's climax: "I'm an architect. I know what is to come by the principle on which it is based." Nowhere is that idea better shown than in the field of education.

It's with that as background that it pays to think about how the current situation in public education came about, a situation in which Johnny can't think past the upcoming Friday night. The results we live with today are the direct consequence of what John Dewey advocated over 100 years ago. In 1897, he published My Pedagogic Creed with the express purpose of making radical changes in American education.

He wrote:
I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race.
I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.
It strikes many at first as innocuous. But connect the dots. What has happened in the average public school to support for individual scholastic achievement? Largely gone, replaced by teachers and administrators who follow Dewey's preference for "the welfare of the group."

But what of all the diversity of pink and blue hair, tattoos, and clothing styles? Isn't that evidence of individualism of a sort? Not really. It is merely another form of chaos, the flip side of gray-tunic collectivism.

Hayek writes in The Road to Serfdom (PDF) of the relation between increasing government control of society in every sphere and such forms of 'individualism'. He observes that the only freedom the youth of Britain were coming to have was the freedom to rebel against everything. It was the only means they had for individual expression, most others being circumscribed by the State.

Down that road lies anarchy, the mirror image of totalitarian control and an effect of the same cause. To rebel mindlessly against society is no better than to mindlessly follow its conventions. It's already an accomplished fact in Britain. It's on the rise here.

In any case, the one type of open 'diversity' we do not typically find in contemporary classrooms is a diversity of ideas. It's a rare teacher who would advocate increasing the amount of economic freedom. Very few would be so bold, even in the unlikely case they were inclined, to throw the cool water of rational suspicion on the fashionable man-made global warming hypothesis. Their students follow suit.

How could they do otherwise? Following Dewey, their teachers have taught them:
[T]he true centre of correlation of the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities.
I believe that the study of science is educational in so far as it brings out the materials and processes which make social life what it is.
It's hard to envision a better recipe for a population ill-educated in science, literature, history, and geography. Cap it off with:
I believe that at present we lose much of the value of literature and language studies because of our elimination of the social element. Language is almost always treated in the books of pedagogy simply as the expression of thought.

It is true that language is a logical instrument, but it is fundamentally and primarily a social instrument. Language is the device for communication; it is the tool through which one individual comes to share the ideas and feelings of others. When treated simply as a way of getting individual information, or as a means of showing off what one has learned, it loses its social motive and end.
Heaven forfend, we wouldn't want to use language "simply as a way of getting individual information," worse still as a "way of showing off." To acquire information and be proud of acquiring it might, well, who knows, lead to one person being better than another in some way.

At the root of that nonsense are the twin modern evils of pragmatism and egalitarianism, fancy words for "don't connect the dots" and "anybody is as good as anybody else, no matter what." Is there a public school administrator today who would say it ain't so?

What, in Dewey's view, should we use to educate, if not primarily ideas?
[T]he image is the great instrument of instruction. What a child gets out of any subject presented to him is simply the images which he himself forms with regard to it.

I believe that if nine-tenths of the energy at present directed towards making the child learn certain things, were spent in seeing to it that the child was forming proper images, the work of instruction would be indefinitely facilitated.
No wonder that the speech of so many public school students is chiefly grunts and squeals, and that they can't form an argument. The end of that road is not hard to see. The overriding goal of Progressive education, the values it aims to achieve are...
that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.
Or, as Rand put it in another brilliant line in The Fountainhead: "One neck, for one leash."

So, what's to be done?

Unlike many commentators on 'the right', I don't think reform of the public school system is feasible. So long as the government (particularly the Federal government's Department of Education or State government) sets the rules, there is slim likelihood of substantial changes. All the rigorous tests in the world are not going to change what, and more importantly how, teachers are teaching. After all, there's little point in, say, arm-twisting teachers into 'improving' history instruction if the history that's taught comes from Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States.

One can, of course, dream about eliminating the Department of Education. That would save the taxpayers $50 billion per year and only result in the unemployment of a few thousand busybodies. But not even Reagan made much headway on that campaign promise and no one in government is even talking about it these days. Even that wouldn't cure the problem, though. The same local and state busybodies, not to mention the same kind of teachers, would still be in place. Above all, it leaves the same Progressive ideas in place.

Private school can compensate for some of the damage, but homeschooling is by far the best chance right now for a better future. Happily, there is still a large gulf (though narrowing by the year) between the worldview of most academic intellectuals in the humanities and the citizenry. Most parents still want their children to receive an actual education, not just an effective indoctrination.

Encouraging that option is, for the next few years, likely to be more difficult than ever. With the near-term economy in serious straits thanks to trillions in new Federal dollar commitments, most parents will find it more urgent for both to work. Still, if one's inclined to look for even tarnished silver linings, the rising unemployment will find more parents at home.

Here, as in every aspect of American society today, only an intellectual revolution that restores respect for rationality to center stage is going to make much headway against the grotesque state of American education. Where that will come from or how to build momentum for it is, like so much of what ails us, anybody's guess at this stage. It sure as hell isn't going to come from the educators.

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