Our Education Establishment brags about its wonderful doctrines and the many advances seen in our public schools. The real story is quite the opposite, and chronicles a steady and unnecessary decline.
Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen says that many students at even the best schools are know-nothings and cannot state who won the Civil War. Deneen concludes that such dismal ignorance could not possibly be accidental. Ergo, it’s what our schools are designed to do—i.e., stupefy young brains with cultural amnesia.
Students emerging from high school, after 12 or 13 years in classrooms, remain shockingly ignorant. That’s nearly 10,000 hours of class time. Think how much children could learn if schools were designed to teach.
Once upon a time, children went to school to learn essential knowledge. No more. They learned the satisfaction that comes from mastering complex information and dealing with more difficult challenges. No longer.
When children are young, we often hear, they think like children. Traditionally they moved on to thinking like adults. In many societies the age of reason was a mere seven years old. Think about that. Clearly, children matured fast. No more. Now they are encouraged to remain children. Deliberate stagnation fosters infantilization, and in time adults who are less independent and less resilient than in years past.
Imagine for a moment what it feels like for so many millions of wretched young people trapped in our public schools. Most are not learning much, not doing anything interesting or important, certainly not having any fun. What is the point of all this empty activity? Where is the meaning?
Two psychologists recently published an article about “existential health.” They argued that “a large and growing body of research shows that meaning in life is critical to human flourishing. Individuals who view their lives as lacking meaning, compared to those who have a strong sense of meaning, are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and suicidal.”
Who allowed our schools to become meaningless? Here is the central mechanism. Progressives view school as a way to create new kinds of children. Once schools become highly invested in social engineering, they place proportionally less value on academic advancement. Infantilization begins.
Problem was, the professors had to justify their new approaches so John Dewey and William Kilpatrick, our two most famous “educators,” raved about the educational benefits of Activities, Experience, and Projects. This hype signaled no love for knowledge, quite the opposite. Think of children building sand castles. The children may be passionate; they may spend many hours pleasantly. But they’re not learning anything new. Trouble is, the Education Establishment pretends that building sand castles is education. Pretty soon, that’s all the children do, build another sandcastle. Hardly aware of it, the children are dumbed down and ground down.
Progressives created classrooms where familiar wheels appear to spin. But nothing important is taking place. That’s why students never can reach the age of reason. They’re trying to fulfill a socialist template that does not value cognitive content. The children remain perpetually children, as dumb at 16 as at six. There is the tragic accomplishment of our socialist educators.
The common pattern is, with great fanfare, to create a steady dose of meaningless activity, starting in kindergarten and lasting through graduation from high school. Here’s what the school system loses in the process: pride, confidence, enthusiasm, optimism, a can-do spirit, and a continuous immersion in intellectual activity. Meaningful intellectual work is aborted. Children are kept soft, formless, and amorphous. More jellyfish than vertebrate.
Public schools are not easy to fix because John Dewey and his gang built social engineering into the fabric of the school. If they stop doing this for a second, the entire Education Establishment might have a nervous breakdown. What’s the point, the professors would want to know. You would answer them patiently: The point is learning about the world so students can become adults. The professors would scream, Stand back, we are creating a New World.
So the wheels turn, the sun comes up and goes down, the months pass, and nothing substantive happens. Nothing essential is learned. There is no deeper understanding of anything.
How can I say this so confidently? Because so many reach the end of high school without knowing the names of the oceans. They cannot find Spain on a map of the world. They can’t multiply 23×19 without a calculator. There is a vast Sahara of emptiness; a dry and pointless wind mocks all human endeavor.
What, throughout all those thousands of hours, is learned? Something academic, or something practical? Not too likely.
Imagine Sherman marching to Georgia. He wanted to destroy the South thoroughly; he wanted to burn down everything standing. He wanted to twist every piece of train track. Sherman’s march through Georgia was all about leaving nothing and this is what Progressive educators seem compelled to do when they march through the traditional curriculum.
The whole gimmick for 100 years is simply stated. Teach as little as possible. Don’t ask children to memorize anything. Okay, starting now, let’s do the opposite. Present as much academic content as each teacher can manage. Encourage children to memorize when helpful or appropriate. By all means, let’s sing songs, dance, and have fun. But at the end of the week, children should know more than on Monday.
Here’s the disgraceful victory our Progressives pulled off. Many students are as ignorant on Friday as the week before. That’s what is killing us.
Bruce Deitrick Price’s new book is: Saving K-12 — What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?