My essay “Warm-Up With Ree-Ree,” which appeared in this space two months ago, generated quite a few responses by both e-mail and letter. I was surprised at how many of the respondents wanted more information about what I had termed “Deweyite” education, and its failings. A number of them also asked for clarification of the comment I had made linking modern educational theory with the deliberate marginalization of the working class. So I have decided to devote some time to the question of education in the United States, with the assumption that literary problems often have their basis in how litterateurs are trained. Let’s talk about John Dewey’s racket.
John Dewey was an American philosopher of the pragmatist school, and who was associated with the turn-of-the-twentieth-century movement known as Progressivism. This was one of those momentary ideological enthusiasms that seize some people like a religious spasm, driving them to reformist and revolutionary action. Progressivism was responsible for a number of policy disasters based on various silly ideas, among which were the Income Tax, the Federal Reserve System, Prohibition, and ultimately our unending Drug Wars. In fact, one might date the start of America’s gradual decline into a bureaucracy-ridden, overpoliced Nanny State from the time of Progressivism’s heyday under Wilson.
In the field of education, Progressivism (as pushed by Dewey and his acolytes) called for a pedagogy that trained students in how to get along with each other in a democratic society, rather than attaining a mastery of objective material. It stressed “education for life” instead of education for knowledge. The Deweyite approach placed a tremendous emphasis on “communication” and “interaction” and “cooperation,” and its proponents didn’t really care very much about subject matter or the various disciplines. Dewey personally loathed the traditional Western course of study that immersed the young in literary texts and languages, and he didn’t even believe that learning to read was important until the later grades.
Deweyites value process over product. They think that the classroom phenomena of activity, interaction, and chitchat are ends in themselves, and shouldn’t be required to lead to any educational outcome other than self-esteem and confidence. They vehemently oppose any subject-centered pedagogy where the student is compelled to assimilate facts and formulae, or demonstrate a command of language, or internalize a teacher-chosen skill. All these things are abominations to Deweyites.
In the hard sciences the Deweyites didn’t get very far, nor did they make much headway in Classics. Science teachers were interested in facts, not social interaction; and the classicists didn’t see how “education for life” was applicable to learning Latin noun declensions. But the Deweyites wreaked havoc in English and History (which they renamed “Communications” and “Social Studies”), and they came to dominate totally the lower grades, where so much fundamental material has to be learned, and learned early.
Deweyite or “progressive” education is now generalized and standard for the vast majority of American students during the K-12 sequence. Despite trenchant criticism from a wide range of commentators, it remains the rigid orthodoxy of most teacher-training institutes. It has totally disfigured the face of American schooling, and it has complicated and stymied the tasks of college educators.
How so, you may ask. Well, it’s not primarily the lack of academic preparation in college freshmen, although that is indeed a grievous fault. It’s the mental state of torpor, inattention, and fuzziness that these students bring with them to college. For eighteen-year-olds supposedly at their peak of health and vigor, these freshmen are surprisingly lacking in acuity. And that lack of acuity is directly due to Deweyite domination of lower-grade and high school teaching.
Let me give three recent examples from my own daily experience as a teacher in the City University of New York. You may say that these instances I adduce are trivial and unimportant. I don’t think so.
Example 1: A major Greek vocabulary exam is about to be distributed. A student raises his hand and asks “Will we actually have to know the meanings of the Greek words?” I’m dumbfounded. This is like a soldier asking an officer, two minutes before zero-hour, if he’ll need to take his rifle when he goes over the top.
How could one possibly be in doubt as to whether a vocabulary exam will test for semantics? Well, it’s easy if you’ve been taught by Deweyites. The “tests” that they give are based on multiple-choice, or analogy recognition, or reader-response, or portfolio assembly, or peer evaluation—anything except the cold mastery of facts.
Example 2: I clearly announce to a class that I will take no questions once an exam has begun. If they have any questions they should ask them now, before the test starts. Nevertheless, fifteen minutes into the exam a girl walks up to me with—you guessed it—a question. I tell her “Sorry—no questions!” She looks at me with a wounded-doe face, and goes back to her desk in stooped resignation, as if I had condemned her to the guillotine.
Is this girl deaf? No, not at all. But relentless Deweyite education has inured her to think that everything in a classroom is fair game for argument, debate, negotiation, and give-and-take, just like the patter in a sit-com. It’s not that she didn’t hear what I said. It’s just that what she heard was a disconnect with her past experience in Deweyite classrooms, and she therefore unconsciously disregarded it.
Example 3: On the first day of class, speaking to a packed hall of undergraduates, I explain that attendance will be taken by means of a sign-in sheet. I apologize to the students in advance for the impersonality, and also for the fact that I will not get to know their individual names. I say that as long as the Registrar sees fit to ignore class size regulations, this will be inevitable.
At the end of the session a girl comes up to me. She says “My name is Allison, but in class please call me Allie. It’s what all the teachers do.” I look at her in amazement. I reply “In a lecture class of sixty-five students, I’m not going to call you anything. Our only connection will be the written work that you submit.” She has a crushed look, as if I had killed her pet hamster.
Here again, Deweyite education has predisposed this girl to think that classrooms are personalized and interactive and friendly. The idea of the anonymous assimilation of material just didn’t compute for her; and the notion that she could learn from someone who didn’t know her name was probably as jarring as the prospect of having sex with a total stranger.
Students show plenty of other symptoms: the inability to memorize anything, the ignorance of the rules of grammar, a slovenly and barely legible handwriting, an unfamiliarity with the process of note-taking, a deficient command of vocabulary, a disinclination to read text, an incapacity for sustained listening, a failure to associate absenteeism with low grades. Not all students have these problems, nor do they afflict every student to the same degree. But they are so common nowadays that they are part of the defining backdrop of the college scene. Any professor who says that his students don’t have these problems is either living in a dream world, or lying. And since academics are well known for both of those vices, it will probably be hard to determine which applies.
When I mention these things to some of my colleagues, they often respond by saying that many students today suffer from “Attention-Deficit-Disorder,” a condition which causes them to be forgetful and unfocused. I have to laugh when I hear this excuse. All of a sudden we have a widespread learning disability that didn’t affect students in the past? There is no such thing as “Attention-Deficit-Disorder.” This bogus diagnosis is nothing but a cover story for hiding what is in fact a typical and understandable response to Deweyite educational practice. Students don’t focus and don’t listen and don’t remember because these habits (which are the normal concomitants of paying attention) are deliberately devalued and undeveloped in Deweyite classrooms. If your teacher is a liberal twit concerned with social interaction and peer collaboration and holistic evaluation, what the hell is there to focus on? What is called “Attention-Deficit-Disorder” is a direct product of Deweyite pedagogical methods, and nothing else.
Students who have gone through the Deweyite system are accustomed to a certain kind of teacher—one who is usually young, female, voluble, with a big toothy smile that beams good will and liberalism, and who has them sit in circles to talk about “the process of collaborative interaction” (yes, that’s actually one of their buzz phrases). They’re used to lessons that are dramatized happenings, tests that are meaningless, grades that are impressionistic, and above all, endless chatter.
It’s feelgood education, but that isn’t its primary failing. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good. What’s wrong with Deweyite education is its fun-and-games mentality, its brainless enthusiasm, its Let’s-All-Gather-Round-And-Rap style—all of which have acclimatized students to believe that what goes on in school is not especially serious or important. Deweyite education fosters the mentality that nothing is fixed, nothing is certain, and everything is subject to democratic contestation. It’s the ethos of the New England town meeting applied to pedagogy. Dewey came from nineteenth-century Vermont, where his father ran a general store, and his methodology reeks of small-town, crackerbarrel populism.
How does all this connect with the marginalization of working-class students? I can’t do better than report the following interchange.
I sometimes do private tutoring in Latin, and in that connection I recently had a lengthy conversation with a woman in Manhattan who is deeply concerned with educational issues. The lady is also unapologetically right-wing, so we got along just fine.
She is from a very affluent milieu, and all of her friends and acquaintances send their children to exclusive private schools in New York City—places like Dalton, Chapin, Horace Mann, Packer Collegiate, and St. Ann’s. She assured me that all of these supposedly excellent academies are infected with Deweyite notions, and a great deal of classroom time there is wasted on pointless trivialities.
I asked her why her friends bothered to pay the exorbitant tuition fees that these private New York academies demand. Didn’t they know what was going on?
“Yes,” she replied. “Of course they know. Most of them engage private tutors in the various disciplines to teach their children after school, or on weekends. It’s an added expense, but it guarantees a mastery of the basics.”
I was flabbergasted. I asked her to explain her friends’ reasoning, since the whole thing seemed absurdly wasteful to my thrifty Sicilian perceptions. She smiled and said “You have to understand how rich people think. They are powerfully concerned with status and social credentials. They send their kids to Dalton because that gives entrée into an Ivy League college, which is another important credential. They are not especially concerned with what goes on in these schools, as long as their kids are accepted into them. And since they have plenty of money, they can afford to make up for the educational deficiencies of Deweyite methodology by hiring no-nonsense private tutors like yourself.”
“Wow,” I gasped. “The rich really are different.”
“No,” she replied, “not really. They just want the best for their kids, like all parents. But they can afford to sidestep or opt out of the stupidities of Deweyite education, while ordinary people cannot. All that non-affluent parents can do is save up for a very good traditional school—which is increasingly difficult to find these days—or make the tremendous effort of homeschooling their kids.”
“So,” I replied, “when the rich hire someone like me to teach their kids Latin, they are basically engaged in homeschooling.”
“Absolutely correct,” she answered. “But notice the glaring difference in the left-liberal responses to the two situations. The left doesn’t make a peep of complaint about hiring private tutors. Well-to-do leftists hire such tutors as a matter of course, and therefore they won’t criticize the practice. But they are vociferously hostile to homeschooling by the non-affluent.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed that,” I replied. “Why do you think that is so?”
“Simple,” she answered. “Leftists are opposed to homeschooling because they know that public schools are totally in the pocket of left-liberal ideologues, and therefore the moulding of students into good little liberals with the proper progressive attitudes will continue uninterrupted there. But that isn’t guaranteed with homeschooling, which very often has strong religious and traditional overtones. So they oppose it on principle, without admitting that their real reasons are purely political. Besides, the left hates any private activity that isn’t controlled or regulated by a bureaucracy.”
“So Deweyite educational methods are pretty much set in concrete,” I suggested. “The rich have no particular interest in what goes on in the public schools, and they can counteract Deweyite influence in private schools by hiring tutors.”
The woman smiled again. “Yes,” she said, “but don’t forget the larger social and political context. Deweyite methodologies leave students unprepared and inarticulate. And that is precisely what the left in America wants for white working-class kids. They are frightened by the political potential of the white working class, and therefore want them only partially educated, so that they will remain a confused and subservient underclass. It all works to support the status quo of left-liberal cultural hegemony in America.”
“How depressing,” I said. “There seems to be no escape from this aporia.”
“There used to be,” she answered. “The private Roman Catholic academies and preparatory schools provided a solid, non-Deweyite education, and one that was free from left-liberal regulation and interference. But there never were enough of them, and now they are mostly gone, or have been captured by people with the same mentality and politics as those who run the mainstream schools.”
I thought to myself that if I weren’t already married, I’d move heaven and hell to woo and win this tough-minded right-wing lady. It’s a consolation to know that at least there’s one person on the affluent Upper West Side who isn’t a brain-dead liberal.
I hope this account has clarified for some of my readers what I mean by “Deweyite” education. It is a fake variety of education that is basically a poor substitute for the real thing. But more dangerous than its fakery is its political agenda. For all its talk of “freedom” and “spontaneity” and “openness,” progressive education turns out to be just another racket for keeping progressives in charge of things.