Just Another Racket, Folks

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.

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.