American education is a catastrophe. The evidence supporting this conclusion is overwhelming and has been for decades.
For example, a December 2016 article in The Atlantic reported that fifteen-year-old students in the United States placed “near the bottom of 35 industrialized nations” on the math portion of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test.1 This was slightly worse than America’s showing on the 2012 PISA exam, on which American students scored below the PISA math mean and ranked twenty-sixth out of the thirty-four nations tracked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). On the 2012 test, 55 percent of students in Shanghai, China, scored at the highest or second-highest level, as did 13 percent of all students. However, only 9 percent of American students scored within these levels. And the top students in the United States performed poorly compared to those in other countries. Students in Massachusetts, a relatively high-achieving state, scored above the U.S. national average—but ranked two years behind Shanghai students.2
Even more appalling, various sources indicate that some 44 million American adults cannot read well enough to read a simple story to a child—and nearly half of adults in the United States are functionally illiterate, unable even to read a drug label.3
None of this is surprising. We have been inundated with bad news regarding the American education system for decades. For example, in 1988, a mere 5 percent of seventeen-year-old high school students could read sufficiently to comprehend information disseminated in historical documents, college textbooks, or literary essays. On the topic of history, “sixty percent did not know why The Federalist was written, 75 percent didn’t know when Lincoln was president, and one in five knew what Reconstruction was.”4
By the 1980s, the ongoing decline of education in America prompted the infamous report by an investigative commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education. Published in 1983, its ominous opening line was “We are a nation at risk.” Even more baleful was its conclusion: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”5
This dire warning, although well publicized, did no good. The Educational Testing Service reported in 1994 that 50 percent of college graduates in the United States could not read a bus schedule and “that only 42 percent could summarize an argument presented in a newspaper article.”6
Why have we allowed this to happen to ourselves? Rather, why have we done this to ourselves? How and why is it that America, historically the most plentiful source of innovative and inventive minds, has established an educational system that cripples the mind?7 What caused this degradation?How and why is it that America, historically the most plentiful source of innovative and inventive minds, has established an educational system that cripples the mind? Click To Tweet
Toward answering such questions, it is important to understand that American schools have not always been so bad. Indeed, at one time American education was superb.
Superlative Education in Early America8
In the Mid-Atlantic colonies during the pre-Revolutionary period, professional educators established numerous schools to satisfy widespread demand for education.9 Philadelphia, for instance, boasted schools for virtually every subject and interest. Between 1740 and 1776, 125 private schoolmasters advertised their services in Philadelphia newspapers—this in a city whose population was miniscule relative to today. Professional educators provided mentoring services for English, contemporary foreign languages, science, and a wide variety of other topics.10 Children who grew to be such brilliant scientists, writers, and statesmen as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were educated at home or in private schools.
Literacy levels of Revolutionary America were remarkably high. In 1731, Franklin helped start America’s first subscription library, and similar libraries spread throughout the colonies during his life. He later reflected, “These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, [and] made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries.”11 Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, written in plain style but enunciating sophisticated political principles, sold 120,000 copies during the colonial period to a (free) population of 2.4 million (akin to selling ten million copies today).12 The Federalist essays, written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in support of a constitution for the nascent republic, were published in newspapers—written for and read by the common man.
Sales of books and educational materials in the early- and mid-19th century likewise indicate a high national literacy level. Between 1818 and 1823, when the population of the United States was less than twenty million, Walter Scott’s novels sold five million copies (the equivalent of selling sixty million copies today). Early in the 19th century, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper likewise sold millions of copies.13 The McGuffey Readers, first published in 1836, routinely used such terms as “heath” and “benighted” in third-grade texts. They asked such questions as “What is this species of composition called?” and gave such assignments as “Relate the facts of this dialogue.” The fourth-grade reader included selections from Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the fifth-grade text, readings from William Shakespeare. “These were not the textbooks of the elite but of the masses,” explains Thomas Sowell. “From 1836 to 1920, McGuffey’s Readers were so widely used that they sold 122 million copies.”14
Given the high quality of education in early America, it is no surprise that two renowned Frenchmen who visited the United States reported on the phenomenon. In an 1800 book commissioned by Vice President Thomas Jefferson and titled National Education in the United States of America, Pierre Dupont de Nemours reported that Americans received an education far superior to that of other peoples. “Most young Americans,” he wrote, “can read, write, and cipher [i.e., do basic arithmetic]. Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly.”15 Several decades later, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were the most educated people in history.16
So, what happened?
The Push toward Illiteracy: The Progressives’ War on Learning
The essence of the Progressive education movement is the notion that the primary goal of education is the “socialization” of the child and that this is more important than academic training—more important than studying literature, history, science, math. The leading Progressive educators differed on some points, but all agreed that a “narrow focus” on academic training must give way to something that focused on the “whole child.”
Nor were they vague regarding what this meant. For example, famed social worker Jane Addams (1860–1935) was an early Progressive educational reformer who grumbled, “We are impatient with the schools which lay all stress on reading and writing, suspecting them to rest upon the assumption that all knowledge and interest must be brought to the children through the medium of books.”17 She wanted the schools to engage students in group activities and prepare them to work in the factories. Lawrence Cremin, a leading scholar of Progressive education, wrote of Addams’s theory, “Industry . . . would have to be seized upon and conquered by the educators.”18 The writer Charles Sykes adds, “In particular, she [Addams] thought modern man needed to be trained and educated in collective, group activities, which she invoked as the ‘spirit of teamwork.’”19 This emphasis on group work was a theme that would be sounded over and again by Progressives and their intellectual descendants.
Progressive educators claimed that their theories and methods were based on science. In particular, they employed and emphasized the importance of IQ testing.
During the early 20th century, researchers in Europe and America developed tests designed to identify not merely a student’s knowledge, but his capacity to learn. In 1916, Lewis Terman, a professor of educational psychology at Stanford University, drawing upon the earlier work of French psychologist Alfred Binet and other researchers, developed the Stanford-Binet intelligence test (known today as the IQ test), which henceforth would be used to measure a student’s intellectual ability. Terman hoped that the intelligence test would “facilitate progressive reforms in education, especially identification of the feebleminded and the gifted, curricular differentiation, vocational guidance, and grouping based on students’ ability.”20
Terman and many others advocating widespread IQ testing in the schools were eugenicists who despaired that “there is no possibility at present of convincing society that they [so-called feebleminded persons] should not be allowed to reproduce.”21 The next best thing was to segment the students to ensure that the intellectually gifted received cognitive training and those of less intelligence were taught vocational skills. By the mid-1920s, psychologists had developed seventy-five IQ tests to gauge the intellectual ability of students of all ages. Each year during this era, some four million students took an intelligence test.22 As educational historian Diane Ravitch notes, “the public schools employed the tests to predict which students were likely to go to college and which should be guided into vocational programs.” However, “the decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy, since only those in the college track took the courses that would prepare them for college.”23
To Progressive educators, the IQ tests provided the cutting edge of a scientific approach to proper schooling and gave the imprimatur of science to those reformers who sought to push millions of students away from academic education and into vocational training.
Related to this, shortly after World War I, several Progressives created the field known as “Curriculum Studies.” John Franklin Bobbitt at the University of Chicago (and others elsewhere) held that curriculum design was a complex field that could be mastered only by experts who were fluent in the new scientific approach to education. Prior to World War I, a school’s curriculum had been designed by community school boards and educators who knew the local parents and their expectations. At the time, almost all towns and neighborhoods desired their children to learn “reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, and nature studies in the common [elementary] schools, and they wanted the high schools to teach Latin, a modern foreign language or two, mathematics, literature, grammar, the sciences, ancient history, English history, American history, drawing, [and] music.”24 This was what parents generally demanded, and this was what the schools provided.
No more, proclaimed Bobbitt and his peers. Local school board members, teachers, and parents had not studied the literature of the new science of education. They were not conversant with the rationale or the methods or the outcomes of IQ testing, and they were clueless regarding techniques for determining children’s future professions and assigning them to the educational track congruent with their intellectual capacities. They were, therefore, as unqualified to design an educational curriculum as they were to critique Einstein’s theory of relativity; both were jobs for trained experts. As Ravitch writes:
The invention of the scientific curriculum expert represented an extraordinary shift in power away from teachers, parents, and local communities to professional experts. . . . In modern school districts, control over curriculum was transferred from educators who had majored in English, history, or mathematics to trained curriculum specialists.25
What was the ultimate goal? What were these so-called scientists trying to accomplish? Bobbitt and his peers conceived of curriculum designers as educational engineers who could establish the exact criteria for each child’s proper functioning and the optimum profession in which he or she might bring about “social progress.”26 The aim was utilitarian advantage to “society.” For example, “if agricultural production falls off . . . the schools must provide better agricultural education. If factory production is inefficient, the schools must teach industrial education. When studies show the cost of ill health, the schools must provide health education.”27 And so on for any number of other “practical” activities, including driving techniques and military training. Students would learn the specific skills necessary to their “proper” professions and useful to “society.”
Of what utilitarian value is it, Bobbitt asked, for students to study the literature of long-gone centuries? How would a 20th-century plumber’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s drama or poetry benefit society? Beyond the basic science training necessary to help a farmer grow crops, how would his understanding of physics or mathematics aid society? For what social purpose should we teach a future factory worker ancient history? Such a field “deals with a world that is dead, a civilization that is mouldered, with governments that are now obsolete, with manners and customs and languages that are altogether impracticable in this modern age.”28
Bobbitt’s 1918 book, Curriculum, was for years the standard textbook on the subject in the teachers’ colleges.
His fellow curriculum designer, W. W. Charters at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, shared this view. He disdained the study in schools of “the works of the masters.” Such “brilliant products of genius” were of little value to most Americans, he thought. Instead, curriculum designers should discover what was “most useful to the young in coping with the humble problems of their lives.”29 The schools should identify a student’s likely future profession and train him for it. For example, if a student would most likely become a department store clerk specializing in credit applications, the schools should train him in the requisite skills, including “friendliness,” “ability to question tactfully,” “spirit of follow-up,” “keen judgment in answering credit questions,” and so forth.30 The topics taught in the American schools should be calculated neither to bestow upon a student knowledge of academic subjects nor to nurture his intellect, but, rather, to prepare him for the “humble” problems and activities of everyday life as a cog in his community.
Then came the so-called Cardinal Principles, which codified into one small pamphlet the new “scientific” approach to American schooling. In 1912, the secretary of the interior instructed the U.S. Bureau of Education to thoroughly revamp American schooling. The government agency, in conjunction with the National Education Association (NEA), appointed the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education (CRSE). The CRSE issued the new “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education” in 1918. To this day, a full century later, it remains the foundational document of modern American education.31 Moving forward, the report declared, the schools would “concern themselves less with academic matters than with the preparation for effective living”—that is, for playing one’s part in the scientifically engineered society.32 This meant curtailing courses that would enable students to reason independently and amplifying those that would imbue students with a passion for pursuing the “common good.”
There were seven “cardinal principles” (or “main objectives”) to be emphasized henceforth in American schools. One was “Health,” which involved the schools in teaching personal hygiene and emphasizing a “love for clean sport.”
A second was “Command of Fundamental Processes,” which involved teaching basic cognitive skills. In regard to this objective, Professor Richard Mitchell, the famed “Underground Grammarian,” comments, “About the other ‘main objectives,’ they have a lot to say. . . . When they have called for Command of Fundamental Processes, that’s it. They proceed at once to Worthy Home-membership, a main objective much more to their liking.”33 Because Command of Fundamental Processes was the only objective to refer specifically to academic education, the Progressive educators deemed it insufficiently important to warrant further elaboration.
The third objective, as Mitchell notes above, was “Worthy Home-membership,” which would ensure that every high school girl would be taught the rules of proper family management.
The fourth was “Vocation,” later known as “Industrial Arts” or shop class, which would teach blue-collar employment skills.
Fifth was “Civics,” a field of study to replace history. Herein the CRSE revealed its deepest values. As Charles Sykes notes, the commissioners
who wrote the Cardinal Principles were especially uninterested in the U.S. Constitution and the ideas of the Founding Fathers. Civics [in their view] should concern itself less with constitutional questions and [more] with . . . the informal activities of daily life that . . . seek the common good. Such agencies as child welfare organizations . . . afford specific opportunities for the expression of civic qualities.34
Most telling in regard to the Civics objective was the commission’s exhortation for students to engage in group projects, cooperative solutions, and socialized recitations, all designed to foster “a sense of collective responsibility. . . . [and] training in collective thinking.”35
The sixth objective was “Worthy Use of Leisure,” which assumed that most people, devoid of “proper” schooling, did not know how to enjoy themselves or relax—and that training in leisure activities was a productive use of school time.
The seventh and final objective was “Ethical Character,” which raised this terrifying question: Which moral code would government-run schools inculcate in young students? Might the Commission’s emphasis on “collective responsibility” and “collective thinking” provide a clue?
Ravitch comments, “The driving purpose behind the seven objectives was socialization, teaching students to fit into society. . . . The overriding goal was social efficiency, not the realization of individual desire for self-improvement.”36
It is jaw-dropping that in 1918, after Americans had made superlative intellectual advances in literature (Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and others), psychology (William James), applied science and technology (Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers), and numerous other fields, that the leading organization of American educators virtually stripped academic training from the core of the nation’s schooling. Sykes notes, “The Cardinal Principles, which are voluble to the point of tedium on every aspect of schooling, dismissed scholarship with a single sentence: ‘Provisions should be made also for those having distinctly academic interests.’ And that’s it; the commission offered no further comment, suggestions, or guidelines.”37 The academic aspect of education was thereby treated as “an afterthought.”38 This philosophy quickly became deeply entrenched—indeed dominant—in the schools of education and teachers’ colleges.
Contrast the Cardinal Principles with the NEA educational guidelines of 1893, a mere twenty-five years earlier. In that year, the Commission of Ten, headed by Harvard’s Charles Eliot, spelled out the reasons for academic training:
As studies in language and in the natural sciences are best adapted to cultivate the habits of observation; as mathematics are the traditional training of the reasoning faculties . . . so history and its allied branches are better adapted than any other studies to promote the invaluable mental power which we call judgment.39
Presumably, Eliot and other commission members recognized the same truth later expressed by philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”40
But study of history in American schools was about to be eviscerated. Before the CRSE, most high schools offered (even required) a four-year development in history that covered ancient, European, English, and American history. But now, the CRSE created a new field called “Social Studies.” History, according to the new curriculum designers, had little if any social purpose. Social Studies would.
The CRSE was composed of sixteen (later seventeen) committees. The Committee on Social Studies was headed by Thomas Jesse Jones, a noted advocate of industrial and trade education and one of the first to use the term “social studies.” This new field was a farrago of elements, including some history, but focusing on “social efficiency, or teaching students the skills and attitudes necessary to fit into the social order.”41
Civics, ostensibly a study of government, was regarded as a part of this new field, but it was altered to fit the new social activism. It was now not so important for students to know how the president was elected as it was to know the duties of the community dogcatcher. The Committee on Social Studies, which Jones chaired, wrote:
The old chronicler who recorded the deeds of kings and warriors and neglected the labors of the common man is dead. The great palaces and cathedrals and pyramids are often but the empty shells of a parasitic growth on the working group. The elaborate descriptions of these old tombs are but sounding brass and tinkling cymbals compared to the record of the joys and sorrows, the hopes and disappointments of the masses, who are infinitely more important than any arrangement of wood and stone and iron.42
Readers of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead will recognize in these words the sentiments of archvillain Ellsworth Toohey and his Marxist ideology. Observe the emphasis on the masses or the collective, the disdain for knowledge of the activities of kings and rulers, including, in some cases, their life-giving achievements, and the scorn for knowledge of the great men who have created original arrangements of wood and stone and iron—arrangements that have lifted man from caves to hovels to comfortable homes to skyscrapers. Henceforth, history—to the extent that it was taught at all—would focus on little guys, not great achievers, and would promote a distinctive goal: Fit into the social order—conform, adjust, accept. The teacher was to socialize the child. He was not to nurture a love of learning, of thinking, of independent cognition. Whatever else Progressive educators disagreed on, this was a cardinal principle of their faith: Independent thinking is useless to society, even dangerous. As infamously stated by American philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952), “The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.”43
Dewey was particularly effective in advancing Progressive education because he, in effect, mixed the poison with valid principles of education. For instance, Dewey held that children learn best by experience, by choosing and engaging in hands-on projects—a principle embraced also by Maria Montessori (whom we’ll discuss shortly). He helped popularize the idea that young students should engage in real-life activities that help them to gain practical skills—just as Maria Montessori did. He held that children will learn reading while poring over cookbooks, writing by jotting down a favored recipe, arithmetic by counting eggs and weighing flour, and so forth.44 There is some truth in all of this.
Dewey, unlike many other Progressives, did not entirely disparage academic training. At the legendary Laboratory School that he and his wife, Alice, founded and ran at the University of Chicago from 1896 to 1904, they integrated a great deal of cognitive subject matter. Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards wrote:
[T]hey continually experimented with different ways of [teaching] young students about primitive life in the Bronze Age . . . early Greek civilization . . . Prince Henry of Portugal, Columbus, and other explorers . . . Shakespeare’s plays; science; mathematics; algebra and geometry; English, French, and even Latin.45
Further, despite his commitment to an experiential method, Dewey “taught by standing in front of his class and lecturing.”46
But Dewey’s ultimate aims were another matter. He held that all learning is ultimately for the purpose of “saturating [students] with the spirit of service.”47 In Dewey’s view, the purpose of education is not to convey “bodies of information and skills that have been worked out in the past”;48 not to teach the child “science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography”;49 but rather to prime him for “social cooperation and community life.”50
This was the stated goal of one of America’s most formidable intellectual figures. Dewey was no mere “curriculum designer” trained in modern educational theories, IQ testing, and best methods of developing differing tracks for students of diverse intellectual capacities. Rather, he held a PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University and taught philosophy for decades at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and elsewhere. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Immanuel Kant, was expert in the history of philosophy, and much of his original writing centered in this field. He was a brilliant mind trained in academic study, and his abstruse writings on technical philosophy gained him a worldwide reputation as a towering intellect. Dewey gave the Progressive movement the sanction of “lofty philosophy.”
Thus, Dewey’s educational influence was catastrophic. In addition to setting the goal of Progressive education as socializing the child, saturating him with the spirit of service, and priming him for community life, Dewey lent credibility to a host of virulent opponents of academic training, one of whom was William Heard Kilpatrick (1871–1965).
Kilpatrick regarded himself as Dewey’s leading disciple. From his position as senior chair of philosophy of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College (from 1918 to 1940), he trained an estimated 35,000 students—coming from every state in the nation—“at a time when Teachers College was training a substantial percentage of the articulate leaders of American education.”51 As E. D. Hirsch, author of The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, argues, “Although the progressive movement in American education is often associated with John Dewey . . . the most influential introducer of progressive ideas into American schools of education was William Heard Kilpatrick.”52
Kilpatrick was the prime mover behind “the project method” of learning. An avid opponent of academic education, Kilpatrick chaired the Committee on the Problem of Mathematics of the CRSE, where he argued, among other things, that math instruction should be severely curtailed and students should be grouped into segments, so that only future scientists, engineers, and the like would engage in any substantial mathematics. He held that the rest—the overwhelming majority of American students—should be taught little more than basic arithmetic in high school.53
As with aspects of Dewey’s ideas, Kilpatrick’s project method incorporated a number of truths about how children learn—some quite similar to the principles of Maria Montessori. For instance, he held that very young children can advance rapidly when allowed to choose and pursue their own hands-on projects. The kinds of projects he advocated were “a girl making a dress; a boy producing a school newspaper; a class presenting a play; a group of boys organizing a baseball team.”54 Kilpatrick held that this project method made education like “life itself,” not merely training for adult life.55 Much of that is reasonable.
But, like his mentor Dewey, Kilpatrick had anything but reasonable aims. His project method was not about activities that train the individual’s mind, advance his knowledge, and promote independent thinking. That is the essence of the Montessori Method, which we’ll consider below—along with Kilpatrick’s criticism of it. Kilpatrick was interested not in encouraging independence but in engineering social conformity.
Ravitch—quoting Kilpatrick—provides an indication of his aim: “In contrast to the ‘customary set-task sit-alone-at-your-own-desk procedure’ which promotes ‘selfish individualism,’ the project method [involves] the pressure of social approval [which] would encourage conformity to ‘the ideals necessary for approved social life.’”56
Not surprising, Kilpatrick admired the Soviet Union, and when he visited it in 1929, he was delighted to see his project method in action. For instance, he witnessed groups of students “disposing of disintegrating carcasses of animals left frozen by the roadside.” And he reported, “no school system in history has been more thoroughly and consistently made to work into the social and political program of the state.”57
Dewey also pilgrimaged to the Soviet Union in 1929 and “was deeply moved by what he saw.” He reported that Soviet educators “realized that the goals of the progressive school were undermined by ‘the egoistic and private ideals and methods inculcated by the institution of private property, profit and acquisitive possession.’” He recognized the pervasiveness of Communist propaganda in the country but excused it because it promoted “the good of humanity,” rather than private gain. He even expressed a modicum of praise for the communist attempt to dismantle the family unit, which accorded with the Marxist idea that family is individualistic and pernicious to communal living.58
George Counts, another leading Progressive educator at Columbia, was even more fulsome in praise of Communism. Twice he visited the Soviet Union, becoming convinced that American schools must take the lead in transforming the United States from a capitalist into a socialist nation. Counts sought to transform Progressive education into political activism in support of socialism.
Progressive educators had long held a hodgepodge of educational theories. On the one hand, they believed that the child’s impulses should guide his education. On the other, they believed that the purpose of education was to socialize him—to teach him to conform and fit into the social order. These two components were not as contradictory as they seemed. For whether children were encouraged to act on their whims, or taught to conform to the group—or, under differing circumstances, to do both—they were never taught to think independently. Under the communism admired by the Progressives, what is the political fate of those who know next to nothing and who cannot think? The conformists will obey the state. The whim worshippers, unable to formulate principles—including political ones—will give up in despair or will be crushed by the state. Or they will learn to obey, now following the caprice of the dictator rather than their own.
Counts was explicit about the political goals of the Progressive education movement. In his book Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order?, as Ravitch notes, Counts “forthrightly called for elimination of capitalism, property rights, private profits, and competition, and establishment of collective ownership of natural resources, capital, and the means of production and distribution.”59 To indoctrinate children, he called for a consistent socialization of the classroom. He accused the “child-centered” Progressives of having no social theory “unless it be that of anarchy and extreme individualism,” repudiated the notion that education can “build its program out of the interest of the children,” claimed that America must become “less frightened than it is today at the bogeys of imposition and indoctrination,” and openly acknowledged that his socialist vision required indoctrination.60
This was the Depression era, and Counts’s message was well received. Ravitch points out, “Virtually every prominent progressive in the 1930s agreed that the traditional academic curriculum reflected the failed capitalist economic order.”61
Academic subjects in education and capitalism in economics are inextricably linked. One teaches cognitive independence, the other protects political independence. If one wishes to destroy political independence, it is first necessary to destroy cognitive independence; independent thinkers will govern their own lives and will not live as suckled wards of the state. To build a citizenry obedient to the state requires a classroom that inculcates conformity to the group.
Intelligent Americans often note two seemingly distinct aspects of America’s schools: (1) The teaching of academic subjects is poorly done (if done at all), and (2) the educational system is a hotbed of anticapitalist propaganda. The fact is that the two observations are intimately related.
The Progressives and their intellectual heirs severely dumbed down the schools as a necessary means of inculcating conformity, dependency, and obedience. Their vision is clear: They, the educated, intellectual elite—the educational and social engineers—will govern in the classroom and in the legislature. The people will conform and obey.
Fortunately, this is not a vision shared by all educators.
Advocates of Literacy and Learning
The educational ideas and methods of Maria Montessori (1870–1952) entered United States culture during the early years of Progressive dominance. She was one of the first female medical doctors in Italy, and she developed revolutionary educational techniques that greatly enhanced the cognitive development of her students.
Montessori, recognizing that sensory observation is the foundation of cognition, trained young children to engage their senses, to develop their motor skills, to concentrate for long periods of time, and to learn independently. She scaled down classroom furniture and materials to child size, enabling children to more readily use and manipulate them. She taught youngsters to read, employing a phonetic method that trained them to sound out letters and words and thus to unlock the worlds of literature, history, and science. She taught them to write and to do basic arithmetic, fractions, decimals, and geometry. Whereas the Progressives encouraged group projects, social pressure, and social conformity, Montessori encouraged independent activities, independent thinking, independent learning.Whereas the Progressives encouraged group projects, social pressure, and social conformity, Montessori encouraged independent activities, independent thinking, independent learning. Click To Tweet
In Montessori’s classrooms, the children, using her specially designed materials, usually worked by themselves and with materials of their own choosing. They could team up if they chose to, but the cardinal social principle was in essence: Thou shalt not disrupt a child doing his or her own work.62
In the years prior to World War I, her methods caught on in the United States. The first American Montessori school was opened in 1911 in Tarrytown, New York, shortly followed by others. Her book The Montessori Method was translated into English and quickly sold through six editions. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his wife publicly supported her methods. In 1913, she traveled to the United States and spoke around the country, generally to large and admiring crowds. McClure’s Magazine, a widely read publication of the day, featured a series of articles on her methods. During this period, a century ago, Montessori schooling held a great deal of promise for the future of cognitive training in this country.
Shortly thereafter, several prominent American intellectuals rejected the antiacademic standpoint of the educational establishment and proposed a new, highly academic program for training the intellect. Among them were Robert Maynard Hutchins, the youthful president of the University of Chicago; and Mortimer J. Adler, a relentless autodidact and possibly the only person in history to receive a PhD (in psychology from Columbia University) without a high school or college diploma. Together, these two led a concerted campaign on behalf of a “Great Books” program. Hutchins and Adler maintained both that “a liberal education was unthinkable without a grounding in the Great Books”63—the classic works of Western civilization—and that such academic training was the proper purpose of education.
For students to take on such works in high school and college, they need a solid foundation in reading, writing, math, and science. Adler later published The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (1982) and The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus (1984), which called for terminating the Progressives’ segmented educational system. He argued that
a single elementary and secondary school program for all students would ensure the upgrading of the curriculum and the quality of instruction to serve the needs of the brightest and to [educationally] lift the . . . least advantaged. He proposed that . . . vocational . . . training be given only after students had completed a full course of basic education in the humanities, arts, sciences, and language.64
Starting in the late 1920s and continuing through the 1930s, Hutchins and Adler taught a seminar titled “Great Books of the Western World” at the University of Chicago and elsewhere. The reading list included primary sources from scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, literary figures, and sundry diverse thinkers—such great minds as Plato, Euclid, Galileo, Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and others.
Hutchins decried vocational training in education, arguing that an employer could train a thinking person in vocational skills in a matter of weeks. He claimed that
the object of general education should be “the training of the mind”. . . . The kind of educational program that was needed . . . would teach students to appreciate the importance of ideas, to understand history, the fine arts and literature, and to grasp the principles of science.65
Hutchins was a young, brilliant, eloquent spokesman for intellectual training, and his message received an enthusiastic reception from newspapers, magazines, and the general public.
But not from the schools of education.
The Enemies of Intellectual Training Attack
William Heard Kilpatrick led the onslaught against the pro-academic educators.
Kilpatrick wasted no time in confronting the Montessori challenge. In his critical 1914 booklet, The Montessori System Examined, he dismissed Montessori’s methods as offering nothing in educational theory that was simultaneously novel and correct. Among his numerous criticisms, the most salient was his objection to academic training being introduced at such an early age. He made the narrow criticism that phonics worked well for such a phonetic language as Italian but was ill-suited to “the unphonetic character of the English language.”66 More broadly, he rejected academic training altogether as inappropriate for three- to five-year-olds. He wrote that education “is much more than the acquisition of knowledge from books. And there is reason to fear that the presence of books makes more difficult that other part of education.” He also maintained that “reading and writing might better be postponed to a later period.” He argued that such intellectual training “tends to divert the attention of . . . [a] child from other . . . possibly more valuable parts of education,” and he agreed “with those who would exclude these formal school arts from the kindergarten period.”67
Further, Kilpatrick, like Dewey and other Progressives, was scathing in his condemnation of the Great Books advocates. Comparing Hutchins with William Bagley, a Progressive educator who was less opposed to academic training, Ravitch writes, “Bagley annoyed Progressive educators but Robert Maynard Hutchins drove them into a rage. . . . Unthinkable, his claim that the fundamental purpose of education was intellectual training.”68
William Heard Kilpatrick was . . . horrified by Hutchins’ views. He fulminated that Hutchins was an authoritarian whose ideas were out of step with “every intellectual advance of the last 300 years.” Worse, “Dr. Hutchins stands near to Hitler. When you have a professed absolute, then you have to have some authority to give it content, and there the dictator comes in.”69
Dewey also excoriated the Great Books supporters. As a Pragmatist philosopher, Dewey was appalled by Hutchins’s classical commitment to absolute principles or eternal truths. Every belief, Dewey held, is subject to scientific experimentation and ongoing revision. Circumstances continuously change, requiring human minds to discard outmoded explanatory principles and to seek relevant new ones. What was true during ancient or medieval times does not necessarily continue to explain natural or social events under the greatly changed conditions of the modern world. Dewey, too, compared Hutchins to the dictatorial powers of 1930s Europe. As Ravitch writes:
Astonishingly, Dewey went so far as to imply that Hutchins was ideologically linked with the jackbooted thugs who were then brutalizing Europe. “I would not intimate that the author [Hutchins] has any sympathy with fascism. But basically, his idea as to the proper course to be taken is akin to the distrust of freedom and the consequent appeal to some fixed authority that is now over-running the world.”70
In their criticisms of the Great Books approach, Dewey and Kilpatrick ignored the fact that Hutchins and Adler encouraged students to read not just the works of a single philosophic figure or tradition, but all of the greatest works of the Western canon. Included were John Locke, Isaac Newton, Goethe, Voltaire, Kant, Charles Darwin, Einstein, Freud, and other revolutionary thinkers “of the last 300 years”—and of earlier figures, as well. Further, consider the twisted logic and bitter irony of Soviet apologists imputing support for totalitarianism to those seeking to nurture independent cognition.
How did a philosopher such as Dewey come to deeply despise intellectual training rooted in the most important philosophic thought of history? Among the many reasons, Dewey and other Progressives conflated certainty and absolute knowledge with dogmatism and political authority. Did Progressives truly believe that those who were certain of facts—such as 3 x 3 = 9, George Washington was the first president of the United States, or A is A—would inevitably sic the Gestapo on intellectual opponents? More likely, they understood that independent thinkers—those not reliant on any group or authority for their grasp of reality—would never make for obedient subjects, nor would such thinkers accept the communist dictatorship for which Progressives pined.
The intellectual battle lines between these two groups of educators were clearly drawn. One side, in regard to elementary school, wanted primarily to teach students practical life skills and conformity to the group, with a dollop of cognitive training mixed in. The other side wanted to provide students with practical life skills and foundational knowledge of academic subjects—and, above all, to teach them to think independently. These differences continued into secondary school. One side sought to socialize students, to provide vocational training for most of them and academic education only for an elite few. The other side strove to continue teaching academic subjects, to teach students to think for themselves, and, in many cases, to prepare them to study the timeless works of Western civilization—works that shed light on history, science, philosophy, and art, and that provide principles and guidance for the present and future.
In short, the goal of the Progressives was to saturate students in the spirit of service and prepare them for community life. On the other hand, the goal of the heroic educators opposing them was to teach students to think, learn, and understand the world.
In order to achieve their ends, Progressives needed to do more than merely attack the ideas of Montessori, Hutchins, and Adler. Their antiacademic campaign would culminate in an assault on the very root of cognitive development. What was the most effective way to bar millions of students from intellectual training? Cripple their ability to read.
The Great Reading Wars
In 1955, when the campaign in favor of intellectual training seemed lost, Rudolf Flesch fired a shot heard ’round the nation with his brilliant book Why Johnny Can’t Read. Flesch was an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis and emigrated to America. He held a doctorate in law from the University of Vienna and earned a PhD in library science from Columbia University. Knowing there was little illiteracy in Austria and in Western Europe more broadly, he was nonplussed by the rampant reading problems he encountered in America.
Flesch wrote to American parents about, among other things, remedial instruction for deficient readers:
[T]here are no remedial reading cases in Austrian schools. . . . There are no remedial reading cases in Germany, in France, in Italy, in Norway, in Spain—practically anywhere in the world except in the United States. . . . Did you know that there was no such thing as remedial reading in this country either until about thirty years ago?71
He discovered that from the start of the 20th century, American educators almost uniformly repudiated the tried-and-true phonics method of teaching reading. Phonics makes efficient use of one of the great intellectual achievements of human civilization: the development of the Roman alphabet. This alphabet is the basis of most European languages and is composed of twenty-six letters that give rise, in English, to forty-four sounds. By the time most children are five, they generally can speak thousands of words in their mother tongue. At this point (and probably earlier), it is possible to teach them the alphabet, the literary symbols that make up the verbal sounds. In a matter of months, children between the ages of five and six can master the written alphabet and begin to sound out words. For centuries, billions of children in dozens of nations around the world have mastered the all-important art of reading by this method. Even in English, a so-called irregular language, only approximately 13 percent of words are pronounced differently than they are spelled. This means that children trained in phonics can sound out about 87 percent of words in the language. Then, as proficient readers, they learn by experience to match irregular spellings—for example, “rough”—with the spoken word that they well know.72
But throughout the 20th century and continuing now well into the 21st, the majority of American educators have rejected phonics, opting instead for some variant of the “whole word” method. This method teaches children to look at the whole word, to recognize its shape, to examine the context in which it is deployed, and, if necessary, to guess. The first iteration of this method, known as “look-say,” held that children learn to recognize a written word by seeing it repeatedly. The theory was: Students need only master a core group of commonly used words and then employ context cues to decipher the rest. The children cannot be overloaded with thousands of new word shapes at a time. Therefore, the look-say method, starting in the first grade, entails introducing children to only several hundred new words per school year, which are then relentlessly repeated. Here, for instance, is a sentence from the kind of books commonly used: “‘We will look,’ said Susan. ‘Yes, yes,’ said all the children. ‘We will look and find it.’ So all the boys and girls looked. They looked and looked for it. But they did not find it.”73
However, even advocates of look-say highlight its overriding, intractable problem. As one advocate put it, children
should receive praise for a good guess even though it is not completely accurate. For example, if a child reads “I like to eat carrots” as “I like to eat cake,” praise should be given for supplying a word that makes sense and follows at least some of the phonic cues.74
Of course, countless sentences have multiple words that might satisfy the context cues. A reader unable to sound them out can only guess. Indeed, proponents of this method acknowledge the undeniable role of guessing in the process. As Martin Gross details in The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of American Public Schools, proponents of the look-say method claim that “reading is ‘a psycholinguistic guessing game.’ Students are encouraged to ‘create’ and are not marked wrong for guessing wrong.”75 Philosopher Leonard Peikoff writes archly of this method:
How would you like to see, at the head of our army, a general with this kind of schooling? He receives a telegram [today an instant message, if not a tweet] from the president during a crisis ordering him to “reject nuclear option,” proceeds to make a good guess, and reads it as “release nuclear option.” Linguistically, the two are as close as “carrots” and “cake.”76
Advocates of the whole word method hold that phonics overloads a child’s mind with too many letters and sounds that must be memorized. So, in place of this, they endorse a system that requires readers to memorize the shape of every word in the language. Memorize not twenty-six letters and forty-four sounds that enable readers to decode untold thousands of words in the English language—but memorize the shape of every word in the entire language. Phonics is a superb time and mental space saver: a simple method, once mastered, to decipher the vast preponderance of words. The whole word method, on the other hand, is akin to a gigantic warehouse containing millions and millions of items, randomly stored, with no letter-by-letter classification, requiring searchers to memorize the shape of each, later to recall that shape and its meaning as needed. It is no mystery that one method is vastly superior to the other.
Early in this country’s history, phonics had been dominant. Noah Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller, first published in 1783—and later, McGuffey Readers—used phonics to teach reading and then introduced children to literature: real stories that captured the imagination. But by the 1920s, the professional curriculum designers had rejected phonics in favor of look-say. For example, Dr. Arthur Gates of Teachers College, Columbia University, published in 1928 New Methods in Primary Reading, an influential book supporting look-say. In an earlier essay, Gates had written, “That it will be the part of wisdom to curtail the phonetic instruction in the first grade very greatly, is strongly implied; indeed it is not improbable that it should be eliminated entirely.”77 His book argued along similar lines, diluting this guidance only slightly, omitting only the part about eliminating phonics entirely.
By the 1930s, the look-say method had triumphed in the teachers’ colleges, textbooks, and in many schools. The infamous Dick and Jane readers became the dominant textbooks in teaching reading to American children starting in the 1930s and continuing for many years. For decades, children were bombarded with such inane drivel as, “‘See Spot run,’ said Jane. ‘See Spot run to the new house.’ ‘Come home, Spot,’ said Dick. ‘Come, Spot, come. Come home.’”
It was in this context that Flesch’s book sounded the alarm. It was serialized in newspapers and magazines and quickly became a best seller. It just as quickly became anathema to the educational establishment. For millions of parents and thoughtful Americans, it was eye-opening, and it galvanized them to crusade for phonics. Flesch devoted an entire chapter to pitting systematic phonics against the whole word method and examining their respective results in every relevant test conducted up to that time. In every test, students trained in phonics read better than students trained using variants of the whole word method.78 Additionally, in 1961, the Carnegie Corporation of New York commissioned Jeanne Chall of the Harvard Graduate School of Education to research the issue and finally resolve the dispute. In her 1967 book Learning to Read: The Great Debate, she concluded, “For a beginning reader . . . knowledge of letter and sounds had more influence on reading achievement than the child’s tested ‘mental ability’ or IQ.”79
Ravitch writes, “Flesch’s polemic set off a national debate about literacy. . . . Because of its popularity, Flesch’s book had a swift and large effect on the teaching of reading.” As a result, “Several publishers issued new reading textbooks that featured phonics.”80
Nonetheless, the educational establishment clung to the whole word method; and, by the 1980s, in a new form, it made a sweeping comeback. Its new iteration was known as “whole language.” Whole language retained the whole word approach and thus the obdurate refusal to teach phonics.
Some advocates of this approach, to their credit, recognize that children introduced to great literary works are impelled by their natural curiosity to read interesting stories. However, whole language advocates continue crippling children’s minds with stultifying guessing games—rather than enlightening them with the proven method of phonics.
One critic of this horror observed the frustration of students during the 1980s and early 1990s and reflected that “in whole language, millions of youngsters nationwide were surrounded by ‘beautiful pieces of literature that (they) can’t read.’”81
Unfortunately for California children, the state became a testing ground for whole language during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1992, after the whole language method had been the modus operandi in schools for several years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) conducted statewide reading tests. A jaw-dropping 52 percent of California fourth graders were reading below the baseline established for that grade. When the same test was conducted again in 1994, the number of semiliterate children in California had risen to 56 percent. One teacher in the Los Angeles area gave a heartbreaking report of first graders asked to read. “The children were in tears. . . . They look at you with three paragraphs on a page and they say, ‘What do we do with this?’”82
When some schools course-corrected and reintroduced phonics, the results were telling. After students taught with whole language repeatedly tested poorly, their elementary school in Texas switched to intensive phonics training. On a subsequent statewide reading test, 98 percent of students from the school scored at or above grade level.83
The continued commitment to the whole word method on the part of education professionals would be unfathomable without a grasp of their basic motives. But once we apprehend that their aim is to create “well-socialized” future citizens obedient to commands for “the good of humanity,” the Progressive repudiation of phonics becomes readily understandable, even predictable. If you want children to read well, you embrace phonics. If you do not want children to read well—or at all—you reject it. If you want students to master academic subjects, you embrace phonics. If you do not want students to master academic subjects, you reject it.
It’s no wonder that many American students cannot read. The “educational experts” who train their teachers do not want them to.
Dumbing Down the Rest of the Curriculum
This same horrific tale has been replicated across the entire academic curriculum. In keeping with the principles of the curriculum designers, less and less attention is given to academic subjects. Regarding math, for example, the middle schools are “heavily mired down in simple arithmetic.”84 By the late 1990s, only three states required more than two years of math to graduate from a public high school. “Most required two years, and others even less.” By then, more than a third of public high school graduates had never taken a full course in basic algebra; 45 percent had never taken intermediate algebra; and trigonometry had all but vanished—only one graduate in eight took an introductory course.85 The numbers haven’t changed much since then, and high school students still do not learn enough math to prepare them for college.86
Regarding science, the story is the same. Although 93 percent of high school students study biology, only 54 percent take a chemistry course, and a mere 24 percent study physics. The writer Martin Gross reports, “Only 20 percent of public high school graduates—one in five—take all three basic science courses.”87
As for history, it has been transformed into “social studies,” thoroughly eviscerated, and permeated with more political activism than content. Related, because reading abilities have been severely curtailed, literature classes are severely dumbed down as well. For example, the 1922 Texas state high school reading list for the ninth grade included such works as Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Scott’s Ivanhoe; the estimated grade levels for the list ranged from 8.0 to 12.9. By contrast, the 2015–16 ninth grade reading list includes Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Rodman Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty; the estimated grade levels for this list range from 4.5 to 6.7.88 It is, therefore, appalling but not surprising that, as eminent scholar Richard Pipes reports, applicants for his freshman seminar at Harvard University are “almost totally unfamiliar with the world’s great literature.”89
Because academic subjects are sparsely taught, if taught at all, teachers need little mastery of them; instead, they take “education” courses. As Gross writes, “High school teachers in training typically take fewer credits in their majors than other students majoring in the same subject.”90 In other words, future math teachers take fewer math courses than do math majors, English teachers take fewer English courses than do English majors, and so on. One telling fact is that, whereas for decades CliffsNotes’ readership consisted largely of high school and college students, by the turn of the 21st century, their prime demographic had shifted to English teachers who had taken few literature courses, had never read the books they were now teaching, and were ill-equipped to interpret them.91
The Progressives are winning their war against the academic program and intellectual training.
What We Can Do
The war rages on, and advocates of a proper curriculum and corresponding intellectual training have many difficult battles ahead. As Richard Mitchell wrote in 1981,
After sober and judicious consideration, and weighing one thing against another in the interest of reasonable compromise, H. L. Mencken concluded that a startling and dramatic improvement in American education required only that we hang all the professors and burn down the schools. His uncharacteristically moderate proposal was not adopted. Those who actually knew more about education than Mencken did could see that his plan was nothing more than cosmetic and would in fact provide only an outward appearance of improvement. Those who knew less, on the other hand, had somewhat more elaborate plans of their own, and they just happened to be in charge of the schools.92
Mencken’s words from many decades ago have proven incisively prescient, as have Mitchell’s. The educational establishment is, in the words of E. D. Hirsch, “an impregnable fortress.” Writer after writer has accurately denounced it, parents have risen in fury against it, special government commissions have critiqued it—all to no avail. The schools of education, and federal and state departments of education, form what Arthur Bestor called an “interlocking directorate,” championing a vision and a philosophy that they will never renounce.93 From time to time, to placate outraged parents, the educational establishment claims to make changes. But under new names, they support essentially the same anti-subject-matter policies. The “change” from look-say to whole language is but one example. Hirsch notes that such reforms “have long dominated the schools.” For instance, “the repudiation of the supposedly deleterious ‘overemphasis’ on [academic] subject matter is a reform that has already been victorious for half a century.”94
The curriculum designers will die before relinquishing their power to cripple students’ minds.
One striking example of this shameless obstinacy was displayed when Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, two other Nobel laureates, and thirty other scientists offered to design—free of charge—a K–12 science curriculum for the state of California. The state turned them down; instead, it awarded a $178,000 contract for curriculum development to “professional educators” who, of course, were trained not in science but in “education.”95
The educational establishment is a monolith that cannot easily be defeated. But it can be circumvented.
There are numerous signs of this possibility in American education, trends that Americans can build on to vastly upgrade the quality of education in this country. One is the resurgence of interest in Montessori training. Progressive schools eclipsed Montessori schools in America between the world wars. But in the 1950s, as the deleterious effects of Progressive education became glaringly apparent, Montessori schooling regained support, albeit limited. Today, approximately four thousand certified Montessori schools dot the nation. Creative minds such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and numerous others credit a part of their success to early and effective Montessori schooling. So, one thing we can do is advocate Montessori training and support Montessori schools.
Further, homeschooling is once again legal in every state. In 2003, approximately 1,096,000 American students were being homeschooled; by 2012, the number had swelled to 1,773,000, approximately 3.4 percent of the country’s students age five to seventeen. As the nation’s public schools continue to decline, the number of homeschoolers will no doubt increase. Another thing we can do is advocate and support homeschooling initiatives.
As for reading, many parents now realize that phonics opens up the rich world of books to their children, and companies such as Hooked on Phonics offer products that make it easier than ever for parents to teach their children at home.96
Another powerful and largely untapped resource that parents can use are the many full-time graduate students working toward advanced degrees, not in “education,” but in math, science, literature, history, and every other academic subject. Generally, these graduate students know their field better than many (if not most) teachers. Many do not yet have full-time jobs, so they tend to need money. Parents can use social media and other online sources to find such graduate students in their area and, at reasonable hourly rates, hire them as tutors for their children. Even if a graduate student is not local, he can conference with students anywhere in the world using Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, and similar free tools.
At the college level, the influence of Hutchins and Adler has been revived at a few schools. For example, the Great Books program at St. John’s College provides superb training in the classics of Western civilization at both its Annapolis and Santa Fe campuses. So do the programs at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, University of Chicago, and several other colleges and universities. There is even a Great Books program dedicated to promoting the foundations of freedom and capitalism—the Lyceum program at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism.
Although opportunities for and outposts of intellectual training still exist, the dominance of the same failed educational theories remains a travesty. To fight it, we must speak out at whatever level is open to us, public or private, among friends or among strangers, in person or online, via Twitter or letters to congressmen. We must champion the mind, intellectual training, and a rigorous academic curriculum. For the sake of justice on behalf of the countless minds already stunted, and to protect countless more, we must tell the bitter truth about the American educational establishment.
If we can save even one priceless mind, it will be worth it. With a concerted effort, we can save many.For the sake of justice on behalf of the countless minds already stunted, and to protect countless more, we must tell the bitter truth about the American educational establishment. Click To Tweet