Progressive Education and Our Killing Schools
The second in a series . . .
For if you basically believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and we can proclaim no value, then everything is allowed and nothing is important.—Albert Camus, “The Crisis of Man.”
In “Our Killing Schools—Part 1,” I reviewed the history of mass shootings at America’s government schools over the last quarter century and I raised a series of questions about these shootings that politicians, policy analysts, and the mainstream media do not want to ask or answer. The principal questions are: 1) why are America’s teenage boys so full of anger, resentment, and nihilistic rage, and, 2) why are they targeting, attacking, and committing mass murder at America’s government schools? I raised the very disturbing possibility in Part 1 that the answer to these questions might very well be found in the schools themselves.
In this essay, I am concerned to identify the root philosophic causes and not the symptoms, consequences, or aftereffects of these school shootings. Nor am I concerned with how these boys committed mass murder. The arguments put forward by liberals and conservatives about guns completely miss the point. We need to know why these boys are committing mass murder at school.
In sum, I argue that the theory and practice of “Progressive” education—the dominant educational philosophy in America’s schools—is the root philosophic cause of the cognitive and moral chaos that defines our education system and the crisis of our teenage boys. My focus will be, first, on the role played by Progressive theories of education in promoting cognitive confusion in the minds of children (boys in particular); and second, on how Progressive education promotes moral and psychological chaos in their lives.
Progressive Education Goes to School
Progressive education is a radical theory of teacher instruction that has been the reigning intellectual orthodoxy in America’s schools for over a century. Launched in the last decade of the 19th century by John Dewey and his associates, the theory of “Progressive” education infiltrated America’s teacher-training institutions in the years just before World War I, percolating down and through the elementary and secondary schools during the following decades.
Progressive education—then and now—rejects traditional values and methods of teaching and learning. It opposes the classical academic curriculum based on an intensive study of great books and core subjects such as mathematics, science, history, literature, and foreign languages; it rejects time-honored methods of teaching that view the teacher as the transmitter of long- and well-established knowledge; and it rejects the idea that the purpose of education is to develop the minds of each child by training children to think logically.
For Dewey, the ideal academic curriculum would dispense with “[f]acts, laws, information” and with “various bodies of external fact labeled geography, arithmetic, grammar, etc.” Another Progressive educator put it this way: “We must overcome the fetichism [sic] of the alphabet, of the multiplication table, of grammars, of scales, and of bibliolatry.” In other words, knowledge and logical thinking are not the goals of this approach.
According to Progressive education theory, children are the subjective creators of their own knowledge: the “active builders of knowledge—little scientists who are constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world.” They believe that “knowledge is not transmitted directly from one knower to another, but is actively built up by the learner.” Progressive education assumes that each child can generate for himself, out of nothing, the accrued wisdom of civilization. In other words, each child should reinvent the wheel on his own or with others in a group.
According to G. Stanley Hall, an influential Progressive education theorist, teachers in the past were mistaken to think that their chief task was “perfecting the art of imparting knowledge.” The new perspective says that teachers must learn first from students and not vice versa. Their primary responsibility is to “fit the school to the child, rather than the child to the school.”
In the Progressive classroom, teachers do not teach and students do not build their knowledge step-by-step and think on increasingly abstract levels. Teachers are not to assume the role of authoritarian “sage on the stage,” nor are they to use the “chalk and talk” method of teaching. Instead, they are to be “facilitators,” a “guide on the side” that flits around the classroom moderating endless bull-sessions among students who are now to sit in groups around tables.
Progressive education also focuses on “problems” and “processes” rather than academic subjects and logical thinking, and the overriding “problem” addressed by Progressive educators is how to live in a society defined by a communal ethos. The “process” used to solve the problem encourages children to, first, live in the present and to be concerned with their immediate needs and desires; second, work together in groups in order to cope with life’s daily challenges (e.g., preparing a meal, getting a job, getting along with people, practicing safe sex, planning one’s leisure time, etc.); and, third, accept the correct attitudes for living in a social democracy. Ultimately, the primary concern of Progressive education is to indoctrinate and “socialize” students with certain social attitudes rather than to educate them.
This is why progressive educators favor something called “project teaching,” which is play-like, unstructured, group work that begins with topics of interest to students—say space exploration or professional sporting teams—as the means by which children will learn to read, write, count, and calculate. Dewey proposed that students “learn by doing,” particularly if the “doing” is through group activities. Project teaching also means that rigorous testing of a body of knowledge is to be abandoned for activities such as journal writing, which is really just an exercise in “values clarification.”
Progressive educators argue that children will be inspired through their interest in and engagement with real life activities to learn the 3 R’s and other subjects naturally, as though by osmosis. This putative epistemological justification for project teaching is, however, a cover for the deeper moral-political reason that Progressives favor this method: it is intended to develop the students’ social spirit.
The individual’s pursuit of objective knowledge is viewed by Progressive theorists as inherently selfish and therefore contrary to the purpose of education, which is to adjust individuals to the needs of a greater collective good. According to John Dewey, “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.” Since acquiring knowledge and training one’s mind to think are selfish activities and since selfishness is bad, the pursuit of knowledge and the use of logic must, according to Dewey, be done away with.
At first glance, then, Progressive education seems to consist of two contradictory approaches to education. On the one hand, it promotes a child-centered curriculum that seeks to nurture each child’s “individuality” and self-expression, and, on the other, it promotes a curriculum that seeks to integrate children into a greater “collective consciousness.” This is a logical progression, not a contradiction.
Before a student can submit to the subjective declarations of the group, he must first accept that all beliefs are by their nature a matter of subjective creation. Once a student abandons his capacity to acquire a first-handed, objective knowledge of reality rooted in his own perception of reality, he is able to move to another, “higher” form of subjectivism: that of the group. In sum, teachers in Progressive classrooms are responsible for liberating and then socializing the needs, passions, opinions, and interests of their charges.
Progressive Education’s War on Conceptual Thought
Let’s now take a deeper dive into the perverse world of Progressive education.
In the last two decades a particularly virulent strain of Progressive education known as “constructivism” has infected America’s schools. Developed by the pseudo-academics of America’s “education” schools, constructivism advances the notion that all knowledge is an arbitrary social construction. Based on the idea that children discover or create their own knowledge, constructivism is responsible for initiating such perverse educational fads as the “whole language” reading technique and “whole math.”
Beginning in the 1970s, America’s “ed” schools began training prospective teachers with a new method for teaching children how to read. Known as “whole language” or “whole word,” the new approach assumed that children could learn to read as naturally as they learn to speak, “because their ability to decode is largely automatic and subconscious.”
Whole-language supporters oppose the formal and systematic drill associated with traditional phonics and letter sound correspondences, which a leading whole-language proponent has described as “jabberwocky.” By immersing children in “fun” literature, whole language supporters believe that a child’s natural desire to read will ignite as though by spontaneous combustion.
Ken Goodman, guru of the whole-language movement, has described his approach this way: “Whole language classrooms liberate pupils to try new things, to invent spellings, to experiment with a new genre, to guess at meanings in their reading, or to read and write imperfectly. In whole language classrooms risk-taking is not simply tolerated, it is celebrated.” Reading, according to Goodman, is nothing more than a “psycholinguistic game.” Simply put, guessing has been given epistemological status under the whole-language approach.
The actual method by which whole-language teachers instruct their students to read is to have them memorize thousands of whole words in the context of their shape, first letter clues, and accompanying pictures. Each word in the whole-language approach is memorized as a discrete unit that may or may not have a connection with words that look like it. Homework assignments in a whole-language reading program include having children outline and then memorize the shape of words on a cue card. America’s whole-language proponents have turned the English language into a form of hieroglyphics.
A serious problem with the whole-word approach is that the English language contains over half a million words. By the time they finish the fourth grade, students can recognize around 1,400 simple words (their spoken vocabulary typically consists of 15,000 words). Serious problems occur, however, when they graduate from the controlled and simple vocabulary of their basal readers and are confronted with much more sophisticated texts in science, literature, history or math that might introduce them to tens of thousands of new words that they’ve never seen before. The result, of course, is America’s national reading catastrophe. This is one reason why many schools are now using “reading dogs”—yes, reading dogs—to assist them in teaching children how to read!
The inability to read in the early years of school has dire consequences for a child’s entire school experience. A child who can’t read will become frustrated, humiliated, resentful, and angry and eventually will begin to “act out” and seek attention in non-academic ways. We should not be surprised, then, that some children suffer cognitive and emotional meltdown in the classroom.
The result has been skyrocketing diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, dyslexia, and various learning disabilities by teachers and other school officials. The Christian Science Monitor reports, “According to testimony given before Congress in 2000, ADHD diagnosis in children grew from 150,000 in 1970 to 6 million in 2000, representing 12 to 13 percent of US schoolchildren.” These are precisely the years in which the whole-language approach to reading became predominant in America’s schools.
And what are America’s “public” schools doing with our overactive and disruptive boys?
The schools are drugging them. Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, psychologists, counselors, and teachers working in the government schools began diagnosing young boys with ADHD in alarming numbers and then pressuring parents and doctors to have the boys medicated with Ritalin, a drug similar to cocaine. It is now estimated that some six million children in the United States (that is one in eight and almost all of them boys) will be prescribed Ritalin. Ritalin usage has increased 500 percent in the last two decades and 4,000 over the last thirty-five years.
And what about the teaching of mathematics?
Constructivists believe that mathematical knowledge is something created. They advocate what they call “discovery learning” and “cooperative learning.” Math problems should be thought of as “open-ended” and solved by groups of children using a trial-and-error or guess-and-check approach. Constructivists consider formal proofs and right answers less important than clever guesses based on inexplicable insights. They believe that if a small child thinks long and hard enough on his own, without the burdens of memorized rules and methods, that somehow (they never tell us how), through some sort of mystical insight, he will discover and then understand problems it took humankind’s greatest minds several thousand years to solve.
Today’s new-new math textbooks are filled with pictures of the Amazon rain forest, the poetry of Maya Angelou, the speeches of Bill Clinton, and the like. In a typical whole-math classroom, children do multiplication not by learning the abstract multiplication table but by using piles of marshmallows. They count a million birdseeds in order to understand the concept “million.” They measure angles by stretching rubber bands across pegged boards. This is perceptual-level math presenting children with a series of unrelated, disintegrated concretes.
What child could make sense out of such chaos?
It gets worse—much worse. One whole-math program popular in the government schools, Everyday Math, preposterously claims to foster a “conceptual understanding” of math by asking fifth-graders the following stumper:
A. If math were a color, it would be ______, because ______.
B. If math were a food, it would be ______, because ______.
C. If math were weather, it would be ______, because ______.
Tragically, a “conceptual understanding” of math is the one thing this method does not promote. In fact, whole math is an anti-conceptual method that keeps children at a concrete-bound, perceptual level of cognition, never allowing them to form and deal with higher-level abstractions.
Children educated this way will flounder in a chaotic sea of concretes with no objective, logical principles to guide them. Such methods can only foster conceptual confusion and stultification as well as a withering of a child’s motivation to learn.
As if this were not bad enough, the whole-math approach also assigns students to groups, requiring them to design their own problem-solving rules, and urges them to guess if all else fails. Under whole math, a child’s random “strategies” are just as good as the logically proven algorithms of math. Kids are taught that the vote of the group, rather than the reasoning of the individual mind, is the means of arriving at the truth.
Any hardworking, bright child would either rebel against the boredom and injustice of such a method or turn off his mind and passively submit to the will of the group.
Learning to read properly and to reason mathematically provide the basic conceptual foundations for how children eventually come to reason about and understand the nature of the larger world in which they live. These basic skills allow children to experience the world as stable, consistent, and intelligible, which in turn allows them to develop their intellectual self-confidence.
The whole-language and whole-math methods advocated by Progressive educators have, by contrast, the effect of keeping children imprisoned on a concrete-bound, perceptual-level of cognition, which means that they experience the world as indeterminate, chaotic, unintelligible, and senseless.
The ultimate psychological result of viewing the world as incomprehensible and unpredictable will necessarily foster anxiety, fear, confusion, self-doubt, and resentment in children. And by undermining our children’s capacity to read or to do simple mathematics, we also undercut their cognitive ability to understand concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust.
Progressive Education, Moral Subjectivism, and Group-Think
Epistemological corruption is not the only abomination associated with Progressive education. Just as Progressive theory holds that students subjectively create their own knowledge, whether alone or in groups, so it holds that students subjectively create their own moral values.
Not surprisingly, the moral ethos of America’s education system is dominated by the anti-principle of moral relativism. There are no moral absolutes in America’s schools except one: It is absolutely wrong to believe in moral absolutes.
The one sure thing that a college professor can expect from students—even the religious ones—is that they do not believe in moral absolutes. Today’s young people are unwilling to judge morally the opinions and actions of others, even when they disagree with them. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of today’s adolescents are not merely confused about what is right and wrong, but they also have no sense that any real difference exists between the two.
The source of the American version of moral relativism is, once again, John Dewey, the intellectual godfather of Progressive education. Dewey believed, and his Progressive followers teach, that all values (i.e., the objects of our desires, according to Dewey) are legitimate and are nothing more than a “plurality of changing, moving, individualized goods and ends.” While it is true that there are no moral absolutes for Dewey, it turns out that there is a moral standard by which all action is to be judged—the liberation and satisfaction of every child’s spontaneous whims and desires. At the core of the Progressive school is the celebration of unreasoned emotion and will, or what Dewey called the child’s “spontaneous instincts and impulses.” In effect, his teaching says “if it feels good, do it.”
Morality for Dewey is not a code of do’s and don’ts. Instead, morality is a method for pursuing and satisfying one’s subjective desires in the face of obstacles. There are no moral principles per se, only subjective choices and processes. The task of moral choice, according to Progressive educators, is to “clarify,” to pursue and secure one’s desires “in the face of the disagreeable.” Contemporary Progressive educators call this “values clarification.” And, of course, all values differ, according to Dewey, “with every person.” Ergo, all moral values are relative.
Moral action is, according to Dewey, “always specific, concrete, individualized, unique,” which means that not only does moral action differ with every individual, it is specific and unique to every moment or situation. In this regard, Dewey’s morality follows the Heraclitian metaphysics, which says “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” Moral action can never be duplicated for Dewey, and the “good is never twice alike.”
Beginning in elementary school, students are taught that all choices, values, and lifestyles are equal and that they should not discriminate between them. What this means most of all is: “Do your own thing” and “don’t judge me.” Moral judgment is the only moral offense in today’s schools. Thus, the authors of Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students write that moralizing “is the direct although sometimes subtle inculcation of the adult’s values upon the young.”
Stripping children of their parents’ moral values is a primary goal of Progressive education. Children must be empowered to construct their own moral values, whatever they might be, and without pressure that they will be judged.
The Progressive version of moral relativism is not, however, as content-less as it first seems. Moral relativism is actually not an end for Progressive educators; it is the means by which educators undermine traditional American values and institute a new social order.
It turns out that individual needs, desires, and habits are not so individuated, according to Dewey. On the one hand, he writes, children are born “with a natural desire to give out, to do, and that means to serve,” and, on the other, their personalities are socially constructed. The development of a child’s “self-expression” is therefore enhanced through participation in various group activities. Indeed, it is identical with it. For Dewey, the “chief stimuli” in the development and realization of individual “personality” is society—the “unified spirit of the community.” Individual personality is “indwelling” in one’s social personality, which, as Dewey claims, is the “first and final reality.” Education is the vehicle by which this new reality will be created.
The primary task of schools then is “social adjustment”—to form the child such that “he shall be in harmony with all others in the state, that is, that he shall possess as his own the unified will of the community.” Translation: educators must become “active and militant participants” in the creation of a “new social order” based on “collective control and ownership” of society’s “economic and political institutions.” For Progressive education, then, personal subjectivism becomes the means to group subjectivism, which in turn becomes the means to political collectivism. Socialism is the end of Progressive education.
It should come as no surprise that an educational theory with so vicious an explicit aim would also, as a consequence, corrode the minds and souls of its victims.
The Pseudo-Self-Esteem Movement
Closely related to moral relativism but incorporated more systematically into the curriculum of Progressive education is the belief that children should be constantly told how good they are. If all values are relative, it then becomes important for children to feel good about their value choices, regardless of what those choices are.
Positive reinforcement for deeds well done has been transformed by the education establishment into indiscriminate praise so that children will “feel good” about themselves regardless of whether their ideas or actions are praiseworthy or not. Consider, for instance, typical classroom posters that read: “I LIKE ME!” or “We Applaud Ourselves”; or the banner placed over mirrors in many of America’s schools that says: “You are now looking at one of the most special people in the whole wide world.” A practical result of this bogus self-esteem movement is that many schools around the United States have banned schoolyard games such as “tag” and dodgeball on the grounds that it creates winners and losers.
An extraordinary example of this mindset is found in Lauren Murphy Payne’s popular, Just Because I am: A Child’s Book of Affirmation, and her teacher guidebook to self-esteem raising. The guidebook advises teachers to make every child believe unconditionally that “she or he is truly a wonder.” Payne encourages children to focus on their feelings, urges, needs, and instincts and to follow whatever “feels ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad.’” In other words, they are encouraged to live in and celebrate the sub-rational world of their impulses. Feelings are given primacy over facts, and emotions become the child’s tool of cognition and his criterion of judgment.
The problem with this binge in juvenile self-love is that it has quite the opposite effect on children. Rather than supporting a child’s genuine self-esteem, today’s feel-good teachers are actually working to destroy it. Everything in America’s youth culture—from high teen suicide rates to rampant substance abuse and sexual promiscuity—indicates that the self-esteem pushers have stripped our children of their ability to deal with the demands of reality. In fact, reality to such children is a threat and an enemy. The result is a generation of children who live in a psychological state of fear, a state characterized by chronic self-doubt, confusion, and anxiety.
Thus, we should not be surprised that children with unjustifiably high opinions of themselves become aggressive and even violent when confronted with criticism or teasing. This phenomenon is particularly observable as children leave the relatively sheltered world of elementary school, where self-esteem indoctrination is most prevalent, and are then thrown into the Lord of the Flies-like “state of nature” that is the American high school. (It is not a coincidence that most of the teen killers have been in the eighth, ninth and tenth grades.)
The practitioners of this bogus self-esteem permit, indeed, encourage children to evade the reality of what is true and right, to evade the reality of judging and being judged, and to evade the reality of governing their own actions accordingly. By retarding the moral and psychological development of children, by keeping them in an infantile state of suspended moral animation, today’s educators imprison our children in a kind of psychic fantasyland.
Our doctors of self-esteem have shorn our children of the ability to honestly evaluate and judge the rightness and wrongness of their thoughts and actions. A child not subjected to rational and regular adult evaluation and criticism, does not have the ability to introspect and self-criticize. It is not possible for children to experience pride in praiseworthy behavior if they are not also capable of feeling a sense of shame when their behavior is shameful.
The question we must now confront is: How has Progressive education contributed to creating a generation of boys who want to destroy their schools? I will take up that question in Friday’s essay.
. John Dewey, The School and Society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1902), p. 92.
. Quoted in Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed Schools (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), p. 73.
. Quoted in Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed Schools, p. 442 (emphasis added).
. Quoted in Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed Schools, p. 70.
. John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: The Free Press, 1944), pp. 78, 154.
. John Dewey, The School and Society, pp. 12-13.
. Debbie Powell and David Hornsby, Learning Phonics and Spelling in a Whole Language Classroom (New York: Scholastics Professional Books, 1993), p. 23.
. Frank Smith, Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read, 6th ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978), p. 217.
. Quoted in Martin L. Gross, The Conspiracy of Ignorance (New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 1999), pp. 78-79 (emphasis added).
. George Austin, “Dog helps to improve reading,” Southcoasttoday.com, November 28, 2012, http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20121128/PUB05/211280372/-1/rss35.
. Kelly Hearn, “Some Parents Just Say ‘Whoa’ to School-Required Medications,” Christian Science Monitor, June 14, 2004, http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0614/p12s01-legn.html.
. “Ritalin & Cocaine: The Connection and the Controversy,” University of Utah, http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/addiction/issues/ritalin.html.
. Marianne M. Jennings, “‘Rain Forest’ Algebra Course Teaches Everything but Algebra,” The Christian Science Monitor (April 2, 1996), http://www.csmonitor.com/1996/0402/02182.html.
. “What’s New: Scholars band together to oppose ‘MathLand’,” The Christian Science Monitor (November 30, 1999), http://www.csmonitor.com/1999/1130/p16s2.html.
. Editorial, “Math Wars,” The Wall Street Journal (January 4, 2000). http://search.proquest.com/docview/398689095/fulltext/13CE35BC748D899236/121?accountid=6167.
. John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1920), p. 162.
. Dewey, The Political Writings, edited by Debra Morris and Ian Shapiro (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 106–107.
. John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, pp. 169-170, 164, 167.
. John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 167; Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1922), p. 211.
. Sidney B. Simon, Leland W. Howe, and Howard Kirschenbaum, Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students (New York: Hart Publishing, 1972), p. 15.
. Dewey, The Political Writings, pp. 98, 61–62 (emphasis added).
. Dewey, The Political Writings, pp. 59, 128, 127.
. Dean P. Johnson, “Schools are banning tag. What’s next: musical chairs?,” The Christian Science Monitor, November 3, 2006, http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/1103/p09s03-cogn.html.
. Lauren Murphy Payne, Just Because I am: A Child’s Book of Affirmation (Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 1994); A Leader’s Guide to Just Because I Am: A Child’s Book of Affirmation (Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 1994).
. Payne quoted in Charles J. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add (New York: St. Martins Griffin, 1995), pp. 49–51.
****Parts of this essay were originally published at: C. Bradley Thompson, “Our Killing Schools,” Society 51, 210–220 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-014-9767-0