People go to school to learn.  And what we mean by that is that people should gain information and skills they did not previously possess.  For traditionalists, this basic argument about schooling is so breathtakingly obvious it shouldn’t need to be said out loud at all.  However, in traditionalists’ opinions, due to (possibly) well-meaning misunderstandings on the part of progressive educators, this simple fact about schooling is not adequately appreciated.

The core mistake of progressive education, in the eyes of traditionalists, is to think that education must be built on children’s experience.  This idea was articulated powerfully in 1902 by John Dewey and has found influential advocates ever since.  As Dewey argued, in most traditional schools,

Facts are torn away from their original place in experience and rearranged with reference to some general principle.  Classification is not a matter of child experience; things do not come to the individual pigeonholed.  The vital ties of affection, the connecting bonds of activity, hold together the variety of his personal experiences.    

In order to make education more effective, Dewey argued, classroom teaching must be connected more organically to the way children learn.  Not by sitting in rows and reciting, but by building up experiences, by building on their existing experience.

Dewey insisted that the “old education” had gone wrong by making “invidious comparisons between the immaturity of the child and the maturity of the adult, regarding the former as something to be got away from as soon as possible and as much as possible.”

By the time such progressive reforms had found a home in a few American schools, Dewey’s notion of building upon children’s experience often took some turns Dewey found unfortunate.  He had warned in 1902 that there was a “danger” in assuming that the experience of young people alone could be “finally significant in themselves.”  Unfortunately, most self-appointed progressive school reformers didn’t listen to this second warning.  By the late 1930s, though Dewey still insisted that “the cardinal principle of the newer school of education [is] that the beginning of instruction shall be made with the experience learners already have,” he pointed out that in too many progressive schools, “overemphasis upon activity as an end, instead of upon intelligent activity, leads to an identification of freedom with immediate execution of impulses and desires.”

Regardless of Dewey’s own opinion of progressive education in practice, generations of teachers have been enthralled with their own interpretations of what Dewey’s “schools of tomorrow” could look like.   However, as soon as new teachers get any actual experience in education, experience in real schools with real children, they realize that the breathless “progressive” notions they attributed to Dewey don’t have much to do with the work of teaching.

Traditionalist educators insist that progressive notions fall apart in real schools, the way dreams dissipate upon waking.  In the opinion of those traditionalists, this is not merely because—as generations of progressive educators have argued—the progressive ideas haven’t been implemented fully enough.  It is because one of the central intellectual presuppositions of progressive education represents a fundamental misunderstanding of both human nature and schooling.  As Dewey himself insisted, children are not small adults.  They are fundamentally different.  These differences are biological and developmental.  Most important in this traditionalist argument, the differences are also a matter of experience.  By definition, young people lack experience.  Attempting to build schooling on a foundation of children’s lived experience is a mistake.

This does not mean that children do not have experience, or that they do not learn by building on those experiences.  They do.  But those learning encounters will take place outside of institutional schooling, by playing sports, playing with dirt, talking with peers and family members, volunteering at their churches, and so on.  In each of those contexts, young people will build on their experiences to improve at various skills and abilities.  They will build on each of those experiences, hopefully, to become better people.

But schooling is different.  Schooling, by definition, should be the transmission of academic information and skills to young people.  Every day, students should walk out of school with more knowledge and better academic skills than they had when they started in the morning.

There is nothing mysterious about this.  This is not a foreign notion of schooling that has been imposed on people from some grasping social elites.  Rather, this notion of the function of schooling is so basic that it has been embraced by all groups in American society, except for a tiny slice of education “experts” who insist on a different vision of schooling.

For instance, in the years following the Civil War, African Americans in the former Confederacy struggled to build schools that would impart academic information to their children.  As historian James Anderson has demonstrated, many influential voices weighed in on the purpose and function of these schools.  The majority of white northern philanthropists, Anderson argued, insisted that their money go toward schools that built on African Americans’ lived experiences.  Schools for young people and freed slaves, these philanthropists insisted, must teach basic vocational skills that African Americans could really use in their lives, such as farming and house cleaning.  That would be, in the phrase that came to prominence during World War II, a truly progressive “life-adjustment” education.

African Americans themselves, however, rejected that notion.  Except for a few tokens, such as Booker T. Washington, whom Anderson dismisses as nothing more than a racist white philanthropist “in blackface,” most African Americans insisted that their schools and colleges must focus on transmitting academic information and skills to new generations.  Their children should be studying mathematics, Latin, and philosophy, not gardening, milking, and plowing.

Anderson’s depiction of Washington may have been too harsh.  Other scholars such as Louis Harlan have argued that Washington managed to support African American causes in a variety of ways.  The point here, however, is much simpler: traditional education is real education.  The purpose of schools, the way traditionalists see it, is to give information and skills to young people; information and skills they did not already have.  This is the transformation that schools can and should accomplish.  Schools can provide a safe and protected place for young people to gain experience they lack.  In schools, students can experience vicariously the sweep of history and literature.  They can learn mathematics and science.

Any other approach to the basic function of schooling will serve to cement children’s place in the existing social order.  Building schooling primarily around the lived experience of young people will only support a very non-progressive social hierarchy.  The lived experience of kids from affluent families, for example, will prepare them for roles as dominant members of society.  Similarly, building schooling around the lived experience of the poor will anaesthetize poor kids to the structural injustices of current society.

Instead, schooling must deliver new things to students.  This does not mean that the lived experience of students will be dismissed or looked down upon.  Teaching Shakespeare to both rich and poor does not somehow imply that the popular culture of rich and poor is not valuable.  It merely demonstrates that there is a culture beyond popular culture that schooling will transmit to each new generation, regardless of family finances or students’ ethnicities.

This is not a new theory of education.  It merely acknowledges and makes explicit one of the most basic truths of schooling.  It offers students a reason to go to school.

To do otherwise, to assume that schools will build upon the existing experience of students is a cruel and circular notion.  In fact, young people go to school precisely because they lack experience.  They go to school so that they can engage with a broad range of ideas that they would never experience on their own.  The reason Dewey’s notions—or, more exactly, the “progressive” fantasies people have attributed to Dewey—have never made many inroads in real schools is because they fundamentally mistake the function of schooling.  Schooling is about imparting information to young people.  Of course, it is not the only way young people learn.  But in school itself, they do not learn primarily by building on their own small share of lived experience.  Instead, they learn by sampling from the vast array of knowledge and culture left behind by the thousands of years of human experience that has gone before them.


Further Reading: John Dewey, Experience and Education (1938); Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum (1902); James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1930 (1987); Louis R. Harlan, Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 (1983).

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  1. TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION IIc2: GETTING AHEAD « I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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