Sit Down, Shut Up: Old School Teaching for New School Results

What’s the best way to teach children?

Get them to suffer.  Get them to fear.  Get them to obey.

That’s the message, anyway, of a recent essay by Joanne Lipman in the Wall Street Journal.

Lipman, of course, might put in another way.  In her words, she wants us to “revive old-fashioned education. . . . with strict discipline and unyielding demands.”

How should we do this?  Lipman offers eight guidelines.

We should understand that the highest levels of performance are helped, not hurt, by “a little pain.”  We need to get back to memorization.  Kids need to be allowed to fail, to understand that failure is a necessary aspect of improvement.  Plus, “strict” teachers do better than “nice” ones.  Also, creativity can be achieved through hard work.  Not by coddling, but by teaching “grit.”  Teachers need to get out of the habit of fulsome, unearned praise.  Last but not least, children need to experience stress in order to maximize their improvement.

Lipman claims scientific support for her platform, even though some of her cited studies don’t sound rock-solid.  Some have small sample sizes.  Just because something worked for a couple dozen students doesn’t mean it will be generally true.  Others have unconvincing methodologies.  One study, for instance, asked undergraduates about the stresses they had experienced in their lives.  Then the researchers dunked the students’ hands in ice water.  Those who had experienced stress, the study concluded, did not feel as much discomfort.

Such dubious science does not make me clamor to expose my daughter to more yelling at school.  But whether or not we accept the scientific rigor of Lipman’s sources, we cannot deny the political and cultural clout her argument for more traditional teaching has had over the decades.

In the 1920s, one leader of the influential Daughters of the American Revolution denounced innovations in classroom teaching.  Too many ‘modern’ teachers, President General Grace Brosseau lamented in 1929, thought that teaching consisted of presenting students with options.  Balderdash, Brosseau insisted.  Teachers must continue to deliver information to students in an authoritative way.  “One does not place before a delicate child,” Brosseau argued,

a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.  Instead, one carefully supplies only what will make for the development of the young body and assure its normal growth.

Schools, Brosseau insisted, must return to authoritative teaching.  Teachers must insist on hard work and dedication.  They must decide, instead of foisting all decisions off on immature children.

This traditionalist theme was taken up in the 1960s by the influential education pundit Max Rafferty.  Rafferty insisted that the only way to improve education was to return to traditional methods and content.  Young people need to memorize, to compete, to work hard, Rafferty claimed.

In his 1964 book What Are They Doing to Your Children, Rafferty offered a vision of “Education-In-Depth” that might delight Lipman and other contemporary traditionalists.  Children, Rafferty argued, must submit to sometimes-unpleasant processes.  “Before a child can learn to write creatively and imaginatively,” Raffferty believed, “he must submit to the discipline of learning the writing trade—the metaphor, the syntax, the verb conjugations, and above all the spelling.”

Schools must stress “subject matter,” not feelings.  They must give lots of homework.  They must teach the basics, such as multiplication tables.  Perhaps most of all, they must reverse the “progressive” poison by teaching children to “not be afraid of hard work.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Rafferty’s model still has influential admirers today.  Lipman does not seem to be one of them, at least not consciously.  She does not seem aware of the tradition of traditionalism in education.  My hunch is that she’d like to dissociate her call for “old-fashioned” education with some of the views of Rafferty or Brosseau.  Lipman might prefer to have her vision of traditionalism associated with rigorous social science than with the flag-waving patriotism and anti-communism of earlier traditionalists.

Nevertheless, Lipman and other fans of traditional discipline and memorization might be well advised to study their own history.




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  1. [AL] “Get them to suffer. Get them to fear. Get them to obey.”

    Isn’t this the way they do it at the prep schools in England?

  2. mlshatto

     /  October 3, 2013

    “The proper education of the young does not consist in stuffing their heads with a mass of words, sentences, and ideas dragged together out of various authors, but in opening up their understanding to the outer world, so that a living stream may flow from their own minds, just as leaves, flowers, and fruit spring from the bud on a tree.” – John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) Known as the “father of modern education.” He also held the quite radical view, for his time, that girls should be educated. It appears that the “traditionalists” are reaching farther back than the 17th century for their traditions.

    • Marian,
      This is the puzzle of “traditionalist” ideas of education with which I’m grappling in my current book. Not only are “progressive” ideas very old, but “traditionalist” ideas are often reinventing themselves. The notion of defending “tradition” in education does not need very long historical roots to be politically and culturally powerful. “Tradition” is more of an idea, an approach, an understanding of the natures of childhood and learning, than an actual appeal to a specific past.

  3. [AL] ““Tradition” is more of an idea, an approach, an understanding of the natures of childhood and learning, than an actual appeal to a specific past.”

    I know that ‘Tradition as an approach’ is a fundamental component of Fascism.

    ‘The Nature of Fascism’ by Roger Griffin (1991)


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