TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION Ia: DISCOVERY…OF WHAT? (continued…)

Traditionalist educators have sometimes tried to combat the philosophical underpinnings of progressivist education.  In America, conservatives have often argued from a Christian viewpoint.  The materialist understanding of humans, they sometimes say, misunderstands the nature of humanity.  People are not merely clever apes, but something essentially different.  Therefore, young humans need to be taught that there are transcendent truths; there are absolute values of right and wrong that need to be transmitted from one generation to the next.

This has concrete implications in classroom practice.  If there are eternal values and truths, it is not merely mistaken to adopt a “discovery” approach to classroom teaching.  If there are such things, it becomes both cruel and dangerous to do so.  It would
be like allowing students to wander at will around a field, when the teacher knows full well that there are intellectual landmines buried throughout the field.  It would be to keep silent as students wandered away from the truth.  Instead, the proper role for a teacher is to lead the children carefully along an intellectual path. The teacher’s job is not to encourage the children to wander, but to correct the children—sternly if necessary—to keep them from straying from the correct path.

What does this mean for day-to-day teaching?  If we have this kind of traditionalist mindset about the nature of morality—that there are eternal values of right and wrong—then the goal of education must be to impart those truths.  Fundamentally, it requires us to acknowledge that the teacher must remain the authority in the classroom.  Consider two different ways of teaching about the history of antebellum slavery.  A progressivist pedagogy might encourage students to collect information about the nature of
that slavery, make a website in which that history is explained, then present this website to the class and school/learning community.  The role of the teacher in this scheme is to help the student find research material, guide the process by which the student learns how to put the information into a website, facilitate the presentation, and evaluate the presentation by suggesting improvements.  The student might then improve the presentation based on the teacher’s feedback.  The goal would be for the student to be motivated by her interest in the subject, to conduct authentic research in which she learns about the history of
American slavery, and then gets practice in speaking to a group.  All of those skills are improved while the student learns about the historical content.  It sounds good.  But what happens when the student concludes that antebellum plantation life didn’t
look too bad for slaves?  It may sound outlandish, but such was my experience with student research time and time again.  Students did not yet have the ability to fully understand the horrors of being owned.  They did not yet have the intellectual
maturity to put themselves fully into the shoes of a slave and understand what such a thing would mean.  Students would
look at the maps online of the typical plantation house and conclude that slaves had a “nice little row of houses all to themselves.”  Even worse, what happens when the student finds online sites from white supremacists claiming that slaves enjoyed slavery?  How does she know what information to include or exclude?  And if she presents her history of the happy slave to the rest of the class, how are they to know that such history is fundamentally flawed?  The role of the teacher is precisely to prevent those things
from happening.  Before a student can be encouraged to “discover” the historical lessons of antebellum slavery, she must
be given a lot of information about the topic.  She needs to understand the horrors of dehumanization that accompanied
chattel slavery.  She needs to understand that slaves were people, just like her, with the same rights and expectations.  There are values, in other words, that a student must be directly taught.  It is not responsible to allow students to explore among the ideas that are out there about slavery without giving them a roadmap.  Students should be led intellectually to understand that owning other humans is a fundamental injustice.  They should not be expected to consider that truth as one idea among others.