Dictating Democracy

As I was reminded last week in the Philadelphia archives, it’s the oldest educational idea in the United States. Larry Cuban points out this morning that our dream of educating a new generation of democratic citizens might take us in surprising directions.

First, my full confessions: I have progressive prejudices that are hard to shake. I want public schools to make society better. I believe that better educational opportunities for all people will help achieve that goal. And…and this is the one that matters this morning…I think what goes on in classrooms matters. As John Dewey argued a century ago, if we want a democratic society we need to start by creating democratic classrooms.


I can’t vote, and I can’t speak when I want to, and I can’t put my pencil where I want to, and I can’t get out of my seat when I want to…

So I join Professor Cuban in wondering if a school can create democratic citizens by controlling students tightly. Cuban looked at a study of Democracy Prep, a new charter network. The schools make one of their goals the civic education of children, meaning mostly that students learn about government, about public decision-making processes, and about getting out the vote.

As one thoughtful former Democracy Prep teacher noted, it’s hard not to think that the way students are educated matters. As he puts it,

schools are invariably where students go to experience the civic engagement of others. No child thinks of it this way, but surely, he or she picks up clear signals about their place in the world, how they are regarded by authority figures who are not their parents, and how much — or how little — is expected of them. If the relationship a child has with a school is coercive, punctuated by frustration and failure, leading to no good end, then there is no reason to expect strong civic outcomes.

And yet, as Prof. Cuban points out, students at Democracy Prep feel the heavy hand of authority at all times. As one visit to a DP school revealed, students’ actions were constantly tracked and dictated. As the visitor found,

Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.

Can it really be feasible, Cuban wonders, that this sort of top-down classroom will produce active citizens? That schools can coerce students into active democratic participation? The charter network has claimed some positive results. A recent alumni study by Mathematica Policy Research found that citizens who had attended Democracy Prep were more likely to register and to vote.

I’m skeptical. Surely a school culture that eliminates any possibility of student leadership will have a depressing effect on student political participation. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. Or is it really possible that schools can control their students all the way to active citizenship?

Want School Reform? Go Medieval!

It’s hard to cross the street these days without bumping into a new panacea to fix America’s schools.  Longer school days, more parent choice, uniforms, more art, more math, more tech, less tech…everybody’s got a new idea to fix education.

We read today in the pages of Forbes Magazine a different sort of proposal.  To fix America’s high schools, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes, we should go medieval.  To be specific, we should emulate the tutorial style of education developed in the middle ages at Oxford University.  Could it work?  Or, more intriguing, could proposals like Gobry’s serve as a new grand educational rapprochement between conservatives and progressives?

In that tutorial system, Gobry argues, students read a book every week and write a short essay about it.  Then they share the essay with a small group, including a tutor and two or three fellow students.  There is no grading, there are no test scores.  The reading list would include great books, however we wish to define them.

Could it work?  Gobry insists that this plan is both practical and “urgent.”  Elsewhere, Gobry wrote that too often education is misunderstood.  His plan would put it back on track.  Even liberal leaders, Gobry pointed out recently, seem to agree that education is meant mainly to produce technically qualified but dead-eyed engines of economic growth. “Nobody stops to ask what education is for,” Gobry lamented,

because the answer is implicitly accepted by all: an education is for getting a job. It is, in other words, for being a cog in the giant machine of post-industrial capitalism. It is, in other words, for the opposite thing that our forefathers wanted for us. I do not use these words lightly, but it is against–in the sense that a headwind is against a ship–the very foundations of our liberty and our civilization.

We could nitpick about whether Gobry’s plan could work.  As a ten-year veteran classroom teacher, I can see plenty of holes that Gobry does not seem to recognize.  But a more interesting question for ILYBYGTH readers is this: Could Gobry’s proposal serve as the foundation of a grand rapprochement between liberals and conservatives?

Here’s what I mean: At the roots of both “progressive” and “conservative” educational reform traditions there lurks a desire to free students of mindless routine and push them to more rigorous study, more authentic, transformational learning.  John Dewey, for example, hoped his school reform program would eliminate mind-numbing recitations and force students to engage more thoughtfully with the big ideas.  And William F. Buckley sparked the post-war conservative fusion movement with his searing critique of the soft and soulless education peddled at his alma mater.

Dewey became the spokesperson for progressivism, while Buckley personified conservatism.  But when it came to the goals and process of learning itself, the two thinkers were not very far apart.  This may seem a shocker, but Gobry’s short essay supports the notion.  What thinking conservative would not support a notion of education that presses students to engage profoundly with the formative documents of our civilization?  That forces teachers to do more than process young humans and train them in lock-step obedience?  And what thoughtful progressive does not want an education that makes human freedom its primary goal?  An education that tears up meaningless standardized tests and instead engages students of every background to struggle with humanity’s oldest problems?

In the end, I don’t really think Gobry’s great-books plan will work as a silver bullet to fix America’s public schools. But Gobry’s line of thinking might serve as a way to get conservative and progressive intellectuals to come together in recognition of their vast similarities.



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).

Traditionalist Education I: Discovery…of What?


Underlying the standard teaching that goes on in most American schools are some fundamental philosophical assumptions about what it means to be a person and the nature of right and wrong.    Beginning in the early twentieth century, progressive educators, led by John Dewey, voiced a vision of humanity that resonated across
American culture.  They recognized that the modern era demanded a new understanding of humanity.  This was a question with ramifications beyond the rarified air of academic philosophy.  Progressive educators took these modern notions of the nature of humans and spelled out their meanings for classroom education.  In brief, modern philosophy recognized that ancient understandings of humanity no longer made sense.  In the traditional view, humans were essentially different from the rest of the animal and vegetable world.  They had a soul, a connection to a transcendent plane of being.  The modern view saw people as one example of life on earth.  One that had evolved into some highly specialized forms, to be sure, but not essentially different from other animals.  There were no transcendent truths out there somewhere; there were no ideal forms casting shadows down upon humanity.
Rather, truths were generated by people, for people.  This did not mean that there were no values, no meaning to notions of right and wrong.  But it did introduce the modern intellectual dilemma: those values could no longer be left unquestioned; they could no longer simply be accepted as givens in a universe dedicated to unrelenting change.

Traditionalists invariably point to a document from 1933 to illustrate this pernicious philosophy.  Signed by John Dewey and an A list of other progressive personalities, the Humanist Manifesto  declared in stirring tones “The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world.  The time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes.”

What difference did these notions make to everyday classroom teaching?  At the most fundamental level, they suggested that learning should no longer be seen as the simple transmission of eternal truths from an older generation to a younger.  Young humans must not be seen as empty vessels to be filled with the wisdom of the ages.  Instead, the leading intellects of the progressive education idea argued that young humans, like humans of every age, construct their knowledge based on bits and pieces from their own lives.  In this understanding of humanity, education must not consist of mere lists of knowledge to be acquired, more or less successfully.  Rather, education must be built by each student, based on the experiences that student has already acquired.  In order to facilitate that construction of knowledge, schools and teachers must guide students in their educational process.  The role of the educator is no longer to simply dump knowledge into the young.  Rather, it must be to help those young people build their own knowledge.

For those who advocate traditionalist education, these changes meant a distressing shift in America’s assumptions about the proper role for its public schools.

FURTHER READING: Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (1995); Mel and Norma Gabler, What Are They Teaching Our Children? (1987); Tim LaHaye, The Battle for the Public School (1983); Sam Blumenfeld, Is Public Education Necessary? (1981)