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)