The past is prologue; the future is bleak

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It was rightly said some years ago that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. Too bad the same cannot be said about modern American education.

Unfortunately, the seeds of our own potential destruction as a nation and culture have been sown into the fertile ground of our high schools and universities for at least the last 100 years.

How can that be? Don’t we spend billions of dollars every year to train our young people to be prepared to enter society and take their part as the future leaders of the country?

Well, no — actually we spend billions of dollars every year to teach our young people to question the value of our society; to doubt the legitimacy of our history; and to mistrust our leaders, our traditions and our laws.

It wasn’t always so.

Education has not always worked against the values of America.

In a presentation made to the 1894 convention of the National Education Association by Professor S.G. Williams on “How to Teach the Teachers,” for instance, it was decided “in the discussion [about] the ‘little red schoolhouse,’ or the country school, that ‘good morals and good manners constitute an essential part of an educational equipment. The inoculation of patriotism, of respect for law and order, of whatever tends to make a good citizen, is of as much importance in a small as in a large school. Regularity, punctuality, obedience, self control, are as necessary in the country as in the city school.’ ” [Cited from the annual report of the proceedings in a 1902 newspaper article.]

In other words, in 1894, education still had the function of promoting the well-being of society and not the now-too-common function of promoting self-indulgence rather than self-control.

So what happened?

Essentially, the mission of education was intentionally shifted from what it always had been — a means to pass information, values and traditions from one generation to the next — into a system which encouraged students of each generation to insist on inventing anew everything it believed. Ironically, therefore, although this new pedagogy was called by the name of progressive education, it had the actual effect of making progress not just unlikely, but impossible.

If previous generations had stood on the shoulders of giants, each generation since 1900 has stood on the quicksand of moral relativism while whacking at the legs of the aforementioned giants to bring them down to our own Lilliputian size.

As noted previously, the primary blame for this unfortunate transition falls on John Dewey, the socialist educator and philosopher who wrought a revolution by insisting that we teach children what they want to learn instead of what they should learn. His influence on American culture was immense and surprisingly immediate. Just a few years after his experimental elementary school opened at the University of Chicago, he was being imitated and lionized throughout the culture.

Essentially, what the progressive education movement wanted to accomplish — and largely did accomplish — was to jettison traditional values and replace them with transient values (those which each generation or even each student adopted individually). This meant that society was no longer tethered to what the philosopher C.S. Lewis calls The Tao — “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”

It does not require a Christian concept — or even a deistic one — to follow Lewis’s argument in “The Abolition of Man” that mankind either accepts certain values as bedrock, or else all values are clay to be shaped this way and that depending on the intention of our teacher. Because, yes, values do come down to teaching, and teaching comes down to values.

There is no doubt that John Dewey understood this. He was not stupid. It was plain to everyone that the “new education” meant a farewell to old values and a discovery process that would lead to unknown ends.

“We agree,” Dewey once said, “that we are uncertain as to where we are going and where we want to go, and why we are doing what we do.”

Time magazine in 1958 put it this way:

“In a kind of country-club existentialism, Dewey and his boys genially contended that the traditional ends of education, like God, virtue and the idea of ‘culture,’ were all highly debatable and hence not worth debating. In their place: enter life adjustment. The Deweyites thus transformed conditioning techniques into ends in themselves... Within the schools, discipline gave way to increasingly dubious group persuasion. ‘With teen-agers,’ one high school principal said proudly, ‘there is nothing more powerful than the approval or disapproval of the group. When the majority conforms, the others will go along.’ It would not easily occur to the modern educationists that such blind fostering of group pressure is a travesty of free democracy.”

In other words, by that time — after a half-century of progressive education — our schools had been turned into a kind of institutionalized “Lord of the Flies” environment where novelty and experimentation have taken the place of civility and tradition, and where the group crushes the individual — and the voice of reason.

Even in 1933, progressive educator Irwin Edman, one of the “Dewey boys” at Columbia University, had already thrown in the towel in an article in the Billings Gazette entitled “A Progressive Calls a Halt,” in which he lamented that “the progressive education turns out often to be a dangerous form of sentimentalism.”

In particular, he points out: “The world did not begin yesterday, and the past is not a rubbish heap.... The past is full of techniques and habits, already developed, that we at our peril dispense with. If we were really to overthrow the past, we should have a brand new world with a complete set of ignorant fools in it who would have to learn everything from the beginning again.... It is almost fantastic that professional educators should have come to talk of the past as an attic full of useless lumber. It is rather the fountainhead of all that we have and are.”

Edman’s warnings, alas, were not heeded. We could turn again to the editorial in Time magazine in 1958 for proof of where things stood 25 years later:

“The poor performance of their students has proved the [progressive] educationists wrong. U.S. high school students are plain ignorant of things grammar school students would have known a generation ago. Years of barren discussion courses in English have made a whole generation chronically incoherent in the English language. Cut off from any but the most obvious contact with his tradition... the student has lost his sense of history.”

Nor should we try to pretend that the intervening 50-plus years have changed things for the better. We are still the children of Dewey, and still re-inventing the world each generation with a little less success. The bold assertions of Time magazine in 1958 are validated in cold, cruel statistics from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress that was administered by the U.S. Department of Education. According to those test results, only 12 percent of high school seniors are proficient in history. Most fourth-graders could not identify a picture of Abraham Lincoln. Only 22 percent of eighth-graders could adequately explain the system of checks and balances.

But maybe that is the goal. It certainly looks that way when you read the July 4 issue of Time magazine not from 1958, but from this year, and see a picture of the United States Constitution that is being shredded for a cover story that asks about our sacred founding document, “Does It Still Matter?”

The answer to that question is, yes, it still matters, but only for as long as We the People can fight back against the people who C.S. Lewis called “The Conditioners” — those educators, authors and intellectuals who want to erase (or shred!) the traditions and values that got us here and replace them with the artificial values that they have determined to be for our own good.

No, the Constitution is not a suicide pact — but neither can it protect our society from being killed from within. When all of the underpinnings have been eaten away, there is nothing left but collapse.


Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake and can be reached by email at

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