Over the past several weeks, I have endeavored to chart the growth of progressive education in America in the first half of the 20th century.
At times, it seemed like the entire country was blind to the scope of the changes that were under way, but that was not exactly the case. As usual, there were a few people who understood the revolution, and happily supported it because they considered American capitalism — indeed, American constitutionalism — to be a flawed system. Many more people supported it because they didn’t know any better. They were just going along to get along.
But there were other people who were alarmed by the headlong rush into socialism that seemed to accompany the “new education” — as America launched first a “progressive era” to accompany its new progressive education, and then the New Deal to institutionalize in economics the non-competitive philosophy that educator John Dewey and his brethren preached in schools.
By the mid-century point, after the United States had demonstrated the continuing practical value of its core values by preserving freedom in both Europe and Asia, it almost appeared as though the old patriotic love of country would prevail and the attempt to fundamentally transform the social consciousness of America through education would fail.
Indeed, some people thought the victory was won. In 1953, the Brownsville Herald in Texas was editorializing that what it called Deweyism was really “The Great Delusion”:
“We know what the effects of progressive education have been with regard to education. The Gallup Poll reports that nearly 40 percent of adult Americans do not know what a tariff is; one in four has not the faintest idea of the meaning of inflation, filibuster is Greek to half the nation’s voters; to two-thirds of them, jurisdictional strike is meaningless; only four out of ten know what the Electoral College is. John Dewey thought he had found a shortcut to a system that would train students to think. It has not worked.”
Moreover, and most importantly, the editorial writer gleaned a most important and subtle result of the loss of the “old-fashioned teachers [who] had insisted on the value of discipline, both mental and moral” — namely the vacuum in the classroom that was left when the Three R’s were no longer paramount. The ingenious victory of “progressive education” came about because it replaced discipline with indoctrination.
The editorial writer put it this way: “So long as the instruction in the schools was limited strictly to the essential skills and the Three R’s, there was little indoctrination of the youngsters with ‘social consciousness,’ the ‘democratic way,’ and a lot of other junk that is foisted upon young minds today.”
As the editorial went on to explain, the prejudice of the new education against competitiveness was sowing the seeds of our own destruction in a world that remained dog eat dog, however much we tried to convince ourselves that we were socially conscious vegetarians.
“Under the present system children are taught that competition is not good, only to find out when they become adults that they are in a competitive world. No sooner do they discover this vital point than they become easy marks for those who feel that the competitive, free enterprise system is bad and that competition should be eliminated by the force of the government.”
Of course, it is no mystery who would argue that the free enterprise system is bad — socialists (or put plainly, communists) or for those who fancy themselves a bit more intellectual: followers of Karl Marx. This really gets down to the crux of what we have been looking for — an explanation of how American values could have been subverted in a relatively short time span from rugged individualism to weak-kneed collectivism.
The answer, it turns out, has been staring us in the face.
“It is only natural,” the editorial concluded in 1953, “that the children brought up in this sort of environment will look upon the competitive system with a jaundiced eye and turn to the government for the solution to their problems.”
As prescient as that statement seems, it is hard to imagine that anyone in 1953 could actually imagine that in 2011 the competitive system would have come into such disrepute that teachers would in good conscience have been able to take part in “grade-raising parties” to fake a quality education in the name of affirmative action, but that is apparently just what happened in Atlanta over several years.
Nor is there really any difference between the criminal enterprise in Atlanta and the national education program sponsored by George W. Bush known as No Child Left Behind. Both have the purpose of graduating students in order to make the system look good rather than because the students are actually educated.
Such a system is based on the false premise of “equal results” that is part of the mythology of social justice, and which in the past five or six decades has replaced the American creed of “equal opportunity.” It is here where “progressive education” and “social justice” intersect that we can identify the fulcrum that was used to fundamentally transform America in a brief few decades. Call it complacency. Call it conformity. Call it arrogance.
It was our own character traits of tolerance and openness that made it possible for enemies of the American way of life to work from within to destroy it, and then to encourage the rest of us to thank them for it.
And behind it all, there was a nearly universal attempt to scrub American traditions out of education and replace them with a traducement of our values. Traducement, according to Webster, means “to expose to shame or blame by means of falsehood and misrepresentation.” I can think of no more accurate assessment of the indoctrination of American students that has taken place since the 1960s, in particular.
American education had by that time became a tool for ridiculing American values, not for teaching them. Is it any wonder, therefore, that those values have begun to erode? Yet because those who hold positions of power today were products of that indoctrination, it is hard to even get them to admit the problem, let alone fix it.
Nor is this an attack on individual teachers or schools; almost all of them are striving honestly to provide what they believe is a good education. It is what they themselves were taught to believe that contains the seeds of our destruction because no society can propagate itself into the future under the premise that all of its root traditions, values and beliefs are suspect.
Education is about continuity; revolution is about disruption. What we have had in the schools for the past 50 years is not education, but disruption. Society is in the balance, and the tipping point may long since be past.
Frank Miele is the managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake. He can be reached by email at email@example.com