Why does there always have to be an “outcome”?…I can decide for myself what sort of outcome, if any, I want to have for my experience. More important, I can wait until the outcome reveals itself to me.
– John Holt, Instead of Education.
Most of us know that there is something terribly wrong with education today. The signs are inescapable: a diluted curriculum, underperforming students, befuddled teachers, lack of historical grounding and civic responsibility, in short, the degradation of a noble institution and the dumbing-down of an entire generation. And many of us have rushed into the breach to propose one or another “solution” to the crisis which, nevertheless, stubbornly refuses to go away. I believe, however, that we are obliged not merely to react to but to understand the crisis as it unfolds in practice, both in the classroom and the halls of administration, as well as to ascertain the wider context of which it is both a part and a symptom. Otherwise we find ourselves, as is now the case, facing a multitude of competing schemes and paradigms that clutter the educational marketplace with increasing clangor and futility.
If we are to engage in responsible debate, we may agree that our predicament is to some extent explained by nearly a century of what is called Progressivist or student-centered pedagogy and the attendant ills with which it is associated. These latter include the erosion of academic scrupulousness, the exalting of the student’s impulses and desires over the civilizing mandate of the scholarly tradition, the privileging of unearned self-esteem over hard-won accomplishment, the invidious dismissal of intellectual merit as the propaganda of an elitist conspiracy presumably bent on polarizing society into the haves and the have nots, and a host of incremental “reforms” which, in their clumsy and unreflected application, have left a considerable part of a generation incapable of the most elementary alphanumeric operations, let alone thinking clearly. As Paul Fussell points out in BAD, or The Dumbing of America, programmatic reform in education, occurring within the Progressivist framework, aims at creating the conditions for “living a life untroubled by thought.”
Regrettably, “the teaching of the humanities and social sciences in the public schools,” argues Charles Murray in his recent Real Education, “continues to reflect a mindset that took hold as part of the progressive education movement” — a movement that should be scrapped a.s.a.p. Easier said than done, obviously, given the prevailing mentality addicted to superficial novelty while continuing to malinger in an obsolete conceptual schema. Meaningful change would require a new breed of educational thinkers, practitioners and functionaries whose emergence is a slow and difficult process, dependent on a gradual shift in the cultural zeitgeist. This will take time, assuming its possibility. “It is a tough sell,” says Murray; still, there is no doubt that “educational success needs to be redefined.” The issue should be constantly pressed in the tenuous hope that repetition may eventually break through the shell of ignorance and sloth beneath which our educators cower.
But for the present, the Progressivist mindset remains largely in place, though it has been inflected and supplemented by a new performance model that focuses on the production of prepackaged results. It conceptualizes the classroom as a sort of cybernetic black box and envisages teachers and students as an army of obedient game sprites marching in a mainframe universe according to an inflexible set of rules or instructions. In this way, the latest innovation offers a computational model of learning whose systematicity leaves no room for ambiguity, sensitivity to context, or the unforeseeable contingencies associated with human knowing and discovery. It has, in effect, embarked on what Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies denounces as “the campaign against literate inwardness.”