September 14, 2020

ANALYSIS: TRUE. Bad Teaching is Tearing America Apart: Education’s dumbing down frays the bonds of citizenship and is hardest on the poor.

If you have school-age children, the pandemic-induced move to online classes may give you an unusual window into their education. E.D. Hirsch expects you’ll be surprised by “how little whole-class instruction is going on,” how little knowledge is communicated, and how there is “no coherence” from day to day, let alone from year to year.

The current fashion is for teachers to be a “guide on the side, instead of a sage on the stage,” he says, quoting the latest pedagogical slogan, which means that teachers aren’t supposed to lecture students but to “facilitate” learning by nudging students to follow their own curiosity. Everything Mr. Hirsch knows about how children learn tells him that’s the wrong approach. “If you want equity in education, as well as excellence, you have to have whole-class instruction,” in which a teacher directly communicates information using a prescribed sequential curriculum. . . .

He cites both history and neuroscience in explaining how education went wrong. It began in the 1940s, when “schools unbolted the desks and kids were no longer facing the teacher.” Instead children were divided into small groups and instructed to complete worksheets independently with occasional input from teachers. “That was also when our verbal test scores went down and the relative ranking of our elementary schools declined on a national level.” On the International Adult Literacy Survey, Americans went from being No. 1 for children who were educated in the 1950s to fifth for those in the ’70s and 14th in the ’90s. And things have only gotten worse. Between 2002 and 2015, American schoolchildren went from a ranking of 15th to 24th in reading on the Program for International Student Assessment.

The problem runs deeper than the style of instruction, Mr. Hirsch says. It’s the concept at its root—“child-centered classrooms,” the notion that “education is partly a matter of drawing out a child’s inborn nature.” Mr. Hirsch says emphatically that a child’s mind is “a blank slate.” On this point he agrees with John Locke and disagrees with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who thought children need to develop according to their nature. Both philosophers make the “Cultural Literacy” list, but “Locke has to make a comeback” among educators, Mr. Hirsch says. “The culture is up for grabs, and elementary schools are the culture makers.”

Mr. Hirsch is a man of the left—he has said he is “practically a socialist.” But he bristles at the idea that kids should read only books by people who look like them or live like them.

From K-12 to higher ed, America’s education system has been not merely ineffectual, but actively destructive. It’s time for a wholesale revamping. Or replacement.

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