Restoring Our K–12 Schools

Oct 19, 2013 by

ed hirschEducation, history, and E. D. Hirsch.

By M. D. Aeschliman –

‘One must never underestimate,” the great contemporary sociologist Peter L. Berger has written, “the human capacity for forgetfulness and imbecility.” In his most recent book, Berger ruefully notes that “relativism has massively invaded everyday life, especially in Western societies,” for complex reasons, not least of them the fact that “increasing numbers of people [are] going through an educational system in which teachers propagate relativistic ideas.”

We live in an age ignorant and resentful of theology and metaphysics, whose elites and academic establishment also hate the very idea of “classic” or “canonical” literature, from Dante to T. S. Eliot and Solzhenitsyn (both of whom unflatteringly document different kinds of modern inferno). As Lionel Trilling noted in 1961 in his fine essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (helpfully reprinted in Leon Wieseltier’s anthology of Trilling’s essays, The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent), “Nothing is more characteristic of the literature of our time than the replacement of the hero by what has come to be called the anti-hero, in whose indifference to or hatred of ethical nobility there is presumed to lie a special authority.” As a distinguished “neo-conservative” adherent of Matthew Arnold’s view of the civilizing power of education and great literature to produce “ethical nobility,” Trilling also argued, regretfully and ominously, in the same essay, that “Nothing is more characteristic of modern literature,” especially since Nietzsche, “than its discovery and canonization of the primal, non-ethical energies.” The audio-visual power of New York and Hollywood has made this increasingly true and habituates us (and everyone else reached by airwaves and images) to violence and sensuality.

Thus history may be the last durable matrix, measure, and mirror in which the human person can dependably seek ethical self-knowledge. As autobiographical reflection is the means of individual self-knowledge, history is the means of collective human self-knowledge: Instead of looking vainly at the screen (Milton Shulman’s “ravenous eye”) or drunkenly (to paraphrase Housman) into the pewter pot and seeing the world as the world is not, we look into the mirror of personal and collective history to see the world as it really is. It is often an unflattering sight, as the great Kierkegaard knew. “Memory says, ‘I did that,’” he wrote; “vanity says, I wouldn’t do that!’ Vanity wins.” As Eliot put it, “This is a sentence not taught in the schools.”

Of the many regrettable anomalies unleashed and then institutionalized by John Dewey and his now-vast legion of followers in American K–12 schools and teachers’ colleges (and their worldwide disciples), two have been particularly damaging to the American Republic: first, the emptying out of specific, graduated, cumulative academic content in elementary schools and its replacement by helter-skelter play, experimentation, and uncoordinated, ephemeral “units,” and, second, the related replacement of high-school history with present-minded “social studies” and classic literature with contemporary fads (e.g., the International Baccalaureate’s recent elimination of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in favor of works such as the comic book/“graphic novel” Persepolis). “The effect of Dewey’s philosophy on the design of curricular systems was devastating,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964 in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. “Progressive education” has proved to be the great enemy of real educational progress, bringing about an extraordinary “dumbing down” of the hapless and helpless students subjected to it. The profitable success and low quality of the commercial audio-visual and literary culture that preys on them is a sad commentary on the result.

In a brilliant 1961 book, the renegade conservative Protestant thinker R. J. Rushdoony carefully analyzed “the messianic character of American education,” the translation of residual religious longings by increasingly heterodox liberal Protestants and liberal Jews into what T. E. Hulme had called, before the First World War, the “spilt religion” of secular “Progressivism.” Another voice crying in the wilderness was Russell Kirk, who, in the pages of National Review and in a series of careful, detailed pamphlets written on K–12 school curricula, critiqued the ahistorical, offbeat, eccentric, and sheerly disorganized character of the modern K–12 American school, once the envy of the world but now transformed by Dewey and his followers.

More recently, in what is perhaps the most promising development of the last half-century at any level of American education, the enormously distinguished, courageous, and productive scholar and dogged publicist E. D. Hirsch Jr., of the University of Virginia, has not only critiqued “progressivism” but worked with other teachers, parents, and scholars to create a sensible, coherent scope and sequence of studies for K–8 students, the Core Knowledge curriculum. It is now in use in over a thousand American elementary schools and is attracting intense attention in Italy, Spain, France, and Britain, where Education Secretary Michael Gove is a great admirer of Hirsch and promotes his ideas to improve British education, to the consternation of his own “progressive” educational establishment.

via Restoring Our K–12 Schools | National Review Online.

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