Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms

Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms

Article excerpt

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms by Diane Ravitch Simon & Schuster * 2000 * 555 pages * $30.00

In his 1996 book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, E.D. Hirsch categorized and then proceeded to demolish the doctrines of progressive education that hold American education in thrall. Hirsch exposed the intellectual shallowness behind such notions as "child-centered schooling," "multiple intelligences," "authentic assessment," and "constructivism." He also traced the origins of progressive education to the Teachers College, Columbia University, in the teens and twenties. The "education schools" of the nation have mindlessly perpetuated this antiintellectual tradition and passed it along to new teachers.

The Hirsch tome, it turns out, was the first of a powerful one-two punch. In Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, education historian and Brookings scholar Diane Ravitch has written an extraordinary review of 100 years of education fads. Where Hirsch critiqued ideas, Ravitch names names and provides dates so that it is possible to assign responsibility.

Among the first progressives she identifies is G. Stanley Hall, winner of the first doctorate in psychology from Harvard. In 1901 Hall declared before the National Education Association that guardians of the young "should strive first of all to keep out of nature's way." Educators, declared Hall, "must overcome the fetishism of the alphabet, of the multiplication table, of grammars, of scales, and of bibliolatry." There are many children, he asserted, who would be better off not being educated at all.

The elitist-progressive hostility to such core academic subjects as history, literature, algebra, and chemistry clashed with the desire of immigrant parents for their children to have a solid grounding in English and the American heritage. The intellectual heirs of Rousseau sought instead to impose a system of social efficiency whereby children would be sorted at an early age into useful occupations. They created industrial schools for children as young as 12 and junior high schools for the specific purpose of tracking children toward predetermined vocations.

The progressives' penchant for pigeonholing children and selling their intellectual potential short has resurfaced periodically under deceptive new labels. In late '30s and '40s it was the infamous "life adjustment" movement, which amazingly held that 60 percent of American children lacked the brains to aspire either to college or to skilled employment. The benevolent schools would have to "adjust" them to be decent drones. …

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