How Classical Education Can Make America Great Again

How Classical Education Can Make America Great Again

A new book correctly diagnoses what's much wrong with America's progressive education model, but fails to grasp that the solution lies in a proven, classical approach to pedagogy.
Abigail Clevenger
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“This book is so boring!”

As a middle school teacher, I hear the “b word” used flippantly, and nothing fills me with greater angst. I typically retort back with “only boring people are bored” and then launch into a passionate rant on how boredom is simply the sin of laziness, a failure to express gratitude and wonder towards the world around us.

My student who uttered this sentiment was simply struggling with a challenging book. His literature class is nowhere close to boring. The class engages in energetic discussions and works on creative projects to deepen their understanding of story and character. They all love literature, and as a signal of their enjoyment, frequent laughter can be heard floating down the hallways of our little school.

Still, the general attitude towards school as “boring” is pretty much accepted as the way of life for middle and high school students in America. At some point in their academic career, most kids will nurture low levels of quiet loathing towards schooling. In fact, most of us have been there ourselves.

At some point in their academic career, most kids will nurture low levels of quiet loathing towards schooling. In fact, most of us have been there ourselves.

Next to boredom, the other dominant attitude towards school is profound anxiety. High achieving students, especially in wealthy urban areas, may not admit that “school is boring,” but they are not driven by love for learning, either. What motivates high-achieving students is a deep fear of failure, the need to succeed, and the tyranny of the perfect high school resume.

Even supposedly good schools create numbing boredom and gnawing anxiety in their pupils. Kids are told to achieve. Achieve—to what end? Believe—in what? They sigh and churn on, ever more entrenched as cogs in the educational machine, their mind numbed by years of pointless information ingestion. Schools today are slowly killing the spirit of American youth. The average teenager is bored, apathetic, anxious, depressed, and disillusioned.

If we don’t change how schools educate our kids, American culture will wither away into lifeless dependence. We will be removed even farther from the ideal of a free, self-governing people who fully employ their minds, love life in all its complexity, and work creatively with gusto.

Schools on Trial

Fresh out of high school himself, twenty-year-old Nikhil Goyal explains the causes of boredom and stress in the freshly minted Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. The book is well-researched and engaging. It will challenge anyone who accepts the status quo of the educational establishment or the mainstream education reform movement.

Here’s a fun excerpt that captures Goyal’s dim view of American schooling. He suggests that kindergarten classes should post disclaimers that read:

If you send your child to a traditional school, there are extremely high odds that he or she, by his or her high school graduation, will become depressed, stressed, suicidal, unethical, shamed, disrespected, and physically and verbally abused; have low self-esteem; suffer from an eating disorder; get hooked on a prescription drug; be bullied; become emotionally deprived, less curious, creative, and happy; internalize that they are worthless, stupid, and a failure; and/or come to detest learning.

Goyal’s argument in a nutshell: Schools have become dehumanizing bastions of teenage boredom and anxiety. He argues that compulsory education from kindergarten to twelfth grade is tantamount to incarcerating children in a prison controlled by unjust, soul-crushing, educational overlords. Schools violate children’s rights as free human beings and enslave them in an oppressive regime against their will—and he even suggests the Thirteenth Amendment be used to take schools to court.

In his vision, authoritarian teachers and administrators are Orwellian dictators who control the majority, threatening the very fabric of democracy and creating mindless, dutiful young adults who don’t question the system. Non-conformist misfits will be crushed!

Free And Democratic Schools?

What is his proposed solution? Free and democratic schools. Goyal believes that the traditional approach to schooling should be replaced by progressive, alternative schools. In such schools the young are not coerced into attendance. They actively participate in school governance and decision-making.

Goyal provocatively questions our basic assumptions about education, in a way that will cause most readers to question their own unexamined beliefs about schools.

For instance, students can vote on whether or not to allow a teacher to return the following year. There are no tests, no homework, no grades, no required classes. Students self-direct and learn only what interests them. The school day is mostly unstructured to allow for imaginative play. There are no restrictive rules or consequences for behavior, as long as each person does not infringe upon another’s rights.

Learning takes place in non-traditional spaces around the community such as workshops, parks, coffee shops, and community centers. Education is child-centered and experience-based. Montessori and Waldorf models are closest to Goyal’s vision.

When schools look like this, according to Goyal, only then will creativity, freedom, and love for learning flourish. On that day, teen suicide, bullying, boredom, and crime will cease. Inequality will be righted. Social justice and racial diversity shall rule over us, and we shall be at peace.

Goyal provocatively questions our basic assumptions about education, in a way that will cause most readers to question their own unexamined beliefs about schools. That’s a good thing, and we need more of that kind of examination.

Meet The New Education Model, Same As The Old Education Model

But be careful. There are moments when it’s nice to find yourself in agreement with certain subsets of liberals on issues such as taking care of the environment, living locally, or building a culture of creativity rather than mindless consumption. And you can add to that list a loathing of the public educational establishment. Where is the joy in learning? We desperately need to rethink the aims of education and our pedagogical methods.

Goyal’s working assumptions and proposed solutions are nothing more a fresh coat of paint on the old and failed progressive philosophy of education.

Standardized tests, state mandated curriculum, stupid classes, educational fluff should be eliminated. Creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, and love of learning should be revived in our classrooms. Assessments should move beyond the test. More young people should enroll in trade schools and apprenticeships. Our buildings should be more beautiful, less institutional places. Students should have more “free range” independence and responsibility and less protection. Children should be allowed to run a little wild and play more (so should adults, actually).

While much of Goyal’s critique of the educational industrial complex is spot on, accurate, and poignant, I’m afraid that Goyal’s working assumptions and proposed solutions are nothing more a fresh coat of paint on the old and failed progressive philosophy of education. In short, he fails to correctly understand human nature and the purpose of education.

Education’s Unholy Trinity

While Goyal writes as if his approach to education is somehow novel, I’m afraid it is anything but new. He’s really just really just grappling with the philosophical contradictions of the men who created progressive education model: Rousseau, Dewey, and Mann.

Goyal is really just really just grappling with the philosophical contradictions of the men who created progressive education model.

The progressive philosophy of education began with Jean Jacque Rousseau, a Romanticist, who glorified children as purely good and naturally creative and curious. For Rousseau, evil schools and authoritarian churches beat all that natural goodness out of children. He believed that learning should follow a child’s interests and feelings rather than tradition, authority, or the wisdom of a teacher.

John Dewey, the Pragmatist, built upon Rousseau and posited that education should be totally child-centered and experience-based. There was no truth for Dewey and the pragmatists. For them, education should allow for children find their own truth through experience. The teacher would serve merely as a guide with the child at the center of the entire learning experience.

The father of public schools, Horace Mann then industrialized child-centered education with Prussian efficiency and ceded responsibility to the federal government. Mann applied scientific principles of production and industrialization to education: The government would systematically set a standardized curriculum, segregate classrooms by age, ban any religious education, open preschools for the very young, and instill the curriculum with political vision. The goal was a controlled utopian world in which human messiness is slowly eradicated.

Kids caught up in this mess end up bored and anxious.

Public education today has inherited both the child-centered philosophy of Rousseau and Dewey as well as the industrialization of Mann. It’s a rightly confusing mix of ideas. State standardized scientific efficiency and indoctrination are mixed up with this idea that children should somehow direct their own learning and discover their own truth. The end result is a shallow curriculum and tightly wound system no one can really understand or seem to fix. And kids caught up in this mess end up bored and anxious.

The vast majority of educators, administrators, and policymakers accept variations on these philosophies of education. And like Goyal, they sense acutely that something has gone wrong, but rarely exhibit a deep understanding of the two fundmental problems with our educational system.

Problem #1: The Government Is Not The Answer

Thankfully, Goyal and many alternative types do reject much of the scientific industrialization of Mann’s philosophy. For instance, Goyal rightly rips apart both President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and President Obama’s “Race to the Top” programs, which have put ridiculous pressure on schools, standardized the curriculum, frustrated teachers, and crippled administrators. Even privatizers and reform groups on both the Left and Right often buy into the industrialized, standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to education.

Like many progressives, he assumes parents should simply hand over their kids to the state to raise.

Yet, while he advocates for more localized and democratic structures, Goyal still does not question the notion that education goes much beyond a function of the state. I was disturbed by the absence of parents in Goyal’s book. Like many progressives, he assumes that parents should simply hand over their kids to the state to raise and nurture and inculcate with the “right ideas” of political correctness.

He actually dismisses the claim of a late-nineteenth-century U.S. assistant attorney general who found that states with “parent controlled education” saw far fewer cases of crime and suicide than states with “state controlled education,” a disparity attributed to “loss of parental authority and home influence over children” and “neglect of moral and religious education and training.”

We can agree that we need to change our schools, but we disagree over who should do the changing. Parents are given a vocation to responsibly rear and educate their children. They might partner with state-run schools to accomplish this, but the state replacing the parent only leads us down the path to a literal and figurative nanny-state.

Yes, countless excellent teachers who are called to teach and love kids are doing great things in public schools (my parents included), but let’s call public schools what they are: government schools. The ultimate purpose of education should not be to train conformist citizens. But this is what happens when the government gets involved in a heavy handed manner, no matter how “free and democratic” a progressive alternative structure the school employs.

Problem #2: Child-Centered Learning Actually Destroys Children

The second major problem with progressive education is the assumption that individual choice is the most sacred right of each child and must not be violated at any cost. While thought-provoking and challenging, progressive hopes for “free” alternative schools are based on the idea that the child, to one degree or another, is able to craft and determine his own education. Unfortunately, this utopian ideal leads directly to curricular and moral confusion, and ultimately to what Goyal abhors most—intellectual boredom.

Think about this. Can you imagine letting a child decide for himself what he wants to eat? No one questions that we need to make sure children eat vegetables and avoid so much sugar. Why is education and health of the mind any different?

No one questions that we need to make sure children eat vegetables. Why is education and health of the mind any different?

Can you not think of countless things you were “forced” to do that you are now grateful for? Discipline is a great gift to a child. The ability to self-control (not just self-define) gives one the freedom to transcend one’s passions. There is great joy, in fact, in hard and intense work towards an end that is not immediately gratifying or interesting.

I’m so thankful I was “forced” by my mother to memorize certain passages of poetry and religious texts when I was young. I still retain those passages to this day, and it’s a gift to me. I would never have learned to read or to do math or to show up to swim team practice if I didn’t learn as a child that sometimes, you have to do what doesn’t feel good. Guess what? There are many days as an adult in which I just have to get up and go to work even though it doesn’t feel good.

Goyal misunderstands the nature of children, youths, and really all human beings. We are, in fact, neither angels nor pure “blank slates.” We have a tendency to get bent out of shape. We are lazy. We harm others and ourselves with our words and deeds. We need structure and “restrictive rules” that are balanced with appropriate space to exercise responsibility and freedom to fail.

We cannot expect children to find the path to maturity into adulthood on their own. They will be left confused and directionless. Sure, alternative schools full of play sound like a lot of fun, and fun is not a bad thing. But when schools lack guidance and rigor and challenge, children will still hate schools. There is nothing more boring than the self.

Classical Education—The Last, Best, Hope

To confront the reality of boredom and anxiety in our schools, we should step back and consider the purpose of education, in a way that accounts for human nature.

Learning becomes more than merely a stressful endeavor to outcompete peers into college. Learning becomes about mind and soul formation.

Unfortunately, there is profound confusion over why we send our kids to school. Are schools merely babysitting? Is school just preparation for college? If college, what purpose does college then serve? Which classes should be taught and why? Why should kids take literature or mathematics or other courses that may not directly contribute to their jobs later in life? Or are teachers supposed to be training up citizens or accomplishing some other non-utilitarian ideal?

Amid disarray and confusion, our last, best hope is nothing new. It’s the recovery of something very old, a tradition that has persisted through the centuries, an approach to learning that Goyal and other progressives totally ignore.

The classical model and its various adaptations most adequately address the shortcomings and failures identified by Goyal. While not child-centered, classical schools most fully help children understand who they are and flourish in their individuality. It’s based on a curriculum designed to foster wonder in children and cultivate the imagination so learning becomes more than merely a stressful endeavor to outcompete peers into college. Learning becomes about mind and soul formation.

Classical schools teach a curriculum of great books and the liberal or “free” arts that best prepare man for living a free life. The child is not the center of the curriculum or the school. This is actually very freeing, as it allows the child to transcend his own self-perceived limitations.

The child is not the center of the curriculum or the school. This is actually very freeing, as it allows the child to transcend his own self-perceived limitations.

Pedagogically, classical schools begin with memorization, recitation, and phonics-based reading instruction. Young children actually love to memorize. As students mature, they move into logical and critical thinking, interdisciplinary projects, and rhetorical expression of ideas. High school students spend time engaged in fruitful discussion around a Harkness table.

At all stages of classical education, teachers employ embodied learning. Students ingest content, think and mull it over, play with it, and then express what they have learned using a variety of sensory experiences. This is actually a very old teaching method based on the medieval Lectio Divina of reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating. Classical schools also stress the importance of play during unstructured times. This develops the imagination. (Interestingly, Goyal’s favorite school, Brightworks Academy, employs a similar embodied approach to learning material.)

Making Education Great Again

Classical education captures the imagination and points to transcendent truths beyond the individual self. Classical education also starts from the premise that the purpose of education is not resume-building or college acceptance (though these are nice byproducts). Education is the hard work of soul, mind, and heart formation towards the end of being a good man and living a good life. Because our world is not perfect, classical schools are not boredom- and stress-free places, but they actively cultivate a philosophy and pedagogy in which boredom and stress cannot live for long.

They actively cultivate a philosophy and pedagogy in which boredom and stress cannot live for long.

Like many progressives, Goyal eloquently and sincerely addresses a very real problem and offers a truthful critique of a system we should all question. Yet, his fundamental assumptions are dangerous, and his solutions are wanting. If we want our kids to enjoy school more and pursue excellence in their academics, parents and small communities need to fundamentally rethink their approach to education in America.

We need to stop our schools from cultivating habits of boredom and anxiety in our young people. If we don’t, we are grooming the next generation to abnegate the notion of intellectual freedom and sheepishly accept “bread and circuses” from anyone who offers them temporary excitement and security. Indeed, it’s the difference between promising to “Make America Great Again,” and having the fortitude and intelligence to actually do it.

Abigail teaches middle-school history and Latin at a classical school in Alexandria, Virginia. She holds degrees from Hillsdale College (B.A.) and St. John's College (M.A.).
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