Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Perfect World?

Students of history are familiar with Utopians from Rousseau to Marx to Kropotkin. In various ways, they all envision the perfecting of human society, humans individually, and world as we know it. From these noble ideals and desires arise the very opposite - misery, suffering, and injustice. Utopian plans inevitably crash, because their basic assumptions ignore the simply fact that the world and humans, collectively and individually, are neither perfect nor perfectible. A 1992 report from the Excellence in Broadcasting Network describes more recent forms of Utopian thinking:

There is a common bond which spiritually unites these people, which is that attitude of cultural radicalism carried over from the 1960's. Theirs is an anti-American credo, which abhors American political and governmental institutions and this nation's capitalistic economy. Their value system is at war with the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which this country was founded and is centered in secular humanism and moral relativism.

Note the connections with Marx, inasmuch as modern Utopians are "anti-capitalistic", and the connections with Rousseau, inasmuch as they desire to destroy our culture and replace it with their envisioned ideal culture. Observe also the desire to destroy humanism, as we know it in Erasmus and T.S. Elliot, as we see it in Da Vinci and Michelangelo, as we hear it in Bach and Haydn - to be replaced by their idealized "secular humanism," a world view of mechanized determinism which denies that humans can make meaningful or significant choices in life.

Theirs is the me generation, which seeks immediate gratification, presumably because there is no spiritual tomorrow. Their God is not spiritual or personal. Their God is in every fiber of nature and is impersonal. He is just as much a part of the plant and animal kingdom as He is a part of the human soul; thus, their pantheistic devotion to animals and the environment. Their God did not give them dominion over nature and the animal kingdom, positioning them at the top rung on the hierarchy of creation.

If one regards all of nature as God, one is then obliged to view a human being as nothing special. Despite their talk of "human rights," Utopians essentially believe that a human is no more special than a flower or a fish.

As their emphasis is on this world, they cling to the belief that man is morally perfectible and that Utopia on earth is achievable.

In various forms, this drive toward Utopia needs the coercive force of an authoritative government to accomplish its social engineering. These idealists believe that, if only everyone will cooperate with their plans, a perfect society is right around the corner. Yet not everyone will cooperate, and they feel themselves justified in forcing compliance from those unwilling citizens who cling to their personal freedom. Surely, the Utopians think, it is worth it to temporarily remove the rights of a few people in order to create a perfect society for everyone. From this seemingly innocent sentiment, it is but a few short steps to using the guillotine to execute thousands of French women and children, because they didn't seem enthusiastic enough about the latest instructions from the revolutionary government. Thus ever ends Utopian hopes.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Dewey and Your School

The American educational system has been deeply influenced by John Dewey and his followers. Prior to Dewey, teachers had traditionally viewed education as having two major components: "knowing that" (information) and "knowing how to" (skills). Dewey rejected both of these.

Instead, he asserted that the major purposes of education were clustered around the concept of becoming a member of the community. He wrote: "What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life."

The impact, then, of Dewey's popularity was to de-emphasize a teacher's concern for curriculum ("knowing that" and "knowing how to"), and instead emphasize those aspects of education which are social in nature. The direct result is that American high schools have clubs and sports teams, counselors and student councils, and classes about health and parenting.

It is difficult for us, living in the twenty-first century, to imagine a time when the average American high school had none of these things - so deep is Dewey's influence on our educational institutions.

But how do we evaluate Dewey's contribution? Has it been good or bad? Critics note that since Dewey's time, American students have mastered fewer and fewer of the core concepts of higher mathematics, fewer of the central works of world literature, and fewer foreign languages. In the words of a 1991 report from the Excellence in Broadcast Network, schools are teaching students about condoms and recycling

instead of Aristotle. We're not teaching anything else very well. Our kids get lower scores on math and English tests every year. As a result, kids from backwater European and Asian countries are outperforming our kids left and right in school because we're hung up on teaching feel-good history and worthless social gobbledygook.

That was twenty years ago. In which direction have we gone since then? Have American schools continued to do the jobs of parents and neighborhoods, or have they returned to serious education? During the typical school day, is learning interrupted by forays into counseling, peer relationships, sexuality, relationships, environmentalism, etc.?

Dewey's influence caused the schools to perform the tasks of parents and neighborhoods, which meant first that parents and neighborhoods had nothing to do (the schools having taken over their roles), and second that the schools weren't doing much educating (because they were busy raising children instead of instructing students).

The question for education in the twenty-first century, then, is this: are we moving further into Dewey's influence, or beginning to escape from it?