Educational Reforms: In Praise of Folly.

Author:Ivie, Stanley D.


Erasmus of Rotterdam, who was a 16th century humanist, wrote a thought-provoking little book, In Praise of Folly. Erasmus' book presents the thesis that mankind is more inclined to chase after the goddess Folly than pursue wisdom (Erasmus, 1511/1960, pp. 372-375). Erasmus lived in a time of heightened religious conflicts, Protestant and Catholic. Though we live a more secure and secular world, there are no shortage of conflicts demanding our attention. One of these is educational reform. How best to educate America's youth? If Erasmus were to pay us a visit today, he might very well come to the same conclusion that he arrived at 500 years ago. Educators have been pursuing Folly, short-term gains, rather than cultivating wisdom, long-term solutions. Folly tempts us to become swept away by the passion for some new and novel idea. Wisdom, on the other hand, cautions us to build constructively on the achievements of the past. Which course of action will educators adopt to follow in the 21st century?

Public education has experienced six distinct phases of schooling: the traditional school, which extended from the colonial period through the 19th century; the progressive educational movement, which characterized the first half of the 20th century; the post-Sputnik, new curricula reforms of the 1960s and 1970s; the multicultural programs of the 1970s and 1980s; test-driven instruction of the 1980s and 1990s; and the present debate over the Common Core of State Standards. Though all of these reform movements have left their mark on American education, none has become the dominant motif for schooling America's youth.

Traditional Education. The traditional school was rooted in the 15th century Renaissance. It derived its inspiration from classical humanism, which held that ancient Greece and Rome represented the Golden Age of mankind. The present could do no better than emulate models of perfection from the past. Renaissance schools aligned their curricula with the seven Liberal Arts--grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, astronomy, mathematics, and geometry. Boston Latin School (1635) established the academic standard for its time, which included a bit of Bible reading. Schools featured a fixed, time honored curriculum where book learning, memorization, recitation, and drill all played a central part in a day's activities. Classroom seating was arranged in uniform rows that were fixed to the floor. The teacher's role, says French (1964) "was not so much to enrich the presentation ... but rather to hear lessons recited and to keep order" (p. 76).

A series of new textbooks were written by American authors in the 19th century. Among these were Noah Webster's "Blue-back speller"; Jedediah Morse's American Universal Geography; and Thomas Dilworth's books on arithmetic. "The series of books outselling all the others for use in the common schools were the famous McGuffey Readers" (French, 1964, p. 72). The six eclectic readers were compiled by William Holmes McGuffey. Quick (1970), who attended public schools in the 19th century, says about the McGuffey Readers: "These text-books constituted the most influential volumes ever published in America" (p. 516). The readers were "intensely moral, soundly religious, and addicted to the inculcation of habits of industry, mercy and most of the virtues" (p. 517).

The study of Latin and Greek were considered to be central subjects in American secondary schools during the 19th century. The importance of the classical languages was linked to the humanist belief that Latin and Greek supported the sacred scriptures. The New Testament had first been recorded in Greek. A revised translation of the Old Testament, the Vulgate, had been made by St. Jerome in the 4th century (Artz, 1954, pp. 79-80). Latin and Greek were thought to be the keys to unlocking the true meaning of the scriptures. This rationale was still alive and well in the early years of the 20th century. A study conducted by the American Classical League (1924/1951) provided data on the teaching to Latin and Greek in America's secondary schools during the 1923-1924 school year. "About 83% of the 20,500 secondary schools of the country offer Latin, a slightly larger percentage than in the case of all other foreign languages combined" (p. 530). The total enrollment of students studying Latin was estimated by the United States Bureau of Education to be 940,000. The enrollments in Greek were estimated to be around 11,000.

Dewey (1938/1959) has given us a critical description of the traditional school. It was a place where subject matter consisted of knowledge and skills worked out in the past. The role of the school was to transmit established knowledge and skills to each new generation. Pupils were to be docile, receptive, and obedient. "Books, especially textbooks, were the chief representatives of the lore and wisdom of the past, while teachers were the organs through which pupils were brought into effective connection with the material" (p. 13). Dewey's (1938/1959) strongest indictment of the traditional school was held for its imposition of knowledge and skills from above and outside the realm of experience of the pupils. The gulf between the adult standards and the level of experience of the young was so great that it excluded, "much active participation by pupils in the development of what was taught" (p. 4). The traditional school, in short, was a place where the curriculum-centered approach to instruction was out of step with children's growth and development.

Reform Movements

Progressive Education. The traditional school was replaced by progressive schools during the first half of the 20th century. The Godfather of the new education was Jean Jacques Rousseau (1762/1979), whose book, Emile, provided educators with a romantic theme for thinking about the education of children. Nature, or so the Romantics believed, contained within itself a spirit of wisdom and goodness. People could tune into this spirit through intuition. The heart, not the head, offered the proper guidance for instruction. Learning should not be an imposition from without; it should grow organically from within. Children, given time and freedom to explore on their own, would devise their own best course of study.

The 1930s were the hay day of progressive education. The Progressive Education Society had more money, membership, and prestige than at any other time in its history. The progressives built onto the ideas promoted by Francis Parker, who implemented language-experience reading in the schools of Quincy, Massachusetts; G. Stanley Hall, who initiated the child-study movement in the United States; and William H. Kilpatrick, who advocated organizing all lessons around projects. Teachers were no longer to act as drill master, but rather as guides or resource persons whose major role was one of assisting children in organizing their experiences. Movable chairs and desks became the norm in most classrooms. Teachers repeated the slogan: "We teach children, not subjects." Progressive educators like Rugg and Shumaker advised teachers to "take the lid off youth." They argued that "'every child is born with the power to create'"; consequently, "'the task of the school is to surround the child with an environment which will draw out this creative power'" (Cremin, 1961, p. 207).

What effect would "taking the lid off of youth" have on preparing them for college? Would students who had attended a progressive high school perform as well in college as students who had attended a traditional high school? That was the question the Eight-Year Study set out to answer. The study became the largest and most expensive piece of education research ever conducted in the United States. It ran from 1932 to 1940, and it involved 30 different progressive high schools and 1,475 matched pairs of students from progressive and traditional high schools. The Progressive Education Association was successful in getting 300 different colleges to waive traditional entrance requirements. To fund the study the Carnegie Foundation made grants totaling $70,000 and the General Education Board contributed a million and a half dollars to the project (Cremin, 1961, pp. 255-258).

What were the findings of the study? The evaluation team found that graduates from the progressive high schools when they were enrolled in college: (A) earned slightly higher grade point averages; (B) received slightly more academic honors; (C) showed more curiosity; (D) demonstrated more objective thinking; (E) had a clearer conception of the purpose of education; (F) were more resourceful; (G) were equally well adjusted; (H) had more group participation; (I) earned more nonacademic honors; (J) made a better choice of vocation; (K) and showed more concern for national and world affairs (Cremin, 1961, pp. 255-256).

Unfortunately, The Eight-Year Study never received the close scrutiny it deserved. By the time the experiment ended, America was on the threshold of entering into World War II. The national interest had...

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