Dreaming Up a New America: Progressive Education and the Perversion of American Democracy

As opposed to the 2008 election, which had many frustrated and emotionally charged voters dreaming up a new America with a historic presidential candidate leading the charge, the 2010 midterms had people doing the exact opposite.  In 2010, a majority of Americans stopped dreaming and started to face reality.  America was accelerating toward an irreversible and all-encompassing decline.  The path envisioned by the president and his supporters for a radically changed United States was starting to look like a dead end.  America was breaking down.

The year 2010 was also when essayist Walter Russell Mead began to ascribe many aspects of this breakdown to the failures within what he called the Blue Social Model.  His prognostications were based on what he saw as the disintegration of core American institutions and ideas, which developed and flourished under the post-Second World War industrial system.  According to Mr. Mead, the model had reached its expiration date; and among other things, what has followed is a stagnant and deeply indebted economy, crumbling social institutions, and controlled yet massive citizen dissent.  Our bona fides as an advanced industrial democracy were therefore being challenged both domestically and internationally.  He might have been right.

If he was right, then Mr. Mead's argument should have immediately raised some major concerns.  If for the past sixty years our core institutions and ideas have, as Mr. Mead had put it, "rested on the commanding heights of a few monopolistic and oligopolistic American firms and a government with runaway entitlement programs," then we should have been asking ourselves more essential questions about the nature of our history and society.  One of those questions should have been: when did America stop being a serious democracy?

But if Mr. Mead's conclusion should not have warranted such a question, and though by increasingly unqualified means we can still call ourselves a serious democracy, then we obviously have another more fundamental problem on our hands.

Bootleg Blackberries, Fake iPads, and a Fabricated Democracy

The Blue Social Model theory was articulate and intelligent, but it did not identify the central problem facing American society.  It did, however, do a good job of camouflaging it.

That problem has now become an epidemic, and it is this: a citizenry, both young and old, whose members have become increasingly ignorant and apathetic towards the basic pillars of  history and civic culture upon which their democracy has been built.  This is why Mr. Mead was able to draw attention to a false target, which marked the real crisis as the "accelerating collapse of blue government," and get away with it.

Essentially, the American masses -- now not unlike the masses in various parts of the democratic underdeveloped world -- have little to no understanding of how genuine democracies are supposed to work, and they don't care.

Instead, they identify their democracy not in terms of the revolutionary political ideas and events of Western civilization, but in terms of the following new norms: government-backed credit systems that motivate compulsive consumerism by encouraging people to live well beyond their means; unempirical race theories that promote thoughtless, face-value diversity and multicultural relativism within the body politic; and a mainstreamed, age-inclusive addiction towards insipid web 2.0 entertainments that some have said is pushing our society towards an era of digital serfdom.

In other words, democracy in America now means being able to purchase a million-dollar house when you cannot afford it and having the power to open a Facebook account when you are eight years old.  

In that the roots of this kind of perverted democracy are not grounded in watershed documents such as the Twelve Tables of Roman Law or The English Bill of Rights of 1689, it should come as no surprise that today, a petty electronics trader hustling fake iPads and bootleg BlackBerries on a chaotic street steaming with fresh sewer in Port Harcourt, Nigeria should feel comfortable in equating his democracy with ours.  Based on what the trader understands, his fifty-year-old, post-imperial democracy is supposed to be based on the promise of the Blue Social Model.  But what he does not understand is that our two-hundred-plus-year-old anti-imperial democracy is not supposed to be.

And so, although it is our democracy that has produced an environment for all types of industry and real innovation to flourish, and although his democracy has produced the exact opposite -- one so corrupt and replete with ironies too incredible to believe (including the lack of internet for the fraudulent gadgets that he sells) -- both of our democracies are becoming the same.

Until Americans begin to set themselves apart, once again, as the gatekeepers for the democratic civic standards of Western civilization, our political outcomes will continue to be no more respectable than those of the third-world electronics trader.  Just as he commands a market that is eager for his fake gadgets, our government now governs a citizenry that is eager for a fabricated democracy -- one that discourages genuine civic responsibility and comprehension.

Some people have balked and jeered when they have been shown images of the American president who bows to foreign dictators.  They have said that the leader of the free world has no business bending over for autocrats who do not represent freedom and the rule of law.  But it is not the president who is doing the bowing.  We are doing the bowing.  The American president is simply reflecting the will of a good portion of the people whom he governs. 

Rousseau, Dewey, et al.: How the "Me, Myself, and I" Generation Became an Unintelligent Mob

It is America's decades-long experiment with progressive and postmodern progressive education that has produced almost two generations of low-information citizens who have become easier to dupe for the benefit of our increasingly intrusive and imperial government.

The progressive education model began to receive widespread attention during the first decades of the twentieth century.  The ideas and scholarly works of American philosopher and education theorist John Dewey were used to develop teaching models, which began to captivate groups of exclusive and superbly credentialed left-leaning educators, who lauded the models and who sought to actualize Dewey's vision in their own schools.  Dewey and his disciples decried the status-quo paradigms of the American school system -- especially those that they saw were intent on bringing up dutiful but uncritical citizens, or those that they felt motivated academic discrimination, particularly by means of standardized testing.  Their progressive education models were therefore aimed at making American schools more reflective of genuine democracies.

For them, dreaming up a new America meant gleaning many ideas about education from prominent European social philosophers of the eighteenth century.  One such philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, via and his tract on education, Emile, became invaluable for providing examples for the progressive education model.

Emile outlines the assumptions under which young boys, especially, should be educated.  Rousseau's philosophy on education stressed the natural goodness of man and a condemnation of social conventions, most of which he believed were culpable for man's corruptive behavior.  To rehabilitate mankind, Emile emphasizes the following for the various stages of a person's initial education: 

  1. The purpose of education is to develop a child's natural capacities.  Natural education should be as far-removed from society as possible.
  2. The aim of education should always be child-centered and individualized.  Children learn by utilizing their senses; they are guided by natural curiosity.
  3. A good teacher is unobtrusive; teachers are not there to enforce doctrine or rigid instruction.
  4. Children must never be pushed to acquire information.  If they are moved on their own to learn about something, they will.
  5. Children will develop a sense of morality through their trials and errors.  They do not acquire morals by being punished for bad behavior.  Teachers are never to discipline children for perceived wrongdoing.

From such ideas, many American educators were able to promote and systematize a progressive agenda in education that placed a premium on child-centered (as opposed to knowledge-centered) instinctual  "learning activities."  As progressive teaching models came to have more influence, authoritative, well-informed teachers and traditional textbooks began to be viewed as antediluvian and unnecessary.

Once the progressive education models of the '60s and '70s turned into their present-day postmodern structures, administrators became especially devoted to using the following paradigms to motivate students to learn:

  1. Defining a student's intellectual abilities through self-expression activities such as dance, unstructured writing, self-written poetry readings, and various forms of play.
  2. A de-emphasizing of the core curriculum subjects of Western civilization in favor of subjects that underscore minority issues and excessive openness towards diversity.
  3. Achieving academic equality through non-competitive groupthink projects.
  4. Caricaturing and condemning traditional learning methods and devices such as rote memorization, drill, and recitation.
  5. "Dumbing down" or avoiding subjects that can be mastered only through ongoing practice and hard work. 
  6. Grade inflation.  

All of these ideas and practices have failed American students by the factory-load and are responsible for creating successive generations of "me, myself, and I" citizens who lack intellectual depth and who are prone, paradoxically, to unproductive mob behavior.

In a snarky but well-deserved memorandum to the many classes of 2012, Ben Stephens writes:  

A few months ago, I interviewed a young man with an astonishingly high GPA from an Ivy-League university and aspirations to write about Middle East politics. We got on the subject of the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. He was vaguely familiar with it. But he didn't know who was the president of the United States in 1956. And he didn't know who succeeded that president.

Pop quiz, Class of '12: Do you?

His summary:

In every generation there's a strong tendency for everyone to think like everyone else. But your generation has an especially bad case, because your mass conformism is masked by the appearance of mass nonconformism.

Disguised as a crotchety hit piece against a generation of know-nothings, Stephen's memo is actually a warning regarding our nation's clear and present danger.  Here's one possible interpretation of it: at worst, progressive and postmodern education has produced ignorant masses composed of people incapable of acting as individuals.  People who are incapable of acting as individuals have no need for constitutions that protect their individual rights.  Thus the continued perversion and eventual death of a democracy.

Classical Education: Let the Revolution Begin 

Meeting American middle school students who are required to write one-act plays on the shooting of Trayvon Martin, or who begin to count on their fingers when asked how many states are in our Union, is depressing.  It is also eye-opening.  The progressive education movement has imposed many misguided ideas on America.  And in doing so, the movement's purveyors have willfully denied this unavoidable truth: children are born ignorant and require a great deal of academic guidance and instruction in order to acquire specific skill sets.  It is the discipline that it takes to acquire such skill sets that will serve them as they grow to discover what truly distinguishes them as thoughtful individuals.  

The state of our education crisis -- especially our urban education crisis -- has led many to embrace unrealistic ideas that are simply not working.  For instance, Waiting for Superman to solve our nation's K-12 education problems is an option, but it is ultimately impractical and does not offer a permanent solution.  Superheroes don't exist.  As Walter Russell Mead's Blue Social Model theory had exposed, America's near-obsessive reliance on government to create and administer a wealthy and growing state was erroneous.  Therefore, the idea of cheaper and better-managed state-supported education is preposterous because as Mr. Mead makes clear, "public schools are increasingly expensive to run, and yet they do not provide improved services to match those exploding costs."

The costs of public education are exploding because of progressive education gimmickry.  Progressive education is gimmick-prone because its entire pedagogic framework is one that almost always shuns rigorous, systematic, and sequential learning that is based on a history-dependent approach.  It favors, however, curricula that are non-cumulative, ahistorical, and theme-based, with subjects and languages often being studied in isolation from one another.  And from such curricula, teachers create new and "innovative" ways to entertain their students.  Entertainment industries tend to be expensive to run. 

Most Department of Education bureaucrats are oblivious to the realities of how children learn.  In New York City, for instance, Department of Education teachers employed at failing public schools continue to require students in primary grades to learn about (for state-wide exams) algebraic equations when they have yet to master basic arithmetic.  It is also why many of those same students, when they get to high school, will be taught to cram into their heads, within a three- to four-month period, a bunch of meaningless events and facts for a state Regents exam on U.S. history and government, only to go back to their previous dimwitted understanding of how our government is supposed to work once the exam is over.  Consequently, it is not shocking to meet seventh-graders who still struggle with addition and subtraction, or high school seniors who believe that the American Revolution was fought between France and Germany.  If this does not expose the writing on the wall for the future of our democracy, then what else will?  American education does not need reform.  It needs a revolution.

Going back to the lost standards of a classical education is the only way forward for American students, and this needs to happen now.  People are already expressing a hunger for something very different.  The hunger is being expressed in the form of the relentless criticism towards what many schools are offering.  But we need a credible alternative.  

I am a classical educator in urban America. Most of my students, when first introduced to the stems and endings system of Latin grammar, become anxious and afraid.  They are not used to the intellectual discipline that the study of Latin grammar demands.  They have not been taught about the Roman republic or its relevance to our political system, and because of the rampant hyper-liberal proselytizing that goes on in many of their schools, they would probably believe that the Trojan War began under the administration of George W. Bush.  This is because among other things, their parents, especially, once felt deeply obliged to school systems that were short-changing their children.  Their children were not acquiring concrete and relevant information, nor were these children being instructed based on a credible system that allowed them to organize, analyze, and interpret such information properly.  But a classical education, if made available to a greater number of students, can change all of this.

Rather than putting forth an extensive amount of information about why a classical education works, which it does, or what a classical education is, which many who are much more qualified than myself have already done, I would like to share my summary of what a classical education, at the very least, has done for my students:

  1. Motivated intellectual curiosity in core subjects and languages.
  2. Given them an excellent understanding of the origins of Western civilization and its intellectual traditions.
  3. Through the study of classical languages (Latin in particular), they have acquired an in-depth knowledge of English grammar, a more extensive vocabulary, and basic logic skills.
  4. Has enabled them to tackle more challenging subjects.
  5. Given them (and their parents) the ability to recognize and to stay clear of gimmicks and trends in education.
  6. Now have a concrete pattern for learning, which they can use to master any subject or acquire any skill.
  7. Has instilled humility. 

The need for a genuine revolution is obvious.  But what is not obvious is how to arm more of our citizens in the making with the knowledge and wisdom that they will one day use to protect themselves from various forms of undemocratic government, one of which has begun to materialize right before our very eyes.  Classical home-schools and traditional private classical schools are an excellent start, but they are not enough.  We need to reach even more students with what these schools have to offer.

America is not only breaking down; it is breaking apart.  Right now, we must find a clear and precise path back to our democratic roots.  But this can happen only if our children are properly educated.  So let the revolution begin. 

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