Education: Hacks Praise Anything and Always with Enthusiasm
When you look back at American K-12 education for the past century, you first notice a preposterous parade of gimmicks and sophistries. Junk food for the mind, or worse.
Look again, and you see something even more disturbing: an endless supply of people willing to praise this stuff. Without these hucksters, the Education Establishment could not sell its snake oil, and public schools could not have descended so far.
These are no ordinary hucksters. They may have the morals of used car salesmen, but almost without exception they have high intelligence and advanced degrees, typically a Ph.D. in education.
Their most striking quality is a capacity for enthusiasm on behalf of things that don't merit enthusiasm.
All the way back in 1928, H.L. Mencken perfectly captured the essence of our malaise. "To take a PhD in education in most American seminaries, is an enterprise that requires no more real acumen or information than taking a degree in window dressing. ... Most pedagogues ... are simply dull persons who have found it easy to get along by dancing to whatever tune happens to be lined out. At this dancing they have trained themselves to swallow any imaginable fad or folly, and always with enthusiasm."
Two decades later, George Orwell summed up the totalitarian's life: "A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party."
At roughly that same year, and in the same spirit, Dr. Celia Stendler praised Whole Word and attacked phonics in these enthusiastic terms: "Reading with Phonics [a curriculum] does not fit the modern conception of the place of phonics in a reading program. ... One wonders at the naiveté of the authors. ... One wonders, too, whether the authors have ever had the thrill of seeing a group of children learn to read by the use of modern methods. The zest with which these children approach reading and the zeal with which they read will almost certainly be lost if we turn the clock back 20 years with Reading with Phonics." (Quote appears in Why Johnny Can't Read.)
This is a most extraordinary statement. The "modern" method she is praising has given us 50 million functional illiterates. Children never learn to read. But this hack bubbles with enthusiasm as she describes "the zest" and "the zeal" as children struggle to memorize sight-words.
In the 1960s, the Education Establishment unleashed New Math on us. Professors had to be found who would praise this stultifying nonsense. Prof. Evelyn Rosenthal wrote a book titled Understanding the New Math, which proclaimed: "The old method – by rote, by cut-and-dried techniques with little or no attention to the `why' of things – obscured all the pleasure and excitement of the subject." That's right: pleasure and excitement! In truth, probably not one child in 100 experienced pleasure and excitement. The country was so indignant about this phony that New Math quickly disappeared. There are many dreadful frauds in American education, but New Math can be hailed as the paradigm.
In the 1990s, the Education Establishment came up with Constructivism, which prompted a flood of enthusiasm. The sum of it was that Constructivism is the ultimate teaching method. In fact, it is now devastating K-12 education, despite these early reports:
Piaget's theory of constructivism states that learning begins from the inside of the child. Constructivism is a scientific theory that explains the nature of human knowledge. It is also the only known theory that explains children's construction of knowledge from birth to adolescence.
Basically, constructivism views that knowledge is not 'about' the world, but rather 'constitutive' of the world. Knowledge is not a fixed object, it is constructed by an individual through her own experience of that object.
And then we reach Common Core, which prompted an enthusiastic howling for several years.
In a 2009 speech at the National Press Club, Secretary Duncan accused states of setting the bar too low in order to comply with the regulations of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. "We want to raise the bar dramatically in terms of higher standards. What we have had as a country, I'm convinced, is what we call a race to the bottom. We have 50 different standards, 50 different goal posts. And due to political pressure, those have been dumbed down. We want to fundamentally reverse that. We want common, career-ready internationally benchmarked standards," said Duncan.
The American Federation of Teachers gushed: "America's public education system could be on the brink of a once-in-a-generation revolution….The CCSS are a sharp departure from the too-common superficial sprint through huge volumes of material, asking students and teachers instead to focus on in-depth explorations of essential skills and knowledge. If implemented properly ... we can provide all children with the problem-solving, critical-thinking and teamwork skills they need to compete in today's changing world."
A major education site jumped right in: "While the Common Core Standards presents an enormous challenge for administrators and teachers, it will be the students who unknowingly benefit the most from them. ... The higher level thinking skills, writing skills, and other skills attached to the Common Core will be beneficial to all students."
Point is, these people like to call themselves "educators" as if this is a noble calling. But what they really are is cheerleaders – not more, not less. Top people at Harvard's Graduate School of Education throw up the latest gimmicks, and these people start raving about how wonderful the new gimmicks are.
Siegfried Engelmann, a real educator, sums up what has been happening for many decades: "There are no provisions for schools to keep track of what works. Instead, schools adopt technically backward procedures and programs. Kids fail. The school district learns nothing more than to blindly try something else, which is usually cloaked in sweet rhetoric but is technical nonsense. ... A sensible organization would rely heavily on data about procedures used to achieve outstanding results; and they would certainly field test the results to assure that the standards resulted in fair, achievable goals? How many of these things did they do for Common Core? None."
Our Education Establishment hardly seems to care about the country's educational decline. About their own progressive ideology, however, they are always rabidly enthusiastic. These people push the party line. Although nearly invisible, they are the P.T. Barnums and the Mad Men of K-12 education.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains educational theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.