Education: When the Dare's on to Build a New Social Order
"Progressive Education” came to my school when I was a student at Halsey Junior High School in the 1940s (P.S. 85, Brooklyn, N.Y,). Principal Stella Sweeting was thrilled as a little girl getting a doll house for Christmas, but the rest of us, teachers included, thought this “experiment” in schooling was silly. Oh, it was fun to cut classes and paint murals in the hallways – the brainstorm of class buddy Bob and I that, to our surprise, was approved.
Such “official cheating” didn’t faze those with A’s and B’s in their subjects – we’d catch up later (in high school maybe?) – but what of the students who might stumble from such sliding and find it difficult to overcome the challenges ahead? While this loosening of educational standards at Halsey was, in a word, pleasant, most of my teachers took a dim view of a theory of education that not only ditched authority and tradition but dismissed academic achievement as well – the stance of early 20th Century Marxist education reformers with a mission to prepare America for a socialist future. Why did the “progress” they envisioned in their “progressive” educational method of indoctrination include dumbing?
How serious a problem this watered-down schooling would be became clear to me when the principal of my high school (Bushwick High School, Brooklyn, N.Y.), Milo F. McDonald, published a report entitled “‘Progressive’ Poison in Public Education” which he delivered to the American Education Association in 1951. The McDonald Report exposed in detail the so-called “activity program” – better known as “Progressive Education” – that was sprung on the New York City Schools in 1935 in the guise of an experiment, and was being pushed since then. It was in fact a stealth program launched by John Dewey and a group of like-minded educational theorists to prepare future citizens for a coming socialist age. It was time, claimed one of them, George S. Counts, to “dare the teachers to build a new social order.”
Since the facts presented in the McDonald Report and the strong case it made against Progressive Education would undermine the Progressive agenda, the one path open to the report was to the bottom of the dustbin of education history. I have kept a copy of that forgotten report all these years, aware of its importance; it is now accessible at Don Potter.
The dumbing down of successive generations of school children has become documented history.* The contrast in general school smarts before and after 1960 is plainly visible to older Americans. Less conspicuous is the collateral damage to our culture. A hint of this negative “side effect” showed in the blight that crept into entertainment in the second half of the 20th Century. I call it blight because increasing groupthink and decreasing originality fed my perception that independence and creativity in the communication and other arts was declining. The trend, in numerous ramifying ways including academics, was diminishing the quality of mainstream life in America.
This dumbing trend became the subject of books like The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom in 1987. Much has been written about this trend since, but little has been done to correct it. The intellectual dimming and cultural downsliding in America long before alarms sounded in books and alternative publications was more than worrisome for those of us who became culture warriors. Even The American Scholar, signature publication of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, was showing signs of cultural decrepitude after 1960. An article by Ruth Bader Ginsburg on “sex discrimination” was a hint of the lunacy infecting America’s mental assets. Ginsburg’s intellectual hubris on the pages of a respected journal was for me a warning that academics were slipping away from reality. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg would go on to become a Justice of the Supreme Court.)
As the graduates of a system of education that was geared to a socialist restructuring of society gained positions of responsibility and leadership in education, publishing, entertainment, and public service, the writing on the wall of the early 20th Century became the nightmare we face today.
A disheartening fact of American education is that public school teachers don’t know the ugly facts of their own history. Their collective loss of memory of what made them what they are – the stealth Marxist transformation of the public schools – is one of the great tragedies of the 20th Century. Those of us who have remained awake through the years must make it our mission to enlighten the young, with the hope and prayer that the 21st Century restore the sanity that once prevailed in our country.
[*See the deliberate dumbing down of america by Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt, Conscience Press, 1999.]
Anthony J. DeBlasi is a 1953 graduate of Brooklyn College (Phi Beta Kappa), culture warrior, and Korean War veteran.