Can America's Schools Be Saved? An Insider Weighs In
The American education system has long been in crisis. It seems every administration seeks to reform the system, but it usually ends up making matters worse. The book, Can America’s Schools Be Saved? How the Ideology of American Education Is Destroying It helps explain what has gone wrong.
Author Edwin Benson is a teacher and shares the fate of his students by being a victim of programs, testing standards, and newfangled crazy ideas. He vents his frustration at dealing with ivory tower reformers and theorists who will not let students be students and teachers be teachers.
The book’s style is accessible, engaging, and genuine. It is full of refreshing anecdotes that reflect a lifetime of teaching experience. It even has a classroom feel by its logic and clarity. One senses the author’s passion for education that remains unshaken despite everything that conspires against him.
Tracing the Process of Education’s Decline
What makes the book so valuable is that it pinpoints the problem in its origins. The culprit is not a specific bad program but an ideology that generates bad programs. Until the ideology is rejected, the march of new programs will continue indefinitely as reformers never tire in recycling their bad ideas.
The main proponent of this ideology is reformer John Dewey who distorted the American system in the early twentieth century. His ideas put a collectivist stamp on education that diminished the full intellectual development of the individual. His emphasis on teaching skills rather than knowledge has eroded the very reason for education. His utilitarianism has discouraged the teaching of any absolute standards of truth, morals and beauty. Dewey taught relativism regarding morals, and accepted anything that might work for the occasion.
It is from this focus of process not program that the author denounces the errors of the American public school system. His is truly an insider’s perspective since he has heard every slogan and seen every fix-it kit. Like a detective, he traces the processes that have brought education down to where it is today.
Some programs like Outward Based Education did not last long and now lie in what he calls educational “cemeteries.” Others have lingered on for decades inside “intensive care units” waiting for someone to pull the plug. Readers of any age can find how they fit into the process by locating the “Common Core” equivalent of their youth.
Proposals for Reform
Needless to say, Benson has presented a compelling case for reform. He has taken the first step toward this goal by helping the normal reader better understand the crisis. However, given the entrenched present state of affairs, a drastic change, while proven to be logical and necessary may seem improbable in the near future.
The temptation of most reformers is to attack a big problem with a bigger solution.
Proposing a Philosophy of Education
This is not the case with this book. The second part deals with proposals on a human scale. This is where the author’s experience as a teacher shines forth. His proposals are not ethereal and inaccessible. They are doable if adopted with common sense.
The author does not fall into the trap of so many educational reformers. These activists reason that if the problem is caused by the imposition of an ideology, then the solution must consist of imposing a counterideology. Thus, they devise a rigid set of principles that they force upon the concrete circumstances in the form of an equally rigid program.
What Benson presents is not an ideology but a philosophy of education that draws upon his own experience. He presents a few universal principles of education, recognized by teachers since the time of Socrates. He then gives teachers the freedom and flexibility to apply these principles according to their talents, abilities, and circumstances.
Applying Principles, Discipline and Transcendentals
Thus, he presents, for example, the principle of subsidiarity which he calls “authentic and organic bottoms-up decision making.” This operating principle of the Catholic Church holds that “any problem is best solved by someone who is intimately connected to it.” Acting in this manner would cut through the burdensome bureaucracy that so stifles initiative and progress.
The author encourages teachers to resort to the simple telling of marvelous stories as a tool for better education. He recommends common sense in applying much needed discipline that would involve “simplicity, consistency, immediacy and cessation.”
In reply to the naturalistic perspective of modern education, Benson calls for restoring what are called the “transcendentals,” which consist of the good, the true and the beautiful. These have always informed classical education and are a logical stepping stone to the consideration of God.
A Limited Scope
It is important to note that the author does not extend himself beyond his focus of the American school system of which he is familiar. He does not address more classical and religious models that deal with the complete education of the body and soul of the student. He merely suggests guidelines that would combat the ideology that is destroying American education.
However, if his suggestions were applied to the present system, they would inevitably lead to a more ideal manner of teaching the truth. That is why modern educators will not like this book. They will see where it leads.
It will lead to an educational model that is in harmony with human nature and turned to God and an eternal destiny.
The Art of Education
Such a model is impossible when the model is like a machine. Benson insists that education is not a science that automatically churns out informed students.
If that were the case, he argues, simple application of its methods and principles would yield consistent and predictable results. That is not what has happened. In fact, the only thing consistent about educational programs, designed in laboratories, is their failure.
That is why he insists that there must be a return to “the concept of teaching as an art.” Education is an art that involves organic human relationships that are not found on spreadsheets. Teachers by their nature should be role models that communicate character and virtue. The teacher’s role, like that of an artist, is to inspire and motivate the student to aspire to the truth.
When that happens, teachers will once again be passionate for their art. And students will more easily return to the innocent love of the truth.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order, as well as the author of hundreds of published articles. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.