Sunday, September 25, 2016

As American Education Collapses, Democracy’s Foundation Shakes - The Daily Beast

As American Education Collapses, Democracy’s Foundation Shakes - The Daily Beast:

As American Education Collapses, Democracy’s Foundation Shakes

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And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Deeply depressed by the rise of Donald Trump and fearful for our nation’s future, I recently found myself reciting the last lines of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach,’ first published in 1861. Arnold was somewhat premature in imagining the world’s descent into chaos and strife. But the poem’s chilling metaphors return to us now as an augury of America’s political crack-up.
What makes the poem even more illuminating for these dreadful times is that Arnold was convinced that the clash of “ignorant armies” would be brought about (at least in part) by bad education. In addition to his standing as one of Victorian Britain’s greatest poets and cultural critics, Arnold was also a serious education reformer. For 35 years he held a day job as an inspector of schools, eventually rising to the position of Chief Inspector of Schools for all of Britain. He went on extended visits to several European countries to study their education systems. In his influential education reports and in some of his critical essays he scorned the individualistic, child centered, and haphazard pedagogy prevalent in British schools at the time (championed by, among others, John Stuart Mill.) Instead, Arnold proposed that government schools be required to teach a core curriculum of liberal, humanistic studies similar to the French schools he had come to admire.
The primary aim of education in an industrial democracy, Arnold believed, was to introduce all children—rich and poor alike —to the achievements of western civilization and culture, which he famously defined as “the best which has been said and thought.” Yet there was nothing elitist about Arnold’s approach to learning. With the rising demands for equality and full civic participation of the working classes, Arnold was confident that the masses were capable of mastering Britain’s rich cultural heritage. He feared that without this shared national spirit the English people would be unable to overcome narrow sectional and economic interests and support the common good. Modern democracy might then degenerate into violence, confusion and the clash of “ignorant armies.”
The political problem that Arnold wrestled with all his life now haunts America. Truth is the first casualty of this year’s presidential election from hell; loss of respect for the nation’s republican heritage is the second. Here’s one example among many:
At a raucous campaign rally in South Carolina last February Donald Trump was riffing on one of his favorite themes—how he would defeat Islamic terrorism overnight if elected president. In that context he brought up General Jack Pershing’s success in suppressing the 1903 Moro rebellion in the Philippines. But Trump falsely claimed that Pershing ordered the execution of dozens of Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, thereby slandering a great American soldier as a war criminal. Trump’s story was subsequently proven to be a big fat lie by fact checkers and historians of the period.
Never mind, forget facts, this is morning in America circa 2016. At a campaign rally in California two months later Trump repeated—almost verbatim—his narrative about General Pershing’s execution of Muslim prisoners. Trump’s supporters erupted with wild cheers and bellowing.
“Ignorant armies,” indeed.
If he were with us now, Matthew Arnold would have minced no words about this spectacle. And he might have asked what had gone wrong with American education, which he admired in his own day. Here’s the answer to Arnold’s hypothetical question:
A half century ago there began a pedagogical upheaval in the nation’s schools, a revolution from the top carried out by self-described “progressives,” that eventually succeeded in stripping away any semblance of a coherent grade-by-grade curriculum. Professional educators (most of them at least) reclaimed romantic theories of child development dating all the way back to Rousseau and powerfully reinforced in the 1930s by the American philosopher John Dewey.
Henceforth the nation’s Ed schools instructed prospective K-12 teachers that children were capable of “constructing their own knowledge.” The classroom teacher should be a “guide on the side,” instead of a “sage on the stage.” In many American public schools it was now deemed more important for children to “learn how to learn” rather than to accumulate “mere facts” and useless knowledge.
The resurrection of the “child-centered” pedagogy that Mathew Arnold railed against in his own lifetime turned classroom instruction upside down, disrupting the transmission of civic values and traditions from one generation to the next. Noting the old adage about the inmates taking over the asylum, the writer David Solway recently mused that in the era of progressive As American Education Collapses, Democracy’s Foundation Shakes - The Daily Beast:
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