What Needs to be Taught? — Part I: A History

During my career as an educator, which started off as a leap off of a cliff into a raging fire, I became increasingly concerned with the issue of “what to teach.” I began teaching as a middle school science teacher in New York City. It was a great environment with good, but challenging, students. However, I was generally clueless, even though I thought I had a lot to offer. With the help and support of my principal and a French teacher, I began to see the errors in my thinking and approach. I began questioning many of the assumptions I had about teaching and learning. And, then I studied with Gregory Bateson for an intensive summer program on education. That summer turned everything upside down. Bateson’s ideas slowly soaked in over many years and even decades as the processes of developing deeper understandings percolated. About 8 years after the Bateson program, I entered graduate school. I entered the graduate program with a kind of selfish attitude. I said to myself that “I don’t care about grades or the professors’ styles of teaching. I am going to learn as much as I can from this experience… just for me.” As I finished my masters degree, then doctoral degree, I left feeling like I was embarking on a path of continual learning, of challenging my and others’ ideas. And, now, having retired from the academic path, I am still learning and challenging.

But, what was it about the learning that occurred during this initial period that changed the way I approached my interaction with the world? I certainly slogged my way through many boring and seemingly irrelevant courses, which were really quite deadly. However, there were many more professors who enlivened the material being studied and who focused heavily on challenging the status quo. And, studying with Gregory Bateson was entirely a process of upending the assumptions of how we think, learn, relate, and live.

However, the big issue is how the system of education fails our children and, for that matter, many, if not most, adults going through colleges and universities. This issue has been plaguing me for decades. From the institutions of education, we get more “national standards,” more “teacher accountability,” more “testing,” and more “teacher-proof curricula.” All of these actions just continue to deaden the entire system of schooling.

Today, I started reading an old book by the noted philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. His book, The Aims of Education, was first published almost a century ago in 1929. Below, are two short summaries with quotes about “what to teach” and “testing.” Reading books from this time period is slow going. The way the English language was used was different, so I’ve summarized most of what he wrote, but have included key quotes.

What to Teach

In teaching children, “…above all things we must beware of what I will call ‘inert ideas’ — that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.” …. Throughout history, education at one point may be “alive with a ferment of genius,” but in later times, education becomes pedantic and routine. “The reason is, that they are overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful—Corruptio optimi, pessima.” [The corruption of the best, the worst — from https://www.latin-online-translation.com]

page 13 in Alfred North Whitehead (1929) The Aims of Education

Testing

Whitehead describes the issue of how best to teach as dependent upon the teacher (intelligence, knowledge, etc.), the students (intelligence, knowledge, etc.), the students’ potentialities for later life, and the contexts (physical, social, cultural, etc.) in which the students live. “It is for this reason that the uniform external examination is so deadly.” (Whitehead's The Aims of Education, page 17)

And, here we are almost 100 years later still suffering from the “deadly” approaches to schooling. During the mid- to late-1800’s, politicians and those with influence over education were quite explicit about not providing a good education for the masses. In John Gatto’s well-researched chapter, “Some Lessons From the Underground History of American Education,” he describes a pattern of control exerted over education that had the intention of control over children in order to control them as adults and keeping all but the very elite under-educated.

Here are a few choice points from this chapter:

A school or a prison?
  • 1857 — effort to have schools take complete control over children through behavior modification, so that they took over the role of parent.
  • 1906 — William Torrey Harris (U.S. Commissioner of Education said on page 279, “Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual. — The Philosophy of Education (1906, p. 270)
  • Just before World War I — Woodrow Wilson said on page 272: “We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
  • 1917 — (page 272) “…the major administrative jobs in American schooling were under control of a group referred to in the press of that day as ‘the education trust.’ The first meeting of this trust included representatives of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the National Education Association. The chief end, wrote the British evolutionist Benjamin Kidd in 1918, was to ‘impose on the young the ideal of subordination.’”
  • And, in the contexts of present-day education, not much has really changed. We do not use the same words and phrases to describe what should happen in schools. Instead of being straight forward with our intent, we couch our language in words and phrases that may imply more positive goals, such as “raising standards” and “holding teachers accountable.” The strategies used to dumb down our children, to segregate the classes, and to control our children have become more insidious, but are still the major influences on what is taught and how that information is taught.

We have done a wonderful job of preparing our children to be adults who welcome authoritarianism, who will be obedient and subservient, who will not question authority, and whose thinking abilities have been blocked and strangled. And, here we are in 2021, in a society dying from decades of psychological violence against its citizens.

References

Gatto, J. T. (2002). Some lessons from the underground history of American education. In R. Kick (Ed.), Everything you know is wrong: The disinformation guide to secrets and lies (pp. 274–287). New York: The Disinformation Company.

Harris, W. T. (1906). The philosophy of education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The aims of education. New York: Mentor Book/New American Library (Macmillan).


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