In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville wrote admiringly: “In the United States the general thrust of education is directed toward political life; in Europe its main aim is to fit men for private life.”
The reasons for this communitarian emphasis were obvious to American leaders in the nineteenth century. Loyalty to the Republic had to be developed, as well as adherence to Enlightenment ideals of liberty and toleration. For without universal indoctrination by the schools in such civic virtues, the United States might dissolve, as had all prior large republics of history, through internal dissension.
The aim of schooling was not just to Americanize the immigrants, but also to Americanize the Americans. This was the inspiring ideal of the common school in the nineteenth century, built upon a combination of thrilling ideals and existential worry. By the end of the century we were educating, relative to other countries, a large percentage of the population, and this forward movement continued well into the twentieth century. In the post–World War II period, the US ranked high internationally according to a number of educational measures. But by 1980, there had occurred a significant decline both in our international position and in comparison with our own past achievements. Two decades ago I was appalled by an international comparison showing that between 1978 and 1988 the science knowledge of American students had dropped from seventh to fourteenth place. In the postwar period we have declined internationally in reading from third place to fifteenth place among the nations participating in the survey.
The root cause of this decline, starting in the 1960s, was a by-then-decades-old complacency on the part of school leaders and in the nation at large. By the early twentieth century worries about the stability of the Republic had subsided, and by the 1930s, under the enduring influence of European Romanticism, educational leaders had begun to convert the community-centered school of the nineteenth century to the child- centered school of the twentieth—a process that was complete by 1950. The chief tenet of the child-centered school was that no bookish curriculum was to be set out in advance. Rather, learning was to arise naturally out of activities, projects, and daily experience. A 1939 critic of the new movement, Isaac Kandel, described it this way:
Children should be allowed to grow in accordance with their needs and interests…. Knowledge is valuable only as it is acquired in a real situation; the teacher must be present to provide the proper environment for experiencing but must not intervene except to guide and advise. There must, in fact, be “nothing-fixed-in-advance” and subjects must not be “set-out-to-be-learned.”
By 1950, with new, watered-down schoolbooks and a new generation of teachers trained in specialized colleges for education, the anti-bookish, child-centered viewpoint had taken over the schools. The consequence was a steep decline in twelfth-grade academic achievement between 1962 and 1980, after which, despite vigorous reform efforts, reading and math scores on the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress have hardly changed.
With the current emphasis on testing and accountability it might be assumed that the days of child-centeredness are now over. But that assumption would miss an essential point. The schools still lack a definite, pre-set, year-by-year curriculum (though this is changing in math) and yet at the same time schools are being required to make measurable progress on year-by-year tests.
How to Save the Schools
New York Review of Books
May 13, 2010
by E. D. Hirsch Jr.
Friday, April 23, 2010
E.D. Hirsch: a brief history