In my mind, progressive educational ideas have proved so seductive because their appeal lies not in their practical effects but in their links to romanticism, the 19th-century philosophical movement, so influential in American culture, that elevated all that is natural and disparaged all that is artificial. The progressives applied this romantic principle to education by positing that education should be a natural process of growth that flows from the child’s natural instincts and interests. The word “nature” in the romantic tradition connotes the sense of a direct connection with the holy, lending the tenets of progressivism all the weight of religious conviction. We know in advance, in our bones, that what is natural must be better than what is artificial. This revelation is the absolute truth against which experience itself must be measured, and any failure of educational practice must be due to faulty implementation of progressive principles or faulty interpretation of educational results. Thus the results of mere reading tests must not be taken at face value, because such blunt instruments cannot hope to measure the true effects of education. The fundamental beliefs of progressivism are impervious to unfavorable data because its philosophical parent, romanticism, is a kind of secular theology that, like all religions, is inherently resistant to data. A religious believer scorns mere “evidences.”This is where whole math comes from.
The Chasm BetweenThere are many disputes within the education field, but none so vituperative as the reading and math wars—the battles over how best to teach children to read and to solve arithmetic problems. These aren’t just disputes over instructional techniques; they are expressions of two distinct and opposing understandings of children’s nature and how children learn. The two sides are best viewed as expressions of romantic versus classical orientations to education. For instance, the “whole language,” progressive approach to teaching children how to read is romantic in impulse. It equates the natural process of learning an oral first language with the very unnatural process of learning alphabetic writing. The emotive weight in progressivist ideas is on naturalness. The natural is spiritually nourishing; the artificial, deadening. In the 1920s, William Kilpatrick and other romantic progressivists were already advocating the “whole language” method for many of the same reasons advanced today.
The classical approach, by contrast, declines to assume that the natural method is always the best method. In teaching reading, the classicist is quite willing to accept linguistic scholarship that discloses that the alphabet is an artificial device for encoding the sounds of language. Learn the 40-odd sounds of the English language and their corresponding letter combinations, and you can sound out almost any word. Yet adherents of “whole language” regard phonics as an unnatural approach that, by divorcing sounds and letters from meaning and context, fails to give children a real appreciation for reading.
The progressivist believes that it is better to study math and science through real-world, hands-on, natural methods than through the deadening modes of conceptual and verbal learning, or the repetitive practicing of math algorithms, even if those “old fashioned” methods are successful. The classicist is willing to accept the verdict of scholars that the artificial symbols and algorithms of mathematics are the very sources of its power. Math is a powerful instrument precisely because it is unnatural. It enables the mind to manipulate symbols in ways that transcend the direct natural reckoning abilities of the mind. Natural, real-world intuitions are helpful in math, but there should be no facile opposition between terms like “understanding,” “hands-on,” and “real-world applications” and terms like “rote learning” and “drill and kill.” What is being killed in memorizing the multiplication table? The progressivist says: children’s joy in learning, their intrinsic interest, and their deep understanding.
The romantic poet William Wordsworth said, “We murder to dissect”; the progressivist says that phonemics and place value should not be dissected in isolation from their natural use, nor imposed before the child is naturally ready. Instead of explicit, analytical instruction, the romantic wants implicit, natural instruction through projects and discovery. This explains the romantic preference for “integrated learning” and “developmental appropriateness.” Education that places subject matter in its natural setting and presents it in a natural way is superior to the artificial analysis and abstractions of language. Hands-on learning is superior to verbal learning. Real-world applications of mathematics provide a truer understanding of math than empty mastery of formal relationships.
Romancing the Child
Spring 2001 / Vol. 1, No. 1
Also, this is why it's illegal to teach sentence diagramming (pdf file - Martha Kolln's 10 core sentences) in public schools.
I see I've posted this passage before: E.D. Hirsch on "spilt religion."