Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Smoothing the Stones: Wrestling with the History of Education

First, a favorite quote:

"An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing just because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its philosophy will hold water."- John William Gardner

This semester, I have been thinking about the ideology of inclusion in special education in the public schools. And in my thinking and reading about the issue, I had come to the conclusion that the mindset of the inclusion ideologues--those who would have us essentially deconstruct special education in favor of full inclusion in the face of contradictory evidence about what kind of instruction works for many students with disabilities--is the consequence of a shoddy philosophical foundation for American education. Essentially, the epistemology (theory of knowledge) embraced by modern American education has been positivism--which has its philosophical origins in Pragmatism. But Positivism is an incomplete philosophy that has neither metaphysics (a theory of reality) nor ethics that are grounded in the foundational axioms of the philosophy. And worse, Positivism does not simply neglect metaphysics, but actively rejects them. An incomplete philosophical basis makes the philosophy unable to "hold water" as John Gardner says in the quote above, or more to the point, it cannot hold its own against the incursions of post-modernist (deconstructivist) thought.

As my thinking on this issue has evolved to this point, I realized that for my Trends and Issues in Special Education class it might be useful to look into the foundational ideas of modern American education, a review of the history of the field, so to speak, in order to understand how we got to this point where advocates for children with disabilities could, with the fervor of the true believer, want to tear down the field entirely, and reconstruct it as a kind of place in which every child will be treated the same regardless of their differences.

And so I have been reading. I started out with secondary sources, such as Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, and then went to primary sources such as John Dewey's Democracy in Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education.And as an antidote to the "schooling" mentality, I also pulled out John Taylor Gatto's An Underground History of American Education. I had ordered this book last year, along with A Different Kind of Teacher, and I read part of it, but got busy with other things and did not finish it then. Although it is not a scholarly book in the traditional sense, Gatto does cite his sources in the text, and presents a compelling view of the aims of modern American education from his experience, as well as from some of the same sources that I am reading.

And this is where it all gets so very interesting, because in the past few weeks I have also

read the columnist Jonah Goldberg's new book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. (I just realized that I was reading an "underground" history and a "secret" history at the same time. I am hearing the Twilight Zone theme in my head). This book is about the American progressive movement's foundations in, and admiration of European fascism, the history and consequences of progressive politics in the US, and the consequences of a marriage of progressive policy and the American character. Although I am not going to review the book here, I will say it is a fascinating read and that I learned a lot about the history of the early 20th Century in the United States that I did not know previously.

Reading both of these books at the same time produced one of those moments of serendipity that seem almost prophetic. I began to notice that I was reading about the same people and the same big ideas. John Dewey. William James. Jane Addams. Woodrow Wilson.

Of course it was not a complete confluence of thinking--Gatto also discussed the founders of American education as we have it today, and Goldberg was outlining the progressives of the same time period. But the interesting thing to me was that many of these people were the same. Or they knew each other. And they had the same pragmatic, statist world view. Essentially, the goal was to overthrow the "cult" of individualism, and create humanity anew, as cogs in the wheel of the state. If you had to read Bellamy's Looking Backward in high school (a very boring dystopia meant to be a utopia--I admit I read the first 50 pages and then used "skippibus" to pass the test), use that to get a picture of what these people envisioned.If you have not read it, think of the dull, gray monotony of the Soviet Union in its waning years, but without the KGB and the Gulag. Or think of the movie GATTACA.

Of course Education (with a capital "E") was to be the principal way this would be accomplished. In the system envisioned by these reformers, schools would be used to separate the children from their families, their particular cultures and belief systems, and made into useful slaves of the state. Woodrow Wilson said: "The chief job of the educator is to make your children as little like you as possible." In other words, the point of schools at least from the point of view of the educational establishment at Columbia Teacher's College, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, was to destroy the sovereignty of the family, and train (I will not use the word educate) students to think of the state as their true home. Only a few, elite people would be educated in the true sense of the word, those who would have the wisdom to order life for everyone else.

These are scary ideas. And they can be found in the primary sources that I have mentioned. This is not some wild conspiracy theory made up by Gatto, Goldberg or others on the right. Gatto presents a much darker view of the envisioned "nanny state" education, the pernicious violence of empty minds, and the dull unreality of Disneyland. Goldberg believes that an American fascism would be 'totalitarian-lite': Less of the jack-booted brownshirts, and more of the social worker mentality. Less of "Sieg Heil!" and more "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

One ray of light in all of this, is that the teachers and school administrators do not necessarily share these ideas nor do they agree with the incomplete philosophies upon which they are founded. In fact, most schools of education do not teach this history of education in the United States. In my own experience in graduate education (although I cannot speak for the undergraduate level having come by my teaching license in an alternative way) at the master's level, the focus was on methodologies and curriculum, and the history of educational thought was not considered. And although some of the ideas could be gleaned from these very methodologies, I suspect the average teacher working on a project for a class after a full day's work, was not likely to even begin to think about the big ideas at all. Since I was in Gifted Education, we did consider some larger ideas about teaching, and we did discuss the hostility inherent in American education toward the gifted. It was clear to me that American educational philosophy was anti-intellectual, but we did not explore the roots of this, leaving the student to think that it was engendered in the ordinary citizen. We were not let in on the "secret" "underground" history that would make it plain that the anti-intellectual bent of American schools comes from the social engineers of the Progressive movement, not from the farmers and factory workers who wanted their kids to be educated for a better life in the singular, individual sense.

Do you dectect some frustration on my part? You are correct. It is part and parcel of the rearrangement of my internal "maps" of the world. It is the sense of betrayal that Adam and Chava must have felt when they partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and discovered another layer of reality.

Ah, well, this is an education in the true sense. It is the need to grapple with the big ideas of a field, and consider how those ideas shaped the reality we call school and schooling. Certainly, with respect to the current trends and issues in special education, the problem is an incomplete philosophy. But there is an even larger problem to consider. The argument on this larger level is about the purpose of public education in the United States. Is it about preparing our children for the future, teaching them to read and write, to think and to take their place as free citizens of the Republic? Or is it about re-making humanity, and creating a utopia controlled by those who know best what's good for us? The first idea is what the general public thinks about education, and the second resides on the level of progressive social planning. And that leads to another question: Which one of these goals does school, as we currently know it, best fulfill?

And that brings me in a round about way to a personal insight about my choices with regard to my career as a teacher and my choices about the education of my own son. In my years as a teacher, my job choices were toward smaller classrooms where I could teach kids using methodologies that were different than those commonly in use in this day of educating to least common denominator. By teaching special education for children with learning difficulties, behavioral difficulties, and then, the gifted kids, I placed myself outside the mainstream. The first such class I taught were the throw-away kids, the ones that no one cared how I taught them. And the gifted kids were those that the system did not worry about--they'd already met the minimum standards. In this way, I was perhaps, a guerrilla teacher, although certainly I did not think of myself as engaging in subversive activities. My purpose was simply to get through each day with these kids without boring either myself or the students to death. That required the use of 'stealth' methodology. "When an administrator comes in," I'd tell the kids, "look serious. When we close the door, though, we can have fun and get something real accomplished."

And I still had to leave the classroom. Not because I was a bad teacher, nor because I disliked teaching. I was a pretty good teacher, I think, and I enjoyed the teaching. But dealing with the educational establishment became more and more joyless and wearing, though I did not understand why. And there was my son to think about. He was not making it in the classroom. This was partly because he had disabilities that the school had difficulty dealing with, but it was mostly because they could not capitalize on his unique strengths.

But when I took N. out of school, I did not fully realize the implications of our choices. As we evolved toward unschooling, I still did not recognize the revolutionary nature of what homeschooling means. Only now, as I reflect on how it has impacted the growth of my son, who has become a confident, self-reliant, adventurous learner; and the impact on our family, for we have become people who like each other and want to be together--only now do I have an inkling of how revolutionary homeschooling is. It appears to be a political act done for deeply personal reasons. It is a repudiation of the fascist notion that people are interchangable parts, who exist for the purpose of some greater "utopia" governed by those who always know what's best for everyone. And it is a very personal journey from the narrow places where my son's future could be predicted by IQ scores and standardized tests, to a vision of the high places of individuality and choice.

And is there hope in this field? How will I continue in it, knowing that everything I believe stands in opposition to the philosophy and to the commonly held beliefs about the field I have chosen? And yet, within me there is a sense that this is an important pursuit. And I take hope from the very sources that have made me wrestle with my internal maps.

"A relative handful of people could change the course of schooling significantly by resisting the suffocating advance of centralization and standardization of children, by being imaginative and determined in their resistance, by exploiting manifold weaknesses in the institution's internal coherence: the disloyalty its own employees feel toward it. It took 150 years to build this apparatus; it won't quit breathing overnight. The formula is to take a deep breath, then select five smooth stones and let fly. The homeschoolers have already begun."
--John Taylor Gatto, "I Quit, I Think" from The Underground History of American Education.

This wrestling with a philosophy that does not hold water may have its uses. After all, it is water that smooths the stones.


Swylv said...

I gathered that many teachers programs must not teach them the true goals of the educational system as mentioned by authors like Gatto, Ballmann, and Clicka...or those who write books that tell us to homeschool that is and why.

Just this past weekend after HavDalah I was saying the parts about modeled after the prussian system and wanting to cause division in families and mindless zombies to vote how they want them to and tell them who will be white collar and who will be blue and 2 people there who are currently public school teachers said that is not the true history of public education....so how sad there is no agreement on it's origins.

thanks for putting your own research out there for others to read.

denise said...


On one hand I understand why people leave the educational system, and on the other I understand that for real change to happen it must come from the inside. I enjoy reading Holt, Gatto, and others - they reinforce my decisions...but are the revolutionaries the only ones reading? Those who are not cogs?

Much food for thought (as always!). :)

Kaber said...

That was a very wordy post and as have dyslexia and it is midnight, I will forgo the entire thing. But will return to it later.

the math program is a 1 month free trial.

though I partially agree with Denise's statement that change for the system can be brought about the public schoo9l sysytem by involved parents who stay in it annd fight it to change- I am not willing to do what I conisder harmful for my kids to possible benefit public education down the line. I hear this all the time, that I should have left my kind in a school that traumatized them and did not educate them and fought the sysytem from the inside. that is not option for us- not the expense of my boys.

time for sleep.

Angela said...

I can certainly understand your dilemna, and agree with your analysis. I came to one similar, reading the same books. I liken government education to religion-many people spend a large part of their lives in a church or temple that never ask the big questions of their faith. (which for me is what makes faith real!)
The whole concept of effecting change only from the inside sounds idealistic and unrealistic, with test-driven adminstrators and standardized curriculum being the name of the game.
I think what will cause the schools to truly change would have to be based in money. If voucher programs passed, and more opportunities for privatized education existed, especially for special needs (who equal more $$) , the system as we know it would be forced to change, or collapse.
Of course, none of this is likely to happen in my children's youth, or even in the youth of their children. I am so thrilled that we chose homeschooling as our lifestyle, and I thrill to hear my kids and their friends all speak of wanting to homeschool when they are parents. Just maybe, the revolution will come from them!~

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, All:

I love discussing these things, it is helping my thinking.

swylv: Yes, I did not even discuss the formation of formal class differences engendered by the public schools. And most teachers believe with all their hearts that the system they are in is doing its best to educate children. But what if that's not/or was not the intended goal?

Denise: Good point. I think that the problem with revolution only from within is that the direct school administrators and teachers are kept pretty powerless. One thing I noticed in my ten years as a teacher was how the heirarchical system infantilizes the teachers--they become divided, whiny teenagers competing for small rewards. (See Gatto's essay "I Quit, I Think"). So there must be pressure from inside as well as outside the system. Unfortunately, the pols and talking heads have convinced the public to agree to or put up with pressure to further standardize kids--think about the real implications of NCLB.

Kaber: I think parents and kids must make individual choices to do what is best for their own kids, and to protect them from the mindnumbing persecution they will face if they are different and cannot be standardized. That is why I took my son out. In any case, that is how we preserve the sovereignity of the family and our individuality.
And thanks for the tip on the math program!

Angela: I do agree with you that choice is important in toppling the system. However, I worry that vouchers for private school and tax breaks for homeschool will only allow the government to intrude on these islands of liberty. To get anything from the Feds we will have to conform to their rules. As citizens, it makes the most sense to work for local control of our tax money in the case of public education, and as parents, to keep our kids out of the clutches of the Feds.

Thanks for the thoughts, everyone!

momof3feistykids said...

Hmmm ... this is the second post I've read this week that has inspired me to finally read Gatto's book. I would never have picked up the "Liberal Fascism" book because its title would have put me off (being a left leaning American) but now I am quite interested in reading that, too.

As you know, I pulled a gifted/special needs kiddo out of school too. She always had intelligent, creative, dedicated teachers or professionals there who made a difference (as it sounds like you did when you were a public school teacher). But it's very hard for a school system to educate and challenge a child whose abilities are on both ends of the normal curve.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Momofthree--

I know that many teachers within the system do care and do try to make a difference--I was one--but often the cynical nature of the system itself can douse the most strongly buring torch. It's tough. I am impressed with Gatto--he hung in there for 30 years, whereas I only made it for 10!
On your other note, As I read Goldberg, he is not saying that the left is all-bad, nor is he saying that the right is all-good.In fact he discussing the dangers of right-wing populism a la Huckabee in his last chapter. What he does seem to be saying is that we all need to understand the history of political thought in our country more thouroughly, so as to make more intelligent choices. And he is also saying that often the extreme left presents itself as all good and holy and presents the right as all evil. Neither are true.
I do not seem to be able to fit myself into the extremes of either left or right ideology, and so, like many Americans, I tend to be somewhat apathetic to the appeal of extreme political ideology. Probably I would best be categorized as a small 'l' libertarian, but I do see some role for government--I just want it limited to the necessities outlined in the United States Constitution.
I do not agree with Goldberg on every point, but I was impressed by his sources, some of which I checked, and his attempts to avoid political invective. I would urge you to read the book if you an get your hands on it, and decide for yourself.

Yellow House Homeschool said...

That was complicated stuff for me, but very interesting. I will have to read it again. I always find it hard to believe that there is a kind of conspiracy to turn children into mindless zombies for the state. I realise that's a simplistic version of what you're saying.

What I have come across in reading and conversation is people who seem to believe that individual differences are accidental, not innate, and therefore somehow not part of the 'real' person. People aren't really gifted, they're just from a fortunate environment. Nor are they really handicapped: they're just developing at a different rate to reach the same point as everyone else in the end. Or they've been damaged by the environment. It seems to be related to a strong desire for equality, where being identical is seen as the only possible guarantee of equality. Personally, I believe these views are mistaken and that people are biologically and innately different.

But anyway, the result of these views is to underplay difference, to ignore it, or to actively try to make it go away. The goal is to get everyone functioning the same way, because that's how the holders of these views believe we really are. Not surprising then, they work towards fully inclusive special education.

I do live in a different culture from you, so it might not be surprising that a similar issue has a different cause and expression.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Yellow House--

And I am so glad that you are up and running again! (I am intending to move to another host when I have time to learn the programming).

Yes, it would be hard to believe that most school people think that children are to be molded by the state. And they probably don't. But it is fascinating to read what the Gilded Age Industrialists, like Carnegie and Rockefeller, thought about the dangers of truly educating the 'common folk.' And Henry Ford had public ties to the Nazi's--who were after all, National Socialists who believed that people live for the state. The American Progressives believed in essentially the same thing, but without the jack-boots and concentration camps. However, they did promote forced sterilization of "sub-human people" in the name of social Darwinism. See for example, Oliver Wendell Holmes' contempt for the individual as outlined in the US Supreme Court Case Buck v. Bell. (You can find the decision online).
It is tempting to dismiss Gatto and Goldberg but for the fact that my reading of the primary sources about what American educators like Horace Mann, John Dewey, Bagley and others thought about the purposes of forced government schooling in the US. In their own words they tell us that it is to "control" the masses and make them into an "obedient" work-force.

And I do imagine that this all sounds different and is expressed differently in France and the UK. But the United States has (had?) a different history, and a very different view about the rights and role of the individual. As our founding documents have it, the individual is sovreign over the state. The state is the servant of the individuals that make up the citizenry. There are no rights that belong to collectives. That is why a significant number of Americans worry so much about statist control overtaking our individual rights.

Finally, I think you are right about the refusal to acknowledge inborn differences among individuals. There are still those who would say that it is only "nuture" that creates them, whereas biologists think about it as nature and nurture.

Again, great to see you up and running in the blogosphere. I frequent your page although I do not often comment.

Tom Hudson said...

Where I'm left wondering by your post is in the claim that the spreading of mainstreaming in the public schools is somehow due to a particular weakness of Positivism; your previous text seems to be saying that it's explicitly anti-Positivist (since it's done "in the face of contradictory evidence"), and it seems more reasonable to me to say that there isn't anything particularly Positivist about modern public schooling.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Tom,

What I actually said was that education--and in particular special education--research has subscribed to Positivism. However, since Positivism itself has no clear ethical basis, and actively rejects a theory of reality, these weaknesses allow the incursion of Constructivist (sometimes it is called Post-Modernist) thought. In special education in particular, the post-modernist ideologues are hell-bent on 'deconstructing' special education by radical inclusion--although the evidence does not support it.
In reading back what I wrote, I can see that those assertions got lost between the two posts, and indeed could lead to confusion on the part of the reader. Thanks for pointing this out.

silvermine.blog@gmail.com said...

I'm currently reading a very gloriously subversive book to my son. A Wrinkle In Time. ;)

This time through, every last bit of it takes on a heck of a lot of new meaning.

Brianna said...

Just wanted to say that I read Liberal Fascism as one of the first books on my eclectic list of the past 18 months, as a way to check the claims I was seeing in Objectivist literature. One of the things that really struck me about it was the exact same thing that struck you: that it was the same names, over and over again, except I was paying attention to philosophical names, not educational ones. Dewey, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, William James, etc. Goldberg's book wasn't perfect, but it confirmed a lot.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Brianna--It was cool to come back and read this post again, to see what I had said. It seems that in our system now, the educational is always political. And it was indeed amazing to see how the philosophers of unreality and collectivism--esp. Kant and Hegel--had such an influence on the "educationists" as my father-in-law used to call them.
But it's not really education . . .