Monday, November 24, 2008

Save Every Child: More Notes on Reading Hofstadter

Given President Bush's mastery of "dog whistles" (the "use [of] code words to signal unpopular stances to one target audience"), I've begun to wonder, half-seriously, about whether there is a dog whistle sounding in the name of the legislation that forms the primary accomplishment of Bush's education agenda, No Child Left Behind.

In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter gives evidence of the evangelical, premillennial attitudes of many educational reformers in the progressive tradition. Indeed, the patron saint of progressive education, John Dewey, wrote in My Pedagogic Creed: "[T]he teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God." The child, according to psychologist and educator G. Stanley Hall, "comes fresh from the hands of God," and pioneering progressive educator Francis Wayland Parker wrote: "The child is the climax and culmination of all God's creations..."

The proponents of progressive education had a worthy goal of educating every child, rather than catering to the most academically gifted who were the ones best served by the traditional classical curriculum. The new education was to focus on "the dull boy, the defective child" and raise him to be a full and active member of a democratic society. As one educator declared at the annual meeting of the NEA in 1900: "We shall come to our place of rejoicing when we have saved every one of these American children and made every one of them a contributor to the wealth, to the intelligence, and to the power of this great democratic government of ours." A few years earlier, in 1894, Francis W. Parker made a similar statement: "We must believe that we can save every child. The citizen should say in his heart: 'I await the regeneration of the world from the teaching of the common schools of America.'"

"We can save every child." The evangelical undertone is clear. No child will be left behind; every child will be saved.

For the progressive educators, this salvation would be brought about through a new "child-centered" educational philosophy and a new curriculum that deemphasized the traditional academic subjects like algebra and foreign languages. Progressive education placed an emphasis on experiential learning and recognized that knowledge should be contextual. The early progressive educators, at least, did not condemn subjects like Latin and algebra, but rather shifted them into the category of electives. In all curricular choices, it was important first of all to consult the child's interests and inclinations. The goal was to focus on the needs and abilities of each child, and see that that child succeeded—or, in the language of the day, was "saved."

The progressive educational program was based upon "the psychology of the prodigal son and the lost sheep," to quote the speaker at the 1900 NEA annual meeting. It arose in the era of the Social Gospel, which drew its inspiration from Christ's work among the sick, hungry and poor. No Child Left Behind, on the other hand, seems to reflect a more stark form of perfectionism: it declares that by a certain millennial date, 100% of children will meet a predetermined standard. It has taken the progressive goal of saving every child and given it an apocalyptic twist.

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