The False Promise of Classical Education - [TEST] The Objective Standard

The print edition of the Summer issue of TOS is at press and will be mailed shortly; the online version will be accessible to subscribers on June 20. For promotional purposes, we are making Lisa VanDamme’s “The False Promise of Classical Education” available early and to all. Here are the first few paragraphs of Ms. VanDamme’s essay:

In E. D. Hirsch’s best-selling book Cultural Literacy, he cites a Washington Post article titled “The Cheerful Ignorance of the Young in L.A.” in which the author says:

I have not yet found one single student in Los Angeles, in either college or high school, who could tell me the years when WWII was fought. . . . Nor have I found one who knew when the American Civil War was fought. . . .

Only two could even approximately identify Thomas Jefferson. Only one could place the date of the Declaration of Independence. None could name even one of the first ten amendments to the Constitution or connect them with the Bill of Rights. . . .1

A typical study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) concludes that the average eleventh-grade student is an incompetent writer. To evaluate their writing ability, testers asked high school juniors to write a paragraph based on notes they were given about a haunted house. The performance of half the students was judged to be either “unsatisfactory” or “minimal.” The following is a “minimal” response: “The house with no windows. This is a house with dead-end hallways, 36 rooms and stairs leading to the cieling [sic]. Doorways go nowhere and all this to confuse ghosts.”2 That is the student’s complete, word-for-word response—and represents the performance of nearly half of all eleventh graders. Most of the other half were evaluated as writing “adequate” paragraphs. Just 2 percent wrote something that was judged to be “elaborate,” a step up from “adequate.”

In Dumbing Down Our Kids, Charles Sykes tells a chilling story about a straight-A student in the eighth grade named Andrea, who was very eager to learn science. Unfortunately for Andrea, her school, like most today, stressed the importance of “creativity” over “dreary” facts, and of “hands-on,” “active” learning over “dull,” didactic instruction. This bright young girl with a thirst for scientific knowledge spent her time in science class picking up cereal with a tongue depressor (to simulate the way birds feed), hunting for paper moths on a wall, and drawing pictures of scientists. When Andrea wrote a letter complaining that she had gotten nothing out of the class, she was expelled for being rude and disrespectful.3

You have probably read stories like these and been horrified both by how shamefully ignorant, inarticulate, and illiterate many American students are, and, even worse, by what schools do to students like Andrea. I wish I could dismiss such stories as rare incidents circulated among cynical critics of American schools to give poignancy to their arguments. Unfortunately, my experience interviewing and teaching students at my school has shown me otherwise.

Some time ago, a woman brought her teenage daughter to visit VanDamme Academy. In an effort to get to know more about this girl and her educational history, I asked her a few questions about her current school. At one point, I asked what she was studying in history class. She looked at me with an expression of utter bafflement and said nothing. I realized my mistake and promptly changed the question to, “What are you studying in social studies?” Her puzzlement briefly dissipated—she now understood the question—but it returned as soon as she attempted an answer. After a little thought, she looked at me, shrugged her shoulders dismissively, and said, “I don’t know.” I realized that my second question was as unanswerable as my first. To state what she was studying would presuppose some connection, some integrating theme among the stories, newspaper articles, and papier-mâché projects that made up her social studies class.

One of my best, most dedicated, and intelligent students in recent years transferred to VanDamme Academy from an Orange County public school in seventh grade. In his first year at my school he studied ancient history—a subject that, I later discovered, he had also studied in sixth grade at his previous school. His mother told me that she once asked him, “Daniel, aren’t you bored repeating the same material?” Apparently he simply chuckled and said, “Mom. Everything meaningful we learned last year in my social studies class?—here we covered that the first day.”

Literature classes—or rather, the literature portion of “English” classes, which cram in literature, writing, spelling, vocabulary, and sometimes grammar—are no better. I am the junior high literature teacher at VanDamme Academy, and I often begin the year with a discussion of the value of studying literature. I intend to remind my students what they stand to gain from reading, by drawing upon novels and plays they had read in my class in seventh grade, such as Hugo’s Ninety-Three, Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Rattigan’s The Browning Version, and Corneille’s Cinna. I want to remind them that a character can stand in your mind as a powerful embodiment of certain traits, that the plot of a great novel can be gripping and emotionally stirring, and that a classic work of literature can capture a highly complex and abstract theme in a compelling, concrete form. One year, my class included a new student who had just completed seventh grade at St. Margaret’s, arguably the most prestigious private school in Orange County. So that I could include this new student in the discussion, I asked her mother what she had read the previous year. Her mother informed me that her daughter’s class had done a six-month study of A Walk to Remember, which is described by as a “boy-makes-good tearjerker” and which was recently made into a movie starring teen pop star Mandy Moore.

One of my most memorable experiences with a new transfer student came several years ago, when I taught my class the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, the poem with the immortal line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In an effort to understand the poem’s theme, we defined unfamiliar words and discussed the poem line by line and stanza by stanza, rewriting each section in plain prose. I explained to the students that I believed the theme of the poem to concern the timelessness of art and its consequent power to inspire future generations. I showed them how I inferred this theme from each line of the poem, stressing the connection between them. I later asked my students to write an essay explaining the theme of the poem. One student, who had recently come from another school, wrote an essay that began with a line I will never forget: “The theme of this poem is that all art is sacred, whether it is a realistic painting or a smudge on a canvas.” This moment, to me, summed up an important characteristic of American education: Cultural bromides had come to replace thought. The student was not troubled by the fact that this bromide bore no relation to the poem, because, like a smudge on a canvas, she regarded her opinion as sacred. I looked at her essay, handed it back to her, and said, “Could you please go find some evidence from the poem to support this theme?” Needless to say, she could not.

What has brought education to this state of disintegration, superficiality, and mindlessness? Bad philosophy. The educational philosophy that has most influenced modern education is the school known as “progressive education.” The leading theorist of “progressive” education was 20th-century philosopher John Dewey, but the intellectual foundations of the movement lie in the writings of 18th-century philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant.

Read the whole thing here.

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