HOW MANY WRITERS, EDUCATORS, AND OPINION FORMERS, urgently wishing to convey the thoughts and feelings that inspire them, have found themselves confronted with the cry “that’s not relevant?” In the world of mass communication today, when people are marshaled into flocks by social media, intrusions of the unusual, the unsanctioned, and the merely meaningful are increasingly resented if they come from outside the group. And this group mentality has invaded the world of education in ways that threaten the young.
It began long before Facebook and Twitter. Indeed it began with John Dewey, and his call for “child-centred education.” The influence of John Dewey over American thought in general, and education in particular, has never ceased to amaze me. If any writer has set out to illustrate what Schopenhauer meant by “unscrupulous optimism” it is Dewey, who disguised his middlebrow complacency behind a mask of wisdom, like an agony aunt for an old-fashioned women’s magazine. What could be more evidently a travesty of the nature and duties of the teacher than the idea that it is children and their interests that set the agenda for the classroom? And yet what idea is more likely to recruit the tender hearted, the ignorant, and the lazy? What a gift to the idle teacher, and what an assault on the child!
From the educational philosophy of Dewey sprang the “relevance revolution” in schooling. The old curriculum, with its emphasis on hard mathematics, dead languages, ancient history, and books that are too long to read, is portrayed as an offence to modern children, a way of belittling their world and their hopes for the future. To teach them to spell correctly, to speak grammatically, to adopt the manners and values of their parents and grandparents is to cut them off from their only available sphere of action. And in the place of all that so-called knowledge, which is nothing in itself save a residue of the interests of the dead, they should be given, we are told, their own curriculum, addressed to the life that is theirs.
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