The Objective Standard recently published an article by Lisa VanDamme, owner and director of the VanDamme Academy, in which she explains the failure of “progressive” schooling and examines the claims of movements that promise instead a “classical” or “traditional” education.
I’ve enjoyed Ms. VanDamme’s articles over the past few months, which stress the hierarchical nature of learning. I’m finding that my own experiences in school were not so far off from the horror stories that she relays from parents. Modern education is the product of bad philosophy – specifically bad epistemology – and the poor student performance we hear about is the direct product of teaching methods that discourage the propert integration of concepts.
In fact, in my own high school, just getting students out the door took priority over education. My Sophomore year “social studies” teacher was also the football coach. To this day I don’t understand how he was ever hired as a teacher. I remember that he confused the Parthenon with the Pantheon, showed us a program from the BBC and thought that it stood for “Black Broadcasting Channel” and ranted on his experiences in Vietnam. This was a “Regents” class, part of NY state’s attempt to improve the quality of content in classes. The final exam of my pre-calculus class (which lasted one year rather than the usual half) was a group project, and much if not most of the time in that and my Advanced Placement Calculus class was spent learning to use our calculators and chatting with the people around us. One of the questions on our AP exam we were not prepared to answer, because the teacher admitted he didn’t think we would be tested on it. The highlight of the day was lunch period or a study hall, when I played Uno with friends.
Lisa VanDamme says in the current article that,
Rousseau opposed lessons; he urged the importance of an inactive mind; he scorned books, calling reading “the greatest plague of childhood.” Emile’s education was to be one of pure, unguided development.
You could say then that much of my education followed Rousseau’s ideal. Now I’m faced with the need to learn many things, particularly in the subject of history, which I never learned properly the first time. (and I’m noticing many others haven’t either)
She also examines”Classical” schoolsthat value reasoning and independent thinking, but which are based on a rationalist epistemology. That is, they are based on the idea that reason is “a priori”,that abstractions are not basedin experience.According to this view, subjects are taught in a dogmatic way by presenting “facts” without the evidence to support them. A teacher may expect their students to memorize poems, or names and dates, or equations, without teaching them the concepts or the history or the evidence that would give them an actualunderstanding of the subject. As Ms. VanDamme explains,
Rationalism is an erroneous method of thinking because, although abstractions are tools for grasping reality, they are valid only if and to the extent that they are based on reality, consistent with reality, and used to understand and succeed in reality.
This of course explains why there is so much of my education that I simply can’t remember. Many of my teachers certainly shared with these “classical” schools a reverence for the intellect, but also like these schools they simply did not teach the material in a way that could be integrated. Instead, I did a lot of rote memorization.
The article really is a fascinating study of educational techniques and explains for mea lot of what I experienced in school. The educational community seems divided between those who are openly destructive to young minds, and those who are well-meaning but have accepted a view of knowledge that is effectively as destructive. Students are torn between a resentment forteachers who refuse to teach, and frustration when they don’t understand what they are taught. The combination is enough to turn any bright child into a cynical adult.
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