Voices > Soul Food

Dewey's legacy

We have a generation that undervalues our rich cultural heritage

Issue: "New attacks on taxes," April 18, 1998

A few weeks ago I was asked to give an "overview of education" for a group of college and university graduates who may be thinking about starting a Christian college. Education is not my field, even though I studied at three graduate institutions in America and Scotland. But listening to the dismal voices of parents of growing children, I have looked to find the key to the failure of education in America today.

It really is appalling to imagine that some of the flower children of the late '60s are now running the school system and, indeed, the entire structure of government. They are undoubtedly a minority, and yet we cannot escape the fact of Woodstock. The ideals that built America appear now to have lost ground in every part of society except perhaps among the military and the Boy Scouts. (The church is not part of this discussion.)

In my simplistic way I have discovered what I think is the source of the decay of education. It is not the hard-working, dedicated teachers of our K-12 schools and colleges, who are giving the best years of their lives to educate the new generation. It is not the lack of computers, or the neglected condition of many school properties.

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The whole problem as I see it goes back to one man who laid the basis of modern educational philosophy while teaching at the University of Chicago. His name was John Dewey, and he left us a definition: "Education is the systematic, purposeful reconstruction of experience."

It was Mr. Dewey's conviction that the traditional European type of education, based on Greek and Latin, was completely unable to train the human race in an era of industrial revolution and global intercommunication. Of course he was right as far as that goes. But to undermine the whole heritage of the human civilization, and let the child start its education with its own self, is a didactic procedure that has produced a virtually uneducated society. Dewey's "new pedagogy" revolted against the classical and authoritarian system of teaching that was so savagely attacked by Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby. In doing so he threw out the baby with the bath.

Having grown tired of constant appeals for money from my alma mater, I once made an offer to the University of California. I offered to pay my way to Berkeley and to deliver three lectures on "The Impact of Jesus Christ on English Literature." I said I would exact no fee and would open it to everyone.

Naturally, they responded that they appreciated the offer but they would rather have money. Today's educational administrators, by and large, are among the people who undervalue the richness of our cultural heritage, and they don't care. The result is a generation that hasn't come to appreciate Shakespeare or the Bible or to know the multiplication tables. (So what? We have a computer!)

The great contribution that the past has given us is wisdom. Granted, the past has tried to design the good life and has failed; we, not knowing the past, repeat the same mistakes. That goes for air attacks on Iraq, or changing the tax system, or opening the sex envelope. It has all been done before. Those who don't know their history, as George Santayana said, are doomed to commit the same errors again.

McGuffey's Readers and Noah Webster's original dictionary are being discovered anew today. Time was when they were normal tools of basic American education. I am not, in my opinion, a highly educated person; I got no straight-A averages in school. In my 80s I haven't got around to surfing the Internet, but I can still recite passages of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Milton, Whittier, William Cullen Bryant (who's he?), and Oliver Wendell Holmes. I still recall the philosophical differences between Plato and Aristotle, and the religious differences between Calvin and Luther.

But then, I wasn't trained by John Dewey, and my education was a quest for learning, not "the systematic, purposeful reconstruction of experience."

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