An education in how things went so wrong

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: This following column was originally published on June 19, 2011. It is a follow-up to the column reprinted last week that discussed how America’s moral decline has been an inevitable result of the nation turning its back on natural law. This week pins the blame on “progressive education.”)

There was a man who once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

The likelihood that most people in our country have no idea who said it, and — even worse — probably no idea what it means, can be attributed to the fact that someone (or really, some group of people) recognized the truth of that saying and put it into action.

Last week I asked, “How did we get here?”

This week, I can reveal that “here” is at the end of a long lever named “progressive education.” With any luck, we may even determine what the fulcrum is that allowed “progressive education” to uproot American society and to a large extent Western Civilization in less than 50 years.

That’s a lot to chew on in a weekly newspaper column, but I’ll give it my best shot. I can guarantee you up front, however, that I won’t settle it all this week, so let’s just start with the big picture.

As I noted last week, there seems to be a movement afoot to shift America from a nation governed by a Constitution to a nation governed by an agenda. What the agenda is shouldn’t matter to people who love their freedom, but I think anyone who has been paying attention to the past century knows that it is not a strictly partisan agenda. It doesn’t matter whether Republicans are in power or Democrats — the agenda keeps moving forward either way, directing us all toward what is touted as a more “enlightened,” a more “socially conscious,” and a more “open and tolerant” society.

Those are all delightful attributes except when you have to trade your freedom to gain them, and when you are seeing the Constitution undermined as part of this social agenda, you can bet that the ultimate goal is less freedom for the individual.

Upon casual observation, this is sometimes hard to fathom because the common wisdom suggests that mankind has gained more and more freedom over the past 100 years. To a large extent, that is true for individuals but not for society as a whole. As a result of the various social revolutions of the past century, individuals have been either legally or morally encouraged to engage in free love, drug experimentation, gender-bending relationships, and to reject tradition and authority in almost every aspect of their lives.

So how does that translate as less freedom?

The clue is in the phrase “legally or morally encouraged.” Think of that encouragement in human society as a cattle prod, and you will start to get the picture. No doubt the cow that is being led to the slaughterhouse has a certain feeling of freedom. After being cooped up in a trailer or a pen for a lengthy period, the gate is opened and a breath of fresh air reinvigorates you as you stumble toward the light. You don’t know whether to turn left or right, but whenever you turn right, you feel the jolt from the cattle prod, so you choose to turn left. Besides, everyone else is turning left as well, so you are comfortable with your choice as you wind your way to the hammer punch to the head that will end all your troubles.

Of course, human beings are not cows, but the herd instinct is not exclusive to bovines either — the instinct to avoid pain, to follow the easier course, and to do what you are told means that people can be steered almost as easily as cattle. This is particularly true if they surrender the main advantage they have over cows — namely a knowledge of history, an awareness of where they come from and how they got where they are now.

Cows don’t know they are being steered. Unfortunately, most people don’t either anymore — because they have surrendered their moral compass as the necessary trade to enjoy the forbidden fruits of a world without right and wrong.

This brings us back around to our starting point — that huge lever of progressive education which has invisibly and swiftly tilted the entire world. If you don’t know what progressive education is, that is roughly the equivalent of a flounder not knowing what the ocean is. Indeed, you and I — and our society as a whole — are so much a product of progressive education that it is to be forgiven if we take it for granted as much as a fish does water.

In essence, other than in a few hundred private schools and among home schools, there is no such thing any longer as traditional education — the kind of education that insists on students learning not just the fundamentals of knowledge, but also the moral, religious and cultural underpinnings that give that knowledge meaning and significance.

Progressive education does not believe in moral, religious or cultural absolutes, but rather only believes in questioning those absolutes and replacing them with relative truths, i.e., convenient lies. Indeed, we need to consider whether the proponents of progressive education have always been “intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set,” as C.S. Lewis put it in his 1943 book, “The Abolition of Man.”

The evidence is certainly there, for those who have the patience and willingness to look for it, but to do so means you must be willing to jettison your own easy acceptance of the one absolute in progressive education — “doing your own thing.”

To further study the precepts of progressive education will take another column, at least, but let us begin by taking a quick look at “A Novel Method of School Teaching in Chicago,” a May 1900 newspaper column by Milton B. Marks on the “University Elementary School, conducted by Prof. John Dewey of the University of Chicago.

Marks was much impressed with Dewey’s revolutionary pedagogical techniques, and noted that, “The casual observer would probably make neither head nor tail of the class instruction as it is carried on in this school, and would conclude that the children were enjoying a perpetual holiday.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. It was the philosopher Dewey who developed progressive education as a practical movement, and after he left Chicago, he headed to Columbia University, from which he oversaw the complete overhaul of the education industry as practiced not just in America, but throughout the world.

But it is clear the groundwork was already laid in 1900.

“A school without books: This seems almost a misnomer,” noted Marks in his laudatory report, “but the children who attend Prof. John Dewey’s University Elementary School have little use for books. The schoolrooms are not treated as places in which to learn and recite lessons, but are really visiting rooms where teachers and pupils meet to compare experiences and to exchange questions and ideas.”

Or as another brief report from 1900 said in the Stevens Point (Wis.) Journal, the John Dewey school in Chicago is “where children are permitted to grow up and acquire knowledge with the least possible interference from those in charge of them.”

If you wondered where the mess started, you need look no further. As Archimedes, the author of the quote with which we began today’s column, also said, “Eureka! I have found it!”

Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. He can be reached by email at fmiele@dailyinterlake.com

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