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A Critical Appraisal
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, as the new school institution slowly took root after the Civil War in big cities and the defeated South, some of the best minds in the land, people fit by their social rank to comment publicly, spoke out as they watched its first phalanx of graduates take their place in the traditional American world. All these speakers had been trained themselves in the older, a-systematic, noninstitutional schools. At the beginning of another new century, it is eerie to hear what these great-grandfathers of ours had to say about the mass schooling phenomenon as they approached their own fateful new century.
In 1867, world-famous American physician and academic Vincent Youmans lectured the London College of Preceptors about the school institution just coming into being:
School produces mental perversion and absolute stupidity. It produces bodily disease. It produces these things by measures which operate to the prejudice of the growing brain. It is not to be doubted that dullness, indocility, and viciousness are frequently aggravated by the lessons of school.
Thirteen years later, Francis Parkman (of Oregon Trail fame) delivered a similar judgment. The year was 1880, at the very moment Wundt was founding his laboratory of scientific psychology in Germany:
Many had hoped that by giving a partial teaching to great numbers of persons, a thirst for knowledge might be awakened. Thus far, the results have not equaled expectations. Schools have not borne any fruit on which we have cause to congratulate ourselves. (emphasis added)
In 1885, the president of Columbia University said:
The results actually attained under our present system of instruction are neither very flattering nor very encouraging.
In 1895, the president of Harvard said:
Ordinary schooling produces dullness. A young man whose intellectual powers are worth cultivating cannot be willing to cultivate them by pursuing phantoms as the schools now insist upon.
When he said this, compulsion schooling in its first manifestation was approaching its forty-fifth year of operations in Massachusetts, and running at high efficiency in the city of Cambridge, home to Harvard.
Then, in the early years of the twentieth century, pedagogy underwent another metamorphosis that resulted in an even more efficient scientific form of schooling. Four years before WWI broke out, a well-known European thinker and schoolman, Paul Geheeb, whom Einstein, Hermann Hesse, and Albert Schweitzer all were to claim as a friend, made this commentary on English and German types of forced schooling:
The dissatisfaction with public schools is widely felt. Countless attempts to reform them have failed. People complain about the "overburdening" of schools; educators argue about which parts of curriculum should be cut; but school cannot be reformed with a pair of scissors. The solution is not to be found in educational institutions. (emphasis added)
In 1930, the yearly Inglis Lecturer at Harvard made the same case:
We have absolutely nothing to show for our colossal investment in common schooling after 80 years of trying.
Thirty years passed before John Gardners "Annual Report to the Carnegie Corporation," in 1960, added this:
Too many young people gain nothing [from school] except the conviction they are misfits.
The record after 1960 is no different. It is hardly unfair to say that the stupidity of 1867, the fruitlessness of 1880, the dullness of 1895, the cannot be reformed of 1910, the absolutely nothing of 1930, and the nothing of 1960 have continued into the schools of today. We pay four times more in real dollars than we did in 1930 and thus we buy even more of what mass schooling dollars always bought.
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