Well, what people think of traditional education was meant to prepare people for a different world than the one we live in today. The Three R's (reading, writing and basic math) were what was needed to prepare kids to live in an industrial age world where most of them would be doing shift work in factories.
So called 'progressive' education was a cold war reaction to the threat of Soviet military superiority. After all, low earth orbit makes a pretty good place to drop bombs on people and, as Robert A. Heinlein imagined in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, the moon makes an even better place. Heck, you don't even need bombs -- good old rocks and gravity will do. So, after Sputnik surprised the hell out the U.S.'s military leaders, it was decided that a new technologically oriented education was needed for the new post-war era. This was the raison'd'etre for the so-called 'New Math.' Oh, and of course, the then burgeoning aerospace industry created as a side effect of the military-industrial complex that came to prominence in World War II didn't see this as a bad thing, just as the 19th century industrialists had advocated the traditional high school currilculuum.
It isn't so much that the traditional methods didn't work, because in fact they did work -- extremely well. It was more a matter of U.S. policy leaders deciding that they just weren't relevant anymore. Since that time, as political administrations have come and gone, the public school system here has seen a flurry of educational methodologies. Phonics vs. Whole Language in reading and Spiral vs. Mastery Learning in math are two examples that come to mind<1>.
When it comes to judging 'traditional' and 'progressive' education I think we need to consider the individual goals of each method and whether those goals were met. As I already stated, I think there can be no doubt that in its time, the Three-R's were enormously successful. There is also some evidence that the New Math was sucessful in its own way. Studies of high school students from that era showed that children educated under the New Math were better at higher mathematics such as algebra, geometry and trig, but less competent at basic mathematics than their predecessors. Of course, neither the New Math students nor the Three-R's students were very good at problem solving. Problem solving became the education mantra of the 1990's.<2>
It's easy to see that education, especially public education, and the sucess or failure thereof has always been defined relative to society's needs for education at the time. In modern times, more often than not, big business has been crucial in defining the role of public education. For instance, there have been attempts at computer literacy (although the term 'computer literacy' itself is fairly new) in the schools since the late 1960's. However, just what students should know about computers has changed radically to fit the needs of business over time.<3> It is debateable about whether we should rely upon the needs of businesses to have as much input as they do in the role of public education in the U.S. After all, since the U.S. is a representative republic, does a public school system that favors the needs of big business produce citizens that are capable of making the kinds of decisions necessary to manage this country? Equally so, since we are a capitalist consumer driven economy (for the most part), a practical education is necessary to ensure that our children will have the skills necessary to provide for themselves in this economy. Well, and it makes business owners happy.
Now, so far we've looked at the role of education in a society in so far as the content of that education goes. However, we are overlooking perhaps the larger purpose of education in any society and that is in the aculturation of the youth. Schools are there to preserve the social order. Back in the good old days when there was still a definitive ruling class in Europe, such a thing could be done just by shuffling all the upper class boys off to boarding schools and all the upper class girls off to finishing schools where each learned their respective place in society. There wasn't much need for education of the rabble, at least not in literature and math and science. For them, trade apprenticeships were much more important. Even in the U.S., for the majority public schools were much more about the transmission of cultural values than the actual content of the education. The whole structure of the typical 1950's high school was about reinforcing the way top-down, paternalistic power structure of the time. A good deal of this is what John Gatto's excellent rants about in the Six and the Seven Lesson Schoolteacher essays, although I doubt he would use my language. He's a much better writer for one thing.
Now, starting in the 1950's something new comes along that in time totally derails the role of the schools in passing on the cultural bugaboos of the previous generation. This is the rise to dominance of the electronic media as a cultural arbritrator. Suddenly with the cheap availability of television and transitor radios, the electronic media was ubiquitous. Despite the attempts at cultural control, such as censors, messages that were critical, antiauthoritative, contradictory of traditional values and youth oriented were all over the broadcast spectrum simply because advertisers saw sales skyrocket. This is not to say that this was all bad since the electronic media as much or more so than anything else help popularlize concepts such as the integration of the races (vis a vis rock and roll of all things). A little later on, it was the electronic media's co-opting and subsequent commercialization of the hippie culture that led to much of the decline of the schools as purveyors of the cultural norm. In short, the norm was the anti-norm now.
By the time the 1980's roll around, our entire youth culture is media saturated. Instead of talking about the sock-hop or hanging out at the malt shop the night before, kids are comparing notes about what happened on Cheers or Miami Vice -- and it is from shows such as these and John Hughes movies that they are basing their values. The ironic thing is that there are often no values there. Combined with the increasing trend of the absentee parent and many of our schools have come to resemble a modern day Lord of the Flies<4>. I think this more than anything else is what people decry as the failure of the public school system.
Now I'm not debating that American kids do less well than the youth of many other countries on certain academic tests. Also, the appalling lack of deductive reasoning skills in this country is mind-numbing. However, as times change and society continuously reinvents its notion of the proper educational content of the public school, our schools will always be seen as academically inadequate relative to the technoligcal or economic challenges of the day. And there will be more experiments in education, and there will me more calls to return to those tried and true methods of the past. However, unless we start seeing an erosion of the content (such as forcing the teaching of Creationism or forbidding the teaching of evolution) I just don't see much to worry about here. Besides, who said quantum mechanics was a proper topic for a 16 year old mind?
So, what's the solution? I don't think there is one. Not the way we've traditionally approached the problem. I also think the definition of the problem could be a little clearer. It's nice to say that Johnny not being able to solve quadratic equations is the problem, but it isn't. The problem is that the school itself is not a conducive place for Johnny to learn how to solve quadratic equations, nor have I ever heard anyone make a conving arguement as to just why Johnny should be able to solve a quadratic equation. Until we as a society are willing to sit down and admit to ourselves that it isn't the 18th century or even 1942 anymore and start working on a new cultural identity will things get better.
<1> I know, both mastery and spiral learning apply to much more than math, but mastery learning was the idea behind the old algebra, geometry, trigonometry sequence in the New York State Regents Mathematics program (the college prep math program in New York State high schools of which I am a product). Good old Algebra, Geometry and Trig were replaced by the spiral based Course I, Course II and Course III. The idea here was, you learned a little of each subject every year plus some other stuff thrown in for good measure. That way, if you happened to be particularly bad in any one given subject area, your math grades would not be totally decimated for a whole year (making it easier to get into college). Also, you as a student would feel better about yourself since you would at least do OK with some of the material. Finally, you would at least have a better understanding of the 'big picture' -- you'd understand how each subject area worked together with the others more so than if they were studied individually. And there was that extra stuff thrown in such as set theory. How could you go wrong?
<2> I'm sorry. I looked for references to these studies on the web and could not find them. I distinctly remember reading such when I was a Psych major in college. Furthermore, I am a product of New Math (in elementary school) and the Spiral math curriculuum (in high school)and remember well the comments our teachers made about our class (small class, small school -- things were overheard). For the curious, I graduated high school in 1986.
<3> In the '60s, the mathematical basis of computation was emphasized, in accordance with the New Math. Various companies produced kits with which basic binary computers could be built, tore apart and re-built. Often resembling columns of spring terminals with a light and a switch at the top, students could wire up these computer kits to do things like play an abstracted version of Tic-Tac-Toe. Presumably this reflected the low level nature of computers at the time and the skills that were needed to work with them. In the '70s and early '80s, computer porogrammers were in desperate need, and so that was what was taught in the schools was computer programming.
he '70s saw many schools wired up via teletypewriter (TTY) terminals and 150 baud modems to time-sharing university main frames. (Aside: For all of you who think the internet is hotter than Hades in summer, imagine the thrill of a pre-adolescent using the VMS phone utility to chat with real live college students or professors half way around the world). The '80s of course saw the proliferation of the microcomputer, often of the TRS-80, Apple IIE or Commodore Pet variety. As one moved throughout this timeframe the emphasis on programming languages in schools evolved from FORTRAN, to BASIC and then Pascal. There were also blips on the educational radar such as LOGO.
By the '90s, the PC was everywhere and while the need for more technical types was still there, there was a much greater need for people who could operate a computer as part of their everyday jobs. Thus the emphasis on computer literacy again shifted, this time from programming to familiarity with the popular business applications of the day. In my own high school, I saw the computing curriculuum taken out of the hands of the Math Department and placed into the hands of the AV director. Gone was the original programming project that made up half of your pre-calc course grade, replaced with scores of high school juniors learning WordPerfect. Naturally, the AV director had to become professionally certified to teach WordPerfect. :-P
<4> It doesn't help that the old cultural regime (the school administration) is trying to reassert itself in the most violent and draconian means possible. Never before have our children been so stripped of their basic human rights as in the schools today. Combined with the reluctance of society to change the organizational nature of schools (an organizational methodology that has been around for over a half decade) and it is no wonder why tragedies such as Columbine happen. However, that is a topic Jon Katz deals with much better than I do and I have come to realize that this comment is exceedingly long.
A little slice of 1987 on the internet. Visit KAOS -- Central NY's premiere BBS. Multi-user, telnetable, Citadel/UX.
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