Heresy in the House of Progressive Education

Keeping in touch with the dangers of fundamentalist Islam

In my twenty-seven years of teaching, I have always been doubtful of the “progress” of education, especially that of higher education, which makes me, for all intents, a heretic. I have seen the latest trends in teaching methodology and testing come and go and be repeated for decades, none of them improving student learning. Despite these efforts, most of which have been politically driven, we’ve experienced an increase in ignorance, a causal relationship between what is taught and the decline of education.

A student told me once he disagreed with my opinion as to when colons and semicolons should be used in a sentence. Relativism, so instrumental in defining modern education and by extension our society, gives a measure of truth—relative “truth,” that is—to this student’s claim that one can put these structural symbols anywhere. Former teachers and professors had very likely allowed his “creative” punctuation, many of those educators perhaps even unaware of any infelicity.

One of the most notorious of today’s language transgressions is pronoun agreement, using the possessive pronoun “their” in lieu of “his” or “her,” as in “A student will tend to Twitter or Snap Chat on their cell phone during class.” The grammatically correct version, “A student will tend to Snap Chat on his or her cell phone during class,” is considered cumbersome or even politically incorrect because of the gender designation. Progressive education? To sacrifice the clarity of communication, the science and acumen of grammar itself, at the altar of “Political Correctness,” is a societal travesty.

It follows that if there is no higher-order truth, then certainly there exists no lower-order truth, so everything—especially punctuation and grammar for the sake of politics—is a matter of opinion. When as a college student, in 1978, I stepped into my Philosophy 201 class, relativist thinking was but one wing of the great paradigm, the yin to the yang of the absolutist. I recall an entire class dedicated to that debate, one young man who looked like Warner Sallman’s depiction of Jesus proclaiming that if “ice melts in your hand, there are at least two truths: one, the ice is too cold; and two, your hand is too hot.” The student disputed the idea of absolute truth. The professor promptly dispatched his analysis with some Hegelian passage. So much for nostalgia. If you’ve spent any time in an academic environment the last forty years, you know which side ultimately won.

In The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom wrote that some of the benchmark moments in education’s corruption occurred in the 1960s on college campuses like Cornell, where he taught, and Berkeley in 1964. The infamous Berkeley takeover began in good faith: activist students were helping to mount a front for causes like free speech and the voter rights of African Americans. The key moment, however, had little to do with the trampled rights of black voters or free speech and much to do with the future curricula of academic America. On December 4th, the protest became heated, escalated, then ended in a mob of students storming the administration building of the Berkeley campus. The inmates took the prison, demands were made and met.

Changes to the curriculum were neither immediate nor direct, but college-campus incidents like this were a flashpoint for the long-term effect on what is taught in liberal studies, at least. Bloom’s argument in The Closing, however, indicted every facet of contemporary life he could think of, including rock music. Granted, some of his charges seem comically antique to contemporary sensibility, but many are apt. He perceived the social revolution of the Sixties as a catalyst for the backsliding of liberal studies.

In the fall semester of 2015, I taught a senior-level modern literature class at the University of Arizona. In order to determine the reading list, I canvassed the class. Out of eleven students, only one or two had read The Great Gatsby, and not one of them any work by Hemingway. Two students had read stories by William Faulkner and John Dos Pasos, and few had ever heard of Tennessee Williams. Dead white guys are staying dead, and there has been a concerted campaign to keep them that way. How could these students, most of them English majors, have emerged from four years of school untouched by these artists?

Certainly, I sympathize with diversifying the literary canon and know that many consider the culture wars fought and won. I even cede that the canon needed some diversifying but at the expense of what? The “Eternal Verities” Faulkner cited in his 1949 Nobel Prize speech are just that, and they are represented in works by artists of any colour, gender, creed—or political disposition. We cannot dismiss The Waste Land or Glengarry Glen Ross because Eliot converted to Catholicism or Mamet “confessed” his more conservative leanings. Lately, any kind of discourse that even smells like it leans a right is met with outrage.

Last year at Berkeley the editor of Breitbart, a conservative news service, was kept from speaking by an angry mob. Windows were broken, fires started. The irony of this incident is self-evident, and history is rife with the quashing of dissenting voices, those who don’t fall in with current orthodoxy. How many steps will it take from an enforced party line to the Killing Fields of Cambodia; the yellow Star of David hung from doors, shop windows, and the chests of the subhuman; the offending witches of Salem hanged high above the town for all to see? These tend to be the “final solution” wages of Orwellian group think.

Of course, these are college students, and cultural shifts tend to reverberate most passionately in young people, most of whom ultimately become peaceful, productive citizens. Still, I’m slightly unnerved at seeing kids, much like the ones I work with, forming violent mobs. My relationship with students tends toward the mundane, like finding reasonably priced textbooks and making sure my class fits with their major. Most students aspire to make their own quiet and noble contribution to the world. No yelling, no picketing, no stones hurled.

Many of them are seeking secondary education degrees, and judging by some of their papers, they don’t seem to be participants in protest rallies, but a few of them do consider punctuation and pronoun agreement a subjective matter. It concerns me that what they internalize about grammar, punctuation, and literature will be more deeply impressed on them than trysts with antisocial involvement. This is not to say they are not bright and conscientious. A couple of them have been, in fact, brilliant—mis-educated, indoctrinated in relativist, contemporary “progressive” thinking—but brilliant. I am not mounting an attack on critical theory, nor am I saying it precludes any class discussion on broader human experience, but contemporary approaches to literature are a component of the great relativist war machine.

And what officers of that army we are making in these bright students, who will put forward their great truth of non-truth to their own students. Many contemporary ministers of literary tradition (if you can call it that) regard all printed work as “text,” Hamlet and Benny Hill relegated as equals to the same stack, and discourage students from “privileging” one writer over another. The attitude belies great art as the plaything of “intellectuals”—it’s only art if we in the ivory tower extol long and hard enough about it, if we can make it fit our Marxist or pet sociological agenda. Hamlet, therefore, from a psychological theorist’s view, would have “Mommy and Daddy” issues and is—in queer theory—carrying on a frustrated love affair with Horatio. For the sake of these fashionable examinations, the higher truths of great literary works are ignored and dismissed, and soon enough readers will be rendered blind to them.

Faulkner in his 1949 address lamented: “…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” What would Faulkner make of the academy now? Many in my field would say, “Screw Faulkner, and the shabby buckboard he and his characters rode in on.” Still, years from now, between the dusty covers of some book, a ten-year-old character named Sartoris Snopes in Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” will be torn between what is right and the love of his father. Great truths, like young Snopes’ conflicted heart, remain just that, buried or not.

Today’s classroom and popular culture have buried these truths under a mountain of cultural relativism. A few years back I began again to probe for a common text in my basic writing classes; I came up with The Lion King, but fewer and fewer of my students even know that one. Twenty-five years ago most of my students raised their hands when asked, “Who’s read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter?” Now only about half of them are familiar with The Lion King. When I ask them what they remember about the story, they look at me blinking, wishing they could get back to their cell phones.

The public has been sold the utilitarian virtues of education, and their interests tend to be strictly pragmatic. For most students, subjects in the humanities fall somewhere between social sciences and underwater basket weaving in the current cast of the academic curriculum. It’s just the flapdoodle they have to trudge through in order to get to the real classes. Regrettably, in a way, I think they are right. Great art has been made mere artifact in the “progress” of the humanities, perhaps because it makes it more accessible, less disturbing, and easier to deal with. The student once came to college; now college comes to the student. The stable rock of academy was freed from the river bed and taken by the swift current of popular culture. And the sad truth is that the academy itself upended it.

The acquiescence of the university administrators in the 1960s to the demands of the students was perhaps the precedent. Maybe those black-tied bureaucrats were charmed by the anarchist spirit and call for social justice, nostalgic for the idealism of their own youth. Perhaps it was then, as it certainly is today, mere cowardice. Ultimately, higher education has kowtowed to the infantile demands of the “clientele.” Students struggle to read Hawthorne, and his question of Hester Prynne’s culpability is no longer relevant. Of course, she is a victim and wrongly prosecuted! With contemporary sensibilities, we are left without the prism of moral ambiguity through which to question and examine these old truths. While Hawthorne’s book may give rise in the secondary or even college classroom to the question of single motherhood, a limited view of the text at best, this discussion cannot take place if the book is not prescribed in the classroom. The pressing question of Hester’s virtue in the context of an unchecked Calvinist-gone-pathological system, and the incipient structures of the U.S.’s moral codes would now go unnoticed.

A teacher is likely to address even the richest work of literature through the lens of progressivist politics, thus Gatsby, were it taught at all, would be looked at in terms of the inequities of the American class system, Huckleberry Finn in terms of racial oppression, and The Old Man and The Sea with perhaps an environmentalism slant. Text is just text, to be manipulated to fit the popular discourse—what is insidiously, the elite discourse. To be fair, this is not the fault of the middle-school or high school English teacher; a fish rots from the head down, so this is the fault of his or her (“their”?) teachers. I teach college, I’ve seen the enemy, and it is us.

Thus far, I’ve only roused the torches and pitchforks with no call to action, and I’m not sure what that action might be. In the last fifty years, cultural developments have significantly impacted the liberal studies curriculum, and those developments have somehow managed to shut out and even expunge much of the literary canon. The direction of the humanities, among other disciplines, appears to have marched toward a “progressive” totalitarianism. The impulse to strike out the voices and even skin colours that don’t square with the prescribed program is prevalent. By its very nature, the single-party system presumes some direct line on the truth, that it has things figured out, that it bears no need nor responsibility to hear dissenting voices. It is through this insidious progression that the academy has laid siege to our culture and kidnapped our young.

Education has tried everything in the last fifty years from the Bell Curve to state-sponsored capstone tests to the “learner-centered” classroom. There is no secret to teaching save rolling up your sleeves and putting your back into it. The spokespersons for education for years have called for more funding, more innovation, but I can teach Joyce or Faulkner under a tree. The basics of a thing don’t change.

Certainly, good minds can imagine a pathway to better learning in the public schools and a more fair and balanced curriculum. After all, school athletic programs are now more fair and balanced; there are more women’s college athletic programs than ever before. If sports can become gender equitable, why not make the curriculum more politically and culturally balanced: for every Marxist English professor on campus, federal funding could be contingent on hiring a formalist in Flannery O’Connor; for the Darwinist in one classroom, a proponent of Intelligent Design in the adjoining. For every guest speaker calling for a liberal view of social justice, insure a protected forum for a counter speaker like Condoleezza Rice. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s call for conservative thinkers in his field is not misguided. He has determined an unhealthy lack of balance in the social sciences, and he worries for the skewing of research unless his discipline becomes more diversified. While I respect his good intentions, I think it’s a safe wager Haidt is a little late on the uptake. Still, why dismiss these measures? This is not a desire to silence voices but to augment the discussion.

Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish-born English statesman and philosopher, asserted that the only way to progress is to know the wisdom of the ancients, that to move forward we must first look meticulously backward. Real insanity is to dismiss, then forget, those great thinkers who came before us. “Progress” is not merely changing things, but how well we can improve, yet protect, the old, the fundamental. The automobile and the horse-drawn carriage have different power sources, but they are essentially the same. Old wisdom, meanwhile, knows that round wheels work best.[pullquote]

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15 Comments on Heresy in the House of Progressive Education

  1. In my experience, a fish rots from the guts out.
    I say we must accept that only a small proportion of the mob are actually educuable in the ways and to the degrees to which we smart folk aspire.
    And, as a fellow said: The problem with education is that it weaponizes the stupid.

  2. SR, and other fine platforms, do an excellent job of describing the the Great Rot that is upon us.
    And thanks for that.
    Thing is, just for example, I might draw a parallel to 1938 and ask: When will we accept that we must go into action, and spend our lives to defeat our Foe?
    And, I ain’t doing it alone, you can count on that.

  3. Jay Treiber states in his or her (I can’t say which pronoun is preferred) article that using ‘they/their’ as a pronoun in place of the singular ‘his’ or ‘her’ is grammatically incorrect; but I’ve read elsewhere that ‘they/their’ has been used as a singular pronoun by people such as Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Dickinson and Shaw; and I can think of modern day examples having nothing to do with the progressive demand that we avoid sexist language:
    “Ask a friend if they can help.”
    “Someone dropped their book on the floor.”
    “Everyone must hand in their report by 12 noon.”

    Incidentally, the American Dialect Society voted to make ‘they’, used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, their Word of the Year in 2015.

    Jay Treiber might wish to consider whether English – unlike French (if the Académie française has its way) – is a constantly evolving language before Jan Teiber makes up their mind 🙂 on this vexing question.

    • It may be common but is it correct? ‘Jay’ makes an important point with a poor example. I’m something of an admirer of the Académie française

      • “‘one’, ‘anyone’, ‘everybody’, ‘nobody’, etc. followed by ‘they’,’their’ or ‘them’…”

        “Over the centuries, writers of standing have used ‘they’,’their’ or ‘them’ with anaphoric reference to a singular pronoun or noun, and the practice has continued in the 20C to the point that, traditional grammarians aside, such constructions are hardly noticed any more and are not widely felt to lie in a prohibited zone…The evidence presented in the OED [shows that] from the 16C onward ‘they’ has often been used in reference to a singular noun or pronoun made universal by ‘every’,’any’,’no’, etc., or applicable to one of either sex (= ‘he’ or ‘she’)..”
        The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Third Edition, R..W. Burchfield (ed) Oxford, 1996.

        To be sure, the great H.W. Fowler, “disliked the practice… and gave a number of unattributed faulty examples” in the first edition of Modern English Usage, but our language has moved on since 1926, and we are now definitely *woke* – what, what?

        • Fair enough, but – as you know, even if you try to omit the obvious – the difference is that in the “woke proposal” there is no universal ‘every’ or ’any’ justifying such exceptions to the rule.
          In the singular, “they” has no place, it’s simply a contradiction which some people want to impose in order to affirm their power.

    • Apologies to the author, Jay Treiber, for mangling their name (“Jan Teiber”) @ 9:44 p.m. yesterday. Sure wish there was an edit function on this blog site.

  4. So much of what you describe is recognisable to us in the U.K. and your point about the need for greater balance in the teaching of the humanities is well made. But what struck me most in your piece was the example of the melting ice. There is one truth in this: that energy flows across from where there’s lots of it to where there is less. Basic O’Level physics (for those of us who did them).”Too hot” and “two cold” are merely subjective explanations of this simple truth. The student in question was clearly no scientist, or philosopher for that matter, but he serves to illustrate the process by which ‘relative truths’ so frequently spring from ignorance. We should educate our children in the broadest ways possible.

  5. Dear johnhenry,

    To begin with, the name is “Jay”, not “Jan.” Salisbury has corrected the typo.
    I don’t normally dignify (typically leftist) equivocation with a response, but. . . .
    To use the plural pronoun in that sentence construction is in-arguably a grammar error. The question is whether that kind of “evolution” in the English language is a healthy one. I argue that it is not.

    To use “his or her” in lieu of the “his” of yore came about as a “progressive” countermeasure to what has been perceived as a sexist convention in the language. Fine and good. Writers have since made the rude discovery, however, that having to plug in the unwieldy (his or her, and sometimes his/her) multi-word “correction” disrupted the flow of their work—understandably, as elegance counts in writing as grace does in dancing.
    A countermeasure to the folly of that correction has been to replace the awkward “his or her” convention with the possessive plural pronoun “their”, as in “Someone dropped their book on the floor” in place of “Someone dropped his or her book” or “Someone dropped his book.”
    The “his or her” is awkward but clear, but the use of “their” is not. Because “their” is plural (spelled and understood always as a plural) the logic of that construction would immediately suggest the “their” referred to other persons (multiple) and not the “Someone” (singular) of that sentence. Certainly, the reader might make the leap of faith that “their” refers to the “Someone”, but there is no doubt that the reader is driving around a pot hole in the language here. To my thinking, this is the “collateral damage”, ends-justifies-the-means disintegration of the language deemed necessary to fulfill an agenda.
    Consider if this “correction” was made to some of the finest phrasing in the English language: From the Great Gatsby:

    “…for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

    Gatsby passage politically corrected (first try):

    “…for a transitory enchanted moment a person must have held his or her breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he or she neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his or her capacity for wonder.”

    (Definitely inelegant, but at least clear.)

    Gatsby passage politically corrected (second try, for the sake of the progress of man/woman kind):

    “…for a transitory enchanted moment a person must have held their breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation they neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to their capacity for wonder.”

    This political correction both doubles down on the inelegance and is also unclear. To argue that this “evolution” is healthy is misguided, one of those “relative truths so frequently [sprung] from ignorance” that Tim Howard refers to in his response. The American Dialect Society can vote all they want. It only makes them “right” in their own little relativist echo chamber.

    • Dear Jay Treiber:

      Thank you for breaking your normal rule by, er, dignifying my earlier comment (@ 21:44 hrs on the 21st inst.) with a reply. I respectfully submit, however, that your grammatical rule against using ‘they’ and ‘their’ in the circumstances under discussion is a Victorian affectation – much like piano legs concealed by bloomers (possibly mythical). I also think that Kingsley Amis nicely summed up the difference between we hoi polloi and your prescriptivist grammarians in his “King’s English” (1997):
      “‘Berks’ are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops, and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

      ‘Wankers’ are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.”
      https://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2011/06/correctness

      In my view, “Berk/Wanker” dichotomy is not so much a divide as it is a continuum. Each of us lies at a different point along it, rather than being firmly one or t’other, h’mmm?

      Best regards.

  6. The first problem is egalitarianism, that is the confusion of equivalence with equality. Children and students are not equivalent in their abilities. The pretence that they are means that intelligent students are encumbered with the easy explanations and the simple moralities that might be all that the less able ones can fathom. Subtlety of thought and breadth of knowledge become a challenge to the less able and more often than not to the teacher too.

    The second problem is the propensity of the human mind to conform. People have conformed to all manner of nonsense, sometimes for generations at a time. Everything from witchcraft, voodoo, Bolshevism, National Socialism, the Cultural Revolution and so on and so on have been accepted in turn, believed in, and taught by ordinary teachers to ordinary children as the revealed truth. The religion of progressivism, absurdly unsubtle as it is, is just the latest, and not the worst example of mindless conformity.

    Curiosity about the world, subtlety of thought, love of knowledge for its own sake, and independence of thought are qualities restricted to very few.

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