Number Five in the History of American Education series describing how American education went over the edge of the cliff. When the history of American education is completed, other issues such as pedagogy, subject matter, who should be responsible for education, etc. will be put up for discussion.
"Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave." - Lord Brougham
It was during the Renaissance that the explosion of knowledge began to drive out the shadows of the Dark Age. With all that knowledge (and the invention of movable metal type!) becoming widely available, and the focus on "this worldly" issues, there was also an increased interest in education.
Unfortunately, a lot of that interest had less to do with the transmission of knowledge than it did with promoting political agendas.
First, the Reformation gave us the basic format of the school system we have today: a tax-supported compulsory system established to promote the agenda of the prevailing political authorities, and to discourage any deviation from it. Then the Ratio Studiorum of the Catholics gave us a curriculum design that significantly increased the efficiency with which children learned, but like the Lutheran schools, it sought to promote loyalty to the Church and discourage opposition to it.
As the Renaissance progressed, the intellectual leaps in every field were phenomenal, especially in mathematics and science. Increasingly, events and entities were seen as obeying the laws of nature rather than as divinely ordained. In time, many people began to think of existence as if it were some sort of giant "machine,” and some began to worry that if everything, even human beings, operated according to natural law the way machines did, then people, like machines, might not have free will. In order to answer concerns like this, people began to study real human beings directly instead of referring to authorities of antiquity or to religious authorities. This was the origin of the term "humanist."
As the Renaissance gained momentum, and curiosity about human nature increased, it evolved into next great period of intellectual growth: the Enlightenment (about 1700-1850).
Due to the increased curiosity about human nature, the “intellectual growth industry” of the Enlightenment became social issues such as human rights, the best way for society to be organized, the best form of government, the proper relationship between government and the people, and, not too surprisingly, how best to educate children.
A rebellion of sorts began to brew against what was regarded as the overly "mechanical" view of human nature. This rebellion ushered in the "Romantic Era" (about 1750-1825), which arose during the Enlightenment.
The term "Romantic" didn't refer to sexual love. It referred instead to the admiration for men who went on heroic adventures seeking idealistic goals, some of which were so lofty or difficult that they were unachievable (hence "impractical" and "unrealistic," bringing to mind the "Grail Quest" of a young Knight of the Round Table, or the "tilting at windmills" activities of Don Quixote).
The Romantics didn't think of humans as machines; they valued individuality, and correctly believed that free will was part of human nature. Unfortunately, they incorrectly blamed reason for the concern about whether free will existed in humans; they were so put off by the "mechanistic" picture of human beings that they unfairly rejected reason altogether, replacing it with emotion. Like many people today, they did not understand that reason and emotion are inextricably related, and not mutually exclusive.
Philosophy has five major branches, including esthetics. The Romanticists' recognition of individuality and free will led to great progress in esthetics by freeing artistic expression from the overly-constrictive "rules" that governed the newly rediscovered classical art, and the stiff, unnatural art of the Dark Age.
Since art is the selective recreation of art according to the artist's metaphysical value-judgments ("Art and Cognition," The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand), the rigidity of the "rules" governing both classical and medieval art also limited the ability of the artist freely to express his individuality and value judgments through his art. To the Romantic, this violated the concept of free will. Thanks to the Romantic Movement, artists found the freedom to express their values and emotions in a way that they had never been able to do before.
Although the Romantic esthetic was a great step forward, the rest of Romantic philosophy was a step backwards. By rejecting reason, education was left to the mercy of unguided, unevaluated emotions, somewhat along the lines of "If it feels good, do it." This led to problems that persist to this day in the schools of the United States, and plays a large role in the "Death Spiral" of our educational system.
To their credit, the Romantics were the first to insist that children were, by nature, learners. They also recognized that children were not miniature adults, and that the same kinds of thinking and behavior that we expect of adults should not be expected from them. Up to that time, children were dressed as tiny adults, they were expected to mimic manners with the skill of adults, and the failure to achieve these and other adult standards of behavior and learning often resulted in serious punishment even of the littlest ones.
Unfortunately, the swing of the pendulum from reason to emotion left the Romantics little better at discerning how best to teach than their harsher "mechanistic" colleagues were.
The Romantics' rebellion against reason took the form of a kind of "back to nature" movement. The "ideal” man was the "Noble Savage," the simple, uncomplicated man who, unencumbered by the complexities of civilization, lived a morally uncorrupted existence. Children were small versions of the Noble Savage, pure, innocent, almost sacred versions of mankind who should not be “tainted” by "artificial" interventions that would damage their "natural" development. Civilization, with all its conventions, was the "ultimate artifice," and was considered to have a highly destructive influence on children. In school, the use of such "artificial" methods as memorization and behavioral correction were thought to be particularly harmful to the child's creativity, character, and overall well-being. Children were to be allowed to express their impulses without interference, and these impulses were to be allowed to run their full course.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a prominent member of the Romantic Movement, and published what amounted to the "Romantic's Manifesto of Education" in the form of his book "Emile," published in 1762.
Rousseau, a native of Switzerland born in Calvinist Geneva, was an independent soul; he was unhappy with anything he regarded as an attempt to control him, and since there was a lot of that going on in his life, he was also unhappy with much of his life. "My birth was the first of my misfortunes," he complained. He was essentially orphaned as a child after his mother died and his father placed him in the care of relatives, who soon apprenticed him to a harsh and violent master engraver.
Rousseau was bright and largely self-educated; on his own initiative, he sought out books of all kinds and read them voraciously, for which offense the engraver beat him. When he was severely punished for a misdeed for which he claimed innocence, he developed a life-long hatred of authority. He described himself in adolescence as "...troubled, discontented and...without enjoyments."
The beatings notwithstanding, he continued to seek out books of all kinds. In them, he experienced a rich and happy fantasy life. In addition to the books, he derived pleasure from the outdoors, where he was not bothered by being required to do things that did not interest him. While outside the city one day, he was late in returning, and was locked out (the city closed its gates at night). He found that he enjoyed the experience, and started to spend as much time as he could outdoors, and he acquired a great enjoyment of nature.
He ran away, and began a series of mostly unsuccessful efforts to earn a living. From time to time, he played the role of congenial con-man, often persuading wealthy or kind-hearted people to support him. In 1749, he entered an annual essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. The subject was: "Has the advancement of civilization tended to corrupt or improve morals?" To his surprise (given his perception that the academic establishment was hostile to him), he won the contest.
The thesis had been his characteristic attack against the establishment. He maintained that progress in the arts and sciences went hand-in-hand with increasing corruption in a society hungry for justice and liberty. He said that in the distant past, mankind, by nature good and free, had been happy (the Noble Savage), but that today, people were vile and unhappy. He maintained that mankind must try to recover the "rights of nature" and the "primordial equality" once enjoyed.
The essay struck a chord in society; all over Europe, his ideas were discussed and debated, and Rousseau became an overnight sensation. Along with other celebrated works on the subject of his winning essay, he wrote Emile, and given the circumstances of his life, Emile is surely the description of the kind of education that he wished he had received!
Here's a brief synopsis of the “ideal education” according to Rousseau: the child Emile is taken into the country to be isolated from the corrupting influence of society, and receives no moral/behavioral instruction until puberty (the "age of social reasoning"). He learns solely through "experience" and "discovery" what it is that he needs to learn. For example, when an invitation is received, he "discovers" that he needs to learn to read in order to understand the invitation, or he "experiences" missing the party.
Rousseau's alter-ego Emile is a learner of great self-initiated intellectual activity, and the assumption is made by Rousseau that all children (since they are "natural learners") would respond as enthusiastically as he would have to this kind of solitary, self-directed, unstructured, free-wheeling environment.
The Romantic view of education was in marked contrast to the view held by the New England Puritans, where, in addition to beatings, children were taken on “field trips” to view executions in order to motivate them to obey and do their best.
The United States would be created just 14 years after the publication of Emile; the clash between the two extreme views of education would produce a monstrous hybrid. This hybrid would lead to the concept of education as a tool for the total transformation of society into a population submissive and compliant to the wishes of the governing Elite, influenced primarily by Horace Mann and John Dewey, and aided and abetted by Sigmund Freud.