Number Four 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.
In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. - Eric Hoffer
My apologies for not going straight to Romanticism this time, as was my intention. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be useful to understand how Romanticism was both helpful and harmful to education, and how it influenced our own system, to say something about where it came from.
The Reformation gave us the basic format of our system; a tax-supported system with compulsory attendance and a curriculum designed to further the agenda of the prevailing political authorities.
The success of the Protestant system was not lost on the Catholics, and they did not stand idly by. In 1534, just 17 years after Luther posted his proclamation on the church door, the Spanish-born friar Ignatius Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, the first international monastic order dedicated solely to teaching. By 1560, the Jesuits had schools all over the world - Europe, the Americas, and the Far East.
By 1599, they had developed what was widely held as the most innovative and effective educational program in the world, even by their religious adversaries. This program, the Ratio Studiorum, also heavily influenced our system.
From ancient times until the Ratio Studiorum, students had been divided into three categories: elementary, grammar (secondary) and university levels.
Each group could have up to 200 students ranging in ability from beginner to advanced, making group lessons and discussions impossible. Each student went in his turn to see the teacher privately to recite his lesson and receive an assignment. This practice caused learning to go at a snail's pace, and because the teacher's attention was on one student at a time, there were behavior problems. Poor behavior or performance were controlled with frequent harsh punishments, including whipping, administered by the teacher.
The Ratio Studiorum changed all that. Students were grouped according to ability into five grades, with each grade serving children with an age span of about three years. This made group lessons and discussions possible, and the rate of learning speeded up markedly. Each child was allowed to progress at his own pace, and when he completed the material, he was given an exam and passed to the next level during a formal graduation ceremony. Because of more uninterrupted participation of the students in their work, and greater teacher supervision of the entire class, and smaller class sizes, the need for harsh discipline declined substantially. When it was deemed necessary, it was considered inappropriate for the teacher himself to be involved; a different Brother was specially assigned to administer punishments.
Another advancement was in the training of the teachers, something that had never been done before. The best and the brightest from among teacher candidates were chosen for the training program, where they were taught strong programs in the classics, theology, and debate. The most spectacular change was that the teachers-in-training were also given experience in "practice classes," with real children, before being turned loose as independent teachers in their own classrooms.
Although the Catholic schools were not administered under a formal tax-supported system like the Protestant system, and although attendance was not compulsory, it was nevertheless effectively a "state controlled" system because of the strong fusion of state and religion. There was little competition between Protestants and Catholics, since either one or the other prevailed in different territories. In Catholic regions, a Catholic education was the only game in town, with few other choices if one wanted a formal, academic education, and the agenda was the same as that of the Protestants: to promote loyalty to the Church.
This explosive and universal increase in interest in education came at the end of a period when Europe was emerging from an era of profound decay in learning and achievement (the Dark Age, roughly between 500 to 1500), and early in the period of rebirth of learning and knowledge (the Renaissance, roughly 1500 to about 1700).
Rome had been taken over by the Barbarians soon after the last of the Roman Emperors. While unlike the situation between competing religions, where one side tried to destroy the influence of the other by book-burning etc., the Barbarians didn't hate or disagree with the material in books, they just didn't care about them. So books were not protected or copied, and like so much else, the great libraries simply disappeared.
With the loss of the massive classical knowledge base to draw on, education - and civilization - collapsed. It's very interesting to go through various "timetables" that are published about history, science, the arts, etc. and see the drmatic drop in accomplishments across the board during the Dark Age.
The few remnants of educational effort that were still being made were insufficient to carry civilization forward; the Roman Empire had largely converted to Christianity, and interest shifted from "how to live in this world" to "preparation for life in the next world." The few books that the Christian clerics had considered important enough to take with them as they fled the Barbarians reflected this interest, with the this-worldly exception of medical texts (primarily Hippocrates and Galen), since caring for the sick was an interest of the Church.
Even among the clergy, the quality of education rapidly deteriorated. Even St. Augustine (354-430), who lived at the crossroads between Classical Rome and the Dark Age, thought that disease was due to demons, and this view prevailed among many of his contemporaries and philosophic heirs; Charlemagne the Great (742-814), complained that even the clergy knew insufficient Latin to read the Bible or properly conduct church services.
During the Dark Age, large cities quite literally disappeared, as the building materials from their structures were taken to be used elsewhere; roads and ports disintegrated, so trade and contact with other cultures became very limited; aquaducts fell into disrepair, so a clean, reliable source of drinking water was no longer available; sewage systems disappeared, so the new drinking water sources such as streams and rivers became dangerously polluted; bathing became a non-issue, and disease became rampant, with periodic kill-offs of millions upon millions of people. What little education was being carried out was limited primarily to future clerics and aristocrats, and concerned itself almost exclusively with theologically related issues.
The story of what brought all this freefall of learning to an end is every bit as fascinating as the story of how "snowball earth" was rescued from its global ice tomb 600,000,000 years ago, but it is too long to tell here. Maybe I'll find an excuse sometime in the future to sneak it in!
During the Renaissance, as a result of the rebirth of learning and knowledge, great leaps forward began to take place; it was almost a stampede, and was a result of renewed interest in the problems of this world, with a corresponding decrease in focus on issues related to the other-wordly. Leonardo Fibonacci (1170-1250), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) all lived during this period.
The strong and growing focus on reason instead of faith as the means of acquiring knowledge, with its requirement for evidence and proof, characterized this period.
Both the Protestant and Catholic educational systems were innovations over their own past, and succeeded in their own time; nevertheless, both carried the seeds of their own destruction within themselves; in order to maintain the integrity of their methods and the nature of what they taught, they refused to change, to refine either their content or their methods to take into account the discovery of the knowledge that was spreading like wildfire.
The next period, from about 1700 to about 1850, was called the "Enlightenment," and represented another great leap; it was a period of thunderous philosophic growth, and it was now that the concept of human rights and their relationship to the proper function of government became an issue of great interest, and the problem of slavery, still a universal practice around the world, became a matter of intense interest. The Enlightenment led to the Industrial Revolution, which put the final nail in the coffin of slavery because of the inventions of technologies that could replace human labor.
It was within the years of the Enlightenment that a new movement, the Romantic Movement, arose. It thrived from about the mid-1700s to the early 1800s. The term "Romantic" didn't refer to the usual first definition in the dictionary, meaning "sexual love." Instead, it referred to a definition further down the list, to the potential for heroic achievement, adventure and excitement, and in addition, an "idealistic" attitude or expectation that could even be considered "impractical." The tales of King Arthur, the Christianized version of an oral tradition going back perhaps thousands of years, were the first to be referred to as "Romantic."
Romanticism was a philosophically complex era, a "mixed bag" of both good and bad. The good part was manifested especially in its esthetics. Art made real advances during the period. Its bad part was that it essentially rejected reason in favor of emotion, and this is the part that especially affected our educational system.
The Romanticists literally "felt" that their goal was the fight for individuality and free expression, but they used emotions as their tools in the fight instead of reason, abandoning reason to their opponents.
In no small way, the Romantic Era was a rebellion against reason, a sort of "back to nature" movement that considered the reason-based accomplishments of civilization to be "artificial" and inimical to human welfare. It was the time when the "Noble Savage" was regarded as the natural and ideal human being.
This rebellion was to have serious consequences for our schools, our kids, and our civilization; it was to lead to "Progressivism" and Political Correctness.
It was also to carry within it the seeds of some major contributions to the proper understanding of our nature, of how we learn, and of how to develop a better pedagogy.