Alarmed at the state of American education, as indicated by plummeting test scores and the failure to keep up with other countries in math and science, philosopher Leonard Peikoff spent two weeks visiting the best schools in New York City, searching for answers. In this 1984 lecture delivered at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum, Peikoff draws on his experiences and research in offering his own perspective on “why Johnny can’t think.”

“I deliberately chose schools with good reputations—some of which are the shining models for the rest of the country,” Peikoff explains, “and I let the principals guide me to their top teachers. I wanted to see the system not when it was just scraping by, starved for money and full of compromises, but at its best, when it was adequately funded, competently staffed, and proud of its activities. I got an eyeful.”

Using examples he saw firsthand, Peikoff observes that students are not taught to conceptualize or put together their thoughts and experiences into wider abstractions. Despite teachers’ best efforts to teach children to be self-expressive, he notes, students are not learning the foundations on which to base their opinions.

Peikoff explains the fundamental cause as a lack of “respect for reason” and calls for change:  “Let us fight to make our schools once again bastions of knowledge. Then no dictator can rise among us by counting, like Big Brother in 1984, on the enshrinement of ignorance.”

The Q&A that follows the lecture expands on its subject matter and includes the following topics:

  • Does more money mean better teachers?
  • The Montessori method of education
  • Mathematics in the classroom
  • Public versus private education
  • John Dewey
  • Compulsory attendance requirements
  • Prayer in school
  • Lecturing versus group discussion in class
  • Grammar
  • Phonics versus the Look-Say method of learning to read
  • Teaching in Nazi Germany
  • Teaching Objectivism on college campuses
  • Does television affect learning?