This lecture was delivered at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum in April 1984, published in the October – December 1984 issues of The Objectivist Forum and anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought in 1989.
We are now a few hours from Income Tax Day in George Orwell’s year — an ominous moment, symbolically, when we feel acutely the weight of an ever growing government, and must begin to wonder what will happen next and how long our liberty can last.
The answer depends on the youth of the country and on the institutions that educate them. The best indicator of our government tomorrow is our schools today. Are our youngsters being brought up to be free, independent, thinking men and women? Or are they being turned into helpless, mindless pawns, who will run into the arms of the first dictator that sounds plausible?
One does not have to be an Objectivist to be alarmed about the state of today’s schools. Virtually everybody is in a panic over them — shocked by continuously falling SAT scores; by college entrants unable to write, spell, paragraph, or reason; by a generation of schoolteachers so bad that even teachers-union president Albert Shanker says of them: “For the most part, you are getting illiterate, incompetent people who cannot go into any other field.” 1 Quoted in USA Today, Aug. 12, 1983.
Last November, a new academic achievement test was given to some six hundred sixth-grade students in eight industrialized countries. The American students, chosen to be representative of the nation, finished dead last in mathematics, miles behind the Japanese, and sixth out of eight in science. As to geography, 20 percent of the Americans at one school could not find the U.S. on a world map. The Chicago Tribune reported these findings under the headline: “Study hands world dunce cap to U.S. pupils.” 2 Dec. 12, 1983.
A year ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education described the United States as “a nation at risk,” pointing to what it called “a rising tide of mediocrity [in our schools] that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.” 3 Quoted in the New York Times, Apr. 27, 1983. These are extreme words for normally bland government commissioners, but the words are no exaggeration.
To prepare for this evening’s discussion, I did some first-hand research. I spent two weeks in February visiting schools in New York City, both public and private, from kindergarten through teachers college. I deliberately chose schools with good reputations — some of which are the shining models for the rest of the country; 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.
My experience at one school, a famous Progressive institution, will serve to introduce my impression of the whole system. I had said that I was interested in observing how children are taught concepts, and the school obligingly directed me to three classes. The first, for nine- and ten-year-olds, was a group discussion of thirteen steps in seal-hunting, from cutting the hole in the ice at the start to sharing the blubber with others at the end. The teacher gave no indication of the purpose of this topic, but he did indicate that the class would later perform a play on seal-hunting and perhaps even computerize the steps. The next class, for thirteen-year-olds, consisted of a mock Washington hearing on the question of whether there should be an import tax on Japanese cars; students played senators, Japanese lobbyists, Lee Iacocca, and so on, and did it quite well; the teacher sat silently, observing. I never learned the name of this course or of the seal-hunting one, but finally I was to observe a meeting described to me as a class in English. At last, I thought, an academic subject. But no. The book being covered was Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days, a memoir of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962; a typical topic for discussion was whether a surgical air strike against Cuba would have been better policy than a blockade.
The school, undoubtedly, would defend these classes as exercises in ethnicity or democracy or relevance, but, whatever the defense, the fact is that all these classes were utterly concrete-bound. Seal-hunting was not used to illustrate the rigors of northern life or the method of analyzing a skill into steps or anything at all. The issue of taxing Japanese cars was not related to a study of free trade vs. protectionism, or of the proper function of government, or of the principles of foreign policy, or of any principles. The same applies to the Cuban discussion. In all cases, a narrow concrete was taught, enacted, discussed, argued over in and of itself, i.e., as a concrete, without connection to any wider issue. This is the essence of the approach that, in various forms, is destroying all of our schools: the anti-conceptual approach.
Let me elaborate for a moment on the crucial philosophic point involved here.
Man’s knowledge begins on the perceptual level, with the use of the five senses. This much we share with the animals. But what makes us human is what our mind does with our sense experiences. What makes us human is the conceptual level, which includes our capacity to abstract, to grasp common denominators, to classify, to organize our perceptual field. The conceptual level is based on the perceptual, but there are profound differences between the two — in other words, between perceiving and thinking. Here are some of the differences; this is not an exhaustive list, merely enough to indicate the contrast.
The perceptual level is concerned only with concretes. For example, a man goes for a casual stroll on the beach — let’s make it a drunken stroll so as to numb the higher faculties and isolate the animal element — and he sees a number of concrete entities: those birds chattering over there, this wave crashing to shore, that boulder rolling downhill. He observes, moves on, sees a bit more, forgets the earlier. On the conceptual level, however, we function very differently; we integrate concretes by means of abstractions, and thereby immensely expand the amount of material we can deal with. The animal or drunk merely looks at a few birds, then forgets them; a functioning man can retain an unlimited number, by integrating them all into the concept “bird,” and can then proceed deliberately to study the nature of birds, their anatomy, habits, and so forth.
The drunk on his walk is aware of a vast multiplicity of things. He lurches past a chaos made of waves, rocks, and countless other entities, and has no ability to make connections among them. On the conceptual level, however, we do not accept such chaos; we turn a multiplicity into a unity by finding the common denominators that run through all the seemingly disconnected concretes; and we thereby make them intelligible. We discover the law of gravity, for example, and grasp that by means of a single principle we can understand the falling boulder, the rising tide, and many other phenomena.
On the perceptual level, no special order is necessary. The drunk can totter from bird to rock to tree in any order he wishes and still see them all. But we cannot do that conceptually; in the realm of thought, a definite progression is required. Since we build knowledge on previous knowledge, we need to know the necessary background, or context, at each stage. For example, we cannot start calculus before we know arithmetic — or argue about tariff protection before we know the nature of government.
Finally, for this brief sketch: on the perceptual level, there is no need of logic, argument, proof; a man sees what he sees, the facts are self-evident, and no further cognitive process is required. But on the conceptual level, we do need proof. We need a method of validating our ideas; we need a guide to let us know what conclusions follow from what data. That guide is logic.
Perception as such, the sheer animal capacity, consists merely in staring at concretes, at a multiplicity of them, in no order, with no context, no proof, no understanding — and all one can know by this means is whatever he is staring at, as long as he is staring. Conception, however — the distinctively human faculty — involves the formation of abstractions that reduce the multiplicity to an intelligible unity. This process requires a definite order, a specific context at each stage, and the methodical use of logic.
Now let us apply the above to the subject of our schools. An education that trains a child’s mind would be one that teaches him to make connections, to generalize, to understand the wider issues and principles involved in any topic. It would achieve this feat by presenting the material to him in a calculated, conceptually proper order, with the necessary context, and with the proof that validates each stage. This would be an education that teaches a child to think.
The complete opposite — the most perverse aberration imaginable — is to take conceptual-level material and present it to the students by the method of perception. This means taking the students through history, literature, science, and the other subjects on the exact model of that casual, unthinking, drunken walk on the beach. The effect is to exile the student to a no-man’s-land of cognition, which is neither perception nor conception. What it is, in fact, is destruction, the destruction of the minds of the students and of their motivation to learn.
This is literally what our schools are doing today. Let me illustrate by indicating how various subjects are taught, in the best schools, by the best teachers. You can then judge for yourself why Johnny can’t think.
I went to an eighth-grade class on Western European history in a highly regarded, non-Progressive school with a university affiliation. The subject that day was: why does human history constantly change? This is an excellent question, which really belongs to the philosophy of history. What factors, the teacher was asking, move history and explain men’s past actions? Here are the answers he listed on the board: competition among classes for land, money, power, or trade routes; disasters and catastrophes (such as wars and plagues); the personality of leaders; innovations, technology, new discoveries (potatoes and coffee were included here); and developments in the rest of the world, which interacts with a given region. At this point, time ran out. But think of what else could qualify as causes in this kind of approach. What about an era’s press or media of communication? Is that a factor in history? What about people’s psychology, including their sexual proclivities? What about their art or their geography? What about the weather?
Do you see the hodgepodge the students are being given? History, they are told, is moved by power struggles and diseases and potatoes and wars and chance personalities. Who can make sense out of such a chaos? Here is a random multiplicity thrown at a youngster without any attempt to conceptualize it — to reduce it to an intelligible unity, to trace the operation of principles. This is perceptual-level history, history as nothing but a torrent of unrelated, disintegrated concretes.
The American Revolution, to take a specific example, was once taught in the schools on the conceptual level. The Revolution’s manifold aspects were identified, then united and explained by a principle: the commitment of the colonists to individual rights and their consequent resolve to throw off the tyrant’s yoke. This was a lesson students could understand and find relevant in today’s world. But now the same event is ascribed to a whole list of alleged causes. The students are given ten (or fifty) causes of the Revolution, including the big landowners’ desire to preserve their estates, the Southern planters’ desire for a cancellation of their English debts, the Bostonians’ opposition to tea taxes, the Western land speculators’ need to expand past the Appalachians, etc. No one can retain such a list longer than is required to pass the exam; it must be memorized, then regurgitated, then happily and thoroughly forgotten. That is all one can do with unrelated concretes.
If the students were taught by avowed Marxists — if they were told that history reflects the clash between the factors of production and the modes of ownership — it would be dead wrong, but it would still be a principle, an integrating generalization, and it would be much less harmful to the students’ ability to think; they might still be open to argument on the subject. But to teach them an unconceptualized hash is to imply that history is a tale told by an idiot, without wider meaning, or relevance to the present. This approach destroys the possibility of the students thinking or caring at all about the field.
I cannot resist adding that the State Education Department of New York has found a way, believe it or not, to make the teaching of history still worse. You might think that, in history at least, the necessary order of presenting the material is self-evident. Since each era grows out of the preceding, the obvious way to teach events is as they happened, i.e., chronologically. But not according to a new proposal. In order “to put greater emphasis on sociological, political, and economic issues,” a New York State proposal recommends that historical material be organized for the students according to six master topics picked out of the blue from the pop ethos: “ecology, human needs, human rights, cultural interaction, the global system of economic interdependence, and the future.” In this approach, an event from a later period can easily be taught (in connection with one master topic) first, long before the developments from an earlier period that actually led to it. As a more traditional professor from Columbia has noted: “The whole thing would be wildly out of chronological order. The [Russian] purge trials of the 1930s would be taught before the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. It is all fragmented and there is no way that this curriculum relates one part of a historical period to another, which is what you want kids to be able to do.’’ 4 The New York Times, Apr. 18, 1983; the professor is Hazel Hertzberg. But the modern educators don’t seem to care about that. They want “fragments,” i.e., concretes, without context, logic, or any other demands of a conceptual progression.
I do not know what became of this New York proposal. The fact that it was announced to the press and discussed seriously is revealing enough.
Given the way history is now being taught, it is not surprising that huge chunks of it promptly get forgotten by the students or simply are never taken in. The result is many adolescents’ shocking ignorance of the most elementary historical, or current, facts. One man wrote a column recently in the Washington Post recounting his conversations with today’s teenagers. He found high school graduates who did not know anything about World War II, including what happened at Pearl Harbor, or what country the United States was fighting in the Pacific. “Who won?” one college student asked him. At one point, the writer and a girl who was a junior at the University of Southern California were watching television coverage of Poland after martial law had been imposed; the set showed political prisoners being put into a cage. The girl could not understand it.
“‘Why don’t they just leave and come to LA.?’” she asked.
“I explained that they were not allowed to leave.”
“‘They’re not?’” she said. “‘Why not?’”
“I explained that in totalitarian states citizens usually could not emigrate.”
“‘They can’t?’” she said. “‘Since when? Is that something new?’” 5 Benjamin J. Stein, “The Cheerful Ignorance of the Young in L.A.,” Oct. 3, 1983.
Now let us make a big jump — from history to reading. Let us look at the method of teaching reading that is used by most American schools in some form: the Look-Say method (as against Phonics).
The method of Phonics, the old-fashioned approach, first teaches a child the sound of individual letters; then it teaches him to read words by combining these sounds. Each letter thus represents an abstraction subsuming countless instances. Once a child knows that p sounds “puh,” for instance, that becomes a principle; he grasps that every p he meets sounds the same way. When he has learned a few dozen such abstractions, he has acquired the knowledge necessary to decipher virtually any new word he encounters. Thus the gigantic multiplicity of the English vocabulary is reduced to a handful of symbols. This is the conceptual method of learning to read.
Modern educators object to it. Phonics, they say (among many such charges), is unreal. I quote from one such mentality: “There is little value in pronouncing the letter p in isolation; it is almost impossible to do this — a vowel of some sort almost inevitably follows the pronunciation of any consonant.” 6 Pose Lamb, Linguistics in Proper Perspective (Charles E. Merrill: 1977, 2nd ed.), p. 29. This means: when you pronounce the sound of p — “puh” — you have to utter the vowel sound “uh”; so you haven’t isolated the pure consonant; so Phonics is artificial. But why can’t you isolate in your mind, focusing only on the consonant sound, ignoring the accompanying vowel for purposes of analysis — just as men focus on a red table’s color but ignore its shape in order to reach the concept “red”? Why does this writer rule out selective attention and analysis, which are the very essence of human cognition? Because these involve an act of abstraction; they represent a conceptual process, precisely the process that modern educators oppose.
Their favored method, Look-Say, dispenses with abstractions. Look-Say forces a child to learn the sounds of whole words without knowing the sounds of the individual letters or syllables. This makes every word a new concrete to be grasped only by perceptual means, such as trying to remember its distinctive shape on the page, or some special picture the teacher has associated with it. Which amounts to heaping on the student a vast multiplicity of concretes and saying: stare at these and memorize them. (You may not be surprised to discover that this method was invented, as far as I can tell, by an eighteenth-century German professor who was a follower of Rousseau, the passionate opponent of reason.)
There is a colossal Big Lie involved in the Look-Say propaganda. Its advocates crusade against the overuse of memory; they decry Phonics because, they say, it requires a boring memorization of all the sounds of the alphabet. Their solution is to replace such brief, simple memorization with the task of memorizing the sound of every word in the language. In fact, if one wishes to save children from the drudgery of endless memorization, only the teaching of abstractions will do it — in any field.
No one can learn to read by the Look-Say method. It is too anti-human. Our schools today, therefore, are busy teaching a new skill: guessing. They offer the children some memorized shapes and pictures to start, throw in a little Phonics (thanks to immense parental pressure), count on the parents secretly teaching their children something at home about reading — and then, given this stew of haphazard clues, they concentrate their efforts on teaching the children assorted methods of guessing what a given word might be.
Here is a Look-Say expert describing a child’s proper mental processes when trying to determine the last word of the sentence, “They make belts out of plastic.” The child must not, of course, try to sound out the letters. Here is what should go on in his brain instead:
“Well, it isn’t leather, because that begins with l. My mother has a straw belt, but it isn’t straw either. It looks like a root. I’ll divide it between s and t. There couldn’t be more than two syllables because there are only two vowels. Let’s see — p, l, a, s. One vowel and it’s not at the end of the syllable . . .” This goes on a while longer, and the child finally comes up with: “Oh, sure, plastic! I’m surprised I didn’t think of that right away because so many things are made of plastic.” The expert comments: “Just described is a child who was not about to carry out a letter-by-letter analysis of plastic if it wasn’t necessary, which is exactly right.” 7 Dolores Durkin, Strategies for Identifying Words, p. 83; quoted in Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read (Harper Colophon: 1983), p. 81.
Can you imagine reading War and Peace by this method? You would die of old age before you reached the third chapter.
I must add that the Look-Say educators demand that children — I quote another devotee — “receive praise for a good guess even though it is not completely accurate. For example, if a child reads ‘I like to eat carrots’ as ‘I like to eat cake,’ praise should be given for supplying a word that makes sense and follows at least some of the phonic cues.” 8 Dixie Lee Spiegel, in Reading Teacher, April 1978; quoted in Flesch, op. cit., p. 24.
How would you like to see, at the head of our army, a general with this kind of schooling? He receives a telegram from the president during a crisis ordering him to “reject nuclear option,’’ proceeds to make a good guess, and reads it as “release nuclear option.” Linguistically, the two are as close as “carrots” and “cake.”
The result of the Look-Say method is a widespread “reading neurosis” among children, a flat inability to read, which never existed in the days of Phonics (and also a bizarre inability to spell). In 1975, for example, 35 percent of fourth-graders, 37 percent of eighth-graders, and 23 percent of twelfth-graders could not read simple printed instructions. The U.S. literacy rate, it has been estimated, is now about equal to that of Burma or Albania, and by all signs is still dropping. Do you see why angry parents are suing school systems for a new crime: educational malpractice?
Now let us look at another aspect of English studies: the teaching of grammar. This subject brings out even more clearly the modern educators’ contempt for concepts.
Grammar is the study of how to combine words — i.e., concepts — into sentences. The basic rules of grammar — such as the need of subject and predicate, or the relation of nouns and verbs — are inherent in the nature of concepts and apply to every language; they define the principles necessary to use concepts intelligibly. Grammar, therefore, is an indispensable subject; it is a science based entirely on facts — and not a very difficult science, either.
Our leading educators, however, see no relation between concepts and facts. The reason they present material from subjects such as history without conceptualizing it, is precisely that they regard concepts as mental constructs without relation to reality. Concepts, they hold, are not a device of cognition, but a mere human convention, a ritual unrelated to knowledge or reality, to be performed according to arbitrary social fiat. It follows that grammar is a set of pointless rules, decreed by society for no objectively defensible reason.
I quote from a book on linguistics written for English teachers by a modern professor: “Because we know that language is arbitrary and changing, a teacher’s attitude toward nonstandard usage should be one of acceptance. . . . One level of language is not ‘better’ than another; this is why the term nonstandard is preferable to substandard in describing such usage as ‘He don’t do it,’ ‘Was you there?’ A person who uses terms such as these will probably be penalized in terms of social and educational advancement in our society, however, and it is for this reason that the teacher helps children work toward, and eventually achieve, standard usage, perhaps as a ‘second’ language.” 9 Lamb, op. cit., p. 19. In short, there is no “correct” or “incorrect” any more, not in any aspect of language; there is only the senseless prejudice of society.
I saw the results of this approach in the classroom. I watched an excellent public-school teacher trying to explain the possessive forms of nouns. She gave a clear statement of the rules, with striking examples and frequent repetition; she was dynamic, she was colorful, she was teaching her heart out. But it was futile. This teacher was not a philosopher of language, and she could not combat the idea, implicit in the textbook and in all the years of the students’ earlier schooling, that grammar is purposeless. The students seemed to be impervious to instruction and incapable of attention, even when the teacher would blow a shrieking police whistle to shock them momentarily into silence. To them, the subject was nothing but senseless rules: the apostrophe goes here in this case, there in that one. Here was a whole science reduced to disintegrated concretes that had to be blindly memorized — just like the ten causes of the American Revolution, or the ten shapes of the last Look-Say session.
You might wonder how one teaches composition — the methods of expressing one’s thoughts clearly and eloquently in writing — given today’s philosophy of grammar and of concepts. I will answer by reading excerpts from a recent manifesto.
“We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. . . . The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another.” If so, why does anyone need English teachers?
Who issued this manifesto? Was it some ignorant, hotheaded teenagers drunk on the notion of student power? No. It was the National Council of Teachers of English. 10 From Students’ Right to Their Own Language, Conference on College Composition and Communication, Fall 1974; quoted in Arn and Charlene Tibbetts, What’s Happening to American English? (Scribner’s: 1978), p. 118.
If you want a hint as to the basic philosophy operative here, I will mention that the editor of College English, one of the major journals of the profession, objects to “an industrial society [that] will continue to want from us — or someone else — composition, verbal manners, discipline in problem solving, and docile rationality.” 11 See College English, Feb. 1976, p. 631; quoted in Tibbetts, op. cit., p. 119. Note how explicit this is. The climax of his “enemies list” is “rationality.”
Despite today’s subjectivism, some rules of composition are still being taught. Certain of these are valid enough, having been carried over from a better past. But some are horrifying. Here is an exercise in how to write topic sentences. The students are given two possible sentences with which to start a paragraph, then are asked to choose which would make a good opening and which a bad one. Here is one such pair:
1. Cooking is my favorite hobby.
2. It really isn’t hard to stir-fry Chinese vegetables.
The correct answer? Number 1 is bad. It is too abstract. (!) Students should not write about so enormous a subject as an entire hobby. They should focus only on one concrete under it, such as Chinese vegetables.
Here is another pair:
1. There is too much pollution in the world.
2. We have begun to fight pollution in our own neighborhood.
Of course, Number 1 is inadmissible. Students must not think about world problems — that is too vague — only about the dinky concretes in their own backyard. 12 Basic English Skills Practice Book, Orange Level (McDougal, Littell), p. 17.
This sort of exercise has been consciously designed to teach students to be concrete-bound. How are children with such an upbringing ever to deal with or think about problems that transcend Chinese vegetables and their own neighborhood? The implicit answer, absorbed by the students unavoidably, is: “You don’t have to worry about things like that; society or the president will take care of you; all you have to do is adapt.”
Before we leave English, I want to mention what has been happening to the teaching of literature in our schools as a consequence of the attitude toward concepts that we have been discussing. First, there has been the disappearance from the schools of the classics in favor of cheap current novels. The language and themes of the classics are too difficult for today’s students to grasp; one does not teach Shakespeare to savages, or to civilized children being turned into savages. Then, there is the continuous decline even of today’s debased standards. I quote from two English teachers: “Years ago we used to hear that Julius Caesar was too difficult for ninth-graders; now we are told that Lord of the Flies is too hard for the general run of tenth-graders.” Then, there is the final result, now increasingly common: the disappearance of literature of any kind and its replacement by what are called “media classes.” These are classes, in one book’s apt description, that “teach television, newspapers, car-repair magazines, and movies.” 13 Tibbetts, op. cit., pp. 80, 76.
I will pass up all the obvious comments on this frightening descent. I have just one question about it: why should these graduates of TV and car-repair magazines care if the great books of the past are burned by government edict — when they can’t read them anyway?
Turning to the teaching of science in our schools, I want to mention an instructive book written by two professors at Purdue University; titled Creative Sciencing, it tells science teachers how to teach their subject properly. To learn science, the book declares, students must engage in “hands-on science activities.” They must perform a series of concrete “experiments,” such as designing a bug catcher, collecting pictures of objects that begin with a c, going on field trips to the local factory, or finding polluters in the community. (These examples are taken from the book.) There is no necessary order to these activities. The children are encouraged to interact with the classroom materials “in their own way,” as the mood strikes them. They are not to be inhibited by a teacher-imposed structure or by the logic of the subject. 14 Alfred De Vito and Gerald H. Krockover, Creative Sciencing (Little, Brown: 1980), pp. 15, 70, 74, 19.
You may wonder whether students taught in this manner will ever learn the abstract concepts and principles of science, the natural laws and explanatory theories that have been painstakingly discovered across the centuries — the knowledge that makes us civilized men rather than jungle primitives.
The answer has been given by F. James Rutherford, chief education officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “We’re too serious,” he declared. “We insist on all the abstract stuff. We need to relax and let the children learn their own neighborhood.” This statement was made at a meeting of experts brought together by a large foundation to discover what ails science teaching. 15 Quoted in the New York Times, Jan, 31, 1984.
Today’s education, I have said, reduces children to the status of animals, without the ability to know or predict the future. Animals, however, can rely on brute instinct to guide them. Children cannot; brought up this way, they soon begin to feel helpless — to feel that everything is changing and that they can count on nothing.
The above is not merely my polemic. The science teachers are working deliberately to create this state of mind. The teachers are openly skeptical themselves, having been given a similar upbringing, and they insist to their students that everything is changing, that factual information is continuously becoming outdated, and that there are things much more important in class — in science class — than truth. It is hard to believe how brazen these people have become. “When preparing performance objectives,” the Creative Sciencing book says, “you may wish to consider the fact that we don’t demand accuracy in art or creative writing, but we have permitted ourselves to require accuracy in science. We may be paying a high price in lost interest, enthusiasm, vitality, and creativity in science because of this requirement of accuracy.” 16 Op. cit, p. 33.
Our students should not have to be concerned about factual accuracy. They need have no idea whether gases expand or contract under pressure, or whether typhus germs cause or cure disease — but this will leave them free to be “vital” and “creative.”
But, you may ask, what if a student comes out in class with a wrong answer to a factual question? You are old-fashioned. There is no such answer, and besides it would be bad for the student’s psychology if there were: “How many times will a student try to respond to a question if continually told that his or her answers are wrong? Wrong answers should be reserved for quiz shows on television.” 17 Ibid., p. 38.
What then is the point in having a teacher at all? — since there are no wrong answers, and since adults must not be “authoritarian,’’ and since, as John Dewey has proclaimed, students do not learn by listening or by reading, but only by “doing.” This brings me to an extremely important issue, one that is much wider than science teaching.
My overriding impression of today’s schools, derived from every class I visited, is that teachers no longer teach. They no longer deliver prepared material while the students listen attentively and take notes. Instead, what one encounters everywhere is group-talking, i.e., class participation and class discussion. Most of the teachers I saw were enthusiastic professionals, excellent at what they do. But they conceive their role primarily as bull-session moderators. Some of the teachers obviously had a concealed lesson in mind, which they were bootlegging to the students — in the guise of asking leading questions or making brief, purposeful side comments. But the point is that the lesson had to be bootlegged. The official purpose of the class was for the pupils to speak more or less continuously — at any rate, well over half the time.
I asked one group of high school students if their teachers ever delivered lectures in class. “Oh no!” they cried incredulously, as though I had come from another planet or a barbaric past. “No one does that anymore.”
All the arguments offered to defend this anti-teaching approach are senseless.
“Students,” I have heard it said, “should develop initiative; they should discover knowledge on their own, not be spoon-fed by the teachers.” Then why should they go to school at all? Schooling is a process in which an expert is paid to impart his superior knowledge to ignorant beginners. How can this involve shelving the expert and leaving the ignorant to shift for themselves? What would you think of a doctor who told a patient to cure himself because the doctor opposed spoon-feeding?
“Students,” I have heard, “should be creative, not merely passive and receptive.” How can they be creative before they know anything? Creativity does not arise in a void; it can develop only after one has mastered the current cognitive context. A creative ignoramus is a contradiction in terms.
“We teach the method of thought,” I have heard, “rather than the content.” This is the most senseless claim of all. Let us leave aside the obvious fact that method cannot exist apart from some content. The more important point here is that thought is precisely what cannot be taught by the discussion approach. If you want to teach thought, you must first put up a sign at the front of the class: “Children should be seen and not heard.” To be exact: they may be heard as an adjunct of the lesson, if the teacher wishes to probe their knowledge, or answer a question of clarification, or assess their motivation to learn, or entertain a brief comment. But the dominant presence and voice must be that of the teacher, the cognitive expert, who should be feeding the material to the class in a highly purposeful fashion, carefully balancing concretes and abstractions, preparing for and then drawing and then interrelating generalizations, identifying the evidence at each point, etc. These are the processes that must first be absorbed year after year by the student in relation to a whole series of different contents. In the end, such training will jell in his mind into a knowledge of how to think — which he can then apply on his own, without any teacher. But he can never even begin to grasp these processes in the chaotic hullabaloo of a perpetual class discussion with equally ignorant peers.
Have you seen the  television debates among the Democrats seeking to be president? Do you regard these spectacles of arbitrary assertion, constant subject-switching, absurd concrete-boundedness, and brazen ad hominem as examples of thinking? This is exactly the pattern that is being inculcated as thinking today by the class-discussion method.
An educator with any inkling of the requirements of a conceptual consciousness would never dream of running a school this way. But an educator contemptuous of concepts, and therefore of knowledge, would see no objection to it.
In the class discussions I saw, the students were regularly asked to state their own opinion. They were asked it in regard to issues about which they had no idea how to have an opinion, since they had no knowledge of the relevant facts or principles, and no knowledge of the methods of logical argument. Most of the time the students were honest; they had no opinion, in the sense of a sincere, even if mistaken, conviction on the question at hand. But they knew that they were expected to “express themselves.” Time and again, therefore, I heard the following: “I like (or dislike) X.” “Why?” “Because I do. That’s my opinion.” Whereupon the teacher would nod and say “very interesting” or “good point.” Everybody’s point, it seemed, was good, as good as everybody else’s, and reasons were simply irrelevant. The conclusion being fostered in the minds of the class was: “It’s all arbitrary; anything goes and no one really knows.” The result is not only the spread of subjectivism, but of a self-righteous subjectivism, which cannot even imagine what objectivity would consist of.
Project a dozen years of this kind of daily processing. One study of American students notes that they “generally offered superficial comments . . . and consultants observed that they seemed ‘genuinely puzzled at requests to explain or defend their points of view.’” 18 “Are Your Kids Learning to Think?” Changing Times, Dec. 1983; quoting the National Assessment of Educational Progress. What else could anyone expect?
Now let me quote from a New York Times news story.
“I like [Senator Gary Hart’s] ideas,” said Darla Doyle, a Tampa homemaker. “He’s a good man. His ideas are fresher than Mondale’s are. I like the way he comes across.”
A reporter asked Mrs. Doyle to identify the ideas that appealed to her. “That’s an unfair question,” she said, asking for a moment to consider her answer. Then she replied, “He wants to talk with Russia.”
The headline of this story is: “Hart’s Fans Can’t Say Why They Are.” 19 Mar. 9, 1984.
According to John Dewey, students are bored by lectures, but motivated to learn by collective “doing.” Not the ones I saw. Virtually every class was in continuous turmoil, created by students waving their hands to speak, dropping books, giggling, calling out remarks, whispering asides, yawning, fidgeting, shifting, shuffling. The dominant emotion was a painful boredom, which is the sign of minds being mercilessly starved and stunted. Perhaps this explains the magic influence of the bell. The instant it rang, everywhere I went, the room was empty, as though helpless victims were running for their lives from a dread plague. And so in a sense they were.
Ladies and gentlemen, our schools are failing in every subject and on a fundamental level. They are failing methodically, as a matter of philosophic principle. The anti-conceptual epistemology that grips them comes from John Dewey and from all his fellow irrationalists, who dominate twentieth-century American culture, such as linguistic analysts, psychoanalysts, and neo-Existentialists. And behind all these, as I argued in The Ominous Parallels, stands a century of German philosophy inaugurated by history’s greatest villain: Immanuel Kant, the first man to dedicate his life and his system to the destruction of reason.
Epistemological corruption is not the only cause of today’s educational fiasco. There are many other contributing factors, such as the teachers unions, and the senseless requirements of the teachers colleges, and the government bureaucracies (local and federal). But epistemology is the basic cause, without reference to which none of the others can be intelligently analyzed or remedied.
Now let me recount for you two last experiences, which bear on the political implications of today’s educational trend.
One occurred at the most prestigious teacher-training institution in the country, Teachers College of Columbia University.
In my first class there, chosen at random, the professor made the following pronouncement to a group of sixty future teachers: “The evil of the West is not primarily its economic exploitation of the Third World, but its ideological exploitation. The crime of the West was to impose upon the communal culture of Africa the concept of the individual.” I thought I had heard everything, but this shocked me. I looked around. The future teachers were dutifully taking it down; there were no objections.
Despite their talk about “self-expression,” today’s educators have to inculcate collectivism. Man’s organ of individuality is his mind; deprived of it, he is nothing, and can do nothing but huddle in a group as his only hope of survival.
The second experience occurred in a class of juniors and seniors at a high school for the academically gifted. The students had just returned from a visit to the United Nations, where they had met with an official of the Russian delegation, and they were eager to discuss their reactions. The class obviously disliked the Russian, feeling that his answers to their questions about life in Russia had been evasions or lies. But soon someone remarked that we Americans are accustomed to believing what our government says, while the Russians naturally believe theirs. “So how do I know?” he concluded. “Maybe everything is a lie.”
“What is truth?” asked one boy, seemingly quite sincere; the class laughed, as though this were obviously unanswerable.
“Neither side is good,” said another student. “Both countries lie all the time. But the issue is the percentage. What we need to know is how much they lie — is it 99 percent for one, for example, and 82 percent for the other?”
After a lot more of this, including some pretty weak arguments in favor of America by a small patriotic faction, one boy summed up the emerging consensus. “We can never know who is lying or telling the truth,” he said. “The only thing we can know is bare fact. For example, we can know that a Korean airliner was shot down by the Russians [in 1983]. But as to the Russians’ story of the cause vs. our story, that is mere opinion.”
To which one girl replied in all seriousness: “But we can’t even know that — none of us saw the plane shot down.”
This class discussion was the climax of my tour. I felt as though I were witnessing the condensed essence of a perceptual-level schooling. “Thought,” these students were saying, “is helpless, principles are nonexistent, truth is unknowable, and there is, therefore, no way to choose between the United States of America and the bloodiest dictatorship in history, not unless we have seen the blood with our own eyes.”
These youngsters represent the future of our country. They are the children of the best and the brightest, who will become the businessmen, the artists, and the political leaders of tomorrow. Does this kind of generation have the strength — the intellectual strength, the strength of conviction — necessary to uphold the American heritage in an era dominated by incipient Big Brothers at home and missile-rattling enemies abroad?
It is not the students’ fault, and they do not fully believe the awful things they say, not yet. The ones I saw, at every school except for Columbia — and here I want to register some positive impressions — were extremely likable. For the most part, they struck me as clean-cut, well-mannered, exuberant, intelligent, innocent. They were not like the typical college student one meets, who is already hardening into a brash cynic or skeptic. These youngsters, despite all their doubts and scars, still seemed eager to discover some answers, albeit sporadically. They were still clinging to vestiges of the idea that man’s mind can understand reality and make sense of the world.
They are still open to reason — if someone would teach it to them.
Nor is it basically the teachers’ fault. The ones I saw were not like the college professors I know, who reek of stale malice and delight in wrecking their students’ minds. The teachers seemed to take their jobs seriously; they genuinely liked their classes and wanted to educate them. But given the direction of their own training, they were unable to do it.
There is a whole generation of children who still want to learn, and a profession much of which wants to help them, to say nothing of a country that devoutly wishes both groups well. Everything anyone would need to save the world is there, it is waiting, and all that is required to activate it is . . . what?
Merit pay? First we need a definition of merit, i.e., of the purpose of teaching. More classes in the use of computers? We have enough children who know FORTRAN but not English. Compulsory community service? (A recommendation of the Carnegie Commission.) Prayer in the schools? (President Reagan’s idea of a solution.)
All these are the equivalent of sticking Band-Aids on (or in the last two cases knives into) a dying man. The only real solution, which is a precondition of any other reform, is a philosophic change in our culture. We need a philosophy that will teach our colleges — and thereby our schoolteachers, and thus finally our youngsters — an abiding respect, a respect for reason, for man’s mind, for the conceptual level of consciousness. That is why I subscribe to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Hers is the only such philosophy in America today. It could be the wonder cure that would revive a generation.
The National Committee on Excellence in Education declared, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” 20 Quoted in the New York Times, Apr. 27, 1983. Intellectually speaking, however, we are under the yoke of a foreign power. We are under the yoke of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and all their disciples. What we need now is another Declaration of Independence — not political independence from England this time, but philosophical independence from Germany.
To achieve it would be a monumental job, which would take many decades. As part of the job, I want to recommend one specific step to improve our schools: close down the teachers colleges.
There is no rational purpose to these institutions (and so they do little but disseminate poisonous ideas). Teaching is not a skill acquired through years of classes; it is not improved by the study of “psychology” or “methodology” or any of the rest of the stuff the schools of education offer. Teaching requires only the obvious: motivation, common sense, experience, a few good books or courses on technique, and, above all, a knowledge of the material being taught. Teachers must be masters of their subject; this — not a degree in education — is what school boards should demand as a condition of employment.
This one change would dramatically improve the schools. If experts in subject matter were setting the terms in the classroom, some significant content would have to reach the students, even given today’s dominant philosophy. In addition, the basket cases who know only the Newspeak of their education professors would be out of a job, which would be another big improvement.
This reform, of course, would be resisted to the end by today’s educational establishment, and could hardly be achieved nationally without a philosophic change in the country. But it gives us a starting point to rally around that pertains specifically to the field of education. If you are a parent or a teacher or merely a concerned taxpayer, you can start the battle for quality in education by demanding loudly — even in today’s corrupt climate — that the teachers your school employs know what they are talking about, and then talk about it.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . .” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “it expects what never was and never will be.” 21 The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, “Freedom and Education,” p. 274.
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.
And then we may once again have a human future ahead of us.
Citations & Notes
- 1 Quoted in USA Today, Aug. 12, 1983.
- 2 Dec. 12, 1983.
- 3 Quoted in the New York Times, Apr. 27, 1983.
- 4 The New York Times, Apr. 18, 1983; the professor is Hazel Hertzberg.
- 5 Benjamin J. Stein, “The Cheerful Ignorance of the Young in L.A.,” Oct. 3, 1983.
- 6 Pose Lamb, Linguistics in Proper Perspective (Charles E. Merrill: 1977, 2nd ed.), p. 29.
- 7 Dolores Durkin, Strategies for Identifying Words, p. 83; quoted in Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read (Harper Colophon: 1983), p. 81.
- 8 Dixie Lee Spiegel, in Reading Teacher, April 1978; quoted in Flesch, op. cit., p. 24.
- 9 Lamb, op. cit., p. 19.
- 10 From Students’ Right to Their Own Language, Conference on College Composition and Communication, Fall 1974; quoted in Arn and Charlene Tibbetts, What’s Happening to American English? (Scribner’s: 1978), p. 118.
- 11 See College English, Feb. 1976, p. 631; quoted in Tibbetts, op. cit., p. 119.
- 12 Basic English Skills Practice Book, Orange Level (McDougal, Littell), p. 17.
- 13 Tibbetts, op. cit., pp. 80, 76.
- 14 Alfred De Vito and Gerald H. Krockover, Creative Sciencing (Little, Brown: 1980), pp. 15, 70, 74, 19.
- 15 Quoted in the New York Times, Jan, 31, 1984.
- 16 Op. cit., p. 33.
- 17 Ibid., p. 38.
- 18 “Are Your Kids Learning to Think?” Changing Times, Dec. 1983; quoting the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
- 19 Mar. 9, 1984.
- 20 Quoted in the New York Times, Apr. 27, 1983.
- 21 The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, “Freedom and Education,” p. 274.