How Progressive, Really, Is “Progressive”?
Abstract theories are more the subject of university than of grade school education. The effect of those theories, however, is widely apparent even in teaching at the grade school level.
There are few areas in life so susceptible to dogmatism — indeed, even to bigotry and the denunciation of alien views as “heresies”—than child education. And there are few dogmas so persistent as the belief in a child’s “natural” wisdom. This belief is somewhat akin to Rousseau’s “noble savage,” an imaginary creature if ever there was one, but one in whom many people fervently believed.
Yes, of course children sometimes display astonishing insights. Most of us have marveled at the depth of understanding revealed by them. “Natural man,” too, because of his very lack of sophistication, knows many things that become lost in the civilizing process. There is much indeed that both primitive peoples and children have to teach us. But this state of affairs stops far short of the next point many adults like to make — namely, that children ought to determine what they themselves need to learn.
“Progressive” education, as it was named several decades ago, has been in many ways a step away from order and common sense, and toward chaos.
I don’t intend to deal here with the issue of discipline vs. permissiveness, though that is certainly one problem that permissive education raises. But what I want to emphasize is how important to the term “progressive” is the simple concept, progression.
It seems obvious that the learning process should take one from somewhere to something: from relative ignorance to relative understanding. One can’t begin with the poetic assumption that it is the adult, really, who needs educating, though it’s the sort of statement that draws approving nods around a campfire.
I heard a popular writer once address a large audience with the statement, “I don’t know what I’m doing up here [on the platform]. You all should be up here teaching me! And I should be down there, listening to you.”
“Come off it!” I thought. “If you really mean what you’re saying, why don’t you just get down here with the rest of us and have done with it?” He was posturing, merely; he knew he was committed to being up there. For one thing, he was being paid to speak.
We all know, of course — if we aren’t too lost in our dogmas — that the child will sooner or later have to study the “three rs” (“‘readin’, ‘ritin’, an’ ‘rithmetic”). Children aren’t born with this knowledge. In the field of moral, religious, and social values, however, the coast is clear for complete dominance by the “progressive” method of education.
“We don’t want to impose our own values on our children!” goes the cry. “Children know what is right for them. Let them decide what they should believe.” Does this mean, then, that all belief systems are matters of mere conjecture? Well, no; no one says that. To believe in the “belief systems” of science, for example, is acceptable. But why not, then, in the findings of people who are known to have lived their lives wisely?
Many interesting “laws of life” have appeared in recent times: Murphy’s Law, Parkinson’s Law, and the Peter Principle, to name a few. In keeping with this pleasant tradition I’d like (tongue-in-cheek) to propose another law called “Walters’ Law of Dogmatic Proliferation”—my little “float,” as it were, in the parade: The weight of dogmatism increases in inverse proportion to that of the evidence people offer in its support.
It is in the less fact-centered subjects that dogmatism proliferates, a proliferation that sometimes reaches the point of outright fanaticism. We find the fanaticism most pronounced in politics and religion, but education comes in a close third. Rousseau’s “noble savage” has been replaced in modern educational theories by the “noble child.” The only strong discouragement such a child receives from following his own “natural” bent is, I understand, a sign that is posted in many high school corridors: “No guns. No drugs.”
Meanwhile, man’s ethical development fails increasingly to keep abreast of his scientific advancement. At present, the human race stands in imminent danger of bombing itself back to the caves — or to heaven, or wherever.
Are our children really qualified to teach us the secrets we need to know for our survival as a species? That little toddler whom we may imagine lisping pleadingly, “Mommy, please, please love Daddy! Oh, Daddy, please give Mommy a kiss!” may indeed have chalked up some small victory for international peace, but his victory is just as likely to receive a setback a few moments later, when he screams at his little sister, “Give me back my toy!”
Imagining children to be already fully aware regarding basic issues of behavior and belief, we let them grow up without guidance in these crucial matters. Later on in life, we may wonder why so many of them remain emotionally immature and without faith in anything or anyone.
The very educative process, especially in high school and college, is so directed as to strip a child of any faith he may once have had.
For example, one of the dogmas of modern thought, presented with smug self-satisfaction in the university classrooms as a sign of the teacher’s “objectivity,” is the belief, supposedly drawn from science, that life has no meaning. This message is presented subtly, of course, but our youths get the message, and it filters down even to the youngsters in grade school. The evolution of man, they learn, is the product of a long series of “sports” of nature. Everything is relative, moreover: moral values, spiritual “verities,” political systems.
Says who? Not Einstein, certainly.
Einstein himself wasn’t thinking of these things when he proclaimed the speed of light as the only “absolute” in physics. Philosophers, however, quickly applied Einsteinian relativity to moral and spiritual values also. It was one thing for a physicist to relate material phenomena to the constant speed of light, but quite another for philosophers, claiming physics as their justification, to claim that, all things being relative, no absolute truths exist. What kind of thinking is this? The physicist has at least something as a constant. Philosophers of relativity have given us nothing.
In line with this new thinking, children are taught that evolution is not progressive, since there is nowhere for it to progress to; that it might just as easily, in other words, have reached an alternative pinnacle in some kind of mammalian dinosaur, stupid but invincible, as it did in the present rulers of the earth, the human race. As one psychologist put it rhetorically, “Has mankind evolved more in producing a brain than the elephant in producing a trunk?” To that writer the answer was self-evident: No.
With all the modern emphasis on meaninglessness, the best we seem to have been able to give our children has been the conviction that there is no real purpose to anything, so they may as well fend for themselves. (Why should we do the fending for them? Of course, we must dress that thought up in elegant clothing. “Give them the freedom,” we say, “to fend for themselves.”) This is an intellectual dogma of our times, and the dogmatism with which its proponents declare it increases, as I’ve said, in direct proportion to their inability to convert people of common sense to their view. But we mustn’t be too surprised if, in consequence, our children retaliate in anger against this supposed state of affairs.
A growing child needs faith just as urgently as he needs air to breathe. When he is stripped of his last vestige of faith, his disillusionment transforms itself into a desire for vengeance against those who have deprived him of something so precious to his very existence.
Teachers talk long and patiently about the need for objectivity. But is it objectivity their pupils actually acquire in the process? They are taught to sneer at subjectivity as a mark of bias and emotionalism (“We mustn’t make ‘value judgments’”), but how much has really been accomplished in the process? After doing their best to deny their own emotions, they find those emotions surfacing in wholly irrational ways.
That delightful children’s fantasy, The Never-Ending Story, makes an important point: When fantasy is suppressed, it resurfaces in the form of lies. Emotions suppressed, similarly, reduce a person’s ability to cope realistically with life.
What then? Surely it is time we kept scientific abstraction in its place, and recognized that there are other rooms in this house of earthly experience that need furnishing also. I don’t at all mean to drive science out of the building: Its place is important. But let us keep science, and the scientific method, in their proper place, and not invite them to decide everything that goes on in the other rooms.
It is axiomatic, surely, that our children’s upbringing ought to be progressive, in the sense of leading them somewhere. Where, then, should it lead? Leaving abstractions aside, isn’t the simple, obvious, most basic answer this: to lead them from immaturity to maturity? Isn’t the attainment of maturity what growing up is really all about?
If so, then it becomes necessary to ask ourselves, What is maturity?
For an answer, let me offer you another law, “The Maturity Principle”: Maturity is the ability to relate appropriately to other realities than one’s own.
Immaturity is self-evidently displayed in the opposite kind of behavior. Immaturity is a little child throwing a temper tantrum in a public mall because he can’t get what he wants. Children discover as they grow up that life isn’t always disposed to comply with their wishes. The process of growing up is one of learning to “play the odds”—to adapt to situations as they are, and not as one wishes they were. Immature people typically decry such adaptation as “compromise,” though the compromise need be no greater than Edison’s was to the necessity for conducting thousands of experiments to find a filament that could light an incandescent bulb.
Many people learn to dissemble their frustration when their hopes are disappointed, but not many learn how to banish frustration altogether. They mature a little, but not much, beyond the child with his temper tantrums. Much might have been accomplished during the time they were growing up to cure them of this infantilism. Instead, the very dogmas of our times feed their immaturity instead of curing it.
Not long ago, during an economic recession in Detroit, many hundreds of workers had to be laid off. A considerable number of them were given psychiatric counseling to help them adjust to their predicament. There were too many such cases, however, to make this counseling available to everyone. Interestingly, it turned out that those who were given counseling had a notably more difficult time adjusting to their new circumstances than those who were given none.
How to explain these unexpected results? The report said that the “beneficiaries” of counseling were hindered from simply getting on with it. Instead, they were encouraged to dwell on their predicament, to “see it objectively,” and to consider various theoretical means of coping with it. Those who missed the opportunity for counseling wasted no time in theorizing about their misfortune, and set themselves instead to simply doing what had to be done to rebuild their lives.
Maturity is not a finishing line reached automatically at a certain age. It is a continuous — even a never-ending — process. Who, indeed, may claim that there are no levels of reality to which he still needs to learn to relate? Who knows where our ultimate horizons lie? We sail toward an ever-receding horizon of awareness until at last it turns out to be a complete circle, expanding outward to infinity.
This book is directed toward helping children to find their way progressively toward maturity. My assumption throughout, then, is that maturity is a basic goal for all human beings. It is not the goal only of formal education. Education for life continues throughout all the years of our lives.