Schoolhouse Rocks Rots

Reflections on Educational Decay from a Former Public High School Teacher (Part 1)

In our local newspaper there has been extensive coverage of this year’s schoolboard elections and the numerous newcomers running on a platform of “reform.” What used to be a mundane aspect of local civic life has been charged with national political rhetoric and talking points, and schoolboards have become battlegrounds across the country. While it is good that interest and concern regarding education is increasing, calls for reform and policy change are unlikely to improve the status quo very much until the foundational assumptions built into the system are rooted out. The rot is deep. This isn’t the age of schoolhouse rocks, but schoolhouse rots.

For thirteen years I taught history and coached sports in the public school system. I was a department chair and on numerous committees. The educational problems becoming more evident today go much deeper—down to foundational assumptions about humanity and reality itself that have been woven into the warp and woof of the educational system. What many people are waking up to is rotten fruit from the withering vine of progressive education. For more than a century, it has grown in the unfertile and contaminated soil of faulty ideas about the nature of the human person and of truth and the nature of God and of the universe. And when the fruit is rotten and the tree is decayed, it’s time to find another tree—and better soil.

In Part 1 of this series, I’ll offer some root causes for the educational rot we are seeing. In Part 2, I’ll provide some recent trends and examples of educational rot. Then, in Part 3, we’ll take note of the growth in educational alternatives and what that might mean for the future.

Constructivism Breaks Down Universal Meaning

Today’s public education system finds its roots in a mixture of philosophies that aren’t true to reality. At the risk of oversimplification, modern education assumes the following: humans are inherently good, but corrupted by the structures of society (á la Jean-Jacques Rousseau), which means education should be structured to allow the goodness of students to shine through (á la Maria Montessori). Self-expression and actualization are achieved through socialization and collaboration, so that democratic society can evolve and progress (á la John Dewey).

Rousseau, Montessori, Dewey and other theorists with similar views of human nature and truth figure prominently in teacher education programs. These are the thinkers who, as Thomas Korcok explains in his recent book Serpents in the Classroom, “hold sway in today’s colleges of education” and are some of the “most commonly studied educationalists” (7).

Perhaps the term that best encapsulates the essence of modern education is constructivism. As any basic internet search of the term reveals, colleges of education draw heavily—almost exclusively—on this theory. During my time completing a master’s degree in education, there were no significant challenges or alternatives to constructivism. Modern approaches to teaching are built on the idea that “people actively construct or make their own knowledge, and that reality is determined by your experiences as a learner.” Or, as another college of education puts it, “as people experience the world and reflect upon those experiences, they build their own representations and incorporate new information into their pre-existing knowledge (schemas).”

This has downstream effects on the art and practice of teaching, as colleges of education are eager to point out: “Because knowledge cannot be directly imparted to students, the goal of teaching is to provide experiences that facilitate the construction of knowledge….Only an experience can facilitate students to construct their own knowledge. Therefore, the goal of teaching is to design these experiences.”

To be fair, there is a sense in which constructivist theory makes an important point. Yes, students do construct a world-picture to “make meaning” out of what they are learning, and their culture and schooling play a large role in shaping that process. Educational theorist Jerome Bruner explains in The Culture of Education that “culture shapes the mind ... it provides us with the toolkit by which we construct not only our worlds but our very conception of ourselves and our powers” (x).

But there is an actual, objective world of truth and meaning that such constructions should tap into and reflect. And herein lies the real problem: constructivism functions on the presupposition that there is no objective truth or transcendent reality to ground such things. It assumes that we are, as education professor Marcia Magolda summarizes, “in a relativistic world,” one in which “people construct, or organize, meaning.” Hence, constructivism untethers knowledge from reality or anything outsides of ourselves.

This is where the educational world constructed by constructivism ultimately deconstructs. Insofar as modern educational philosophies assume too much regarding human nature and too little regarding the brokenness of the world, education’s primary goal becomes fostering the outward expression of the inner self and the construction of one’s own reality.

But this is self-defeating. If everything is a construction of the human will and internal self, why bother with the educational process in the first place? If education is not rooted in absolute and transcendent principles, it really serves no purpose. We end up selling our birthright of truth, goodness, and beauty for a mess of self-constructed pottage. As David Hicks explains in Norms and Nobility, constructivist “child centered education produces the exact opposite of an educated person: a self-centered adult” (39).

Neutral Education Debases Truth Claims

Constructivism is not a neutral theory. It assumes certain things about truth, reality, and knowledge. “While the educational community portrays these [theories] as atheological,” Korcok reminds us, “there is, in reality, no such thing. Everyone has a theology, even if it is a denial of the existence of the divine. While the educational community may choose to ignore the theological views that shaped their pedagogy, the Christian cannot. Without sound Christian doctrine, one is not without theology, but simply at the mercy of theologies invented by limited…human beings” (8).

As I’ve argued in Salvo’s pages previously, the idea that public education is neutral is a farce. This is because teachers attempting to be neutral in their classrooms are actually sending a strong message that truth doesn’t matter and that it is relative to each person’s lived experience.

Students have been learning this lesson all too well for years. Back in 1987, Allan Bloom wrote his definitive study of higher education entitled, The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom quipped, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative” (25). Bloom made no exaggeration, and his claim held true for decades, as surveys have shown time and again. Even back in 2002, a Barna survey revealed that an alarming 83 percent of teenagers believed moral truth depends on the circumstances, while only a paltry 6 percent said moral truth is absolute.

Not only do attempts at neutral education undermine objective truth, public education’s cloak of neutrality advances anything but neutral ideas. This happens in countless small ways, as well as in serious and significant ways. For one, even if a teacher attempts to be neutral, their biases and opinions still are at work behind the scenes in how issues are framed, in what information is included or excluded, in what perspectives are privileged or prohibited in the classroom, and in in the selection of textbooks and curricular resources that are used.

In Part 2 of this series, we will explore some recent examples and trends that reveal how public education propagates progressive assumptions and how the mechanisms of cultural production are hidden deep within the bowels of bureaucracy, making them hard to resist or even notice. Then we will conclude in Part 3 by considering some educational alternatives.

is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.

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