About a week ago, I was wasting time browsing articles on aldaily.com, and I happened to stumble across a link to Hannah Arendt’s 1954 article “The Crisis in Education.” I’ve had a minor a fascination with Arendt since finally getting around to reading Eichmann in Jerusalem a couple of years ago (and discovering that “the banality of evil” doesn’t quite mean what it’s usually understood to mean), and I had no idea that she had ever written about education in the United States.

It was with considerable curiosity that I began to peruse the piece, and what I discovered was the single most lucid and insightful critique of progressive education I’ve encountered. Not that critiques of progressive education are exactly found in abundance these days — when was the last time a major newspaper ran an education piece that didn’t breathlessly describe some innovative revolt against boring lecturers and “rote learning?” And when critiques do come, they tend to be from people so unpopular and heavily entrenched in the “reform” movement (ahem, Eva Moskowitz) that they have little if any credibility with the wider educational community. 

If you are so inclined, I would highly recommend you take the time to read Arendt’s piece. It’s not particularly long or dense (albeit by the standards of philosophy), and regardless of your stance on these issues, it’s certainly thought-provoking. Somehow, though, I strongly doubt that it is considered required reading at most schools of education!

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have more than a few bones to pick with progressive education, both in theory and in practice.

To be clear, I do not deny that there is a select group of students who come through progressive programs entirely unscathed and even highly successful. Usually, though, those students are either extraordinarily focused and self-driven from a young age; and/or have very highly educated parents (sometimes supplemented by tutors) who transmit to them at home much of the knowledge other students must acquire at school.

Likewise, I am not categorically opposed to the judicious use of quintessential progressive techniques such as projects and group work; implemented carefully and in moderation, they can provide necessary variety and exposure to different perspectives.

However, as a governing systemic principle, I find absurd the notion that children should be responsible for directing their own learning; that teachers should seek to be “guides on the side” rather than offer anything so heavy-handed and creativity-destroying as direct instruction; and that if all the adults simply got out of the way and allowed nature to take its course, children would somehow just “catch” all the knowledge they need.

Children, being children, don’t know what they don’t know and lack the perspective to anticipate what sort of knowledge they will eventually need to navigate the adult world.

As someone who spent years being repeatedly called in to directly teach material that teachers assumed their students would imbibe naturally, I can state with a high degree of confidence that progressive education is one area in which theory and reality do not generally converge. 

One can only encounter a certain number of students who can rhapsodize about the beauty of education yet be alarmingly lacking in basic skill sets (writing consistently coherent sentences, for example) without wondering whether something might be amiss. 

A significant part of the problem is an ideology that conflates what is “natural” with what is good, and what children want and enjoy with what is best for them in the long term. Excitement over a project or the feeling that one is learning in the moment do not automatically translate into enduring knowledge. 

That is not to say that things that are good for children must necessarily be unpleasant, or that the quasi-militaristic “no excuses” model currently embodied by a certain category of charter school should serve as a model for education. One extreme should not be implemented as the solution to another. 

It is, however, to say that an education system that considers keeping students happy to be among its chief aims, and that holds play up as its highest ideal does a serious disservice. Not only does it aim to stifle the normal spectrum of experiences — some good, some bad, some thrilling, some tedious — that children must learn to grapple with as part of life, but it ultimately  has the effect of keeping children children.

As Arendt explains:

The very thing that should prepare the child for the world of adults, the gradually acquired habit of work and of not-playing, is done away with in favor of the autonomy of the world of childhood.

Whatever may be the connection between doing and knowing, or whatever the validity of the pragmatic formula, its application to education, that is, to the way the child learns, tends to make absolute the world of childhood…Here, too, under the pretext of respecting the child’s independence, he is debarred from the world of grown-ups and artificially kept in his own; so far as that can be called a world.

If it is unfair to punish children for failing to make appropriate progress toward “college readiness,” then it is equally unfair not to prepare them, in an age-appropriate manner, for the fact that learning is not always entertaining and does not always result in immediate gratification. 

And although progressive educators rely heavily on claims of authenticity: 

This holding back of the child is artificial because it breaks off the natural relationship between grown-ups and children, which consists among other things in teaching and learning, and because at the same time it belies the fact that the child is a developing human being, that childhood is a temporary stage, a preparation for adulthood.

This irony is that this distortion results from the desire to protect children – and children, of course, need protection. But it is also based on a naive, romanticized view of children and of childhood. Children do not live on Mars, and the desire to protect them from some even the more banally unpleasant realities of the world has more to do with adult fantasies and anxieties than it does with children’s actual needs. 

I suspect that many propagators of progressive ideals, looking back on their own childhoods, imagine that had they been left to their own devices and not forced to sit through all those boring hours of class, they would still have arrived in the same place as adults, with all the same knowledge.

It does not seem to occur to them that perhaps the depth of their adult knowledge is in some way related to occasional bouts of academic unpleasantness, or that perhaps they were only able to acquire some of their present knowledge because another person directly taught it to them. Having acquired their own educations through reasonably traditional means, they fail to perceive the connection between the manner of its acquisition and their present situation. 

So fully do they take their knowledge for granted that they forget that at some point they did not know it; consequently, they cannot imagine that it is even necessary to teach. (Indeed, one of the primary challenges in training novice tutors is conveying to them the extent of the chasm between what they consider self-evident and what actually needs to be taught.)

But there are, I think, deeper forces at work here as well. Arendt links the shifting of responsibility from teacher to student to a more generalized crisis of authority – not in the sense that students resist it, but rather that the adults are themselves intensely uncomfortable with holding it. 

Arendt summarizes the problem thus:

Children cannot throw off educational authority, as though they were in a position of oppression by an adult majority– though even this absurdity of treating children as an oppressed minority in need of liberation has actually been tried out in modern educational practice. Authority has been discarded by the adults, and this can mean only one thing: that the adults refuse to assume responsibility for the world into which they have brought the children…

[M]odern man could find no clearer expression for his dissatisfaction with the world, for his disgust with things as they are, than by his refusal to assume, in respect to his children, responsibility for all this. It is as though parents daily said: “In this world even we are not very securely at home; how to move about in it, what to know, what skills to master, are mysteries to us too. You must try to make out as best you can; in any case you are not entitled to call us to account. We are innocent, we wash our hands of you.”

Keep in mind that Arendt wrote these words even before the sixties happened; the crisis has deepened substantially since then.

I would even go so far as to suggest that resistance to directly instructing children reveals not only an adult desire to evade responsibility for the adult world, but also a desire on the part of adults to remain children themselves.

Considering the current state of American society, this is an entirely reasonable reaction. If the rewards of adulthood have become so diminished – a struggle for work, for health care, for housing – who indeed would want to become an adult at all?