When I started teaching in the late 1960s there were still unresolved issues between “traditional teachers” and “progressive educators”. Traditional teachers usually held academic degrees in particular disciplines; like history, literature, math or chemistry. Progressives typically held degrees in “education”.
With regard to the curriculum, the two camps differed over the relative importance of “what to teach” and “how to teach.” The traditionalists focused on the content of the lesson. Progressives professed to be interested in how students learn. Traditionalists commonly used direct instruction and Socratic discourse. Progressives sought to organize “cooperative learning experiences” that were to produce “critical thinking” skills.
Over the years, serious academics on both sides of the political spectrum, claimed that progressive teaching practices dumbed down the curriculum and emptied the content of the humanities. For whatever reason, academic standards over the last half century tumbled faster than a Soviet gymnast on steroids and the spirit of open-ended, rational inquiry sunk to an all time low. Over the same period political consciousness among students rose to 18th century revolutionary levels. Teachers’ unions became more radical and more partisan. We aligned with left-wing political parties from which we won higher salaries. We sought graduate degrees from progressive education faculties; which qualified us for even higher salaries and influential positions in the educational establishment. By the end of the 1970s we had transformed teaching from a low-paying, rather prestigious, “vocation” to a relatively well-paid, adversarial “mission”.
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“That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories. Some say that our schools by themselves are powerless to change the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. I do not agree. They can break the cycle, but only if they themselves break fundamentally with some of the theories and practices that education professors and school administrators have followed over the past fifty years.” E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Cultural Literacy (1988)
In the late 1980’s E.D. Hirsch Jr’s poignant observations about the general decline of “cultural literacy” became part of an ongoing debate about the quality, methods and purposes of schools. Hirsch’s controversial book on the subject underscored the fact that generations of contending educational reformers have either looked backward to sounder practices from “the good old days” or forward to what many believed to be liberation from the “dead hand of tradition.”
Most of us who have spent time in the education business, have to acknowledge that so-called “new discoveries” by “best practitioners” in education have beaten back the defenders of form and content in the traditional classroom. For some time, almost every purveyor of one form of “social justice” after another have found willing allies among progressive school teachers. Today, the fragmented curriculum, referred to by Hirsch in the nineteen eighties, remains a collection of disconnected subjects and technocratic skill sets. Unfortunately, people tend to applaud a familiar tune and a persistent culture of approval among unquestioning stakeholders has been supporting educational practices whose value has long since passed. If Canadians are to have any chance of reestablishing schools as serious centers of teaching and learning parents and citizens must first endeavor to understand how schools came to be the way they are.
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This article was developed as a proposal for a Ph. D. thesis at the Faculty of Education, McGill University. It was published in Discourse, The St. Lawrence Institute, Winter, 1994.
In 1975 I published an article entitled “Some Reflections on Canadian Education” in the History and Social Science Teacher. I argued then that Canada had never produced an indigenous philosophy of education but had accepted imported ideas, first from Europe and later from the United States.
I pointed out that, by the late nineteenth century, the classical curriculum of the British grammar school, imported in the early years of colonial North America, gave way to the ideas of European social revolutionaries like Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Herbart and Froebels. These philosophers changed our perception of the school’s purpose, slowly eroding the traditional concentration on formal literacy and the acquisition of knowledge, and giving way to an increasing concern with the methods of teaching and the interests of the child.
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