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Are Progressive Educators the Villains?

So much has been written about the many causes of the lackluster performance of schools in this country.  But too little attention has been paid to the absence of emphasis on the teaching of knowledge.  Whether that omission can be laid solely on progressive educators is debatable.  Nevertheless, I think it's worthwhile taking a closer look at the issue ("Curriculum Is the Cure," City Journal, Dec. 13).

When I began teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1964, I was taken aback by the contrast between the English classes of my generation and the English classes of the day.  Instead of focusing on the traditional goals of reading, vocabulary, and writing, the new thinking was child-centered.  There was no longer absolute knowledge.  Instead, students were allowed to construct their own knowledge.

I realize that English is not a science, with only a right or wrong answer.  Professional movie critics, for example, often differ dramatically after viewing the same film.  But that does not mean no rules apply in judging their writing.  Yet teachers were told not to insist on set standards out of fear that students would be creatively harmed.  As a result, the curriculum became a mishmash of high-blown but meaningless phrases. Teaching grammar, for example, was considered totally counterproductive. 

At about the same time, relevance became the mantra.  Students complained they were bored because they saw no connection between what was taught and their lives.  That ruled out classic literature, since it dealt with different times in history.  Never mind that there were eternal truths to be learned.  Teachers were told that students would read what they wanted when they wanted. Forget about teaching anything by Shakespeare.  It was a total waste of time.

Was progressive education the villain?  Although the rise of child-centered pedagogy roughly took place over the same time span that test scores happened to fall, that does not convincingly make the case against the progressives because correlation is not causation.  But certainly, what happened was a significant change from the past.  To a large extent, we are paying the price.  I no longer know what a high school diploma means.  In fact, I raised this point in an op-ed published in The Korea Times ("Counterfeit high school diplomas," Dec. 13).

Students go to school to learn.  I realize that not all learning is restricted to traditional subjects, but by downplaying their importance, we shortchange students.


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