70 Years Ago Schools Were Already Sabotaged

Bruce Deitrick Price

April 1, 2024

This column is Episode 143 of LET’S FIX EDUCATION, a podcast by Bruce Deitrick Price. His literary site is Lit4u.com. (Poetry-lovers would enjoy his epic poem, Theoryland, about a young professor who wants to conquer academia. It’s a tragi-comedy.)

70 Years Ago, Schools Were Already Sabotaged

By Bruce Deitrick Price

The 1950s saw a dozen books that explained our educational decline, such as Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955), Quackery in the Public Schools (1953). And my personal favorite. Retreat from Learning: Why Teachers Can’t Teach by Joan Dunn in 1955.

Dunn was smart, tough, loved teaching, loved her kids; but after about three years in the Brooklyn school system, gave up and wrote a book to explain her exit. Schools had become progressively detached from reality; effective teaching was almost impossible. Here are her words from her book:

“The city high-school teacher…is overwhelmed first and foremost by the theory of progressive education, the classroom application of the philosophy of John Dewey. This man who changed the face of education died in 1952 at the age of 93.”

“This doctrine can be applied in schools today in the following manner: a child is not censored for cheating on the exam because if he did not cheat he would surely fail; the failure would separate him from his companions, and it is more important that he remain with his age group than master his studies — or be honest.”

“I loved the children. I loved them in this way: I wanted to teach them to speak and read and write properly, and I wanted to give them values as well, have them think about honor, justice, truth, freedom….I felt the necessity, the urgency, of teaching them, and so I went to school again myself to learn how to do it in the best possible way. But graduate school did not consider my problem a problem at all. I listened with amazement and finally with dismay, as professors and students told the wonders of public-school teaching today…”

“The whole school system is geared to the problem child. He is petted, excused, and studied out of all proportion. He is the man of the hour, he knows it; he is conscious of his nuisance value and uses it to the fullest. He is the center of the school, the basic unit with whom all must work. I think that many children made themselves problem children simply because they saw how important they could become…”

“Further, the children suffer academically because learning is neglected, and the time that should have been devoted to school work in reading, writing, thinking, and speaking is given over to chatter. Nobody knows this better than the children. They want to be taught step by step, so that they can see their progress. The duller they are, the more important and immediate is this need.”

“What goes on in the mind of a child when it comes to school to learn and is greeted by a teacher who rhapsodizes, you teach me. Tell me of your wonderful and vital experiences…Do not think of this as a class. This is a wishing well. I am not a teacher. I am a buddy. We are all pals together, so tell me all.”

“Everything is done in a group. The child loses his identity and his responsibility for himself. Praise is group praise; blame is group blame.”

“Educators are still undecided about the best way to teach the alphabet. They go through agonies because two and two equal four and a way must be found to teach that disturbing fact without mentioning numbers.”

“Current pedagogical philosophy affirms that teachers can do no more than hint at the wealth of youth’s cultural inheritance, and if shy references provoke no interest, it is the teachers who must adjust their interests, revise their questions. All that a teacher might know about science, language, or literature must be squeezed into the narrow confines of an adolescent life. If it does not fit, the life is not to be expanded, but the culture is to be contracted.”

“The best teachers in the world could never make progressivism anything more than it basically is–a snare and a delusion.”

SUMMING UP:  if our Education Establishment consisted of a thousand like Joan Dunn, and not the barbarian horde we are stuck with, our public schools would be doing just fine.

Dunn’s assertion “They want to be taught step-by-step,” is for my money the biggest profundity in education. The professors prefer the opposite approach, where you create a big blob that will terminally confuse everyone.

Historical note: Russia experimented with progressive education from 1920-1932. Finding it useless and destructive, the Russians excised it from their country, but encouraged it in the USA!  Communist Russia was probably Dewey’s biggest admirer. We remain his biggest dupes. Simply by degrading educational philosophy, the progressives rendered education null and void.

Book’s full title is: “Retreat From Learning: Why Teachers Can’t Teach.” Available on Archive.org.


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