“Strong evidence is emerging that we are mostly succeeding in creating a generation of overwhelmed young people paralyzed into learned helplessness.”
Robert Pondiscio of the American Enterprise Institute provides this harrowing conclusion. He spelled out the supporting logic in a recent article in Commentary magazine with the compelling title, “The Unbearable Bleakness of American Schooling.”
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A Bleak Picture, Indeed
Two forces working against each other dominate most modern schools.
The first is the testing regime. As achievement declined, the education bureaucracy reacted with increased standardized testing. Soon, test strategies became a significant focus in many schools to measure progress.
However, other voices recommended a contrary strategy. They argued that the real problem lay in the children’s mental states. Children in emotional distress, they argued, were ill-prepared to learn. Thus, the testing regime only provided children with another sense of failure. A new crop of “student advocates” say that schools become therapeutic communities where fostering wellbeing trumps the search for knowledge.
The sources of anxiety are not lacking. COVID, new developments of the sexual revolution, and Critical Theory provide the “advocates” with unlimited ammunition to promote their programs. The result is a school system that focuses on students’ problems—both actual and potential. Mr. Pondiscio coined an apt term for it, “the pedagogy of the depressed.”
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Accentuating the Negative
Schools provide boundless opportunities for students to express their depression. English Composition class encourages students to expound their problems, the more harrowing, the better. To help them understand that they are not alone, many literature classes often feature graphic “honest stories” about young people who face similar problems.
Environmental issues—especially “climate change”—are prominent features in many science classes. Narratives of “oppressors and the oppressed” increasingly dominate history instruction. A new wave of “action civics” focuses on the students’ responsibilities to help “save the world.” Health classes can focus on LGBTQ+ advocacy, with every student expected to join. Even mathematics instruction must become “anti-racist.”
As if this wasn’t enough, enforcing COVID masking requirements often leads children to believe that not wearing a mask contributes to the deaths of friends, siblings, and even grandparents.
Who wouldn’t buckle under this emotional load?
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What is the Point of Education?
Eventually, Mr. Pondiscio throws up his rhetorical hands. “Education’s highest object,” he explains, “is to nourish the soul and inspire human flourishing, not to be a hobby-horse for either ambitious technocrats or social-justice advocates…. We’ve failed to ask the fundamental question: What is school for?” (Emphasis in the original.)
Indeed, why do schools exist?
The most basic reason is to prepare children for adulthood. Schools teach fundamental skills that all adults need—the so-called “three R’s”—reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Students also need training to be good citizens and thus learn civics and history. They should know about the natural world and how humans interact with it. That gives rise to science, health, and physical education. The final—but most important and often neglected—area of necessary knowledge is religion, a fourth R.
Until the coming of “progressive education” during the first half of the twentieth century, most school curricula focused on those first three points.
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This system was astonishingly successful. By 1900, roughly 92 percent of American residents (70 million out of a total population of 76 million) were literate.
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The first half of the twentieth century saw an immense expansion of the education system. States passed compulsory education laws. High school graduation became common. The number of school activities proliferated. Schools established College Prep curricula for the academically inclined and vocational programs for those who were not.
Education professors devised new teaching methods. Fleets of buses transported students from rural areas. Hot lunch programs ensured that impoverished students ate at least one nutritional meal a day. Counselors joined the faculties.
In the sixties and seventies, the focus expanded further. Special education programs taught those who couldn’t learn in regular classrooms. Head Start brought in disadvantaged children at the age of three. “Dropout Prevention” programs encouraged high school students to hang on until graduation.
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New bureaucracies in each state oversaw the expansion. In addition, the Federal Government created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953 and then split off Education as a separate department in 1979.
Every new program, initiative, activity, and bureau diluted the original purpose of the schools. Preparing the average student for life became less important than meeting the needs of the poor and mentally handicapped. Student discipline focused on the needs of the misbehaving child rather than the education of the whole class. Administrators came to see teachers who maintained high standards as problems rather than assets.
Student achievement declined. With each new report, a new program was born. Presidents, governors, “Blue Ribbon Panels,” State administrators, professors, superintendents and “consultants” cobbled together strategies to facilitate learning. When none of the programs succeeded, another new idea always lurked around the corner.
There is much to be said for Mr. Pondiscio’s analysis. Unfortunately, it has one major fault. He omits the most important reason for schools. Students need to learn about the great transcendentals—the true, the good and the beautiful.
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What Do Students Need?
Students need to learn that objective truth existed before they did and will continue long after they are gone. This knowledge does two essential things. First, it tells students that they are not the center of the universe. At first, this may seem like it will deflate the child’s sense of self-worth. The effect is the opposite. Shortly before the Birth of Our Lord, the Roman statesman, Cicero, wrote, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” Growth is only possible by acknowledging that something better than oneself exists.
Second, objective truth frees people from the prisons of their own “lived experience.” It shows them a world exists far beyond the limits of their lives. This knowledge, in turn, encourages them to expand their horizons and search for a better life. Above all, the search for truth leads away from the slavery of sin to the ultimate truth found in God.
Likewise, searching for good is ennobling. It enables people to seek their best selves by following the moral law. They can thus fashion a life in which their gifts, talents, skills and temperaments simultaneously raise themselves and promote the common good.
True beauty leads away from the squalor that traps too many children. Young people surrounded by crime, illegal drug use, promiscuity and uncertainty do not need another dose of gritty reality. They gain nothing by hearing and repeating litanies of oppression. They need the best that schools have to offer. They should be uplifted by stories of courage, self-sacrifice and trustworthiness. They need a history that shows the progress of humanity over the ages. Unknowingly, they hunger for music and drama that transport them to higher thoughts and dreams.
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Education must open new horizons for students, not point them to ever more fatal realms of despair.