Will Cellphones, COVID and Student Disengagement Destroy the Deplorable Legacy of “Progressive” Education and John Dewey?

Will Cellphones, COVID and Student Disengagement Destroy the Deplorable Legacy of “Progressive” Education and John Dewey?
Will Cellphones, COVID and Student Disengagement Destroy the Deplorable Legacy of “Progressive” Education and John Dewey?

A new expression is increasingly appearing in the education press—student disengagement. This phenomenon takes two forms. Disengaged students are either not mentally prepared to learn in class or stay away from school altogether.

The School as Therapy

“Disengaged behavior” is nothing new. “Skipping school” is a practice that is as old as the schools themselves.

Order Today Return to OrderOrder Today: Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go


For the followers of John Dewey, “disengaged behavior” comes as a surprise. Dewey taught the myth that children love to learn. The proof is that very young children learn to walk and talk almost automatically. The theorists reason that children are eager to learn other things as well. Teachers who “make it fun” and “care” can teach any child almost anything.

This attitude casts the teachers’ role as primarily an emotional one. Subject knowledge is unimportant. It argues that less informed teachers may be more engaging because they empathize with the student’s mindset. On the other hand, a high degree of discipline inhibits learning by emphasizing tedious processes and diverting attention from the skills and material that children want to learn.

Student Disengagement and Chronic Absenteeism

Perhaps the Age of COVID ended some of this nonsense—at least temporarily. For almost two years, the disease freed many children from the classroom. Lessons were online, but there was little real accountability. Grade inflation was rampant. In response, many children behaved like feral cats, pursuing only sleep, food and banal entertainment, not fun learning.

Now, massive “learning loss” plagues America’s reconstituted classrooms. It is manifested in a condition that the experts call “chronic absenteeism.”

Help Remove Jesus Bath Mat on Amazon

According to a new Pew Research Institute study, “What is it Like To Be a Teacher in America Today?” three-fifths of high school teachers say that student disengagement is a major problem in their schools. Nearly half of middle school and elementary school teachers agree.

Cellphone “Addiction”

According to the Pew study, one-third of all teachers and almost three-quarters of high school teachers see cellphone distractions as “a major problem.” This doesn’t surprise anyone. The cellphone is an all-purpose entertainment device. Tolerating its presence in a classroom invites students to ignore everything else and engage in whatever tickles their fancies.

Most schools try to limit cellphone use, but enforcement is usually ineffective. The problem is too large for administrators to handle. Punishing violations could easily involve hundreds of students every day. So, the onus falls upon individual teachers.

In an article on student apathy, Education Week interviewed Indiana high school science teacher Kelly Chevalier. Her response echoes the experiences of many teachers. “It’s like an addiction. They can’t put them away for any amount of time. The idea of being without their phone for three hours—it literally causes some of them physiological anxiety.”

Satanic Christ Porn-blasphemy at Walmart — Sign Petition

Cost is a related issue. The Apple “iPhone 15 Pro” now sells for around one thousand dollars. Most cellphone service plans include such payments in the monthly bill. However, if a device is lost or stolen, the users are often liable to pay in full before getting a new phone. Who pays for a confiscated cell phone that an unknown student steals from the teacher’s desk? Should the teacher take time from the lesson to ensure that each of the several confiscated cell phones is secured?

Lack of Parental Support for Teachers’ Authority

Today’s students are second (or third) generation cellphone users. Instant connectivity has, lamentably, become expected for all, including parents and students. Many parents demand the ability to reach their children at a moment’s notice, even in the middle of a difficult science test. Confiscating cell phones pits teachers against parents, and those parents complain loudly to administrators. All too often, the assistant principal’s response is to shift responsibility to the teacher.

This lack of respect goes way beyond cell phones. Almost four generations of students have passed through America’s schools since the education chaos of the sixties, when Dewey’s theories became universal and teachers lost much of the authority they had hithertofore possessed.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average age of teachers in 2017-2018 was 42.4, meaning they were born in about 1975. Given the number of teachers who escaped the chaos of COVID by retiring, today’s teacher today is, doubtless, considerably younger. The days of standing in a corner in front of the class, writing “I will not talk in class” 500 times or teachers paddling students are not just past; they are unimaginable. Any attempt to return to the common practices of the pre-1968 world would meet massive resistance.

Lack of Respect for Learning

Most readers have probably never seen an elementary school diploma from the early twentieth century. They raise interesting questions about the evisceration of education.

How Panera’s Socialist Bread Ruined Company

Consider one issued by the State of West Virginia. It attests that young Pearl Harless graduated from her elementary school on April 15, 1926, shortly before the spring planting. Despite the abbreviated school year, Pearl studied a wide variety of subjects which are listed on the diploma. They included “reading, orthography, penmanship, arithmetic, English grammar, United States and West Virginia history, geography, civil government, elementary agriculture, physiology and hygiene.”

Pearl was graduating from eighth grade. Hers was probably a one-or two-room school. These points, however, make the breadth of topics even more impressive. Few modern schools could compete.

At least one reason for the decline is that factual knowledge is rarely respected in modern schools. Many educationists argue that facts are unimportant in a computer-dominated age. The “important” skill is raising questions and developing opinions, following “critical thinking” methods.

The Disappearance of Books

One frightening example of this disrespect is the decreasing number of books in many schools. Today, the “skill” of reading has largely replaced any focus on the reading material.

What Does Saint Thomas Aquinas Say About Marriage?

Consider a recent Education Week article on “the science” of reading. “Over the past few decades, reading comprehension instruction has become ‘content agnostic,’ focused on skill practice, to the detriment of learning about science, history, and other disciplines, said Sonia Cabell, an associate professor at Florida State University’s College of Education.”

Therefore, students read less today than they did a decade ago. A recent study titled “The Nation’s Report Card” revealed, “In 2023, fourteen percent of students reported reading for fun’almost every day. This percentage was three percentage points lower than in 2020 and 13 percentage points lower than in 2012. Overall, the percentage of 13-year-old students who reported reading for fun almost every day was lower in 2023 than in all previous assessment years.”

Any parent knows that childhood readers do so because a particular subject interests them. Reducing reading to a set of skills removes that motivation. The result is that more and more kids read less and less.

Just as no single cause for the student disengagement epidemic exists, no single proposal will cure it. Parents and administrators need to realize that cell phones in classrooms handicap children for life. So do many of the harmful theories of John Dewey and his millions of disciples. Undoing the damage caused by a century of malpractice will be difficult, but it is worth trying.

Photo Credit:  © Наталья Канищева – stock.adobe.com