As a placidly retired teacher, I know well the outrageous left-wing bias of school curriculums insofar as their content is concerned. Hopefully I demonstrated that to some degree in my last missive. But it’s not just content about which one must be wary; it’s also the process by which the content (or lack thereof) is transmitted to students. This is called pedagogy, and the reigning ideas on it are also severely demented. One might even suspect a deliberate plan to oppress the American people in state-sponsored ignorance, if one were conspiratorially minded. I don’t believe those theories, but one can understand how some do.
Take Kagan, an educational publishing and consulting company well within the mainstream of educational thought in 2015 America. According to Kagan, the most important skills for schools to inculcate are “emotional intelligence” because “In today’s world teamwork skills are employability skills.” True to their word, the teaching fads they extol feature mindless student interaction which is blithely free of any academic content. As for “emotional intelligence,” that is a mere fantasy which emanated from the mind of a dreamer and self-styled educational theorist named Howard Gardner.
I was forced to endure Kagan’s professional development not once, but twice. I remember these events in bits and snatches, as though the recollections of a bad dream the morning after. One image of the training which comes to mind involved all the hapless teachers walking around the room in a kind of pathetic procession, to the tune of music, I seem to recall, and then stopping on the cue of a signal to partner up with another teacher next to them. We were then supposed to share elements of our personal biography with our partner at two minute clips: what are your hobbies, what college did you go to, etc. Next the other person would say, on instruction from the Kagan spokeswoman, “Thanks for sharing that,” or some other encouraging remark. The “listening” partner then had to recite his partner’s biographical information to a third party.
The spokeswoman for Kagan was an earnestly stupid woman with short blonde hair, probably in her 30’s. She would have been attractive I suppose if her persona were not blighted by the nonsense which she extolled and the smug manner in which she made her tendentious presentation. I do not note this as to objectify her, thou feminists, but only to observe this interesting phenomenon by which an individual’s moral worth affects their perceived attractiveness.
As for her manner of argumentation, it was decidedly of the straw man variety. Here’s a traditional classroom (desks in rows, students unhappy and bored). Here’s what Kagan wants you to do (everyone having fun, learning at least twice as much, no discipline required!). She displayed a grotesque sideways smirk prior to taking a jab at her various and sundry straw men, always old-fashioned, benighted educators who have not yet received the Good News from Kagan.
Other memories from this professional development include being forced to play tag with other teachers—yes, tag. And I distinctly remember some hand-holding. Once we were permitted to sit, we were not left alone quite yet. We then were made to have “shoulder buddies” (the brainless woman sitting to your side, with a vacant, yet smiling expression) and “face buddies” (the obese woman sitting across from you, inevitably sipping a big gulp).
The various buddies at my table were my partners in vacuous, yet highly structured dialogue. For example, we had to choose a shape which was supposed to somehow reflect our identity. I chose a triangle. Considering my state of mind, I most likely chose this object because out of all the shapes, it most resembled a projectile weapon. I was then to stand and explain to my various “buddies” why on Earth I chose this shape as a symbol of my innermost being.
As you may have gathered, the spokeswoman for Kagan was having teachers perform tasks that were in effect a model for what we were supposed to have students do in our own classrooms. Speaking of a very similar educational exercise back in the ‘70s, Professor Richard Mitchell opined “…even in the worst of our schools, there are no students as stupid as the teacher who would do such a thing, so they probably manage to find something less inane to talk about for those two minutes…” He concludes: “It takes up some time that might have been spent in studying something concrete and useful but admittedly more difficult” (Less than Words Can Say 85-86). Alas, not only do we waste students’ time with these ventures into progressive education, there is an opportunity cost to consider as well.
The Gender Divide
The mostly female attendees thought the Kagan regimen was a hoot, with not a hint of skepticism as to the educational value, or to put it more simply, what the point of all this was. One of the few male attendees, whom I attempted to confide in with a comment along the lines of, “Are you kidding me with this?” failed to acknowledge his accord. Like a captive of Islamic terrorists, he just kind of shrugged in resignation. But significantly, he did not return after lunch.
This brings up the question of females’ faculty for skepticism and critical thinking, in particular when they are presented with information from an “authority.” If the presenter is wearing a tie when he says it, well, that means it must be true. Look, they made a graph, so that’s science. PowerPoint has a similar mystic effect. Case in point, Kagan’s literature presents some studies with laughably small sample sizes and outlandish claims of success for their practices (And allows them henceforth to use the impudent “research has shown…”). This proved sufficient for every single attendee, all of whom were either too indifferent or too illiterate to notice such obvious methodological flaws.
If you’re philosophically opposed to any of the premises of progressive education, you’re considered just mean and uncooperative. This fairly summarizes my experience with colleagues, again, overwhelmingly female, in both ed school and in a professional educational setting. As for male colleagues, most could be considered more or less indifferent to any kind of debate in this regard; but to their credit, they were at least less apt to be taken in by such charlatans.
As for me, you can already glean my thoughts. Yet like a dissident in a totalitarian regime, I learned to keep my head down. To quote Emily Dickinson on the tyranny of the majority: “Demur—you’re straightaway dangerous/ And handled with a chain.” It creates quite a stir in the education field to dissent, even if the reigning wisdom is “much madness” indeed.
If one didn’t know any better, he might surmise that the education industry is devised by women, taught mostly by women, and for the benefit of… girls. But can that really be? Has the pendulum swung that far? It is plausible, I’m afraid. Yet I suspect other motives and actors afoot beyond the usual feminist tyranny. I would just suggest that the dominant female demographics of teachers, and even administrators, make them especially amenable to Kaganesque folly.
That said, these women do not necessarily represent females in general, perhaps being self-selected as the most bleeding heart liberals who chose a “helping profession.” To add to that, they are being indulged in their most permissive instincts, and in turn are indulging students in the utmost foolishness. In that sense we have a vicious cycle. Such well-meaning female teachers do not need smiles of encouragement in their fostering of “cooperative learning.” They need a figure of real intellectual authority to raise an eyebrow at such antics, and firmly steer them in a more sensible direction.
I should also add as a caveat that girls do not learn more efficiently under what I characterize as a feminine type of instruction. Educational research is of course fraught with contention, but every credible study indicates that direct instruction is the best method, period. (Direct instruction being the antithesis of “student led” learning.) And my experience also tells me that, whatever girls might prefer or think they prefer, they certainly learn more under traditional methods of instruction.
Under a more authoritative teacher, female students breathe a sigh of relief, liberated from the nebulous cloud of a progressive education classroom (to say nothing of male students’ liberation). If left to their own devices, perhaps girls would establish a Kagan-like environment. But that hardly proves it to be the method which is in their own best interests.
To be fair, one can take Kagan’s exercises and plug in actual academic content. Students can turn to their “shoulder buddy” and discuss theme in Of Mice and Men, and then after two minutes, when the teacher claps or snaps or whatever, take up the same subject with their “face buddy.” The premise here is that students are going to teach each other just by talking and constant interaction. It’s the old John Dewey delusion that learning is a social activity. This premise is pushed in ed school heavily, to say the least.
Dewey’s ridiculous theories surely serve as their premise; but, ever watchful, I felt distinctly that there were other reasons for promoting such bizarre teaching methods. I found these suspicions to be difficult to communicate to my fellow teachers. There was a complete inability on their part to consider any ulterior motives of a company whose packaging and marketing portrays nothing but cartoony images of fun and happiness. Thus we see the common man (and by that phrase we may certainly include most teachers) is most often unable to see beneath the appearances of things to penetrate the deeper ideological meanings.
My readers, having gotten this far, are better equipped to ponder such meanings than were my colleagues at that time. Granted, this can only be speculative. Firstly, I do not think the executives at Kagan and similar organizations are stupid, though one might be tempted to think so. This means that there is some deliberation at play. Secondly, I do not think they want students to become stupid. This is despite the popular right-wing conspiracy theory that public school officials wish to enstupidate (a Derbism) American children.
More plausibly, the driver behind progressive education in general seems to be a hankering for a collectivist society, which incidentally aligns with the stated goals of the Democrat party. This in turn will bring about a glorious era of equality between the races and sexes. The more substance-less the teaching, the less opportunity for students to differentiate from one another. Further, there is a distinct pattern of feminization in such teaching methods, which also ties into collectivism insofar as it is anathema to boys. This is sure to snuff out any male genius, which is in itself an affront to such egalitarian dreams.
Malcolm Unwell is a lachrymose chronicler of America gone wrong, and aspires to be a malevolent voice in journalism. Contact him.