The Roots of the Education Wars

E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

It's an honor to give this lead-off talk in a conference on the education wars. I notice that I am listed as an English professor, which is a correct description of my former life, and a reminder that I am being asked to speak about technical subjects to specialists in those subjects. Modesty is called for, and tact as well, since it's no secret that I have taken sides in the education wars. A before-dinner speaker should not cause indigestion. My subject is going to be a very general one -- the intellectual roots of the education wars. I started my professional life as an intellectual historian. I wrote two books about Romanticism, which was the movement that started these wars. I am going to present one intellectual historian's take on those origins, and proffer an explanation of the remarkable durability of Romantic educational ideas even in the face of practical failures.

An intellectual historian is an attenuated sort of historian. To get substantive educational history you go to scholars like Diane Ravitch, whose work-in-progress on Romantic progressivism I await with great anticipation. An intellectual historian focuses on the connections of ideas in order to understand why people hold them -- often with the purpose of enabling people to liberate themselves. The great progenitor of intellectual history in the United States was A. O. Lovejoy, who followed German scholars in subordinating historical influence to what the Germans called "Seelenlogik," the logic of the soul. Ideas which which may not fit together with logical consistency may nonetheless cohere emotionally. Intellectual history is a way of understanding how ideas hang together. It is an especially valuable discipline for escaping the prison house of ideology.

What does intellectual history have to say about the reading and math wars? The two sides, viewed broadly, are expressions of Romantic vs. Classic orientations to education. (I will use the adjectives "Romantic" and "progressive" interchangeably for reasons that will become clear.) The whole-language approach to reading for instance is Romantic in impulse. It makes an analogy or equivalence between the natural process of learning an oral first-language and the unnatural process of learning alphabetic writing. The emotive weight in progressivist ideas is on the value of naturalness. The natural is spiritually nourishing, and the artificial is spiritually deadening. Back in the 1920s, the progressivist William Kilpatrick and others were already advocating the whole language method of teaching reading for many of the reasons advanced today. The task of intellectual history is to explain why a method with small support in mainstream science and little success with many children should hold sway for so long.

As with reading, so with math and science. The Progressivist believes that it is better to study these subjects through real-world, hands-on, NATURAL methods than through the deadening modes of conceptual and verbal learnings, or the repetitive practice of math algorithms. But the artificial symbols systems and algorithms of mathematics are the sources of its power. Natural, real-world intuitions are helpful in math, but there should be no facile opposition between terms like "understanding," "hands-on," and "real-world applications" and terms like "rote learning" and "drill and kill." What is being killed in memorizing the multiplication table? The Progressivist says: children's joy in learning, their intrinsic interest and their deep understanding. As in reading, so in math, artificial modes of learning are said to inhibit understanding and kill the soul, whereas natural methods are said nourish it.

There may be a very practical value in applying the traditions of intellectual history to the origins and unspoken assumptions of this progressive faith. If enough people start questioning these unspoken assumptions, which, when spoken, are open to serious challenge from science and common sense, a shadow of doubt may begin to fall. Whenever I'm asked which education reform program is likely to be the most effective -- better teacher training, more charter schools, or various governance reforms -- my reply is that there's less need for change in the structure of governance than for change in the structure of ruling ideas. It has been the dominance of progressive ideas, not the incompetence of education professors, which has induced our teacher-training institutions to de-emphasize subject matter, and thus produce teachers who know too little about the topics they should teach. Some education professors took personally my critique of progressivism in "The Schools We Need" as another example of ed-school bashing. But my thesis wasn't that poor teacher training is caused by ineptitude, but, on the contrary, by an all-too-ept advocacy of Romantic ideas; not by incompetence but by an all-too-competent rhetoric in the service of the notion that specific subject-matter knowledge has only secondary importance.

In the face of continuing practical failures, it would be hard to explain the more than nine lives of progressivism, except on the premise that its unspoken assumptions work a hidden sway not just over ed schools but over the minds of Americans generally. If progressivism were not consonant with received ideas in the larger public about children and schools, the ideas would not maintain their sway. The public would not otherwise be so receptive for example to the disparagement of objective tests. Test bashing continues to be a successful rhetoric. One can understand that progressives should want to bash tests, when their methods consistently fail to improve test scores. But why should other citizens accept the disparagement of, say, reading tests, which are among the most valid and reliable instruments that exist. Wide public acceptance of test bashing suggests that it is tapping into powerful subterranean sentiments about children and learning.


Here are a few quick examples of the consistent practical failures of progressive ideas.

"The start of the school year is just a few days away, so it was no surprise that there was a line of parents at the Celebration School office the other day. But the reason for the line was: they were queuing up to withdraw their children."

It turned out from this report that the "brand-new" theories of the Disney school are rebottled versions of the theories Kilpatrick used to create his ideal progressive school in the 1920s -- multi-aged groupings, where each child can go at his or her own pace, individualized assessments rather than objective tests, teachers as coaches rather than sages, projects instead of text books, and so on. As the reporter correctly remarked, "Most of these concepts have been tried in one form or another at progressive schools." But he omitted to note that the methods rarely worked well in the earlier schools either. So why haven't these failures induced more skepticism among teachers, administrators, and distinguished professors?

I have added Coleman's work of the 1980s to my two examples, because it is carefully controlled, large-sample work that has never been rebutted. Along with large scale international comparisons it is the most reliable observational data that we have regarding the validity of progressive ideas. The evidence mounts still higher if you combine Coleman's data with so-called "effective-schools" research, which has shown that school effectiveness is enhanced by explicit, agreed-upon academic goals for all children, a strong focus on academics, order and discipline in the classroom, maximum time on learning tasks, and frequent evaluations of student performance -- all principles followed by Classical schools but repudiated by the Disney school and also by many of the New American Schools designs for which so much federal money is being misspent under the Obey-Porter bill. In fact, one could take each of the principles of effective-schools research, such as uniform and explicit learning goals, negate them, and you would usually have a description of progressivist principles.

If these observational data were not enough to suggest a lack of correspondence between progressive ideas and reality, there may be added their unfortunate lack of congruence with consensus theoretical principles which have been developed in cognitive science, such as the principle that explicit, step-by-step learning is more often effective than indirect learning. None of this has mattered. These unempirical progressive theories -- dressed up with empirical claims -- have held both education professors and a large portion of the American public in thrall -- why? This is a question for the intellectual historian rather than the puzzled scientist.


So to my task. The fundamental beliefs of progressivism are impervious to unfavorable data because progressivism is an expression of Romanticism, and Romanticism is a religious outlook that, like all religions, is inherently resistant to data. A religious believer is scornful of mere "evidences." Of course, most of our non-religious ideas are also resistant to change. Even science tries to preserve its old theories against new findings, as when it held to the idea that the earth is the center of the solar system, arguing that the planets move in complicated epicycles rather than simple orbits. But religious beliefs are the most resistant to change of all.

Progressivism has all the characteristics of religious belief, including the sense of a direct connection with the holy, which it invokes by the word "nature." We know in advance, in our bones, that what is natural must be better than what is artificial. This revelation is the absolute truth against which experience itself must be measured, and any failure of educational practice must be due to faulty implementation of progressive principles or faulty interpretation of the results. Reading tests must not to be taken at face value, because the true effects of education cannot be measured by such blunt instruments.

The religious character of progressivism is rarely noted because it is not an overtly religious system of belief. Romanticism is a SECULARIZED expression of religious faith. In a justly famous essay, T. E. Hulme defined Romanticism as "spilt religion." Romanticism, he said, redirects religious emotions from a transcendent God to the natural divinity of this world. Transcendent feelings are transferred to everyday experience, -- as Hulme put it, like treacle spilt all over the table. A more sympathetic definition of this tendency was offered by M. H. Abrams, who entitled his fine book on Romanticism "Natural Supernaturalism." That phrase accurately describes the Romantic's fusion of the secular and the religious. The natural is supernatural. Logically speaking, that's a contradiction, but emotionally it catches the Romantic's faith that a divine breath infuses natural human beings and the natural world.

In emotional terms, Romanticism is an affirmation of this world -- a refusal to deprecate this life in favor of pie in the sky. In theological terms, this sentiment is called "pantheism" -- the faith that holiness inhabits all reality. Transcendent religions like Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, see this world as defective, and consider the Romantic divinizing of nature to be a heresy. But for the Romantic, the words "nature" and "natural," take the place of the word "God," and give nature the emotional ultimacy that attaches to divinity. That is the source of Abrams' paradox: "natural supernaturalism."

One impulse from the vernal woods [Wordsworth said]
Can teach us more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.

Although Romantics have complete confidence that our natural impulses work providentially for good in ways beyond our comprehending, they have no such confidence in social custom and human reason. On the contrary, these are the sources of evil and the infection of the soul. This naturalism explains the no-fault complacency with which a progressivist teacher reassures the concerned parent not to worry if Johnny or Jane is not reading at grade level. All will come right when the child is developmentally ready. One must not interfere with the child's natural course of development.

The Romantic conceives education as a natural growth. Botanical metaphors are so pervasive in the educational literature that we take them for granted. The teacher, like a gardener, should be a watchful guide on the side, not a sage on the stage. (The word Kindergarten -- literally children-garden was invented by the Romantics.) It was they who began mistranslating the Latin word ee-duck'co as meaning "leading out" or "unfolding," confusing it with e-dook'co, meaning "to lead out." It was a convenient mistake that fits in nicely with the theme of natural development, since the word "development" itself means "unfolding." But the actual Latin root word for education is ee-duck'co which "to bring up," and "instruct." It implies deliberate training according to social and cultural norms, in contrast to words like "growth" and "development," which imply that education is the unfolding of human nature, on analogy with a seed growing into a plant.

The regular textbook description of the Romantic movement is that it substituted the organic fecundity of nature for civilized constraints and rules. In education, the artificial constraints of the ordinary school were to be replaced by methods which permitted natural development. Chairs should be scattered around the room to accommodate children of various ages going at their own paces, rather having than forcing children of the same age to do the same thing while sitting in neat Classical rows.

Just as Wordsworth said "We murder to dissect," the progressivist says that phonemics and place value should not be dissected in isolation from their natural use, nor imposed before the child is naturally ready. Instead of dissection, the Romantic wants integration and natural development, as happens naturally in the real world. Thus the Romantic preference for "whole language," "integrated learning," and "developmental appropriateness." Education which places subject matter in its natural setting is superior to the abstractions of language. Hands-on learning is superior to verbal learning. Real-world applications of mathematics provide a truer understanding of math than empty mastery of formal relationships.

The same religious sentiment underlies the Romantic celebration of individuality and diversity. The individual soul is holy because its spark is from God. Praise for diversity as superior to uniformity originates in the pantheist's sense of the plenitude of God's creation. This religious origin for the aesthetics of diversity, which we now take so much for granted, was the main theme of Lovejoy's famous book, "The Great Chain of Being." "Nature's holy plan" as Wordsworth put it, unfolds itself with the greatest possible variety. To impose uniform standards on the individuality of children is to thwart their fulfillment and pervert the Design of Providence. The aesthetics of diversity is thus powerfully reinforced by the religious certainty that imposing any norm incongenial to the child's nature is evil. Motivation to learn should be stimulated through the child's inherent interest in a subject, not through artificial rewards and punishments. Contrived inducements to learn, being unnatural, do not work permanently to the benefit of education. What others might view as complacent neglect is viewed by the Progressivist as "wise passiveness" (Wordsworth's phrase again). Education should be child-centered. It should fit the child, not vice versa. As Blake put it, "One law for lion and ox is oppression," which is an early statement of the theme of "Individual differences" and "multiple intelligences."

Whether these educational tenets can withstand empirical examination is irrelevant. Their validation comes from knowing in advance, with certainty, that the natural is good and the artificial is bad.


This then is the overarching principle of Romantic theology: the natural is good, the artificial bad. It is a principle which persists even when all consciousness of its original religious underpinnings have disappeared. I still remember my own astonishment, as an American bred in American Romanticism, to discover that the Elizabethans frequently used the word "artificial" to express approval. Since most of us still share the Romantic identification of the non-natural with the non-good, it is worth pausing to contrast Romantic and Classical views on this precise point.

Plato and Aristotle based their ideas about education, ethics, and politics on the concept of nature just as the Romantics did. A Classicist knows that any attempt to thwart human nature is bound to fail. But the Classicist does not assume that a providential design assures the ultimate rightness of relying on our individual natural impulses. On the contrary, Aristotle argued that human nature is a battleground of contradictory impulses and appetites. Selfishness is in conflict with altruism; the fulfillment of one appetite is in conflict with the fulfillment of others. Follow nature, yes, but which nature and in what degree?

Aristotle's famous solution to this problem was to optimize human fulfillment by balancing the satisfactions of all the human appetites -- from food and sex to the disinterested contemplation of truth, keeping in mind also society's need for civility, and security. This optimizing of conflicting impulses required the principle of moderation, the Golden Mean, not because moderation was in itself a good, but because, in a secular view of conflicted human nature, this was the most likely route to social peace and individual happiness. Against the Golden Mean, the Romantic Blake countered, "The Road of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom." But that would be true only if a providential nature guaranteed this happy outcome. Absent such faith in the hidden design of natural providence, the mode of human life most in accord with nature must be, according to Aristotle, a via media that is artificially constructed. By this Classical logic, the optimally natural has to be self-consciously artificial.

This Classic-Romantic debate has a new currency because of recent interest in evolutionary psychology. The Darwinian moral philosophers from George Williams to E. O. Wilson reject the notion that evolution should be a direct guide to ethics or to education. On the contrary, evolutionary psychology reintroduces in its own way the Classical idea that there are inherent conflicts in human nature, both selfishness and altruism, both a desire to possess one's neighbor's spouse and a desire to get along with one's neighbor. The adjudication of these contradictory impulses requires an artificial construct like the Ten Commandments. Similarly, most of the learnings required by modern schooling are not natural at all from the standpoint of evolution. Industrial and post-industrial life, which have arrived very recently in evolutionary terms, require kinds of learnings that are constructed artificially and sometimes arduously upon the natural learning capacities of the mind -- a point that has been made very effectively and in detail by David Geary.

Shakespeare was a Classicist on this score. He depicts the early ages of human life as:

first the infant
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.

Shakespeare clearly had a less joyful view of schooling than Rousseau, Wordsworth, and John Dewey. The very idea that skills as artificial and difficult as reading, writing, and arithmetic can be made natural for everyone is an illusion which has been able to flourish in the peaceful, prosperous United States. Keats once observed that Romantic Pantheism can only thrive in places like the English Lake District, but not in Tierra del Fuego. When John Dewey was writing during the optimistic teens and twenties of this century, he had been, as Alan Ryan observes, influenced by the Romantic philosopher Hegel, who believed that the forward-moving processes of culture were extensions of the processes of nature. The more skeptical Classical view was memorably enunciated by the Old Codger Max Rafferty in speaking about the Progressive school, Summerhill.

"Rousseau [he said] "spawned a frenetic theory of education which after two centuries of spasmodic laboring brought forth ... Summerhill. [...] The child is a Noble Savage, needing only to be let alone in order to insure his intellectual salvation. Don't inhibit him. Never cross him, lest he develop horrible neuroses in later life. [...] just leave the kids alone. They'll educate themselves. Twaddle. Schooling is not a natural process at all. It's highly artificial. No boy in his right mind ever wanted to study multiplication tables and historical dates when he could be out hunting rabbits or climbing trees. In the days when hunting and climbing contributed to the survival of homo sapiens there was some sense in letting the kids do what comes naturally, but when man's future began to hang upon the systematic mastery of orderly subject matter, the primordial, happy-go-lucky, laissez faire kind of learning had to go. [...] The story of mankind is the rise of specialization with its highly artificial concomitants. [...] When writing was invented, "natural" education went down the drain of history. From then on, children were destined to learn artificially. [...] This is civilization -- the name of the game. [...] All civilization is artificial.


The Romantic vs. Classic debate extends beyond the reading and math wars to the domain of moral education, and it would be myopic not to mention that aspect of the debate, since for most of human history ethical education has been considered more important than numeracy and literacy. The Romantic tradition holds that morality (like everything else) comes naturally. The child, by being immersed in real-life situations, and exposed to good role models comes to understand the need for sharing, kindness, honesty, diligence, loyalty, courage, and other virtues. Wordsworth's account of his own education, which he called "The Growth of a Poet's Mind" contained a section entitled: "Love of Nature Leading to Love of Man." Ethical understanding is gained by an inevitable natural progress, such as Hegel portrayed.

The Romantic wishes to encourage the basic goodness of the natural soul, unspoiled by habit, custom, and convention. The principal means for such encouragement is to develop the child's creativity and imagination -- two words which gained currency in the Romantic movement. Before the Romantics, it was considered impious to use the term creativity for human productions, but that ceased to be the case when the human soul was conceived as inherently godly. Moral education and the development of creativity and imagination were felt to go hand in hand. The gradual dominance of this new vision of moral education can be traced in the history of American language-arts curriculum. In the 19th and early 20th century, school books like the McGuffey Readers strongly emphasized moral instruction and factual knowledge. Gradually, the subject matter of language arts in the early grades began to focus on fairy tales and poetry. The imparting of explicit moral instruction gave way to the development of creativity and imagination. Imagination, Coleridge said, "brings the whole soul of man into activity." When we exercise our imaginations, we connect with our divine nature, develop our our moral sensibilities.

It must be obvious from the tenor of my brief account of progressive education, as being based on religious faith in nature, that I believe it to be a thoroughly misplaced faith. We will begin to see widespread improvement in our public education only when we see widespread doubt cast on its endemic Romanticism. Everyone grants that schooling must start off from what is natural. But schooling cannot effectively stay mired there. A new educational era will dawn only when the word "natural" as applied to schooling is viewed with greater skepticism, and when the word "artificial" ceases to imply only disapproval. One does not have to be a confirmed Classicist to perform this transvaluation of values; one need only be a confirmed pragmatist, devoted to what works. With as great a certainty as these things can be known, we know that analytical and explicit instruction works better for most learnings than inductive, implicit instruction. To be analytical and explicit in instruction is to be artificial. Also, it is to be skeptical that children will naturally construct for themselves either knowledge or goodness.


To conclude. One cannot hope to argue against a religious faith that is impervious to refutation. But there CAN be hope for change when that religious faith is secular and pertains to the world itself. When the early Romantics lived long enough to experience the disappointments of life, they abandoned their Romanticism. This happened to Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. One of Wordsworth's most moving works was the late poem, "Elegiac Stanzas" which bade farewell to his faith in nature. Similar farewells to illusion were penned by the other Romantics. There is a potential instability in NATURAL supernaturalism. Romantic religion is vulnerable because it is a religion of this world. If one's hopes and faith are pinned on the here and now, on the faith that reading, arithmetic, and morals will develop naturally out of human nature, then that faith may gradually decline when this world continually drips its disappointments.
Moreover, and this is my last observation, Romantic faith in the providence of nature is inconsistent with our modern understanding of the contingency of all things. Modern evolutionary theory is a hymn to contingency. So is much modern poetry. Robert Frost gives us this little post-Romantic poem called "Design."

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of satin cloth --
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morining right,
Like the ingredients of a witches broth --
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?
If design govern in a thing so small.

The Romantic thinks nature has a holy plan. The Classicist, the modernist, and the pragmatist do not. And neither does the scientist. In the end, the most pressing questions in the education wars are not for me just empirical, scientific questions, but also ethical ones regarding the unfortunate social consequences of the progressive faith, especially the perpetuation of the test-score gap between groups. Are we to value the aesthetics of diversity and the theology of spilt religion above economic justice and political justice? That is the unasked question which needs to be asked ever more insistently. Economic and political justice are strenuous goals. They cannot be achieved by doing what comes naturally.

Thank you.

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