When I was first thinking about becoming a teacher, I looked for books on education in the library. One of the books wasn't so much about teaching as it was about the history of education in America and how it got so screwed up.
It was pretty interesting though, so I stuck with it. I can't remember the name of that book, but it outlined the history of how American education came to be controlled be people who didn't give a crap about academics. Another book I came across also seemed to say little about teaching, but a lot about the history of education in America.
The book is called the Graves of Academe, by Richard Mitchell.
In it, Mitchell outlines the early days when in 1918, the National Education Association released the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education; a vastly dumbed-down curriculum compared to earlier guidelines for American education.
Read the way Mitchell contrasts Cardinal Principles with the earlier work of a committee led in 1892 by Charles Ellion of Harvard.
The Commission was established in 1913, the year that also brought us the income tax. Many of its members were functionaries of school bureaucracies, from the United States Commissioner of Education himself down through supervisors and associate superintendents and principals and even a high school inspector, whatever that was, to no less a personage than a senior educational secretary of the YMCA. Professors and assistant professors of education represented the higher learning. One of them was chairman of the committee on mathematics, naturally, while the committees on lesser disciplines, notably classical and modern languages, were directed by high school teachers. The stern sciences were served by a professor of education, while the smiling sciences like social studies and the other household arts were overseen by federal bureaucrats. In the whole motley crew there were no scientists, no mathematicians, no historians, no traditional scholars of any sort.
That was surely no accident, for it seems to have been an article of the Commission's unspoken agenda to overturn the work of an earlier NEA task force that had been made up largely of scholars, the Committee of Ten, called together in 1892 and chaired by Charles W. Eliot, then president of Harvard University. That committee had come out in favor of traditional academic study in the public schools, which they fancied should be devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and the training of the intellect. But what can you expect from a bunch of intellectuals? The Eliot Report of 1893 was given to things like this:
As studies in language and in the natural sciences are best adapted to cultivate the habits of observation; as mathematics are the traditional training of the reasoning faculties; so history and its allied branches are better adapted than any other studies to promote the invaluable mental power which we call judgment.
Obviously, the Eliot committee did its work in the lost, dark days before the world of education had discovered the power of the bold innovative thrust. All they asked of the high schools was the pursuit of knowledge and the exercise of the mind in the cause of judgment.
Recently, I found an update to this story of the history of America's dumbed-down education.
One of my favorite websites, Improve-Education.org, contains the following description of American education in the 1920s.
Here’s the capsule version of how educational theory evolved since 1920. Leftists claimed the Russian Revolution heralded a new era in human history. The Great Depression seemed to provide proof for a Marxian analysis. Ideological certainties raged. Stalin’s New Soviet Man must be our future! Capitalism, individuality and Western civilization must be euthanized!
The purpose of our public schools--this is what our top educators believed--was to prepare children for life as cogs in this new Socialist machine. Since it’s probably not feasible to make everybody smart, our far-left educators decided on the bizarre alternative: they would make everybody dumb.
The policy of dumb by design, to the extent our Education Establishment can slip it past parents and politicians, guides them to this day. Isn’t it fair to say that not one educational reform crafted by educators actually leads to better education? My impression is that none of these reforms is truly intended to lead to better education. The self-esteem movement. New Math. Fuzzy math. Whole language as a way of learning to read. Bilingualism. Ebonics. Outcome Based Education. Numerous campaigns against testing, homework, standards, or discipline. All seek a lower common denominator.
I can tell you from personal experience that by the time American students reach high school, they are typically not ready to learn high school level material. They've spent so many years playing games and being told how special they are, that many of them find the concept of memorization to be quite alien. American educators have failed. We need to go back to what was working before things got so screwed up.