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Progressive education movement and the Forgotten Student

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Thursday, February 16, 2017 05:01 am
The fight over confirming a Secretary of Education seemed like the Red Pill-Blue Pill scene from the movie, “The Matrix.” Want to believe any of an assortment of “evil” things about the nominee? You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.

Want to understand that there is a real-world battle being fought over the type of world view we teach our children? You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: All I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.

The scene provides a basis for understanding the ongoing battle over education philosophy. George Washington, in his first inaugural address, stated: “I behold ... that the foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.”

How would the young country promote Washington’s concept of private morality?

In 1836, William McGuffey published the “McGuffey Eclectic Reader.” It sold over 120 million copies.

John Westerhoff III, in his book “McGuffey and His Readers,” wrote: “When we investigate the content of McGuffey’s Readers, three dominant images of God emerge: God is creator, preserver and governor.”

For over a century, the public schools of the United States used the McGuffey Reader to instill the “private morality” called for by Washington. But beginning in the 1920s, the Progressive Movement arose to remove Christianity and free-market economics from what was taught in the public schools.

Today, their effort to displace traditional reliance on individual responsibility with government guarantees of security has largely succeeded.

Amity Shlaes, in her book “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression,” expands on this topic. She focuses on 1936 as the year we created the “modern entitlement challenge,” when Roosevelt changed the application of the word “liberal” from individual liberty and individual rights to that of group identity and group rights. The “forgotten man,” Shlaes explained, was the hardworking man who got up each day, went to his low-wage job, took care of his family and paid the taxes that were used to fund the entitlement programs of the progressive left.

Charles Murray in his 1984 book, “Losing Ground,” examines the entitlement programs of the Johnson administration. In a section titled “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: Transfers from Poor to Poor,” Murray provides a thought experiment where a teacher in an inner city school has two students facing identical ethno-socio-economic circumstances. One behaves in a “mischievous” way, the other does not. Ignoring the good student, the teacher spends all his energy dealing with the mischievous student. Murray writes:

“I find that the quality of education obtained by the good student deteriorated badly, both because the teacher had less time and energy for teaching, and because the classroom environment was no longer suitable for studying.”

Since creation of the U.S. Department of Education, these two trends — a removal of Christianity and an extension of FDR’s repackaged “forgotten man” to what we might call the “forgotten student” — have accelerated. The result has been plummeting test scores and diminished critical-thinking skills.

America has focused on the Mischievous Student and ignored the Forgotten Student. Today, these students have graduated to the streets, where, enticed by the Progressive Movement, they have answered Chris Wallace’s presidential request that “you will absolutely accept the result of this election” with a decisive “no.”

The real-world debate, though, is concerned with ensuring the private morality of a citizenry that understands the foundations of American government.

If you want to pursue any other education conversation, it’s the “blue pill” for you.

David Lantz is an instructor for economics at Indiana Wesleyan University.


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