Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What Students Really Need -- Disciplined Minds

Several evenings ago, I went to an event at the Stanford Law School co-sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). There I picked up an ISI publication that reprinted a classic 1959 essay, "Education and the Individual," by Richard M. Weaver. I had read all of Weaver's essays on my own (they were not assigned by professors) when I was an undergraduate and graduate student. He is famous for his astringent insights on Edmund Burke and William of Ockam (trust me on this).

But I had forgotten "Education and the Individual," which is a critique of Progressive education penned at the time when the "life adjustment" version of Progressivism was riding high.

Weaver is witty when he describes "real world" topics that educators embraced to create schools subordinated to students' short-term, immediate interests:

[T]he student is invited to give his thought to the “dating patterns” of teenagers instead of to those facts which explain the rise and fall of nations.

Weaver argued that what Progressive educators of the 1950s sought to produce was a “smooth” individual adapted to an idealized welfare-state life, not a person of "strong con­victions, of refined sensibility, and of deep personal feeling of direction in life."

Weaver disagreed with Progressive-education theorist John Dewey, who held that "the idea of perfecting an ‘inner’ per­sonality," in Dewey's phrasing, was socially divisive and to be avoided.

Weaver worried that the Progressive educators of his day were training students for a conflictless, managed society:

[Progressive educators] do not contemplate adjusting students to life in its fullness and mystery, but to life lived in some kind of projected [ideal society], where everybody has so conformed to a political pattern that there really are no problems any more.

Adjustment to real life must take into account pain, evil, passion, tragedy, the limits of human power, heroism, the attraction of ideals, arid so on. The edu­cation of the "progressives” does not do this. It educates for a world conceived as without serious conflicts. And this is the propaganda of ignorance.

Weaver thought that a better alternative was a well-disciplined mind -- one schooled in the academic disciplines, and he scorned the Progressive simile that people develop naturally like flowers:

[A] disciplined mind is one that is developed and trained to think in accordance with the necessary laws of thought, and which therefore can provide its owner with true casual reasoning about the world. A person with a disciplined will is trained to want the right thing and to reject the bad out of his own free volition.

Dis­cipline involves the idea of the negative, and this is another proof that man does not un­fold merely naturally, like a flower. He un­folds when be is being developed by a sound educational philosophy according to known lines of truth and error, of right and wrong.

Finally, Weaver rejected the claim of Progressive educators that learning should flow only from following children's initial, natural interests:

Nothing today more needs recovering than the truth that interest develops under pressure. Man is not spontaneously interested in anything with an interest that lasts or that carried him beyond attention to superficial aspects.

Natural in­terest which is left to itself nearly always proves impermanent, disconnected, and friv­olous. It is only when we are made to take an interest in something that we become ex­posed to its real possibility of interesting us. It is only then that we see far enough into its complications and potentialities to say to ourselves, here is a real problem, or a real opportunity....

[O]ne of the invaluable things [formal education] can do is face [an individual] with the neces­sity of mastering something, so that he can find the real richness that lies beyond his threshold indifference to it. An interest in mathematics, in music, in poetry has often resulted from an individual’s being con­fronted with one of these as a "discipline”; that is, as something he had to become acquainted with on pain of penalties.

The subject there by its own powers begins to evoke him, and before long he is wondering how he could ever have been oblivious to such a fascinating world of knowledge and experience. From this point on his apprecia­tion of it becomes individual, personal, and creative.

Weaver was one of the most influential conservative intellectuals in the early days of modern conservatism. Weaver's criticism of Progressive education contains themes that are still worth pursuing today.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, indeed, Weaver's critique is right on target and even more true today than when he wrote it. But employers are at the root of the problem. They certainly don't want to hire people with "strong con­victions." Such people wouldn't make it beyond the first screening interview. Employers seek "smooth" people, to use Weaver's term. The term today is "team players."

    Jeff Schmidt,
    Author of Disciplined Minds