Education History: Thinking Through Chapter 1

Image result for historic classroom

Been reading about about Pestalozzi – specifically, The Educational Ideas of Pestalozzi by John Alfred Green, W.B. Clive, University tutorial press, ltd. 1905. Following my own rules, I did read a bunch of Pestalozzi before reading about him (other than basic biographical details, which I think it’s always good to know when approaching an unfamiliar writer from an unfamiliar time and place). As I mentioned in my reviews of How Gertrude Teaches Her Children, Pestalozzi is all but incomprehensible, as even his most famous followers acknowledged more or less accidentally, when they said that you’ve got to work with Pestalozzi for a while before you start to understand what he’s up to. Certainly, based on my reading, it would be impossible to set up a Pestalozzian school base solely on what he’s written about his approach. Or rather, one could set up pretty much any school and find something in Pestalozzi that justifies slapping the Pestalozzian label on it.

That said, what does come through in what I’ve read of his so far:

  • the centrality of the teacher;
  • the primacy of ‘sense experiences’;
  • the need for constant management of the student;
  • the need for predigestion of the materials to be taught, so that they can be presented in a teacher-approved manner;
  • distrust of the student’s initiative: a student who thinks he’s mastered material without the mediation of a teacher will become stuck up and unmanageable.

Fichte looks to Pestalozzi as the inspiration of his proposed universal reform of education, although, in his Addresses he is very vague about the details. The only specifics: Fichte rejects Pestalozzi’s goal of helping the student find an appropriate place in society as quickly as possible by focusing on reading, writing, math, and completing tasks under supervision, and instead substitutes his famous goal of rendering the student incapable of thinking anything the (state trained and certified) teacher doesn’t want him to think. Further, Pestalozzi specifically favored children at least initially learning from their own mothers in the home – he titles his magnum opus ‘How Gertrude Teaches He Children’ after all – while Fichte wants the child completely removed from home for the duration of his education, in order to prevent entirely parental education of children.

But are these really so different? In each case, the teacher is directing the student toward a goal, managing his experiences so that, for example, he is prohibited from thinking he’s achieved anything outside the mediation of his teacher. Both Fichte and Pestalozzi believe the child’s fulfillment lies in filling a role in society; Fichte simply believes the state is the authority that decides what the state needs the child to do. It’s unclear – a recurring theme – how much influence Pestalozzi expected his teachers to exert on the career choices of his students, buty given the level of control his teachers are expected to impose, one could argue ‘a lot’. One could also argue ‘none’ – that’s the Pestalozzian Rorschach test in operation.

What remains, and remains so far undiscussed in the sources I’ve read, is the age-segregated classroom. Nothing I’ve read in Pestalozzi suggests this is essential to him, although there’s a lot of stuff that might be called ‘age-appropriate’ activities today. But for Fichte, the first order of business is to find some means of establishing the teacher as the sole authority in the kid’s life, replacing family, village and any god other than the state. The age-segregated classroom is a work of evil genius in this regard.

In a modern school, certain lessons, certain rules must be mastered before the putative instruction can begin:

  • You will be assigned a group. You have no input on this assignment.
  • You will stay with your assigned group at all times.
  • You will do whatever the teacher tells you to do as part of that group.
  • Your success at school will be judged by how well you stay with your assigned group.
  • Any activities undertaken as an individual, e.g., going to the bathroom at non-specified times, must be pre-approved by the teacher.
  • Mere mastery of the putative materials being taught does not exempt you from the group.

As John Taylor Gatto says, the real success of modern schooling is that we can’t even imagine doing it any other way. But of course, before 1800, rigid age-segregation was not the norm anywhere outside a military school. An ancient Greek boy attended the local ephebia at about age 16, because part of the original purpose of the ephebia was to prepare boy to be soldiers. The Greeks, not being insane, wanted close approximations of adult males in their armies. Boys tend to get in the way. But in this case, it was more the physical realities of battle than age itself which lead to this division. And so on – what a kid already knew and could do determined how he was educated going forward, not his age in and of itself.

So: Chapter One of the book will have to deal with the insanity of graded classroom instruction. I will lead with stories of people teaching children in all sorts of non-age segregated ways, among family, friends, and neighbors, which is the natural, obvious way to do it. St. Jerome’s advice to Paula; one room schools, choir schools of the Middle Ages. Off the top of my head.

I must try to undo what Gatto mentioned. I must try to get people to understand that there is nothing natural or good about graded classrooms, and much unnatural and evils.

Should be fun.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

14 thoughts on “Education History: Thinking Through Chapter 1”

  1. Mr. Moore, I notice that you never (or so rarely that I have missed it) refer to Richard Mitchell’s work. I suppose you are aware of it – yes?

    1. I’ve read some of the Underground Grammarian, but, until this moment, I didn’t know that was Richard Mitchell. Don’t think I’ve ever directly referred to his writings on this blog. Very good stuff, I’ve got to read more of his writing.

      The general points he makes – that clear writing and clear thinking go together, and bad and sloppy writing and speaking cause in the unwary reader/hearer bad and sloppy thinking, is one of the chief reasons I go back to the old sources as much as possible. What a joy and relief to read even average writers from the turn of the last century, compared to the tedium of slogging through 9 out of 10 modern writers.

  2. I just interviewed at a very new (first year) and extraordinarily tiny (13 students) Christian school. No age-segregated classrooms for them, or not inherently so.

    You might say “Well yeah not enough students”, but they told me it was working well and they intend to continue with it.

    So maybe there’s hope.

    Whether or not I get a job there depends mostly on how much it grows. Here’s hoping.

      1. Well, don’t congratulate me yet. I have applied to literally dozens of jobs over the past five months with nothing to show for it but substituting and part-time after school work with young kids.

        Here I have no idea if they’ll have a job open next year. I guess we’ll see.

      2. The good news is that, and I say this truthfully, they pretty clearly loved me.

        It was interesting. The experienced Protestant minister/missionary who was the head of the school absolutely grilled me on theology and Christianity. I had to come up with ways of explaining Catholic concepts without resorting to Catholic language. According to him I did quite well. So hey.

        And I’m almost sure I’ll be offered at least a summer job. That’s cool too.

      3. “But malcolmthecynic, if you’re Catholic why not work in Catholic schools, at least while you get the experience and education to start your own?”

        Great question! I’ve been asking those same Catholic schools for the answer for months now. But I sure do have a demo lesson to give at a Jewish school next week.

  3. Eeenteresting. Mrs. R is a long-time Montessori teacher. (I often make reference, much to her ire, to St. Marie of the Blessed Educational Method.) This approach seems to be the polar opposite in many ways.

    1. The thing ppl miss about Montessori, Bosco, etc: they were dealing with kids from missing/destroyed families. They had to first supply the missing pieces – affection, order, a sense of belonging, often food and shelter and clothes – before they could even begin to teach kids anything. and then, they had to teach in a way that reinforced the order they had had to substitute for the missing family life.

      The problem begins when the idea that school is to supply some structure to replace the missing family is generalized, such that school structure in all cases competes with the family structure. Since, as currently done, schools control an order of magnitude more of our kids’ lives than does the typical family, school will eventually *replace* the family by simple attrition. The family is reduced to enforcing the school, pushing the school’s goals, managing with school work and activities even those few hours left for the kid to spend in quiet enjoyment of his family life.

      Eventually, families have so absorbed this message – we’re on our 5th generation where almost everybody has been exclusively ‘educated’ in this manner. Thus, when it is suggested that homework has no value, that kids are under too much pressure, and that this insane competition to get into elite school, or even college at all, is harmful and counterproductive, it’s *parents* leading the counterattack. Teachers, some of whom are aware of these problems, get called on the carpet for, for example, refusing to assign any homework. Doesn’t matter that their students do as well as those with hours of busywork homework – they are challenging the assumptions of the parents, and thus must be brought into line.

      Thus, the goals of a Bosco, a Driscoll, a Montessori are subsumed by the state’s goal: that school replace the family as the ordering principle in the lives of children.

      1. You mentioned this to me before, but as a big “fan” – if you could call someone considering joining the Salesian Cooperators of St. John Bosco a “fan” – of Bosco I think 2 things should be kept in mind.

        First, many schools today are unfortunately in the exact sort of position those schools Bosco started in. The school I observed at was in the bottom 30 of high schools in the country by test scores. In the time I observed there a shooting occurred outaide the school, a rape occurred in the basement, and a stabbing happened down the street.

        My teacher told me the first month of the year HAD to be spent setting up an environment of safety and trust before work even began. I think Bosco’s system could work.

        2nd, while the structure of Bosco’s school was geared towards troubled young men, I think his preventative system in many ways is still an ideal teaching model for children. The general idea when extrapolated is to be patient, kind, and understanding. Don’t lose your temper and don’t embarrass the students. Make sure the rules are stated and explained very clear in advance, including the reasons why they exist and what the consequences are for breaking them.

        BUT with that said at the same time if a rule is broken those stated consequences MUST be followed through. Not with anger, but consistently every time, and in a non-personal way – “You know why the rules exist, this is what happens. It isn’t because I’m mad but we WILL follow through on consequences.”

        Even in more positive environments than the one I mentioned above a Boscovian preventative approach is useful in maintaining an atmosphere where the students don’t dread being there and are more receptive to learning.

        The structure of the school and its curriculum (I have time to think about it but a Great Books school seems like it would be a good idea with non-age segregated classrooms) combined with a preventative approach to discipline and order seems like a combination for success.

        The whole idea I want to get at, counter to the modern system, is “None of this id arbitrary. We’re doing it for a reason.” Bosco’s preventstive approach fits well in this framework.

  4. Grandpa got annoyed/upset his kids were attending the same (?) one-room school* he did, and so ran for School Board then became the head of same (before silly politicians required a Ph.D. for such position.) I attended the small age-grade-separated school he got built. Many times I have wondered if, despite his meaning very well, he set things back thus. I suspect my child-elders in a one-room school would have been more beneficial than the same-age bullies (yeah, yeah, the irony drips, don’t it?) I encountered at the “modern” school.

    * Due to a ‘pet’ “Show-and-Tell” day, I can truthfully say that my mother (once, if perhaps only once) rode her horse to a one-room school.

  5. St. John Bosco was loving, kind, gentle, and firm. He always treated kids with respect. In his day, he was criticized for refraining from corporal punishment by other Catholic educators. In teaching he strove for clarity.

    All these characteristics are essential to any true education. My only point here is that they have nothing to do with graded classrooms. The structure Bosco provided was total – his schools were residential, he even took on the family job of ‘job placement’ working with local craftsmen and businesses to get jobs and apprenticeships for his graduates and even dropouts. The school truly was family for these boys.

    A critical point: his secular goal for his boys was to get them a job so they could be reintegrated into the society that had failed them. I think he’d have been horrified at the idea that his boys would plan to send any children they might father to his schools.

    In my better world, teachers would all be fair approximation of genius-saints like Don Bosco. They would know each kid in their care personally and reinforce and help develop their natural relationships at every turn. What they would never do is lump all the 7 year olds together into an exclusive group because they’re 7.

  6. Joseph,

    Off hand is it possible to buy Freire in Portuguese in North America? I’ll peruse Amazon but I was wondering if you had other alternatives?



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