Kieran Egan. (2002). Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressive
Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. New Haven:
Yale University Press, 2002. 203 pages. ISBN 0-300-09433-7 (hardcover).
Megan Lee, University of Saskatchewan
A little book with a monumental task, Kieran Egan’s Getting It Wrong
From the Beginning unravels our “[p]rogressivist” inheritance and its
influence upon modern educational practice. Progressive ideas have
been absorbed unconsciously for so long, Egan claims, that few educators
have considered the historical rationale on which they were based. He
challenges us to rethink what we think we know about progressivism,
to reconsider its basic presupposition — that there is a “single
undifferentiated learning process . . . evident in the way young children
effortlessly learn language and knowledge . . . in informal settings.”
Further, he challenges the taken-for-granted belief that there is a
“preferred way of learning” research can uncover. Egan disinters the
roots of progressivism, focusing primarily on the persuasive, influential
work of Herbert Spencer.
Spencer’s legacy has been his ability to marry the authority of science
to Rousseau’s concept of naturalistic learning, effectively drawing the
landscape of twentieth century educational thought. Obsessed with
the developmental laws of science, Spencer proposed parallel principles
for intellectual education. These ideas, Egan submits, are alive and well
and at work in today’s schools in the theories of Dewey and Piaget, in
whole-language instruction and in constructivist practices. Quoting
Beatrice Webb, Egan describes Spencer’s thought as “part of our mental
atmosphere,” and ”like the atmosphere we are not aware of it.”
Spencer’s story is told in an engaging manner conveying a sense of
the man as well as his ideas. Egan’s attention to historical detail
contextualizes Spencer’s popularity. In nineteenth-century America,
science and industry were transforming lives. Progress, part of an
evolutionary master plan, was destined to move society from its childlike,
primitive condition to the sophistication of a new modern world.
Democratic schooling, essential to the vision of a new world, faced
certain real challenges. No longer would a so-called ornamental
curriculum meet the needs of the burgeoning school population.
Determining, as Spencer put it, that the “knowledge of most worth”
was useful knowledge — knowledge that prepared students for life as
workers, as parents, as good citizens — school curricula took on a new
look. Intellect was out and social utility was in.
The practice of selecting curricula based on its utility in the later life
of students remains today. As evidence, Egan recounts the erosion of
certain academic subjects over the past century: grammar, history, Latin
and the arts. He argues for the worthiness of these “lost” subjects,
laments efforts to de-emphasize rote learning, objects to most social
studies curricula, and challenges the prevailing belief that knowing
where to find knowledge is as good as knowing.
Regrettably, readers may infer from Egan’s persistent focus on the
“flaws of progressivist views” that he advocates a return to traditional,
conservative, educational practice. However, careful reading makes it
clear that he argues not for the memorization of useless facts, but for
the benefits of having knowledge as part of our “living tissue” —
knowledge that changes the way we think and feel. Far from an
educational conservative, Egan invites us to fundamentally
reconceptualize our understanding of what knowledge is. For him,
knowledge is ”what education is about.” N e v e r t h e l e s s ,
utilitarian principles have succeeded in making schools about
socialization. That focus, Egan argues, does little to ensure democratic
virtues and much to fragment school effectiveness. The Saskatchewan
government, which considers schools as having two functions —
education and supporting human services delivery — envisions
schooling differently. Its SchoolPlus document refers to social problems
facing students as “tectonic factors,” and rightly so (Tymchak, 2001, p.
7). For a growing number of children, poverty, family breakdown, crime,
drug use, and poor nutrition present daily challenges. Still, Egan
maintains teaching life skills is the responsibility of society and family,
not the school. Egan’s stance brackets the lived experience of many
children disregarding their complex histories and their overlapping
worlds: home, school, and society. His cursory treatment of such critical
issues stands in stark contrast to an otherwise thoughtful analysis.
Rather than focusing on social issues, Egan redirects attention to
Spencer’s mantra — that knowledge originates in science and that
science is truth. This perspective persists today, he maintains, embodied
in educational research’s love affair with psychology and in the powerful
influence of Jean Piaget. To get education “right,” we must examine the
cognitive tools children use, not genetic epistemology, developmental
appropriateness, or the biologized mind. Psychology’s error, Egan
contends, lies in its effort to uncover the nature of learning through
empirical research while ignoring the internalization of culture and
the arbitrariness of human behaviour. To understand what and how
we learn, we must understand “the cognitive tools that are being
deployed in the process”.
Interestingly, Egan’s sidebar into the shortcomings of empirical
research fails to explore the possibilities of qualitative inquiry.
Naturalistic, interpretive, and multiparadigmatic, qualitative inquiry
offers educational researchers confronted with the uncertainties of
school life a sound alternative. But Egan doesn’t go there. Instead, he
concludes that the main problem in education is not a lack of research
but “our poverty in conceptions of education.” Philosophical
arguments, he states, will give dynamic direction to educational
practice. Accordingly educators should be guided by an “overarching
theory of education” based on what they consider is the “best way to
be human, the best way to live.” To actively shape a concept of education
is the challenge Egan presents to his readers.
For this reader, Egan’s narrative maintains a subtle, yet palpable
subtext. Its purpose is to problemitize an educational discourse which
maintains the construction of children as inferior. Indeed, the very
presupposition driving child-centred curricula — the belief that young
children are concrete, simple, active learners — discounts the potential
inherent in their deft use of language, story, metaphor, and imagination.
All said, this is a little book with some powerful insights. Much of
its impact lies in its recursive style. Egan revisits his key points, fleshing
out his account of progressivism, persuading us with metaphor and
story. He presents a cogent, critical argument for rethinking our
progressive inheritance, encouraging us to venture into the abstract
realm of ideas, and challenging us to reconceptualize our theory of
Tymchak, M., & the Saskatchewan Instructional Development & Research
Unit. (2001) SchoolPlus: A vision for children and youth: Toward a new school,
community and human service partnership in Saskatchewan. Regina, SK:
Saskatchewan Instructional Development & Research Unit, Faculty of
Education, University of Regina.
by Lynne V. Cheney
Education Next (published by the Hoover Institute). Fall, 2003, pp.
Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget, by Kieran Egan (Yale, 224 pp., $25)
“Success has many fathers,” an old saying goes, “while failure is an orphan.” However, in the case of progressive education—a failure if ever there was one—the list of possible parents grows. To the usual names, Kieran Egan, a professor of education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, adds thinker and writer Herbert Spencer, whose 1861 book Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical sold hundreds of thousands of copies during the late 19th century, when schools as we know them were being formed.
Probably because Spencer’s influence has been overlooked for several decades, Egan gives it special emphasis and often uses Spencer to represent progressive thought generally. Egan worries from the start that this will make his work seem “oddly balanced,” and it does. Before he can enumerate the fundamental flaws of progressivism, he must make the case for Spencer as a progenitor of progressive thought.
The most impressive evidence Egan offers is a series of quotations from Spencer that could have been plucked straight from the progressive textbooks used in education schools today. Spencer wrote that the student “should be told as little as possible, and induced to discover as much as possible,” a central idea in 21st-century progressive dogma. Spencer wrote that “our lessons ought to start in the concrete and end in the abstract,” a notion all too familiar to anyone who has followed the long obsession in social studies with the idea of “expanding environments”—the belief that children can learn effectively only if we start them with what they can see and touch and gradually expand their lessons to include what they can only imagine.
Why has Spencer so seldom been acknowledged as a forefather of progressivism? Egan’s explanation is that some of his other ideas were so embarrassing that people preferred not to recognize him as the source of theories they did embrace. For example, Spencer was against state sponsorship of education, which made it awkward for those interested in incorporating his ideas into state schools to acknowledge their heritage. Spencer was also a Social Darwinist, and his association with the idea that the poor and the weak should be left to their own devices made it impossible for progressives to align themselves with him.
Egan makes a plausible case for the sway of Spencer’s theories, but stumbles in showing the malign influence of Spencer and others. While some of the arguments he offers against progressive education are insightful, others seem to be based on a flawed understanding of progressivism.
Egan objects to “developmentalism,” a school of thought that he says is based not only on the writings of Jean Piaget, who is usually cited, but also on Spencer’s. Developmentalism holds that children can learn certain things only at certain stages in their development, a notion that Egan rightly believes has the damaging result that “children are . . . basically treated as though they can’t really think; they can only do —so we have all those ‘hands-on’ activities while their huge intellectual energy is hardly engaged with anything significant in the wider cultural world.”
But this is not Egan’s primary objection. His main concern is that developmentalism is theoretically misconceived. It is based, Egan says, on the false premise that acquiring skills and knowledge represents progress. Developmentalism, in Egan’s view, fails because it does not take into account “the cognitive costs to people in literate Western cultures of having writing and rationality.”
There are two problems here. First, of course, is the assertion that literacy and rationality are in any significant way costly. According to Egan, one of the imaginative costs of an education that teaches us to write and to think critically is that we lose the ability to generate metaphors. But this is not at all clear. Is someone who can read and appreciate great poetry really less able to think metaphorically than a preschooler? Not even Egan seems to believe this consistently. “What we know forms a resource for our imaginations,” he writes later in his book.
The second problem is Egan’s claim that progressive educators regard literacy and rationality as unmixed blessings. This isn’t quite right, since Egan’s dismissive attitude toward literacy is most often echoed by progressives and their allies. Canadian scholar Frank Smith, a progressive known best for his contributions to the “whole language” movement, made this case rather famously in a 1989 Phi Delta Kappan article:
Let me stress at the outset that I’m in favor of literacy. I think that people who don’t read and write miss something in their lives. But I think the same about anyone who doesn’t appreciate some form of music. Nevertheless . . . I don’t see buttons or bumper stickers saying, “Stamp out unmusicality,” and I don’t hear lack of musical ability referred to as a national disgrace. Furthermore, I don’t think music would be helped much if war were declared on tone deafness .
Smith went on to claim that “literacy doesn’t make anyone a better person,” that “literacy doesn’t generate finer feelings or higher values,” and that “literacy won’t guarantee anyone a job,” and concluded that literacy was being oversold.
With its lavishly romantic views of childhood, with its belief that it is oppressive for adults to visit their knowledge on the young, progressive thought is the perfect seedbed for the notion that literacy is of doubtful benefit. That Egan is confused on this point is surprising.
A similar confusion pervades Egan’s last chapter, wherein he condemns empirical research in education. Now, there is certainly a lot of bad research in education, and some of it rides under the banner of empiricism. But there is also good empirical research that has provided valuable guidance. I think of the meta-analyses done by the National Reading Panel in 1999 that showed the benefits of systematic phonics instruction. I think of the late Jeanne Chall’s survey of 25 years of research comparing student-centered with teacher-centered instruction. “The methods with the highest positive effects on learning are those for which the teacher assumes direction,” Chall concluded.
Because Spencer’s misguided theories had a scientific gloss, Egan seems to entangle empiricism with progressivism. The truth is that empirical research is anathema to progressives today, since it undercuts favored notions like whole-language instruction and child-centered classrooms.
Nevertheless, Egan’s general animus toward progressivism is redeeming. In a section called “The Joys of Rote Learning,” Egan observes that “the emphasis that has led away from rote learning, and in this way eventually learning by heart, has been one that gradually and greatly impoverishes minds.” He also makes a fine case for teaching history as a separate discipline, instead of lumping it together with social studies.
Egan should also be praised for taking up an important topic: “current education and how the persistence of powerful progressivist ideas continues to undermine our attempts to make schooling more effective.” But he would have done this topic more justice had he depicted progressive thought more accurately.
–Lynne V. Cheney is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993.
[Well, maybe I can carry on commenting on reviews. This is another neo-conservative perspective on the book that can see only one part of it, and so confuses its purpose and arguments, and pretty well everything else. The book is apparently redeemed by my "general animus toward progressivism". But I have no such animus, and begin by making clear that I am quite sympathetic to progressivist ideas and ideals. Also I do find it odd that my claim that there are psychological costs to literacy is transformed into my "dismissive attitude towards literacy." I find this little short of astonishing. Perhaps even more strange is the judgement about what I thought was an intricate and careful set of arguments about the problems of current educational research and its dubious relationship to educational practice. The arguments are ignored totally and are dismissed because "good empirical research" (and "good" seems to be determined by the ideological position it supports) exists. Ah well, no point going on about this. (Some months later:) Education Next has published a response to the Cheney review, which saves me the trouble of saying anything else:]
Not getting it - Correspondence
Education Next , Spring, 2004 by Bruce E. Buxton
I was pleased to see Lynne V. Cheney's review of Kieran Egan's Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget ("Progressively Worse," Fall 2003). Egan is one of the few writers on education who thinks outside the box.
The irony is that although Cheney has little use for the progressives, her own rather conventional ideological critique is dwarfed by the power, originality, and range of Egan's attack. It is almost as if she is reluctant to come to grips with an argument mounted on historical, intellectual, and imaginative grounds instead of one framed by political positions.
Egan's critique exposes progressivism's historical roots in the potent Darwinian metaphor of evolution-toward-progress. Developmental psychology has produced a body of theory, experimentation, and statistical analysis controlled by the assumption that a child's brain will change, evolve, and progress. The charting and understanding of that progress is the thing of interest.
But if we free ourselves of the developmental cliche, we may think of the brain as more like an eye. Since eyes don't change in dramatic ways, the eye metaphor might lead us to become less interested in whatever changes we could register inside the brain itself. We might spend more time thinking about things outside the brain that could offer the best kinds of stimulation and training to that organ, such as a demanding curriculum. By focusing on the development of the brain rather than culture and curriculum, progressives have squandered untold resources on unfruitful developmental research and theory, on stale positivism.
BRUCE E. BUXTON
[Thanks, Bruce E. Buxton.]
About the Right and the 'Wrong'
By Peter Temes
Getting it wrong from the beginning. By Kieran Egan.
Yale University Press, 224 pages, hardcover.
Kieran Egan, a professor of education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, has a stark message for the world of American education: ''The ideas upon which public education was founded in the last half of the 19th century were wrong.'' Dr. Egan points fingers at the influential men in his book's subtitle. Herbert Spencer in particular, he argues, moved education from a sensible emphasis on imparting knowledge to a new approach based on the psychological development of children.
Progressive theories -- which Dr. Egan says he likes, as philosophy -- too easily distract from the practical tasks of educating students. They lead, he writes, to poorly structured curriculum and teaching methods that overemphasize the experience of the learner. Students don't learn ''cognitive tools'' -- the bits and pieces of cultural knowledge that help young people make sense of the world around them.
Dr. Egan's forceful rejection of the progressive legacy is more about his sense of science than his politics. Spencer, Dewey and Piaget presented themselves as modern researchers with exciting new insights. Dr. Egan judges them without sympathy: he says their science was bad, and their continuing influence worse.
The New York Times, , Education Life Supplement; Section 4A, Page 34, 11/10/2002.
[Author response: I usually think there is no point responding to reviews, but this one seems to demand that I point out how it fundamentally mis-represents the book. I don't say I like Progressivist theories "as philosophy", whatever that means--I suppose the sense that "philosophy", we are all supposed to know, doesn't mean anything in the real world; that is, you can like something "as philosophy" and think it's nuts at the same time--and I most emphatically nowhere suggest that the people named in the sub-title "moved education from a sensible emphasis on imparting knowledge." I argued that the older style of liberal or traditional education was as much at fault as the progressivism that replaced it, where progressivism has replaced it. The reviewer seems to think that my discussion of Vygotskian "cognitive tools" and how this can give us a new way past the stale progressivist/traditionalist debates, is simply a re-assertion of traditionalist ideas. Bit frustrating. I thought the book was short and fairly clear. Heigho.]
"Cults of Ignorance"
by M D Aeschliman
National Review ; New York; May 5, 2003; ;
Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget, by Kieran Egan (Yale, 224 pp., $25)
'SPENCER is unreadable today," the literary historian A. O. J. Cockshut has written, "but his immense prestige in his time [1820-1903], which extended as far as Russia, is a clear proof that complete ignorance of human nature will not necessarily prevent a man from becoming an acknowledged expert upon it." Indeed, Herbert Spencer's ideological mix of naive empiricism, laissez-faire Social Darwinism, and faith in inevitable progress swept to great influence in late19th-century America.
This book is a historical study, analysis, and critique of the educational "Progressivism" and naturalism that Spencer took over from Rousseau and his German-speaking disciples. Spencer developed it into a glamorous "science," which was then further developed by John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick in the U.S., and Jean Piaget in Rousseau's hometown of Geneva. This line of descent, affiliation, and influence now forms the fundamental thoughtworld of American teachers' colleges and schools of education, perhaps most prominently Teachers College, Columbia University, whose initial patron was the conservative humanist Nicholas Murray Butler but whose guiding spirit soon became-and has remained-John Dewey.
Himself a professor of education and author of several books in the field, Kieran Egan contends that the SpencerDewey-Piaget legacy is fundamentally flawed intellectually, and that it has been a "catastrophe" for our teachers, their students, and the culture at large. He quotes what is perhaps Spencer's most notoriously fatuous assertion about human nature and history: He flattered and seduced his mid-19th-century audience by assuring it that "progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity." Two world wars, global Depression, Russian Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism, the other instantiations of Communism, megadeath weaponry, a sexual plague, and the various other problems we now confront, including an increasingly toxic pop culture, have proved the falsehood of this antireligious ideology. Yet one of its effects-the replacement, in the 20th century, of history teaching with courses in simplistic and soft-utopian "social studies"-has, ironically, succeeded in preventing the widespread realization of just how wrong the "Progressives" were.
Egan is at great pains to show that Dewey and other 20th-century Progressives took over Spencer's educational thinking lock, stock, and barrel, but that for a strategic reason they stopped crediting him as their source. This reason was Spencer's Social Darwinism, which, though continuing to appeal to many on the right, became embarrassing to those on the left who had become welfare-state liberals or socialists (including the Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb, to whom Spencer had been a tutor).
But the influence was undeniable. In 1911, former Harvard president Charles William Eliot, a chemist by training, assured readers of his anthology of Spencer's educational writings that the latter's "ideas on education ... are now coming to prevail in most civilized countries, and they will prevail more and more." Prevail they did, but hardly to the benefit of civilization, as Egan carefully shows. Impatient with tradition, history, classical languages, and moral philosophy, Eliot gutted the Harvard undergraduate curriculum in the interest of a complete "elective" system.
Spencer and his follower Dewey shared this reductionist contempt for the traditional humanistic core of Western education, the education of what was styled "mere words" (as opposed to the reality of "things"). This ideological naturalism took hold somewhat later in Britain; from the 1960s on it made up for lost time, as the country's former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, has recently argued in his book Class War, a bestselling expose of the state of British education. A repentant Progressive, Woodhead recommends a return to the humanistic core of education best represented in the AngloAmerican world by the writings of John Henry Newman, Matthew Arnold, and their many American heirs (including Mortimer Adler and Allan Bloom). Woodhead also notes the academic effectiveness of faith-based schools, which were anathema to Spencer and Dewey and their Progressive successors. In light of the Supreme Court's recent school-choice decision, there is more breathing room for these schools, which traditionally have been more resistant to Progressivism, and which disproportionately and successfully serve poor and minority children.
In developing his case against the "damaging bromides" of Spencer-and their steady institutionalization by Dewey and Kilpatrick in teachers' colleges and K-12 public schools-Egan looks carefully at the real effects of "child-centered" education, psychological "developmentalism," and what he usefully calls the "biologized view of mind" that changed curricula all over the Anglo-American world from commonsense transmitters of the cultural achievements of mankind to present-minded, experimental, experiential, naturalistic, and unchallenging approaches. As Richard Hofstadter pointed out over forty years ago in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Dewey's utopianism was rooted in a rejection of the validity of history as a guide to life and in a dogmatic faith in the beneficence of the future-precisely Spencer's own view.
Perhaps the most damaging single effect of the long, wrong turn of Spencer, Dewey, Kilpatrick, Piaget, and the Progressives has been, in Egan's words, "the reduction of academic content in primary schools in the 20th century." The Progressives shared a naive belief in "nature," and insisted that all learning therefore ought to be "natural"-as if to discern what is natural were a simple thing, and, even if practicable, a good thing. Egan writes that "generations of schoolchildren, deprived of challenging tasks because [the Progressives] said they were incapable of them, bear the evidence of [the educators'] impact." The passionate opposition to memorization has dumbed down several generations of Americans-a disaster documented by international comparisons of the educational competencies of students.
The effects of the breakdown in the teaching and knowledge of history may be inadvertently evident even in Egan's otherwise fine book. Himself an (Irishborn) Canadian, Egan seems unaware of the long and dogged line of American critics of Dewey and the Progressives, including Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, William C. Bagley and Isaac Kandel (colleagues of Dewey and Kilpatrick), Reinhold Niebuhr, Hofstadter, Russell Kirk, and the conservative Protestant R. J. Rushdoony, whose The Messianic Character of American Education (1963) is a neglected classic with a useful title. More regrettably and culpably, Egan makes no mention of three recent, widely read books that document much of his argument in greater detail and with even greater force than he himself does: E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them, the late Jeanne Chall's The Academic Achievement Challenge, and Diane Ravitch's superbly illuminating if depressing survey Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. Ravitch's book gives valuable portraits of noble dissenters from Progressivism-such as Bagley, Kandel, and Hirsch-whose specific objections and alternatives need to be known and carefully weighed.
These books-along with Egan's, and Charles Glenn's important revisionist study The Myth of the Common Schoolpoint the way toward genuine educational progress. Such improvement has already seriously begun in the hundreds of K-8 American schools now using E. D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum, a classic instance of individual initiative and grassroots reform.
In response to the Romantic, Rousseauvian half-truth that each child needs to "construct" his own knowledge anew, one traditional lesson, expressed in a "dead" language and long ago, might profitably be relearned: Only "the stupid have no teacher except their own experience" (eventu rerum stolidi didicere magistro).
Mr. Aeschliman is professor of education at Boston University, adjunct professor of English at the University of Italian Switzerland, and author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.
[I guess, as I've started replying to reviews here, I may as well comment on this one too. The author is kind about my book, but sees it very much from a right-wing perspective, as smiting the leftie foes who have perverted American education from its proper job of transmitting to children "the cultural achievements of mankind." Also I am informed about a range of others, of whom I am assumed to be ignorant, who have bewailed the "dumbing down" of American students through the previous century. I guess my general response is much the same as to the previous review: I have argued elsewhere at length--in The Eucated Mind--that the belief that the right-wing notion that education is to be brought about by transmitting cultural heritage is equally at fault as the views I address in this book. It is the continuation of this tired old set of arguments that seem to me to undermine sensible discussions of education that might actually allow us to make some improvements. Arnold, who is mentioned above, talked of the hopeless and indiscriminate destructiveness of ignorant armies fighting at night. That's what the continuing battles between progressives and traditionalists seem like to me.]
"It all begins with pedagogy"
by Karin Litzcke.
THE REPUBLIC. March 20, 2003 • Vol 2 No 59
Getting it Wrong from the Beginning . . . has a wonderful centering effect when superimposed on the cacophony, muffling all the bickering and drawing the reader into a marvellously focused consideration of the one thing that really matters in education: do educators really know what they're doing with our kids?
Egan asserts that they basically don't. And he presents a pretty good argument to support his thesis that all the major theorists in education for the past 150 years have been wrong about how kids learn, and that much of curricular design and teaching methodology, which are based on those flawed theories, is unsuccessful.
And when you get centred on contemplating the significance of this assertion, all the other "pressing issues" that people get excited about in education become tangential. Whether parents can volunteer in their children's school becomes completely insignificant next to the question of whether it is even worth bringing children to school.
Parents and concerned citizens need to read Egan's book, and need to discuss his criticisms.
Educators need to read it even more, of course, but few of them will. Even less likely is that they will move to correct education's flawed theories, or bring the flaws to public attention. Least likely of all is that they will cease creating the cacophony that makes it so hard to hear or discuss questions like the ones Egan raises.
The many vested interests in education--and there are many, for it is a big industry with many, many dependent workers--have a deep need to keep citizens overwhelmed by the noise of bickering over territory, relative power, money, and privilege. They need us to be distracted by the details of the Fraser Institute rankings, and confused by what faction supports what positions, and why, so that we do not ask questions about the relevance of the exercise of schooling as a whole.
They need to keep us distracted because education is a public service that has long since escaped public control. One of the ways education keeps us distracted is by making education very confusing, so that only "experts" can understand it. That way, the experts own it.
It's really not that confusing, though.
There are perhaps three elements of education that need to be examined. One is the pedagogy, or just what methods are being used to what purpose in the classroom. Another is the management of the enterprise: how it is organized, how is quality checked and maintained, and how the money flows. The third is the political structure: how the system remains accountable and responsive to the public.
All three of these elements have achieved a level of complexity that renders them inaccessible to most citizens, and renders the seemingly endless procession of "issues" utterly overwhelming, especially given the antipathy that exists between different stakeholders.
We need to address these three fundamental elements without being distracted by the "noise." And however much the experts might prefer that we don't, we need to start with the pedagogy. Because it stands to reason that if the pedagogy isn't rational, there isn't much point in fixing the other elements of the system.
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