An educational philosophy marked by a view of the goodness of nature, espouses a belief in the basic goodness of the child's soul, and thus rejects traditional educational attempts to instruct, civilize or to 'train in righteousness' as artificial, and ultimately injurious to a child's development. Eric Froebel, the founder of the modern kindergarten (a Romantic invention) puts the theological aims of such a path of education this way:
…the purpose of teaching and instruction is to bring ever more out of man rather than to put more and more into him; for that which can get into man we already know and possess as the property of mankind, and every one, simply because he is a human being, will unfold and develop it out of himself in accordance with the laws of mankind. On the other hand, what yet is to come out of mankind, what human nature is yet to develop, that we do not yet know, that is not yet the property of mankind; and, still, human nature, like the spirit of God, is ever unfolding its inner essence. [i]
The principal means of encouraging this sort of self-expression is to unleash the child's inherent creativity and imagination — two words which gained their contemporary meaning and force in the Romantic movement. Before the Romantics, it was considered blasphemous to use the term creativity for human productions,[ii] but that ceased to be the case when the human soul was conceived as inherently godly. Moral education, the following of our ‘natural impulses’ and the spontaneous release of creativity and imagination were felt to go hand in hand.
In 1953, Hilda Neatby, a member of the 1949-51 Massey Commission,[iii] wrote a scathing critique of the influence of such ideas on education, noting that having originated in the U.S., they had come to dominate the educational establishment in Canada, and had done so for a generation. Dewey, she stated with no little irony, was the Aristotle of her day. His acolytes were 'profoundly influenced by the new study of psychology, and by the increasing application of scientific techniques with unscientific optimism to every sphere of human activity.' [iv] Her description of the average progressive school of her day is worth repeating:
...it is a place where all children find sympathy, understanding and encouragement. There are no terrors for the dunce, there is demand for no feverish application from the good scholar. Learning is free and unforced because it is believed that children work best when they are happy and retain most firmly what they learn gladly. 'The whole child goes to school' and when he arrives he is accepted as an individual of the first importance. 'The school is child centred.' [v]
The child is confronted with 'activities' related to his life outside the school rather than tasks related to learning; led by discussion rather than driven by dictation; given 'real' as opposed to formal discipline, and by natural means to self-discipline, the new object of all moral training.
Objections to Child-Centred Education
Neatby objected to this philosophy of education on three grounds:
- it was anti-intellectual,
- anti-cultural and
All three grounds were related to the new type of freedom it advanced. In its anti-intellectualism, it freed the pupil from the exercising, training or disciplining of the mind, which would have been required if he had had to know a body of knowledge as all previous generations had; in its antipathy to culture, it freed the pupil from the ‘bondage of the past’. With his gaze firmly set to the future, the educator freed himself from the contamination of the sins of the past, and freely denounced it; finally, in its amorality, the pupil was freed from making judgments of right and wrong actions. The only moral requirement was that he be ‘open-minded.’ Liberated from having to judge actions or achievement, teachers retreated to the therapeutic language of ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ ‘attitudes’ or ‘responses’.
The cumulative effect, Neatby observed, is that “the pupil soon learns the meaning of desirable and thinks, quite rightly, that in a democratic society he has as much right to desire as anyone else…(and thereby) even the elementary discipline of establishing rules which the child was required to keep is questioned.” Her trenchant conclusion: “In a democratic society which must ultimately rest on the morality of individuals with every opportunity for, and incentive to immorality, this seems strange indeed.”[vi]
Since Neatby wrote her indictment of Canadian education almost 60 years ago, it would be difficult to maintain that anything has changed, other than that new idealistic approaches to education derived from the same bankrupt educational philosophy have been brought forth; that the attack on the school as an instrument of cultural preservation and transmission has accelerated; that yesterday’s immorality has become today’s morality. The strong teleological assumptions of Ryerson’s vision for public education, as it had been for Christian educators for millennia – drawing the past, present and future together, assuming that the past foretold the present and that the future would fulfil the prophesies of the past – has largely been broken.
With it, both the meaning of life and a sense of social cohesion across classes and nations that goes deeper than mere tolerance has gone. And yet the progressivist belief in a utopian future which has replaced it, the outcome of a so-called natural evolutionary process, whose professed goal is to be student-centred, is completely belied by the bored ranks of pupils and their cynical views of education as simply a means to an end. Ironically, the pragmatism it reflects actually comes at the expense of the highly practical public good, for it is when the life of the mind is pursued as an end in itself that people are rendered most socially useful.
A recent book, What’s Wrong with our Schools: and How We can Fix Them,[vii] makes precisely the same indictment of the romantic progressivism at the heart of the Canadian educational establishment as Neatby, making such revolutionary suggestions as demanding ‘a pass should be earned’, ‘grades should reflect achievement,’ and that ‘subject matter matters’. What the repairs themselves indicate is the degeneration of public education to the point where even the demand for basic competence needs to be contested.
The question to Christian parents today is whether they are going to respond to the clear Scriptural mandate to the faithful to take responsibility for the education of their children. The prophet Jeremiah offers this counsel: "Stand by the roads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls" (Jer. 6:16). Surely this offers us light in a dark place.
[i] Eric Froebel, The Education of Man, New York: Appleton, 1891, p.279
[ii] The Oxford English Dictionary finds no use of the word 'creativity' before the late nineteenth century.
[iii] The commission began its report with a quotation from St. Augustine:
'A nation is an association of reasonable beings united in a peaceful sharing of the things they cherish; therefore, to determine the quality of a nation, you must consider what those things are.' (The City of God, XIX--xxiv).
[iv] Neatby, op. cit. p. 6.
[v] Ibid., p. 8.
[vi] Ibid., p. 17.
[vii] Michael C. Zwaagstra, Rodney A. Clifton and John C. Long, What’s Wrong with our Schools and How We Can Fix Them (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010)