Sunday, September 18, 2005

19th century educational pioneers vs. the 21st century educational status quo

Following up on my announcements of new electronic versions of classic 19th century works on education by Friedrich Froebel and Herbert Spencer are two examples of the difference between their ideas introduced well over a century ago and the educational practice today.

Last Tuesday's health section of the New York Times had an appalling article, "Tough Day for Kindergartners (and Parents)" by Laurie Tarkan, about the unhappiness both children and their parents face when the children begin attending kindergarten; and how this unhappiness is being dealt with only by increasingly elaborate methods of "greasing the wheels" to make a smoother transition into the system. In the blandly matter-of-fact account of such methods, there isn't the ghost of a suggestion that the system itself is the problem, even as it acknowledges that the new environment is less individualized and breaks up the students' previous relationships with their parents and preschool community. For instance, "not wanting to go to school" is listed as one of the experts' "Signs that the transition may not be going smoothly for a child". Erich Fromm, who had the courage to use psychology to critique rather than reinforce the status quo, pointed out with his concept of an "insane society" that when a society's norms run counter to the conditions for human mental health, what is considered to be normal behavior is actually mental illness.

Could there be a greater indication of how modern kindergartens, with their ever-greater "academic demands" in order to "move the needle on achievement", and their function of breaking kids away from their parents and into an artificial environment before clamping down on them with stricter control in later grades, are the polar opposite of the intentions of Friedrich Froebel when he created the kindergarten? He was recognized as one of the first educational theorists to insist that education has to follow the needs of children rather than molding them to educators' preconceived ideas, and that the teacher's responsibility should be to assist the students in developing their own abilities and inclinations to learn. He was the sort of guy who as a teenager apprenticed with a forest ranger in the local Thuringian Forest so that he could be in the middle of nature.

For the real thing read his autobiography.

And in contrast to Spencer's ideas on physical education in which "free plays are vastly better than formal exercises of any sort" (Charles W. Eliot), comes this snippet from the letters section of this month's National Geographic, about a photograph in the May 2005 issue (in the same feature, by the way, which discussed a market socialist hippie commune last month):
I was disturbed by the photo showing children in the FBI's on-site day-care center being "marched" to recess. Can someone explain what educational purpose is served by requiring the children to walk with their hands on their head like they are under arrest?
to which the editors matter-of-factly reply:
Teacher at the Lasting Impressions Child Development Center—a nationally accredited program—employ follow-the-leader type activities to get the children organized and concentrated on going out to recess.... This particular day the teacher asked them to walk outside with their hands on their head.
So even walking out to recess has to be done in a controlled matter!? Words fail me.

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