By Bryan Caplan
Progressive education was a mixed bag. The bag’s best item: Its proto-signaling critique of the curriculum. Progressive educators heaped scorn on the teaching of Latin and Greek – and often history and science as well. Why? Because most of the students were never going to use what they learned. From Diane Ravitch’s Left Back:
Frederic Burk… spoke for many other progressive educators when he dismissed the disciplinary value of academic studies as “traditional nonsense” and asked, “What is the product of four years in Latin? What is the value of the narrow and prescribed course in literature?” Instead of such useless studies, he insisted, “the pupil’s energy shall be centred upon the mastery of those things which existing world life requires of its active and productive journeymen; anything less is insufficient, and anything of a different character is irrelevant.”
[N]othing taught in school had any value or utility except to satisfy college admission requirements or to prepare those who planned to teach the same subject in the future or who might have an occupational purpose for learning such subjects as algebra, chemistry, history, or German.
The classic objection to the “useless subjects” complaint is that students are “learning how to learn.” But around 1900, psychologists started empirically testing these age-old rationalizations – and found little or no evidence in their favor. Ravitch’s mild caricature:
Some educational psychologists, citing Thorndike and Woodworth, insisted that nothing learned in one situation could be applied to any other, so that all training must be specific to the task at hand.
Left Back is very hard on Thorndike, but neglects to mention that his main conclusions about Transfer of Learning have withstood a century of hostile re-examination. Almost no educational psychologist seriously questions Thorndike’s claim that transfer is narrow at best. The only debate is whether there’s any way to change that fact.
Ravitch is a big fan of the classical view that teachers should give every child a broad education regardless of his expected future occupation. But she strives to fairly represent the Progressive educators she attacks. Maybe too fairly. To me, the following argument is almost unanswerable:
To allay concern that vocational education would threaten liberal culture, Cubberly reassured an audience at the Harvard Teachers’ Association in 1911 that all secondary education was vocational; the customary academic program was merely vocational training for the professions [law, medicine, and the ministry], and the great majority of students needed vocational training for their future work too.
Anyone care to offer a refutation?