The Many Defeats of the Schools

by Benjamin Studebaker

A friend of mine recently directed me to an obscure old piece from The Atlantic published in 1939, entitled “The Defeat of the Schools” by James L. Mursell. I find the piece fascinating in no small part because the critique it makes of American school systems is more or less synonymous with the modern critique.  All of which raises an interesting question–is the perceived decline in educational standards overestimated, or has it been going on for much longer than most people think?

Firstly, what sort of criticisms does Mursell allege?

Students memorize how to do math problems rather than learn how to think mathematically:

Mathematics is a technique of thinking, and if you have not learned to think in its special language you just have not learned mathematics at all. Such thinking may not be very intricate or advanced; but, all the way from simple arithmetic to differential equations and beyond, it is the same kind of process. That process is quite different from doing sums, because when one is set a sum one is told either directly or by the most obvious sort of hint whether to add, subtract, multiply, divide, or what not, and all one has to do is to follow certain rules and remember certain tables, which clearly is routine rather than thinking.

By the same token, students memorize a “smattering of facts” in science classes rather than learn how to think scientifically:

There is practically no evidence at all that science, as taught in school, makes one more careful about hypotheses, more willing to suspend judgment, more open-minded towards alternative views, more able to distinguish truth from hokum. It does not, so far as we can tell, successfully promote these or any other typical virtues of the scientific mind.

What about foreign languages? Mursell argues that students are gaining nothing from those courses:

No one can be said to have a mastery of any language unless he can read, write, or speak it, and not much of a mastery unless he can compass all three. The language must serve him as an instrument of communication in its own right, which means not only far more than being able laboriously to translate it by main force of grammar and dictionary, but also something essentially different. How many pupils achieve any such freedom with French, German, or Spanish? Very few! Ask the same question about Latin, and you must change ‘Very few’ to ‘Virtually none.’

As for English? Students can read fiction, but they’re useless at discerning among arguments:

The average high-school graduate has done a good deal of reading, and if he goes on to college he will do a good deal more; but he is likely to be a poor and incompetent reader. (Note that this holds true of the average student, not the person who is a subject for special remedial treatment.) He can follow a simple piece of fiction and enjoy it. But put him up against a closely written exposition, a carefully organized and economically stated argument, or a passage requiring critical consideration, and he is at a loss. It has been shown, for instance, that the average high school student is amazingly inept at indicating the central thought of a passage, or the levels of emphasis and subordination in an argument or exposition. To all intents and purposes he remains a sixth-grade reader till well along in college.

Mursell claims that the curriculum is determined through appeal to tradition:

In the main the schools continue to teach it for no better reason than that it has always been taught.

He argues that students need to be engaged and have a genuine interest in the material they learn:

Here, I insist, is where our trouble starts. We set up a body of material which, in the nature of the case, must be mastered not because of its intrinsic and manifest appeal, but under some kind of duress. Learning under no urge except external duress, however, is contrary to all natural tendency. Resistances are set up which frustrate the process, no matter how ‘good’ or docile the learner seems. These are the forces which defeat the schools.

His solutions sound strikingly similar to the solutions offered by many critiques of education today:

  • Eliminate the uniform curriculum and allow teachers flexibility.
  • Allow individual students to be more selective in what they choose to learn.

I find all of the criticisms and suggestions here listed apply to the school systems of 2013 just as readily as they did to the school systems of 1939.  While I am mistrustful of universalizing direct personal experiences, my own time in the public school system reflects these arguments. I learned advanced math by rote memorization and retain little of it now. Many of the students who achieve the highest grades in science classes are most talented at memorizing rather than at reasoning scientifically. I retain nothing useful of the foreign languages learnt at school. While I believe myself capable of comprehending and picking apart arguments, much of this skill was picked up outside of the classroom as a result of an independent interest I have in that area, and I find few of my fellow students share this skill. Particularly at the high school level, I found myself generally disinterested in much of what was being taught, though getting into college required that I make a go of slaving through it anyway. If I could change one thing about how the schools operated for my own benefit, it would be been allowing myself to specialize in the subjects that appealed to me individually rather than attempt to achieve a fleeting and shallow mastery of a host of courses that could not engage me.

The fact that these criticisms were being levied against the schools as early as 1939 is especially troubling. At this point, virtually no one is alive who was not educated under a system that could have been subject to these same criticisms, assuming they only began to be valid at the time at which Mursell was writing. This indicates one of two things is true:

  1. The Optimistic View–this has always been a problem in education, and all generations from the dawn of time have been blighted by it.
  2. The Pessimistic View–we are engaged in a downward spiral in which poorly educated generations educate still more poorly their successor generations, leading to a general decline in learning. The same problems get worse with time.

I am not wholly persuaded by either. In favor of the optimistic view, we can even find Plato making an claim not altogether dissimilar from Mursell:

Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.

On the other hand, compare Mursell’s writing with the writing in The Atlantic in more recent days. The Atlantic, which is, by all accounts, an excellent publication and among the best written, does not now contain many op-eds written so well as Mursell’s argument in 1939.  Indeed, it is quite hard to find any writing in the wider press of that quality.

The frightening thing about it is that it’s quite hard to say. We cannot directly compare ourselves to people who no longer exist, so if we are uniformly worse off, we would likely be unaware. Nor can we point to the technological innovations of recent decades as evidence that we are better educated. Just as the summer continues to get warmer long after the longest day of the year, technology continues to progress long after supporting social infrastructure begins its descent. There were philosophers and scientists in the Roman Empire long after the thin end of the wedge. Were they aware of what was going on? Could they have conceived it? I wonder…