The Canadian news media, so it seems, are finally getting on to a story that broke about 50 years ago, which they missed at the time and have been missing ever since. I know, because I was one of the reporters who missed it.
Judging by the stuff appearing of late in the national media, we are beginning to discover that our school system has been fairly well ruined by crackpot ideas, introduced in the 1950s by reformers of supposedly unchallengeable authority. They were in fact challenged at the time by older, life-long teachers who protested that these new concepts were hair-brained, if not downright insane. The changes would assuredly result, they said, in a steady decline in standards, and a whole generation of people incapable of either governing themselves or being governed.
Well, we of the media of that day knew that those old fogies were living in another era. They were incapable of change, out of touch with reality, and fit only to be pastured so that they could not stand in the way of “progress.”
The newspaper editorial writers, as I recall, eagerly embraced the new concepts and urged their adoption. They too wanted their newspapers to be wholly identified with the new society those new schools were intended to create. Many zillions of words have been used to describe this educational revolution, usually attributed to the philosopher John Dewey and the coterie of new thinkers who surrounded him at the University of Chicago. What they wanted was painless education. Above all, learning must be fun, and freed of all sense of coercion and fear.
The practice of pass and fail must be eliminated, teachers must cease being authority figures and become instead friends and guides; examinations must be abolished; grading standards like A, B, C, and D and percentage figures done away with.
All this was in order to produce a new kind of society in which human evil and competitiveness would gradually disappear.
Those old teachers said it wouldn’t work, that the competitive element in human beings is innate, not learned, and the inevitable result would be a disastrous decline in educational standards. Every last one of those old teachers is no doubt dead by now, but all through their last years, they were forced to watch their forebodings come appallingly true. Too bad they aren’t around this week as the children and youths of Canada head back for another year in school, accompanied by a moaning media chorus describing our educational system as an obvious disaster.
One national newspaper deplores the “social pass” as producing tens of thousands of so-called high school graduates who can scarcely read and write. Another bewails the fact that young people simply are not becoming adults. They acquire one academic credential after another, often living with their parents until they’re 30, and never getting a permanent job.
Now, we’re told, a distinguished psychologist proposes putting most people to work at age 12, with a knowledge of the basic three Rs and nothing more. It will make them grow up, he says. This is hailed as a revolutionary new concept, never heard of before. In fact, it isn’t new at all.
One of those old-style teachers, who died in the early ‘50s, was Sir Richard Livingstone, a classics prof and educational philosopher. He was Dewey’s contemporary but held very different ideas. Livingstone defined what he called “educable ages” of human beings. We are most educable, he said, when we’re very young, least educable in the teen years and early 20s, and become highly educable again as adults. He therefore proposed the high school system be abolished, except for the very brightest of students, and that the money thereby saved be directed instead into community schools for adults. People would normally continue their education through their adult life. In effect, he was abolishing the whole concept of the teen-ager, the adolescent. If nearly everybody at 12 or 13 joined the work force, they would in fact become part of the adult world. Later, they would go back to school in order to actually learn something.
We scoffed at the time. Do away with high school? Preposterous, we said. Today, more than ever, it sounds like a good idea.