Calvert: The Founding Fathers wanted a common education for all citizens

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North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum wants to change our educational system "to meet the challenges of the 21st Century." He wants to streamline it with technology and by eliminating old-fashioned classrooms. "Nearly all of the world's information is now available online," he says. He wants students "to be problem solvers, effective communicators, informed and responsible citizens who are strong collaborators." Whether they learn anything of consequence is unimportant. Efficiency is everything.

Burgum is captive of the progressive ideology that has dominated the public schools for almost a century. Progressivism is a romantic doctrine, dating back to Rousseau, who said that children are naturally wise and are the best judges of what they need to know. John Dewey, a disciple of Rousseau and a founder of American progressivism, said that "the child's own instincts and powers are the starting point for all education." Teachers are excess baggage.

The latest variant of this ideology is called "personalized learning." It is gaining traction in other parts of the country, and Burgum thinks it will make North Dakota the nation's leader in schooling. It promises that while dozens of educational fads, all inspired by progressivism, have failed, this one, for sure, will radically increase student involvement.

Here's how it works: Each student is assessed for individual strengths, skills, interests, knowledge and preferred means of learning, all of which go into a "learning plan." Either as individuals or as small groups, the students then take charge of their own learning. They do this by devising a "project" which reflects their own interests, and then pursuing it at their own pace. Conveniently, there is now a huge inventory of software to accommodate any project the kids might dream up. Sensing a bonanza, the Gates Foundation, Mark Zuckerberg and other software companies have invested hundreds of millions to get personalized learning launched.

This is all in rebellion against the "factory model" in which students are supposedly bored to death by having to sit in chairs, listen to teachers and endure "rote memorization," "mere facts" and reading books. By contrast, individualized learning will be effortless and fun.


Granted, trashing the traditional classroom will diminish the ability of students to learn social skills, make friends and compare their progress with their peers. The traditional core curriculum will be trashed, too. Instead of learning the great ideas and accomplishments of the civilization which they will inhabit, they'll be free to pursue whatever strikes their fancies. "One size doesn't fit all" is the motto of progressivism.

The Founding Fathers wanted a common education for all citizens. This would bridge the gaps of class and region and give everyone an equal voice in the town square. Dewey's counterpart, reformer William C. Bagley, said that schools must strive for as "high a level of common culture as possible" so that public decisions would be "made on the highest possible plane." Accordingly, he ridiculed the idea that every locality must have "a curriculum all its own" as being "not only silly, but tragic."

North Dakota's constitution tasks schools with advancing a "high degree of intelligence, patriotism, integrity and morality," and to this end it calls for "a reasonable degree of uniformity in the course of study." Its architects would be horrified if they could see today's near-fanatical determination to alienate citizens from each other and from their cultural roots. The Nation at Risk Report warned in 1987 that "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might as well have viewed it as an act of war."

American schooling is in the grip of a "directorate" of interlocking agencies - the teacher colleges, local school administrators, state superintendents and teachers unions - all of which share the ideology of progressivism. It is a "thoughtworld" which common sense cannot penetrate.

ACT scores have declined again this year, as they have since the 1960s. Perhaps one day a leader who is not beguiled by cultish fads will arise and demand real reform. Until then, expect American education to continue its collapse.

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