18 December 2021

Lasch—on education, from early essays


Christopher Lasch
The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. I, "Origins of the Asylum"
The humanitarian reformers [e.g. Samuel Tuke's York Retreat, founded 1796] consciously or unwittingly took over from the cloister the principle that withdrawal from the world is a necessary condition of spiritual cleansing. The results, however, were unexpected: a principle that served very well the needs of an institution into which entrance was voluntary and residence expected to be permanent took on quite different meanings when transferred to places people were forced to enter for a time in the expectation that they would emerge once again into the world, fully prepared for the burdens of citizenship. Whereas the purpose of the monastery was to teach one to live as a monk, the asylum could not very well claim that its ideal product was the ideal inmate of an asylum, tractable, amenable to arbitrary discipline imposed from above, and unable to function outside systems of total control; yet such was in fact the person asylums tended to create.
(p. 8-9)


The segregation of children, running in so many ways parallel to the segregation of criminals, madmen, and other outcasts, suggests that the new-style confinement originated not simply in a concern for public safety but in a deeper and more elusive change of sensibility, which expressed itself in part in a new concept of childhood.
(p. 14)


Like other asylums, the school, once it had been divorced from other institutions (like the church) and from other purposes extraneous to its newly defined objective of sheltering the young in loco parentis, developed an administrative bureaucracy more concerned with order and discipline than with education. No other institution, in fact, so clearly illustrates the ambiguity of humanitarian reform.
(p. 15)


Ch. XII, "The "Counter-Culture""
At one point he [Charles Reich] deplores the university's obsession with scholarly "productivity." A more serious critic would proceed to an analysis of the body of scholarship produced by current conditions. He might try to show that the flood of scholarly monographs in no way enriches our understanding and in fact impedes the necessary work of theory and synthesis. He might also try to show that much of this work is ideological in content, serving to legitimate existing social relations. Instead, Reich objects that writing scholarly books is rarely a "creative" experience for the individuals engaged in it. This completely misses the point: it is precisely because the activity does offer genuine pleasure that there is so little disposition to criticize the institution that makes it possible, the modern university. As long as the university allows us to "do our own work," we ask no questions of it. The real problem of academic life is not how to find private satisfiction but how to create a community of scholars. More teaching and less research—Reich's solution—is a trite and hollow formulation that obscures the underlying question of what we are to teach.
(p. 188)


Ch. XVI, "Educational Structures and Cultural Fragmentation"
Before the nineteenth century formal schooling was considered indispensible only for those preparing for careers in law, medicine, or the church, although others of course availed themselves of it. Most people did not go to school at all—a fact that has usually been taken to mean that the masses lived in darkness and that the eventual achievement of universal education came about because the masses learned to demand it as their birthright. Recent scholarship, much of it inspired by a growing disullusionment with the school, calls this assumption into question. It now appears that middle-class reformers played a decisive role in the creation of the modern school system and that they saw the school essentially as an instrument of social control—the "civilizing" effects of education being closely associated, in their minds, with the need to discipline people whom the dislocations of early capitalism threatened to render unruly and rebellious. The coming of universal education did not so much liberate the masses as subject them to bureaucratic custody.
(p. 251)


The ideology of school reform shared another feature with the ideology of the asylum. It contained a built-in, ready-made explanation of its own failures. Once the principle of the common school and the asylum had been generally accepted and the memory of earlier customs had begun to fade, critics of the new system found it difficult to resist the logic of the position put forward by the custodians: that the admitted failures of the new institutions could be attributed to lack of sustained and unequivocal public commitment, particularly in the matter of funds, and that the only remedy for those failures, therefore, lay in bigger and better schools and asylums, better professional training, more centralization, greater powers for the custodians—in short, another dose of the same medicine. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the school, like the asylum, came under heavy public criticism. The schools were inefficient and costly ... too many of the pupils failed. This criticism, however, in no way questioned the underlying premises of universal compulsory education; its upshot was a concerted drive to make the schools more "efficient." ...as in his [Joseph Mayer Rice's] earlier writings he stressed [in Scientific Management in Education (1913)] the need to remove education from political control. The application of this commonly held idea to education had the same consequences as its application to city government in the form of civil service reform, the city manager system, and other devices intended to end "political" influence and promote the introduction of "business methods." It encouraged the growth of an administrative bureaucracy not directly responsible to the public and contributed to the centralization of power.
(pp. 254-255)


When Randolph Bourne visited the Gary schools in 1915, he saw them as the triumph of Deweyite principles. By incorporating industrial activities that had formerly taken place in the family and by running into the summer (though on a voluntary basis), the Gary schools served "as an extension of the home." Well equipped with every kind of facility, the system served as a community center, "a sort of town public university, attended by all classes of the population." Since the plant was maintained by the students themselves, the students "learned from doing," in
[259]
the jargon of the day. "School life in Gary is, therefore, not a mere preparation for life, but a life itself." Conventional discipline could be dispensed with, "for Mr. Wirt finds that when children are busy and interested they do not have time to be mischievous. . . . They move freely about the building with the unconscious air of owning the school themselves." Noting that the academic classes were tracked "according to whether the children give promise of completing the school course in ten, twelve, or fourteen years," Bourne saw in this mechanism only a means of ensuring that "the brighter children are not retarded by the slower ones." He was impressed by the "helper" system, in which the older children helped to teach the younger ones, and by the easy way in which intellectual and practical instruction was combined. It is impossible to read some of his descriptions without sharing his enthusiasm... The following passage shows progressive ideals at their best; but it also suggests, inadvertently, why progressivism failed.
I dropped into physics class, and found a dozen twelve-year-old girls and their nine-year-old "helpers" studying the motor-cycle. With that fine disregard for boundaries which characterizes Gary education, the hour began with a spelling lesson of the names of the parts and processes of the machine. After the words were learned, the mechanism was explained to them as they pored over it, and their memory of vaporization, evaporation, etc., called into play. The motor-cycle was set going, the girls described its action, and the lesson was over, as perfect a piece of teaching as I have ever heard. The intense animation of that little group was all the more piquant for having as a background the astounded disapprobation of three grave superintendents from the East.
As these last words indicate, it was neither the helper system, the relaxation of discipline, nor the hope of training "versatile mechanics" that accounted for most educators' interest in the Gary schools. It is saddening to read, side by side with Bourne's
[260]
account, the study of the Gary system written three years later, under official auspices, by Abraham Flexner and Frank P. Bachman. These authorities urged that the "helper" system be "less freely and more discriminately used." With regard to industrial work, they judged it a defect of the system that "the tasks themselves are determined not by simple educational considerations . . . but by practical daily need in the school system or the home." This criticism struck at one of the best features of the Gary system, the union of pedagogy and practice—a union which, as Bourne noted, gave the students a proprietary interest in the school and allowed a relaxation of discipline. ...

[261]
The fate of progressive education is already foreshadowed in this [Flexner and Bachman's] report. Those aspects of the Gary system that are demonstrably "efficient" will be retained and extended—tracking, lengthening of the school day, fuller use of the plant. The genuinely innovative features of the system, unable to produce satisfactory results according to the latest tests, will be unceremoniously dropped. Only the rhetoric of progressivism will remain—prattle about the need for "practical education" and "the proper development of the entire child."
(pp. 258-261)


The university was especially vulnerable to the charge of impracticality because it still retained the traces of its ecclesiastical origin: the ceremonial use of Latin, the classical curriculum, allegedly pointless ritual, a notable resistance to innovation. Institutions of higher learning were much slower than the rest of the educational system to absorb the lay culture that had always co-existed with the ecclesiastical culture schools in general had originally been designed to preserve. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lay culture was revolutionized by new advances in science, political theory, philosophy, mathematics, and the arts; but almost every important discovery in these fields took place outside the universities and in many cases in open opposition to the universities.
(p. 262)


As eager to identify themselves with modernity as the utilitarians, those who defined the university as a research center had the additional advantage of being well organized into professional organizations. Many of them had been trained in Germany, and they brought to academic discussions the prestige of German scholarship, then much admired. Above all, they spoke in the name of modern science. Their defense of pure research—of what Veblen was to call "idle curiosity"—carried great weight.

Unlike Veblen, however, most of the advocates of this position were unwilling to rest the case for "research" on "curiosity" alone. The defense of pure science itself rested on the material achievements of modern science. ...[For Daniel Coit Gilman, e.g.,] the university's pursuit of [pure science] should be subjected to no narrowly utilitarian test. But Gilman did not leave the argument there; he added that applied mathematics had played an important role in developing steam locomotion, the telegraph, the telephone, photography, and electric lighting. "These wonderful inventions," he pointed out, "are the direct fruit of university studies." What is ominous about this defense of pure research is the assertion that although scientific "progress" is the purpose of the university, the results of that progress cannot be communicated to the public or even from one depart-
[264]
ment of the university to another, except in the form of "wonderful inventions." The whole controversy over pure and applied research presupposed an almost total fragmentation of culture.
(pp. 263-264)


Much of the recent clamor for relevance reflects an awareness that there is an increasingly remote connection between degrees and the training actually required for most jobs. The solution, however, starts not with changing the content of courses but of getting rid of the whole idea that courses—and colleges—are the only means to an education. The whole system of compulsory schooling needs to be reconsidered. Rather than trying to reform and extend the present system, we should be trying to restore the educative content of work, to provide other means of certifying people for jobs, and to hasten the entry of young people into the adult society instead of forcing them to undergo prolonged training—training which, except in the older professions, has no demonstrable bearing on qualifications for work.
(p. 267)


The displacement of apprenticeship by schooling led to a hardening of class lines, as educational advantages accumulated in the upper bourgeoisie and the professional and managerial strata. Another undesirable feature of the change, particularly as it concerned the lower schools, was that the working class abdicated control over apprenticeship—the process of qualification for work—to professional educators. It is significant that trade unions initially resisted the introduction of industrial education into the schools and capitulated only reluctantly, when they became convinced that the advantages of shifting the costs of vocational training to the schools outweighed the loss of their own control. In time not only the unions but vocational groups of all kinds not only acquiesced in but welcomed the assumption of vocational education by the schools and universities. By the 1930s Robert Maynard Hutchins could complain that "every group in the community that is well enough organized and has an audible voice wants the university to spare it the necessity of training its recruits." The effects of this shift on the school were as bad as the effects on society itself, not only because, as Hutchins pointed out, the competitive upgrading of vocations into professions threatened to downgrade the professions into vocations, but because the school system as a whole was called on to serve, in effect, as a source of vicarious experience; indeed as a substitute for experience. The point does not need to be belabored that educators have not followed Hutchins' sensible advice to "leave experience to life and set about our own job of intellectual training." It is more important to note that Hutchins himself refrained from exploring the implications of returning
[269]
vocational training to the vocations. He took it for granted that prolongation of adolescence was inevitable in industrial society, that institutions of some sort must provide for this extended adolescence, that the school was best qualified to do so, and that in short "economic conditions require us to provide some kind of education for the young . . . up to about their twentieth year."
(pp. 268-269)

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