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Download Why Schools Fail: The Denial of Individuality and the Decline of Learning epub

by Bruce Goldberg

An exploration of the shortcomings in the educational system.
Download Why Schools Fail: The Denial of Individuality and the Decline of Learning epub
ISBN: 1882577396
ISBN13: 978-1882577392
Category: Education
Subcategory: Schools & Teaching
Author: Bruce Goldberg
Language: English
Publisher: Cato Institute (December 19, 1996)
Pages: 124 pages
ePUB size: 1633 kb
FB2 size: 1769 kb
Rating: 4.1
Votes: 141
Other Formats: lrf mobi azw docx

First, I must confess that I am biased toward the conclusions of the author. A PhD student in education myself, I am very suspicious of attempts to treat education as a science partly because doing so has led many standardization attempts that have never seemed to work well, and because taking the idea of individual differences seriously seems to disqualify the idea that we can discover education laws common to all (that are specific enough to say anything substantive). Further, I suspect that we try to discover scientific laws of education for largely pragmatic reasons: not to do so makes the mass education system we are used to look impossible.

For all of this, I must say that I found the author's case in this brief volume (the conclusions of which I agree with) a bit shoddy. Many times, I thought that were I a skeptic of these conclusions, I very probably would not have been convinced by the arguments supporting them.

To start off, the author's case that a science of education is dubious largely rests on recounting past attempts and showing them to be questionable. Horace Mann believed firmly in phrenology. The behaviorists believed that learning reduces to a stimulus-response model. Jerome Bruner believed that in order to learn specifics, one must learn generalities first (in order to learn concrete math, one needed to philosophize about what math, numbers, etc, were first). All of these have really proven to be dubious - not only unsuccessful, but much less "scientific" than they appeared to enthusiasts.

We are left to infer - because the author never really ARGUES - that because these past attempts were dubious, present attempts will be as well. The problem with this "post hoc ergo propter hoc" arguments should be obvious: identifying the flaws of past attempts does not mean necessarily that those same flaws carry over to present attempts. To argue that past attempts at medicine turned out to be nothing but superstition that only seemed scientific does not mean that every attempt to create new forms of medicine will make the same mistakes. Someone could read this book and easily respond by saying, "Well, we are smarter now. The errors of the past are not necessarily the errors of the future. Just because past attempts to get at the science of learning were not good may just be because they didn't have the tools, knowledge, and insights we do."

[I understand, of course, that a retort might be that learning from the failed hubris of the past should lead us toward a more guarded attitude toward present hubris. But that isn't an argument that PRECLUDES the ability to discover a science of learning. It is only an argument that we should be more careful in our attempts to create such a science.]

Next, there is a general argument that all attempts to create a science of education have been based on an idea that humans can, and should, be shaped by the state (or whoever is doing the controlling), which really leads to (and comes from) socialist utopianism. But an obvious objection is that this is more guilt by association than anything. To point out that a science of education has been largely the attempts of utopian socialists simply does not mean that it HAS to be used that way! We can argue that the association between utopianism and a science of learning is a strong one, but what needs to be argued is that IT IS A NECESSARY ONE. The author doesn't do that.

The author concludes by arguing that in light of there seeming to be no real science of learning - it seems that all kids really do learn differently and gravitate toward learning and excelling at different things - a market system is preferable to a government system. To this, I couldn't agree more! Of course, the author is aware that a market system is also likely to produce very authoritarian and rigid schools as much as a state system, but he simply argues that there is LESS possibility of this rigidity in a market system where parents can choose where to send their kids to school. While the author certainly acknowledges that a market system will have flaws - even some of the same ones that a government-imposed system might have - it is simply more responsive to individual differences than a state system is.

Well, I think the conclusions of the book are very good, and I am certainly inclined toward a market conception of education. But I think the author could have made his points a bit stronger. First, a book like Pluralism: Against the Demand for Consensus (Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy) does a much better job of really exploring all the reasons why individuals simply are best seen as pluralistic rather than homogeneous. Once that is argued, the case against a science of education becomes much more effective. Historical arguments addressing past failed attempts at an educational science fall victim to the argument that failures of the past don't necessitate failures in future attempts.

This is a worthwhile read, but I would recommend supplementing it with books like the above book by Rescher (not an education tract, but very relevant) and maybe some works by authors like John Holt.
WHY SCHOOLS FAIL is a great view of the progression of the American education system from its very beginnings to the present day. Goldberg traces teaching methods that are used today back to their origin, often showing how they weren't any more effective then than they are today. This is not a cry back to some mythical Golden Age of Education, but rather an insistence on using the knowledge that we have of child psychology and modern methods of teaching, and creating something better.
The author goes into great detail explaining the effects that some of these practices have upon children. A child may get through all four years of High School math with passing grades, but if the experience has been an unpleasant one, he or she is unlikely to develop a lifelong passion for it. A student will come to see mathematics (for example) as something to be feared or avoided and will not likely be continuing his or her education past what is absolutely required. Goldberg feels that this turns too many people away from knowledge, as they come to associate it with all the unpleasant things that they remember from their school days.
Goldberg questions the rigid structure present in the current educational system. He claims that this stifles creativity and individuality. Many of the anecdotes fall into the funny-because-true category (such as the stories of students forced to hold paper in their mouths to prevent their lips from moving while reading). Not all of his criticisms are new to those who fault the public education system, but where others merely note the practices they disagree with, Goldberg goes into a lot more detail and questions why methods that have been shown to fail repeatedly over time are still being used. Instead of just mentioning that they fail, a lot of time is spent showing how they fail, why they fail and how long they've been failing for.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in furthering one's knowledge of the educational system. There should be quite enough here for both a casual reader and someone looking for detail. The book did not receive a full five star rating from me because I did not agree with much of the final chapter in which Goldberg says what he thinks needs to be done in order to fix the current system. I found it to be too much like a voucher system and that would create more problems than it would solve. However, not a lot of time was spent discussing this and one should not take from this review the idea that this book is about how to overhaul the system. This book is primarily about what the failures are and it does an excellent job of pointing them out.