Reading, ‘Riting and RatsThe Bizarre History of an Education System Trapped in a Maze
How did America’s schools get so far off the rails? What went wrong? When? Why?
By Mark Barber and Robert Daniels
Parents want the best for their kids — more knowledge, greater opportunity, a brighter, happier future. They know their ability to enjoy life, to find happiness rests squarely on the quality of their education.
But today, America’s learning institutions deliver a promise quite the opposite of people’s dreams, so much so that the federal government launched a special program, No Child Left Behind, dedicated to remedying the problem.
Signed into law in January 2002 by President George W. Bush, how is it that such a measure came to be needed?
How, in just a half century, you may ask, have America’s schools transformed from wellsprings of academic excellence to battlegrounds that daily leave parents wracked with concern over drug abuse, pregnancy, assault and even mass murder that loom over schoolchildren each day?
Many reasons have been offered, chief among them society’s frenzied pace and lack of government funding. Yet such explanations do nothing to allay parental fears, nor do they resolve the problems, as attested by statistics. (See “More Money, Less Literacy”.)
Central to education’s metamorphosis is a long-evolving reorientation of the school system. Odd as it may sound, in most public classrooms today, scholastic achievement takes a back seat to instruction in, or manipulation of, social concepts — a contrast from decades past.
The problem was foreseen 20 years ago, when the blue-ribbon National Commission on Excellence in Education stated, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”1
Never have these words rung more true than they do today.
In investigating the roots of this problem, Freedom discovered they extend far deeper than what one might expect to find in a current-events story — to 1879, when Wilhelm Wundt, known as the father of modern psychology, established a laboratory in Leipzig, Germany. As the reader will see, Wundt and those he influenced — including G. Stanley Hall, John Dewey, Edward Lee Thorndike and James Cattell — set American education on its downhill slide.
The “Death” of the Soul
Makers of the Maze
Man was a soulless animal in Wundt’s eyes — a thing with no self-determinism, to be conditioned and controlled by Wundt and his disciples.
SIR FRANCIS GALTON
Founder of the eugenics movement, the “British Wundt” helped spawn Germany’s racial hygiene and genocide programs.
EDWARD LEE THORNDIKE
Another proponent of eugenics, Thorndike devalued education by arguing “arithmetic, language and history include content that is intrinsically of little value.”
G. STANLEY HALL
Hall believed in “higher” and “lower” human races, describing Africans, Indians and Chinese as “adolescent.”
Mentored by Hall, the “father” of American education labeled the urge to teach children to read early in school “a perversion.”
124 studies over 70 years, according to author John Taylor Gatto, sought to prove Cattell’s theories right. Not one did.
Prior to Wundt, psychology had studied the human psyche or soul. But Wundt considered it to be a “useless waste of energy” to pursue something that he believed couldn’t be observed or measured.2
He purged all spiritual aspects from psychology and concentrated on the physical, intending, in his words, to “mark out a new domain of science.”3
For Wundt, man was merely an animal, a thing to be conditioned and controlled.
People lack self-determinism, Wundt claimed; they simply react to environmental stimuli. He felt that neither men, women nor children were capable of free will or volitional control, but needed to learn — like animals — how to respond to stimuli with the “correct” responses.
It evidently devolved upon those who were “superior” to their fellow humans — Wundt’s students — to do the conditioning and controlling.
And his American disciples — led by Hall, Dewey, Thorndike and Cattell — would alter the face of academia to align with his views.
“Experimental psychology,” Wundt’s specialty, laid the foundation for social conditioning in schools — and, in the process, the gravestone for the intellectual development of all but a selected minority.
“Higher” and “Lower” Races
In 1883, a Wundt protégé, G. Stanley Hall, returned from Leipzig to join the faculty at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He established the American Journal of Psychology and helped to found the American Psychological Association.
As with others in this circle, he espoused attitudes that can only be considered elitist or racist, or both.
“Hall was a firm believer in ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ human races,” one author noted. “He believed the Negro race to be at an early stage of human development, and dependent upon the ‘higher,’ more advanced white race for its development and supervision.4
In 1886, he published Psychology, the first American textbook on Wundt’s altered subject. In his 1904 book Adolescence, Hall “described Africans, Indians and Chinese as members of ‘adolescent races’ in a stage of incomplete growth.”5
Typical of his cohorts, education for the masses was not something he espoused.
“We must overcome the fetishism of the alphabet, of the multiplication tables, of grammars,” Hall said.
“It would be no serious loss if a child never learned to read.” (Emphasis added.)
Children and Guinea Pigs
Hall mentored John Dewey, a Johns Hopkins student who, in 1895, joined the University of Chicago to head the Department of Pedagogy. There, Dewey established the Laboratory School — a testing ground for Wundt’s ideas, with children as the guinea pigs.
Dewey advocated that schools take on the role of social, rather than academic, institutions.
To Dewey, “the ultimate problem of all education” was to coordinate “psychological and social factors” and to instruct “in such a way as to realize social ends.”
Dewey labeled the urge to teach children to read early in their school life “a perversion” and reportedly avoided teaching reading because literacy bred individualism. Ironically, this man who subverted the purpose and quality of teaching became promoted by his followers as “the father of American education.”
Overwhelmed by the bizarre brew that is Wundtian psychology, with its denial of man’s spirituality and its inherent elitism, American schools would never be the same. And, with Wundt’s devotees creating labs in major American institutions, his brand of psychology ruled.