education philosopher

An Unjustly Forgotten Voice of Dissent: Review of Isaac Leon Kandel’s “Cult of Uncertainty”

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on October 18, 2009

To know about the philosophy of education today is to know about John Dewey, Edward Thorndike, William Kirkpatrick and progressive education. One of the most unfortunate byproducts of this singular focus is that many of the works critical of progressive education – and there have been many – have since been unjustly forgotten. It is quite standard to see a philosophy/theory of education course read the educational works of John Dewey (as well they should). Unfortunately, reading lists don’t tend to give voice to some of the criticisms (old or new) of progressive education that Dewey represents.

 One such remarkable book that has unjustly gone overlooked is Isaac Leon Kandel’s Cult of Uncertainty. Like so Kandelmany other books critical of progressive education, this book is currently out of print, but can fortunately be seen and downloaded for free from googlebooks. In Cult of Uncertainty, historian of education Kandel criticizes what he saw as the excesses of progressive education – its flexibility and laxity with curriculum, overemphasis on maintaining children’s interest over teaching intellectual essentials, and conflation of authority with authoritarianism.

By contrast, Kandel’s view of education is somewhat reminiscent of Edmund Burke’s conservatism . Rather than the emphasis on each generation and individual creating and discovering their own knowledge, schools’ first goal should be to impart to students the essential knowledge that past generations have created and discovered.

Culture as the deposited wisdom of the world, as the accumulated experience of the human race which has discovered and tested meanings and values through the centuries, as “the funded capital of civilization,” or as “the permanent sense of mankind” may in course of time be acquired as, when, and if the pupil in the learning situation feels the need of it (Kandel 1943, PG 66).

To progressives, Kandel notes, this will doubtless be seen as authoritarianism and indoctrination. A mistake progressives have made is an undue extremization where “authority has been confused with authoritarianism and has been rejected through fear of indoctrinating the pupils.” (Kandel 1943, PG 46) Unfortunately, this false view of instruction as indoctrination makes many progressives squeamish at the idea of instructing at all.

The fear, it seems, was that “deposit[ing] wisdom of the world” and “tested meanings and values,” meant that we were indoctrinating students with these things. In one sense, of course, that is absolutely true. When we teach a child how to tie her shoe, we are telling her that this is the best way to tie her shoe and that it is the way she should use. I think that the most obvious reply to this fear is that it shouldn’t be a fear at all! Many things – converting fractions to percents, grammar, the structure of DNA – are most efficiently and painlessly learned by indoctrination (instruction) than by guiding the child to discover these things herself. Kandel’s point, I think, is that if it has taken generations to arrive at certain well-tested truths, then is it really wise to withhold these from children over a fear of indoctrination and authoritarianism?

To illustrate this point, Kandel notes how ironic the progressive infatuation with the scientific method as an analogy for learning was. The pragmatic view of learning on which much progressivism is based has it that learning is done by trial and error – by starting with a problem, conjecturing a solution, trying it out, noting the result, and refining. What is not acknowledged in this equation is that scientists tend not to start from scratch in their conjectures, but learn about previous attempts to solve problems before attempting their own solutions. This way, they can save time, effort, and money by building on the accumulated wisdom of predecessors and colleagues.

 That the scientist can only recognize new problems to be solved after he has mastered all the achievements of his predecessors, fixed-in-advance and set-out-to-be-learned, is a fact which is conveniently ignored. Similarly ignored is the fact that, however mistakenly, educators who accepted the doctrine of formal discipline and transfer did so with the expectation that the learner would acquire skills to meet new and unpredictable situations. (Kandel 1943, PG 44)

Kandel also takes issue with an over-infatuation with the analogy comparing learning to science as a bit too simplistic. In many cases, of course, we do learn by trial and error. But in other cases, we consult others for instruction. Sometimes, it is best to learn how a thing works by using it, and others, it is best to consult a manual or guide. Generally, the method of learning we use has to do with how difficult and complicated the problem is relative to the background information we have. If I am trying to learn how to use a new cell phone (and have used previous cell phones), it may be most effective to learn by doing. If I am trying to learn a new blackberry after never having used a cell phone before, it is likely most efficient to consult a manual or teacher. Thus, to say that all learning is analogous to the scientific method is to employ a simplistic generalization. Kandel notes that “It is significant that when illustrations of this theory are offered by its leading exponent, they never rise beyond the problem situations of crossing the street or of taking turns on a swing.” (Kandel 1943, PG 43) Had they used the example of a scientific novice learning to balance a chemical equation, the scientific method analogy might not hold.

What is also interesting about Kandel’s Cult of Uncertainty is that its view of what democracy entails is quite the opposite of Dewey’s as expressed in his Democracy and Education. Whereas Dewey highlighted the spirit of inquiry and anti-authoritarianism (everyone is free to go their own epistemic way), Kandel emphasized the “shared value” aspect of democracy and the Burkean idea of traditions being imparted from one generation to another. “If democracy means anything, writes Kandel, “it means that it stands for the tested values of the past as well as for the wave of the future.” (Kandel 1943, PG 64) Thus, in some sense, the disagreements of Kandel with the progressives is as much about their social visions as about their pedagogical visions: Kandel is defending social conservatism where progressives tend to defend social liberalism.

I must digress quickly to point out that I think both conceptions are wrong. Democracy literally understood entails nothing except for the idea that policies or representatives are decided by a vote where the majority’s position is adopted. Democracy no more entails traditionalism or liberalism than a dictatorship entails either of these. Democracy is no less or more democracy because it recognizes or discounts tradition. Rather, democracy is concerned only with how policies become enacted instead of which policies to enact.

Anyhow, Kandel ends his book with a very good summary of his vision for education (one shared by many other long forgotten educational “essentialists” like William Bagley and Michael Demiashkevich).

In an age when changes seem to be going on at an accelerated pace, it is more essential than ever that education should impart standards of value to sift the wheat from the chaff. The innovators, concentrating their attention on change and precariousness, have refused to face the problem of values except in terms of the individual’s own creative activity. Having closed their minds to the existence of eternal verities and rejecting the authority of everything except that derived from experience in living, they have destroyed faith of any kind and have deprived man of the guidance of the only experience which has stood the test of time —the experience of the race as recorded in the annals of its struggle to improve the conditions of existence. (Kandel 1943, PG 69-70)

An education which sees its primary function as to allow children to discover knowledge for themselves is not an education at all (or at least not the kind a child could not get equally well informally). An education that could, if it wanted, share the “eternal verities” “which has stood the test of time” but does not do so in the name of allowing children to discover for themselves is equally unworthy of being called education. (It seems like the active withholding of information out of fear of indoctrination is better called anti-education.)

Obviously, progressive education has made many lasting contributions to education; it has forced educators to put more emphasis on active rather than passive learning, it has taught us that holding a child’s interest can positively affect learning, and it has reminded educators to teach not only what to think but how to think. Even today, though, there is a tendency to see progressivism as the only voice that matters in the debates over education. The fact that books by Leon Kandel, William Chandler Bagley, Michael Demiashkevich and other essentialists have no current presence in educational literature makes these debates so much the worse. As Kandel points out, [t]he truth of a philosophy cannot be proved because those who choose to adopt it refuse to entertain the existence of other philosophies or dismiss them with a quip.” (Kandel 1943, PG 38)

Whether you agree or disagree with the essentialist outlook to education, Kandel’s book is one quip worth exploring.

  • Kandel, Isaac Leon. The Cult of Uncertainty. New York, NY: MacMillan Company, 1943.
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