Mortimer Smith and the Diminished Mind (book review)
One common retort to those who criticize the historical ascendancy and stranglehold of “progressivism” in education is to simply deny the charge. Diane Ravitch, for instance, met just this type of denial when she published Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform. Critics, generally with an affinity for “progressive” pedagogy, told us that Ravitch’s history was hopelessly biased and a bunch of spin. Progressive ideals, they say, did not fail: they were never really tried.
It is too bad for these critics that books like The Diminished Mind by Mortimer Smith, were published. TDM was written in 1954 as a way to chronicle the educational landscape as it looked at the time. Smith’s verdict?
I do not think anyone will challenge the statement that pragmatism has become the official philosophy of the public education; there may be an occasional maverick scattered her and there but the great majority of the professors of education are committed to this philosophy and they transmit it to the future teachers and administrators whom they train to run the American public school system (Smith 1954, PG78-79).
By “pragmatism,” Smith is referring to “the pedagogical principles which formed the basis of what came to be known as progressive education and is now more commonly referred to as modern education.” (PG78) The educational pragmatism Smith judged to be the dominant philosophic force in education (ushered in by Dewey; perverted by followers) included the idea that education is to center around the child’s immediate needs and should serve not to convey knowledge but to “reconstruct experience” (which, of course, Dewey was never really clear on what was meant). These ideas manifested themselves in various curricular theories, two of which Smith examines in some detail: education for life adjustment and education for social reconstruction.
Chapters II and III (Adjustment Replaces Education and Adjustment Replaces Education Continued) discuss and thoroughly document the rise of the “life adjustment” theory of curriculum through the public schools. As Smith explains, since the idea was that education should prepare students for life and that students learn best what is interesting to them at the time, students should learn less academics (language, mathematics, science) and more “applied” life skills (hygiene, socialization, gardening). Smith details several school districts and theorists of education’s attempts to do such thing as get rid of the requirement to learn grammar in school, in favor of learning reading and writing through only “real world” reading and writing tasks. (Sounds eerily like a precursor to the failed “whole language” approach to reading acquisition.)
Chapter IV (Educational Brainwashing, Democratic Style) demonstrates how pragmatism was also taken in another direction: the idea that curricula should focus on “social reconstruction.” Quite bluntly, this was the idea that schools should guide students and advocate for social virtues that educators felt promoted “social justice.” Rather than educate by relaying various points of view (and facts allowing individuals to arrive at their own points of view), schools needed to become mechanisms of social change. Smith even documents how many of the educators advocating this position drew their inspiration from the educational goals and methods of the Soviets.
What Smith istroubled by in both of these philosophies that were alive and well in the 40’s and 50’s – besides the obvious – is that they get away from what Smith sees as the fundamental goal of education: to introduce young minds to the facts and ideas that have come before so that they might take them into the world. The new theories were as anti-academic as they were indoctrinational:
[T]he controversy today is between those who continue to believe that the cultivation of intelligence, moral as well as intellectual, is inextricably bound up with the cultural heritage and accumulated knowledge of humankind, and those who feel that education’s primary task is to adjust the individual to the group to see that he learns to respond “satisfactorily” to the stresses and strains of the social order.” Ideally the tow tasks are not mutually exclusive but the advocates of the latter consistently deride the former, engaging in a vigorous anti-intellectualism and a belittling of, and contempt for, content in education.” (Smith 1954, PG20)
Another difficulty that Smith notes with both “life adjustment” and “social reconstruction” theory of education is that both are quite unegalitarian while professing to be egalitarian (or, if you like, undemocratic while purporting to be democratic). While education theorists at the time were crying for more egalitarian and democratic education, both of the theories that they were espousing attempted to steer individuals towards pre-determined ends, seeing students almost as tools to be manipulated. While both professed to be child-centered, both saw the child as something to be molded in a specific way, and while both philosophies professed to be liberating the child, they both stultified the child by treating her mind as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
The rest of the book is devoted to decrying the ascendancy of an academic elite in education schools which bought and taught these anti-academic theories, a lament that is reminiscent of ED Hirsch’s current labeling of ed schools as a quite unanimous “thoughtworld.” Chapter V (“The Stranglehold of the Educationists”) examines how this ascendancy occurred and how it has been able to self-perpetuate even in the face of varied criticism. Chapter VI (“Putting Parents in Their Place, or, The Customer Is Always Wrong”) recounts the troubling way in which these educationists silence dissent. It is ironically noted that while the educationists mentioned in this chapter often push for “democratic schools,” they never fail to accuse the numerous parent groups who criticized their methods as having no rightful voice in education policy. The final chapter (“The Prospects Before Us”) take an optimistic view of the potential for bringing back schools’ primary purpose: the conveying of academic knowledge.
When one reads books on educational history, one tends to notice that things occur in cycles: educationists seize on each new idea (often a rehashing of old ideas), press it to the extreme, and, when it fails to produce the hoped for result, begin looking in the other direction, ad infinitum. It is difficult to say whether the re-academicizing of the public schools has occurred the way Smith so hoped in his final chapter. On the one hand, there has been a renewed emphasis on standards-based learning; on the other, those standards are often decried as watered-down.
Whatever has happened since, Smith has given us a very good document of the educational landscape in 1954. Progressive education was tried and it did fail. Anyone who cares to see that it is not tried again will want to read this book.
Smith, Mortimer. The Diminished Mind. Chicago, IL: The Henry Regnery Company, 1954.