I just read an expansive article by David Tyack, professor emeritus at Stanford in the history of education. In the article Tyack considers at length the different populations that have been neglected in the American education system. Any student of history would learn something; I was struck by how racism during WWII made it seem natural that white Nazi prisoners-of-war on their way to prison camp in the South should be allowed inside a “whites only” dining room in a railroad station, but their black guards should not. One of the most insightful points Tyack makes is very helpful for understanding the present situation in public education:

Psychology, the academic discipline most influential in the field of education, has reflected and reinforced individualism by using the person as the chief unit of analysis. In this way of seeing, which boasted the label “scientific,” educations have portrayed differences between students—in “intelligence,” interests, temperament, or likely social destiny, for example—as characteristics of individuals rather than as products of class or culture.”

It’s not hard to see the influence of psychology in schools; there are school psychologists, functional behavioral analyses, special education tests for brain disorders, and the psychology-dependent teacher training programs. I like how Tyack connects the monopoly of psychology in education with individualism in the America, something that can be more clearly understood by looking at classrooms in other countries. In Japan, for instance, classes are generally rewarded or punished as a group, which has kept Japanese cleaner, even without hiring janitors. Students recognize that they will all suffer from a dirty school and pick up accordingly. In America, individual students know that if they walk far enough away from their trash it is no longer their trash. Someone else will get blamed, or, more likely, everyone will suffer during the day while paying for janitors to clean at night.

It goes without saying but is worth repeating: what goes for public education is only a reflection of society as a whole. As Paula Fass, whose recent collection of essays considers how history can inform contemporary trends in education around the globe, explains:

The shape of American education in the twentieth century…is crucially related to the problems with American diversity.”

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Posted by Jeremy Mann


  1. Yes, but what is the point? I am not sure I see it.

    He says, “Psychology, the academic discipline most influential in the field of education…” Wow, now that is quite an assertion. How does he know this and what does he meant by it? Why psychology and not education philosophy? How can the academic discipline of psychology be more infuential than the whole approach to education? How can an effect be more infuential than its cause?

    What is meant by “The shape of American education in the twentieth century…is crucially related to the problems with American diversity.”

    I just can’t figure out how “crucially” is applied here. Does this mean that the predominant factor influencing American education is determined by “problems with American diversity”?

    I could understand if it was “the shape of American education in the twentieth century is crucially related to the educational philosophy of John Dewey”.

    Now we are getting to the heart of the matter I would say. What does it mean to be educated? And how can this possibly take place when the most important aspects, nameley theology and philosophy, are completely emasculated from the educational approach? If you never address the question “What does it mean to be a human being?” in any coherent and cogent manner haven’t you abdicated “education” from the beginning? But that is what Dewey did and what has been done in public education from the beginning. In a truly pluralistic society there can be no real public education that is worth spit.

    By the way, and this is an enormously important question, what do you think are the roots of the radical and autonomous individualism that predominates the American soul?



  2. Psychology in Education | Mere Orthodoxy: I just read an expansive article by David Tyack, professor emeritus at.. http://bit.ly/47iwc5

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  3. Thanks I.J., you raise some good questions. The context would probably be helpful in understanding the quote; Fass is noting that the problems of education (low scores, achievement gaps, lack of safety) are problems that cannot be understood without reference to the challenge of American diversity.

    I agree that one has to begin with a notion of what a person is; presumably that is why psychology has held sway as the dominant influence for educational practice. This addresses your first point I think, as education, like engineering, is a derivative field. Engineering depends on math and physics, both first order fields.

    Absent theology, the main field for determining what education aims toward is psychology. In my class on this topic, my professor advocated for sociology or better yet anthropology, as they consider relationships and groups, respectively.


  4. Thanks Jeremy,

    That does help. I suppose this points in the end to why I think the whole approach to education in America is severely dimished from the beginning.

    In America, one does not become educated until one overcomes the education he has received.

    Eliot had it right long ago:

    O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
    The endless cycle of idea and action,
    Endless invention, endless experiment,
    Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
    Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
    Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
    All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
    But nearness to death no nearer to God.
    Where is the Life we have lost in living?
    Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
    The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
    Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

    The patrons of this blog were two wise men. But Chesterton surpassed Lewis in his grasp of education because he surpassed Lewis in his grasp of what it means to be a human being. His anthropology, philosophy, and theology are a seamless garment, while Lewis patched his together in a much more piecemeal fashion. Chesterton was animated by a far deeper unity of vision than Lewis.

    Have you read Richard Weaver’s famous book called Ideas Have Consequences? I would highly recommend it, it is a slim volume, and a feast for the mind.

    Have you read Philip Reiff’s classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic?



  5. I.J., I like the quote. I haven’t read Philip Reiff’s book or Weaver’s, although I’ve heard many times about the latter. I have to confess the vice of often not reading a book after I’ve heard about over and over. This works well for books without much in them, but is bad policy for others. I’ll check it out.

    I’m curious as to what you think should be done for public education. I agree with Eliot’s sentiment, but it is quite difficult to know what to do now, given what we have. And while I rejoice at the progress in the private/homeschooling movement, it still fails to inform how we can best serve the 50 million students in American public education. It’s not easy.


  6. Jeremy,

    Difficult indeed.

    Here is Chesterton:

    “The one thing that is never taught by any chance in the atmosphere of public schools is this: that there is a whole truth of things, and that in knowing it and speaking it we are happy.”

    “The whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards by which he can judge material and fugitive standards.”

    “The only real object of all education is to teach people the proportions of things, that they may see what things are large and what small: we seem bent on teaching to prefer in everything what is small to what is great, what is doubtful to what is certain, and what is trivial to what is eternal.”

    “It is typical of our time that the more doubtful we are about the value of philosophy, the more certain we are about the value of education. That is to say, the more doubtful we are about whether we have any truth, the more certain we are (apparently) that we can teach it to children. The smaller our faith in doctrine, the larger our faith in doctors. . .”

    “It is the great paradox of the modern world that at the very time when the world decided that people should not be coerced about their form of religion, it also decided that they should be coerced about their form of education.”

    “Because the elementary school doesn’t teach theology, it must be excused when it doesn’t teach anything. The bias of the modern world is so enormous that it will allow a thing to be inefficient as long as it is also irreligious.”

    “The purpose of Compulsory Education is to deprive the common people of their common sense.”

    “There is something to be said for teaching everything to somebody, as compared with the modern notion of teaching nothing, and the same sort of nothing, to everybody. For what we force on all families, by the power of the police, is not a philosophy but the art of reading and writing unphilosophically.”

    “A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching.”

    “Education is only the truth in a state of transmission; and how can we pass on truth if it has never come into our hand?”

    And the best for last,

    “Every education teaches a philosophy; if not by dogma then by suggestion, by implication, by atmosphere. Every part of that education has a connection with every other part. If it does not all combine to convey some general view of life, it is not an education at all.”

    American public education is an oxymoron don’t you think? It is a lost cause. Leave it and work to establish an alternative community of education that will in time draw the attention of the community and parents who want to educate their children.

    Do you know that you have, in my estimation, by far and away, the finest Liberal Arts college in America right at your doorstep?

    Have you read Alasdair MacIntyre’s new book? He is surely one of the finest and most learned minds in America.



  7. I.J. I do love MacIntyre, I’m working with someone who got to take some classes with him; she said he’s even better in person. More good quotes, especially the common sense one. While I wholeheartedly agree about the necessity of an alternative community of education–one that actually works–I can’t just leave those 50 million out to dry. Particularly given that every other field, organization, company, etc. is in a not too different condition. While some are called to create whole alternatives outside the mainstream, I believe we are also obligated to serve the world on its terms. There are many reasons this is the case, but one is that without doing so we do not reach those most needing the blessing of Christ. Biola is great. Or did you mean Thomas Aquinas College. Or maybe Caltech?


  8. Fair enough. We do what we can. My wife has a Masters in Mathematics and taught in the public system. My mother was a teacher for over 30 years in public education. I get staying in the ruins to serve. I wholeheartedly commend you.

    It is an enormously difficult question, and please forgive me if I forgo nuance and subtlety for broad strokes. But from a personal point of view you aren’t really leaving 50 million students “out to dry” are you? Wherever you go you will still be personally involved with about the same number of students. The system will still be there even if you leave. The question is: Is the system worth saving?

    And of course there is a difference between a theory of education and its implementation. The implementation of whatever approach we have to education carries its own intractable problems. It is a constant across the board. Whether we have a “good” system or a “bad” system we have the issues involved with execution, with process. You will never have perfect execution, you will never implement the ideal efficiently. There are times when the idea may be sound and yet the execution is so poor that the overall result is failure, this is when it is necessary to fight to save the system and renew the implementation and execution. It is a question of strategy and tactics. But the most important is the strategy. Great execution of a bad strategy still results in failure.

    What I am saying is that the theory that informs compulsory universal education, the strategy which animates everything that is done, is fatally flawed and even if it was implemented perfectly would hardly educate in the most substantive sense.

    What we are doing now is a manifest and abject failure. The current system is what is leaving students out to dry. Even executed well it fails miserably to educate.

    Again carefully consider Chesterton:

    “Every education teaches a philosophy; if not by dogma then by suggestion, by implication, by atmosphere. Every part of that education has a connection with every other part. If it does not all combine to convey some general view of life, it is not an education at all.”

    He means exactly what he says. We are teaching mechanics without teaching purpose and this is in the end a form of nihilism. We only have to look around to see its fruit. It is the same as teaching the how of intercourse without the why and to what purpose (which the State would butcher even if they tried). Sex education is a microcosm of all public education. And the philosophy that it is bound, by its nature, to communicate is in direct opposition to fundamental Christian social ethics.

    Why do you think the liberal arts, especially theology and philosophy, are so neglected? The whole notion of education in America is determined by vocational considerations; the purpose of education is determined by utilitarian, rationalist, and secularist philosophies. But in aiming for vocation we miss the largest and most important aspects of what it means to be an educated human being. Here is where MacIntyre’s new book is so good at diagnosing the ills of modern education, and pontificating on what an education ought to be. I follow Newman in this. Have you read his Idea of a University? By the way, there is already a primary and secondary system in place, it may not be executed well in places, but the idea is very sound.

    If I may ask, how do you intend to educate your children?

    “Biola is great. Or did you mean Thomas Aquinas College. Or maybe Caltech?” How would Chesterton and Lewis answer?

    What is the case that you would make in favor of compulsory universal education?


  9. A shared understanding of the world.

    Socialization by experience and acquaintance with those who do not share their beliefs.

    As a child, I homeschooled for 7 years. It worked for me because I like to learn. However, I don’t think it is a good idea when it is based on religious objections to public schooling, which is the reason behind most homeschooling (including my own). I did learn to think but it had little to do with the Christian indoctrination that my curriculum attempted to drill into me. It was my outside reading.

    Homeschooling constrains the educational experiences of students to what their parents think they need to know and diminishes their education as human beings, which you claim is so important. They aren’t exposed to a full range of ideas and beliefs and their social experience is limited to those like them.

    I’m curious about your case of homeschooling.


  10. I agree Prufrock that we cannot blindly fall back into the zealous arms of homeschooling and just expect a good education. I’m not sure though that there is anything necessarily stunting about it either though; with good books, intellectual mentors, and other students, homeschools can avoid the problems with which we are all familiar. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with objecting on religious grounds to public education, so long as students are taught to think very hard and well wherever else they study. Just because many aren’t doesn’t mean religious objections are unfounded.

    To I.J.: there are no a priori arguments for public education or even compulsory education. Democracy depends on something like the latter, and the former is a historical development that will continue to powerfully shape our country’s future, regardless of whether we agree with how it started. Jefferson had a good idea: make sure that the ablest of the poor are educated, as these students could make America great. Eventually, during this common schools movement, this led to another good idea: teach everyone. But like so many good ideas, these two became problematic when the state became their steward. But even if the system is flawed, there are two reasons to work in it. First: the students are needier in public schools, at least the bad ones. Jesus calls us to help the orphans and the widows; one cannot teach orphans and care for widows in just any school. Second: the pubic school system, despite the many ways it is tethered to this cause and that group, still has tremendous power for change in America. The new Secretary of Education from Biola has a very important job, one that allows for tortured but potentially significant steps toward the kind of Christendom Matt talks about O’Donnell talking about. I know I’ve already said it, but 50 million is a lot of people.

    I hope to send my children to a classical Christian school, or homeschool them, or most likely cobble together their education with a bit of everything, given the lack of good options and/or money. While I respect the view that Christian children can be a force for good in public school, I consider it more important to make sure they become crazy smart in so far as they are able. We can go evangelizing on the weekends, first they need to finish translating Herodotus.


  11. prufrock,

    I never said anything about homeschooling. Nor do I have a defense for it. It is a viable option and the results are irrefutable.


    But since you bring it up, why should the State be the primary unit over the Family? Why should the State trump a Family’s decision on education? Between the Family and the State, the family is the unit. The parent is the natural authority.

    Your case for compulsory universal instruction is “A shared understanding of the world?”

    Now that is indoctrination! More like a shared misunderstanding of the world. Who gets to decide what that “understanding” is prufrock? The State? You? Are you kidding me?

    prufrock you just don’t make near the sense that Chesterton and Newman make. I trust their insight and judgment far more than yours.


  12. Jeremy,

    I appreciate your thoughts.

    “But like so many good ideas, these two became problematic when the state became their steward. But even if the system is flawed, there are two reasons to work in it.”

    Why do you think it is merely problematic, rather than fatal, that the state is the steward of education? This is like saying that it is problematic that the fox is the steward of the hen house.

    Why do you think the system is merely flawed rather than built upon sand?

    “I hope to send my children to a classical Christian school, or homeschool them, or most likely cobble together their education with a bit of everything, given the lack of good options and/or money…”

    I only think that this is a clue. Why do you not labor to provide for the world what you want, and will provide, for your own? Why should we give them crumbs when we could give them a meal?

    I am afraid I think the Formal Principle of Protestantism makes it logically impossible for their to be the kind of Christendom you look for. It too is fatally flawed and does not have sufficient warrant.



  13. Oh, that was Jeremy. My mistake.

    Regarding that study on homeschooling, academic achievement does not prove anything about the education of the whole human being to which you referred. Ooh, their test scores are higher.

    I should have phrased what I meant by ‘a shared understanding of the world’ a bit better. How about this: universal education teaches a common body of knowledge upon which students can base their understanding of the world.

    Related to one of the pithy Chesterton quotes you cite, I have to ask what philosophy do you think is taught by American public education?


  14. Please point out where I make the claim that homeschooling scores established that the whole human being was being educated. Read more carefully prufrock and don’t put words into my mouth. What the scores show is that homeschooling thrashes compulsory universal education in the very metrics that that system uses to measure proficiency.

    So the minimum case for homeschooling, just to make it clear to you, is that it is better than public schooling using the standards that you trumpet in your enthusiasm for public education. Test scores are the means your team uses prufrock, so don’t dismiss them or demean them, in so doing you demean your own ideas.

    I got what you meant by ‘shared understanding of the world’. Your elaboration adds nothing to your original post. My response and all of my questions remain unanswered.

    Education is about the transmission of truth. I have declared who I follow in this, who do you follow prufrock? What do you think is true? Or are you just another fragmented hodgepodge of incoherent and incompatible isms stitched together higgledy-piggledy? And if you think you can defeat the vision of Newman and Chesterton let’s hear it.

    The problem with most of those who think like you and your “full range of ideas and beliefs” is the impotence to say what is true and what isn’t.

    It seems as though you were raised in some degenerate form of fundamentalism and I feel for you there. I would have bucked that myself. I reject and despise many forms of “Christianity” (though not the Christians themselves) as much as I do atheism or any form of dreary fundamentalism.

    Really, who have you read prufrock? What is your idea of what Christianity is? Who formed your notions?

    “Related to one of the pithy Chesterton quotes you cite, I have to ask what philosophy do you think is taught by American public education?”

    Go back and read the earlier posts, I clearly and unequivocally answer this.



  15. I was pointing out that you claimed education of the whole person was important and then pointed to test scores to make the irrefutable argument that homeschooling was a better way to educate.

    I made no reference to standardized testing in trying to explain why universal education is a good thing. No words in my mouth, please.

    Education is about the transmission of knowledge, not truth.

    Is it of any utility to have a discussion with those who think they possess the absolute truth? No.


  16. In closing, I would like to point out, I.J., that we are all ‘fragmented hodgepodges of incoherent and incompatible -isms stitched together higgledy-piggledy’ in the constellation of ideas that inform our beliefs.

    Good phrase with a broader meaning than your derisive use suggests. Still, a good one.

    You might argue that your ideas form a more coherent whole than mine but, at some level, there are always incompatibilities in human beliefs.


  17. prufrock,

    I didn’t mean to shut you down.

    “Is it of any utility to have a discussion with those who think they possess the absolute truth? No.” Is that the truth?

    I think my position is more reasonable than yours, yes. I have tried to arrive at it through principled decisions based on careful reasoning animated by a desire for the Truth, for what is.

    That is not to say that I arrived at where I am purely by reason. Faith plays a significant part in any reasonable view of the universe. The reality that transcends the material world cannot be fathomed by reason alone. And of course the central figure of the drama is Jesus of Nazareth. Have you read Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man?

    “Education is about the transmission of knowledge, not truth.” Again, is this a true statement? And really, see Eliot above on knowledge. I am quite sure he would disagree with you. Everyone thinks what they say and think is true prufrock, that is hardly the point. The question is are you willing to set your position forward for critique and abandon it if it is shown to be untenable. My position can be found in writers like Newman and Chesterton, if you can provide a better argument I am listening.

    Why not go back and answer the substantive questions I put to you. I am willing to listen and engage your arguments buy you have yet to make one.


  18. prufrock,

    I agree with your last post in part. But I also think the Truth is One. And here I follow Thomas developing Aristotle.

    We are pilgrims; we are status viatoris. I am under no illusion that I grasp all of reality. But I also do not think that all philosophical and theological systems are the same. Many are quite destructive.

    And really we may be more kin than you think. I suspect I rejected the same thing you rejected. But you went one way and I went the other. I came to see that fundamentalism (and in the end Protestantism) was untenable and I followed Chesterton. I went back to the Fathers and found their vision more compelling than the contemporary notions peddled by modernism.

    But I find the Nazarene the most compelling Person in history and his claims, if not true, are the claims of a madman and a lunatic.


  19. My position on universal education–the subject of this post–is clear but, no, I do not feel like debating it, point by point all the way back to the origins of my fundamental beliefs.

    However, this comment thread is not the forum for the discussion that you’re trying to precipitate with me.

    I appreciate the conciliatory final note and I do respect your beliefs (and your basis for them), although I do not share them.


  20. Well, your stated position on universal education is that it is the transmission of a “common body of knowledge upon which students can base their understanding of the world.” And since you give no criteria beyond this, I can only deduce that you would be completely satisfied with me determining the content and nature of what is transmitted. It will certainly fulfill your stated goal of a common basis for their understanding of the world.

    If this isn’t acceptable to you then I fail to see how your stated position has added anything to the discussion.

    And really every question, at bottom, is a theological one. If human existence has God as its end, then all of existence is ordered toward God. To deny this is to still make a theological judgment. Even atheism is a theological position.

    You seem to think that “a full range of ideas and beliefs” can be transmitted as mere information without any criteria for making judgments between these ideas. If all you would have us do is to present all of the major philosophical and theological systems known to man and then just let it go at that you will have done a great disservice to those you are claiming to teach.

    The questions you will leave them with you have not given them the tools to answer. Which system should I believe? Are any of them true? To what degree are they true? Is one better than the other?

    Do you see this? The most famous question asked in all of history goes back to the turning point in time, “What is truth?”

    Now I think the State has no business teaching theology and philosophy, and therefore it is beyond their competence to educate. If you cannot teach what it means to be a human being, why we are here, why there is something instead of nothing, what is the end of man, you cannot answer the only important questions.

    Science and math are in reality the lowest forms of knowledge. They can only answer how, and never why. You could learn everything there is to possibly grasp about the material world and still be a buffoon on all the important questions.

    Now you could say well the State should only teach what it is competent to teach, but I would say that if you put your children in a learning environment where they spend up to 8 hours a day focusing on a set of things to be learned you are ipso facto teaching them that these are the things that society has determined to be important. Philosophy and theology are relegated to the margins. If you don’t think this is exactly what has happened then you simply have not looked around. Our culture is neo-pagan and hedonistic in part because they have spent most of their waking hours in a place that transmits an implicit nihilism.

    I would highly recommend the early chapters of David Hart’t The Atheist Delusions. His take on American nihilism and radically autonomous human freedom is dead on in my opinion. He is also one of the best prose stylists in America.



  21. I.J., I wasn’t planning to post another comment, but…

    “If human existence has God as its end, then all of existence is ordered toward God.” That’s a big ‘if’ and it is not a self-evident premise.

    Atheism is the default position; it precedes theology. People are not born believing in God (of course, neither of us could prove it either way). However, it is clear that we are taught to believe in that and experience which cannot be physically experienced as we inductively learn about the world as children.

    We’re too far afield from the topic of this post and I apologize to Jeremy for all the irrelevant posting.


  22. Oh, I mangled a sentence. Double apologies.


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