Here in the Eternal City one is given to expansive thoughts. None is more expansive than education, an inevitable consideration as the visitor stumbles onto a university around every corner, and is in danger of falling headlong into an archeological dig in every piazza. The atmosphere is inescapably charged with history, philosophy and culture.
During a visit throughout the cities and countryside, and after conversations with university specialists and Tuscan housewives, I’ve been inclined to make comparisons over education. Having traveled most recently in Spain and Italy—it may be instructive to compare those southern European countries with schools back in the States.
In America, ever since the ascendance of Progressive education at the turn of the 20th century, education tends to err in at least two directions. For one, education purports to be “child centered,” though such child centeredness is usually in appearance only, as the classroom loosened up “in favor of the child” is often really an opportunity to push a political agenda of some kind.
If you doubt that this is the true motive behind a child-centered curriculum, you need only read the founding fathers of Progressive education, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey, who explicitly (Rousseau), or implicitly (Dewey), admit that the child is incapable of guiding his own education. That being the case, once the traditional curricular framework is lifted, opportunities for pedagogical mischief abound.
Another common fault in American education, also a Progressive inheritance, is an imbalanced emphasis on a “useful” education. Dewey condemned the study, for example, of “dead languages” and insisted that each lesson plan be “relevant” to everyday life. We, however, are just beginning to recover the idea that the study of Latin and Shakespeare makes a student articulate in speech, skilled in writing, and adept at ethical reasoning. These are pretty darn “useful” skills to have in any walk of life. I’ll always remember that when I was in graduate school, a visiting professor with a degree in political philosophy was being chased by several international corporations. Forget the business majors.
As I see it, though, in the south of Europe, education is insufficiently practical and insensitive to the role of the student in his own education. You must appreciate that this is a big admission for me to make, given my harsh criticisms of progressivism. In other words, the pendulum is all the way to the other side. Too far. This is not necessarily the case farther north up the continent, where Dewey’s influence has made more of a mark in, for example, France, England, Scotland and Denmark.
Henry T. Edmondson III is Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at the Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia.
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