From Rome

Posted: Jan 24, 2007 12:49 PM

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.

For example, you’ll never find the southern European countries promoting “Happiness Lessons” as is becoming the fashion in England. Parents paying up to £24,000 a year for private secondary education now find their children playing games like “Guess What I Am Feeling,” activities designed to help the students get in touch with his or her emotions.” It seems that Brits have imported the mid-90s U.S. enthusiasm for “emotional literacy” which has spawned a multi-million pound industry of consultants, publishers and “educational trainers.” British critics say such self-esteem training does nothing to promote a student’s confidence; it rather encourages them to obsess about their feelings, and cheats them out of a good education. (There are only so many hours in the day.) Traditionalist further argue that Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Aristotle do far more to provide a good moral education than encouraging kids to “get in touch with themselves.”

But this kind of progressivism is hard to find in southern Europe. Friends of ours in Florence told us that their high-schooler sits through six hours of instruction a day, with only a short break or two. Many Italian students go to school six days a week, with only a respite on Sunday. There is little to no interaction between pupil and teacher in either Italy or Spain, a problem that continues through the university.

To be sure, what students are studying in both countries is often more substantive than the strained soup of a curriculum on which many American adolescents survive. Languages are of course studied much more seriously and (in a nod to practicality), English has supplanted French as the first foreign language. In Italy, students take up to six years of Latin and three of Dante; in Spain a high school graduate knows Cervantes backwards and forwards. Graduation is by no means guaranteed.

Students are even allowed religious instruction in both countries, although it is under threat from Spain’s current liberal government, and spiritual teaching may be short-lived in Italy where only 10% of the population now goes to church and 70% of live-in couples are unmarried.

But, although the Mediterranean curriculum may be more serious, students rebel against it, even if their recalcitrance is passive-aggressive. In Spanish high schools—collegios—cheating is so rampant that it is winked at by instructors, if not at times encouraged. In many schools, it has become institutionalized, the norm at test time, sort of like the institutionalized parliamentary corruption that stabilized relations between the Crown and parliament in 18th century England. In Italy, students regularly claim an urgent call of nature, during which they take time for a leisurely outside smoke. Those in the back row of the class furtively play their “Game Boys”.

All of this perhaps should be a lesson for educators in the States. One of the things that made Progressive educational ideas attractive at the turn of the 20th century is that Progressivism—in its most benign form—encouraged student-teacher interaction and greater student involvement. It was only when these practices were hijacked by idealogues intent on changing the world through the classroom that these techniques provoked outrage—as is still the case today.

So we should continue to teach Shakespeare, Austen, Latin—maybe even a little classical Greek. But it should be done in a manner that commands the student’s full participation. The problem with Progressivism is when politically charged ideologies are furtively slipped into the classroom under cover of night. The benefit of progressive techniques is that it allows teachers to adapt and evolve in ways that bring the best out in our students. At our university, we’ve gained some international fame for all the ways that we’ve taken advantage of Apple’s technology, including podcasts and video iPods. I have found a useful guide in a paraphrase of that Gospel parable: the good educator pulls out of his curriculum something old and something new.