Sunday, May 10, 2015

David Barton: We Don't Need No Progressive Education

This is my third post in a series of four on presentations given by David Barton at the Texas Home School Coalition's convention in Arlington on May 7 and 8. Previous posts covered his speeches on "What Makes America Different?" and "The Bible and America." This one will react to his session on "American Education: Then and Now."

After an introduction by reality television's favorite patriarchal couple, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, David Barton used again slides shown in earlier presentations arguing that the United States has an oversized, relative to population, abundance of wealth and scientific creativity. He attributed this to the place of the Bible in American life and education.

Mr. Barton is undoubtedly correct when he argues that Bible based moral and religious instruction were important components of much early American education, and his elaborations on provisions of the Northwest Ordinance (1789) and quotations by Gouvernor Morris, Benjamin Rush, and others seem largely unnecessary. While some may agree or disagree with the approach, it would be nearly universally acknowledged that this sort of instruction was incorporated into much early education in this country, and the New England Primer that Mr. Barton uses to focus his discussion would have been familiar to all of the founders of the country. The mode of instruction in that textbook, which originated in colonial America, would also have been familiar in many communities for much of the country's early history.

Nonetheless, Mr. Barton's ideology leads him to simplify his discussion in ways that are historically inaccurate. In other words, he takes some snapshots from American education and makes them out to be a continuous running video of what constituted the nation's educational program for the first century and a half of its existence. He even claims that the New England Primer remained influential in American education into the 1930's, which is simply not true (it continued to be published, but was not nearly as frequently used after the 18th century). Interestingly, he quoted from the religious instruction in a version of the New England Primer from the 1770's, which this blogger recognized as having come from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. If Mr. Barton knew that, he didn't say, as he gave the implication that this material was unique to the primer. Additionally, his statements that this catechism remained a part of ordinary American education into the 1930's ignores the fact that religious catechetical instruction waned even among the churches over the first 200 years of American history, though it is making a small comeback, particularly among self-consciously reformed congregations, in more recent years.

The reality is that American educational values changed tremendously in the century and a half following the Revolution for a variety of reasons: frontier expansion, immigration and an increasingly pluralistic population, revivalism and its emphasis on experiential rather than formal religion, the waxing and waning of commitment to universal education, and the development of normal schools for training teachers, to name just a few. None of this was acknowledged by Mr. Barton, who seemed to see the educational approach as standard and pristine over this time frame.

In all of his lectures at the conference, Mr. Barton had a knack for including information that left one shaking his head, and this one was no exception. While saying that modern education has lowered expectations for young adults, he spoke of the Hebrew language, which he described as "especially precise" and as "God's first language." Given this imagined status (the fact that the Pentateuch was written in Hebrew doesn't give it status as "God's language", and like all languages, Hebrew is precise in some ways and the opposite in others) for Hebrew, the speaker considered it important that the language didn't include words for "fair" and adolescence." He also found it important that there is no Hebrew word for "rights," which was odd because in other lectures he claimed a scriptural basis for all of the provision in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.

That Mr. Barton considered John Dewey and friends as beginning the downfall of modern education is not exceptional, as many conservatives, both Christian and secular, scholarly and populist, have gone down that same path. However, Mr. Barton's critique was hardly conventional, and he defined the debate over educational philosophy in a way that no one would recognize. Thus, he described the early American approach to education as focused on teaching "thinking skills," while he said John Dewey and other progressives focused on "learning." He claimed that the focus on learning made people "gullible."

While I would not claim to be an expert in educational philosophy, I have my doubts that either Mr. Dewey or his critics would recognize that evaluation. The broad change that Mr. Dewey brought about was moving the emphasis of education away from content (as can be discerned, for example, in The New England Primer) and instead focusing on educational experience. Along with that, Mr. Dewey's school wanted the educational process to be more student driven in line with student interests, rather than focused on a canon for instruction driven by existing authorities. In terms of religion and moral values, Dewey rejected traditional Christianity and took a different approach to moral instruction.

The conventional critique is both widely known and reputable among evangelicals, but it was never mentioned in Mr. Barton's lecture, leaving this listener curious as to why he rejects it in favor of his own idiosyncratic approach.

In closing, Mr. Barton quoted Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." He ridiculed the idea that the verse referred to religious and moral knowledge, saying that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge of things like math.

Proverbs 1:7 provides a sort of introduction to the rest of the book. I looked, but didn't find any math knowledge contained there.

Tomorrow, I will write my final post, which Mr. Barton provocatively entitles "Keeping Truth in History."

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