Intelligent Americans often note two seemingly distinct aspects of America’s schools: (1) The teaching of academic subjects is poorly done (if done at all), and (2) the educational system is a hotbed of anticapitalist propaganda. The fact is that the two observations are intimately related.

The Progressives and their intellectual heirs severely dumbed down the schools as a necessary means of inculcating conformity, dependency, and obedience. Their vision is clear: They, the educated, intellectual elite—the educational and social engineers—will govern in the classroom and in the legislature. The people will conform and obey.

Fortunately, this is not a vision shared by all educators.

Advocates of Literacy and Learning

The educational ideas and methods of Maria Montessori (1870–1952) entered United States culture during the early years of Progressive dominance. She was one of the first female medical doctors in Italy, and she developed revolutionary educational techniques that greatly enhanced the cognitive development of her students.

Montessori, recognizing that sensory observation is the foundation of cognition, trained young children to engage their senses, to develop their motor skills, to concentrate for long periods of time, and to learn independently. She scaled down classroom furniture and materials to child size, enabling children to more readily use and manipulate them. She taught youngsters to read, employing a phonetic method that trained them to sound out letters and words and thus to unlock the worlds of literature, history, and science. She taught them to write and to do basic arithmetic, fractions, decimals, and geometry. Whereas the Progressives encouraged group projects, social pressure, and social conformity, Montessori encouraged independent activities, independent thinking, independent learning.

In Montessori’s classrooms, the children, using her specially designed materials, usually worked by themselves and with materials of their own choosing. They could team up if they chose to, but the cardinal social principle was in essence: Thou shalt not disrupt a child doing his or her own work.

In the years prior to World War I, her methods caught on in the United States. The first American Montessori school was opened in 1911 in Tarrytown, New York, shortly followed by others. Her book The Montessori Method was translated into English and quickly sold through six editions. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his wife publicly supported her methods. In 1913, she traveled to the United States and spoke around the country, generally to large and admiring crowds. McClure’s Magazine, a widely read publication of the day, featured a series of articles on her methods. During this period, a century ago, Montessori schooling held a great deal of promise for the future of cognitive training in this country.

Shortly thereafter, several prominent American intellectuals rejected the antiacademic standpoint of the educational establishment and proposed a new, highly academic program for training the intellect. Among them were Robert Maynard Hutchins, the youthful president of the University of Chicago; and Mortimer J. Adler, a relentless autodidact and possibly the only person in history to receive a PhD (in psychology from Columbia University) without a high school or college diploma. Together, these two led a concerted campaign on behalf of a “Great Books” program. Hutchins and Adler maintained both that “a liberal education was unthinkable without a grounding in the Great Books”—the classic works of Western civilization—and that such academic training was the proper purpose of education.

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