History: The word “education” dates back to the 1530s, but the concept goes all the way back to the Roman Empire. The Romans believed that the process of educating someone involved drawing out knowledge, though it should be noted that educators in this era most certainly did not believe that their job was to affirm or discover knowledge already present in their students. On the contrary, their goal was to lead students out of their current habits of mind, which were, for the most part, rooted in ignorance. This they did through rigid discipline and the logical presentation of facts and figures, as well as of the skills needed to adequately comprehend the significance of those facts and figures. Such was the prevailing educational methodology for the next 1,400 years. Around the turn of the 20th century, however, everything changed. Two influential psychologists, John Dewey and Jean Piaget, formulated a new educational framework called “constructivism,” in which the aim was to help students arrive at their own conclusions about the world. In other words, Dewey and Piaget, reflecting the emerging relativism of the day, argued not only that knowledge was subjective, but also that students should be actively involved in creating such knowledge out of their own experiences.
Etymology: “Education” is derived from the Latin words ex and ducere. Ex was a fairly common preposition in Latin, meaning “from,” “out of,” or “from within.” So common was it in everyday speech, in fact, that the Romans eventually shortened it to just plain e, making of it a prefix that could qualify or intensify a root. Thus, when combined with ducere, the infinitive form of the Latin verb duco, which meant “to lead,” “to conduct,” or “to guide,” we get the word educare, which means “bringing up,” “rearing,” “training,” “raising,” or “supporting.” Note that in all of these uses, “education” was something that one person did to another, not something that one did to oneself. By changing the acquisition of knowledge into a process of self-realization, then, Dewey and Piaget violated the internal logic of the very word “education.” But this contradiction does not appear to bother most modern educators. So intent are our public schools on validating the intellectual, racial, ethnic, and sexual differences among pupils that a constructivist pedagogy is the only viable method of instruction. Today, imparting knowledge in the manner of the Romans, or even simply believing that objective knowledge exists, is viewed as oppressive, discriminatory, and just plain wrong.
Effect: Of course, the problem with this situation is that many of the lessons at our state-run primary and secondary schools are largely devoid of content, relying instead on discussion groups and other student-centered activities in which the teacher is a facilitator rather than an educator. Since students can only bring to the table the knowledge they already have, they are increasingly finding that their primary and secondary education has not prepared them for college, let alone life. A recent survey by the ACT college testing service, for example, discovered that merely “51 percent of students showed they were ready to handle the reading requirements of a typical first-year college course,” while the Associated Press reported that “almost 20 percent of students pursuing four-year degrees [have] only basic quantitative skills.” It would seem that the only two things students do glean from a constructivist education are—surprise, surprise—narcissism and the conviction that truth is relative. According to Thomas Benton, a professor at Hope College and a regular columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education, today’s college students are “primarily focused on their own emotions,” “convinced that no opinion is worth more than another,” and “certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.” In short, they are the victims of an educational system in which the only knowledge that matters is their own. •
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