The infinitive “to educate” was not derived from the Latin educere which means “to lead forth, develop” but rather from the infinitive's intensive form, educare , meaning “to rear or foster.” (1) Though slight, the connotative difference between “leading forth” and “fostering” is a useful metaphor for describing a theoretical conflict in the history of education. In the rhetoric of educational theory, distinct and diametrically opposite vocabularies describe the historical battle between traditionalists and progressives. As John Dewey observed in his Experience and Education , “the history of educational theory is marked by opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without.” (2) This “either-or” tendency among theorists breaks terminology into exclusive opposites: instruction vs. facilitation, didactic vs. inferential, passive vs. active, traditional vs. progressive. Making it more complicated are the myriad terms that follow from the rubric of progressive education: experiential, narrative, holistic, metacognitive and discovery learning.
A purpose of this website is to synthesize elements of this theoretical framework in the interest of providing an experiential model for teaching 30s era American culture. A necessary first step, therefore, is to chart a course through traditionalist and progressive theories, garnering useful tools for developing an activity that will both transfer information and stimulate the imagination. Since I will argue that many elements of traditional education are useful in the reality of today's classrooms, we will draw from both sides of the controversy. In this manner we will avoid the tendency to polarize our stance.
Since the 19 th century, the dominant mode of teaching in America , described by C.A. Bowers and David Flinders as the “classroom management paradigm,” has centered on “principles of engineering, behaviorism, and mechanism.” It involves “the purposeful manipulation of students toward predetermined ends and ignores the experience of the students themselves, viewing it as a contamination of the process.” (3) This assembly-line method of schooling, which grew out of America 's obsession with efficiency, is still pervasive today where the overwhelming number of students and the strictures of curriculum preclude experimentation in the classroom. Lecture and instruction take precedence over “risky” strategies such as discovery learning and experiential activities. Not until the progressive education movement brought new tactics to light did teachers find an alternative to the classic paradigm.
The seeds of progressive education can be found in British and American Romanticism, particularly in the writings of Rousseau. According to Rousseau, learning can and should occur naturally. (4) Provided that the child is given a suitable learning environment, his or her instincts should guide the learning process. The American philosopher John Dewey, applied this notion to American education, espousing a belief in the child's “instinct of investigation.” (5) In Experience and Education (1938), Dewey juxtaposes traditional and progressive perspectives:
Radical theorists went on to inflate Dewey's distinctions to somewhat controversial levels. William Evers exposes a few of these exaggerated notions in his introduction to the book What's Gone Wrong in America's Classrooms , such as the notion that “all learning in school is to come through playing” or that teachers should “abolish drudgery and hard work on the way to mastering a subject.” (7) Dewey, however, was not condoning these agendas. Though he believed problem solving and active learning to be the key to development, Dewey set limits for the effectiveness of experience:
Dewey, therefore, was endorsing a strategy which would convey serious subject-matter through an experiential learning process. Some critics have attacked Dewey and the disciples of progressive education for diminishing the accountability of the teacher. According to their perspective, this “child-centered” strategy “relieves teachers from the duty of getting through the subject and getting the subject matter into the child's head.” (10) William C. Bageley, himself a progressive, has tempered the scope of experiential learning with the realization that replacing “systematic and sequential learning” with “activities” would “defeat the most important ends of education in democracy,” specifically, the objective of attaining “as high a level of common culture as possible.” (11) The implementation of direct instruction, therefore, is crucial in obtaining advanced understanding of such subjects as math, science, history and geography.
If experiential teaching works well in some cases, and not in others, it seems plausible that any curriculum should utilize aspects of both. Since every class is different, ultimately the decision rests with the teacher, who alone knows the character of his or her classroom and the potential for experiential learning to work. The goal of this website is to provide a guided, well-organized experiential activity that will complement the average teacher's curriculum.
1. Raymond Williams, Keywords (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976) 111.