by Brett Vaden

For the past century, the agenda of “progressive education” has been to convince us to abandon the methods and content that students were taught for thousands of years. In the worlds of homeschooling and private education, the degradation that progressivism has brought upon American public schools is an assumed fact. But it can be surprising how much progressive education has seeped into homes and private schools as well. Well-intentioned educators can be deceived about the underlying dogma driving their pedagogy, even those who’ve taken a little time to trace their pedagogical family tree.


The other day I came across a school’s website and was initially impressed. It had a sharp look, and right at the top of the home page was a link labeled “Philosophy Background.” “Oh,” I thought, “this school takes its philosophy seriously!” And it did. However, I soon found that the pride it took in its philosophy was misplaced. The explanation confidently espoused the belief that students shouldn’t be merely given information from outside, but allowed to “construct”knowledge for themselves.

The school went on to cite the work of Friedrich Froebel, a German educator living in the 1800’s. In The Education of Man, Froebel claims that children learn best when they are allowed to develop “naturally,” for the nature of the child is holy, pure, and like the Divine. Accordingly, Froebel writes, “Education and instruction should from the very first be passive, observant, protective, rather than prescribing, determining, interfering.”


To Froebel and other Romantic thinkers (e.g., Rousseau, Wordsworth, Schiller), children are innately good. If allowed to blossom and run freely, like other living things in nature, they will express the beauty and goodness of humanity in fuller and richer ways as they mature.

How then, according to the Romanticists, does evil enter the child’s life? Through custom and culture. E. D. Hirsch comments on this Romantic view, saying, “The idea that civilization has a corrupting rather than a benign, uplifting, virtue-enhancing effect on the young child is a distinct contribution of European Romanticism to American thought. The contrast between the instinctive holiness of the child and the corrupting principle of custom and civilization is a conception for which Romanticism deserves full credit.”

Modern, progressive education is grounded in the tenet that the best way to educate children is to avoid forming their minds and hearts, and to instead let them develop on their own, since the seed of wisdom is inherent in the child, not in the teachings and values of those who’ve gone before. Thus, in one blow, the Romantic viewpoint denies the doctrine of original sin and impugns the value of doctrine itself.

Friedrich Froebel was a big contributor to the progressive movement, but not the only one, and certainly not the most seminal. That distinction belongs to Rene Descartes, who made the radical assertion that true knowledge comes through one’s own rational pursuit and not from outside teaching. Andrew Seeley explains,

“In his delightful and exciting Discourse on Method, Descartes reviewed the education he had received, the finest classical education in Europe, and patronizingly rejected it point by point as a means of discovering truth. . . . Descartes thought that, if he wanted to know the truth, he had to doubt all of his received opinions, anything he had heard or read, thoughts that had come to him naturally from the beginning of his conscious awareness, even anything he sensed. He believed that if he could cut himself off from every opinion he had ever received, he could find truth through himself alone with absolute certainty. He did not believe he was creating his own personal truth, but he believed he had discovered what is universally true all by himself.”

Likewise, in Descartes’ Meditation–his most notable work, in which he distills all certain knowledge down to the idea “I think, therefore I am”–he departs from all previous thinkers by avoiding the mention of or appeal to any previous thinker.

What is the impact on schools that adopt this kind of thinking? Instead of imparting knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, the focus  is on giving students methods and tools for learning, not on learning anything in particular. In place of memorizing, drilling, and practicing the best of what human beings have thought and said, students are given Ipads. The thinking goes that, if students become proficient with technology, they will be equipped to learn anything they want. Rarely do these educators ask whether helping students master what Western civilization has already discovered would be better than expecting students to figure it out on their own, albeit with fancy tools. Russell Kirk once said, “If we are to be masters of the computer, rather than its subjects, we need to understand physics and mathematics.”

Before a school buys into a particular philosophy of education, I’d challenge them to consider where that philosophy comes from and where it will lead their students. Does it originate from Cartesian rationalism and Romantic sentimentality, or from the deep roots of classical education and the Christian tradition? Will it lead students to intellectual stagnation and make them prey to whatever they stumble across on the Internet, or will it train them in wisdom and virtue?

Categories: Exordium


Chris Van Allsburg · January 20, 2016 at 12:26 pm

Excellent article and laying out the worldview of the two philosophies of Descartes and Romanticism. Every educator should read this.

    Brett Vaden · March 28, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Thank you, Chris! Please pass us along to others who might find our work helpful. What’s your involvement in education?

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