U.S. Educators Ignoring the Lessons of History

Published October 1, 2002

The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.
—Paul Johnson

The above quotation is one of Thomas Sowell’s favorites, and its point underlies a recent article on U.S. educational fads written by Sowell, the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow in Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.

Sowell points out that the U.S. educational establishment’s advocacy of “discovery learning” and its objection to “teaching to the test” had their parallels in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and in China during the 1950s and 1960s, when these ideas were applied wholesale to the educational systems in the two countries.

However, the results of this change in teaching strategy were such that both countries quickly returned to the idea of “teaching to the test.” By the late 1920s, “the bad educational consequences were turning the Soviet government leadership against these fads,” notes Sowell. And a decade after examinations were abolished in China and social “relevance” was given more weight, the examinations were restored because “the quality of education has declined sharply,” according to the country’s Ministry of Education.

“[S]chools have not paid attention to educational standards and instead overemphasized practical work; students’ knowledge of theory and basic skills in their area of specialization have been disregarded,” complained Deng Xiaoping, decrying “the deterioration of academic standards.”

Choice, Teacher Quality, and Curriculum

In a conversation with Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs Research Director Brandon Dutcher, Sowell recently provided the following public policy prescription to rescue children from public schools that are failing to equip large numbers of students with even fundamental reading skills:

“The most immediate thing that policy-makers can do to rescue many low-income and minority students, especially, is to give their parents a choice of schools—public and private—through vouchers.

“For the public schools in general, the most important thing is to break the stranglehold of the teachers’ unions and the schools of education that have filtered out intelligent people who cannot stand the drivel they would have to go through to get a credential. Despite attempts to depict these credentials as evidence of being ‘qualified’ to teach, it is closer to being a certificate of being unqualified.

“There also needs to be an unequivocally clear policy that children are sent to school to acquire academic skills, not to be propagandized with PC, put through psychological experiments, or used as guinea pigs for educational or other fads. Teachers who refuse to teach in accordance with this policy should be fired.”

From “A Conversation with Thomas Sowell,” Perspective, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, July 2002. http://www.ocpathink.org/Pages/Perspective0702.htm

Additional information on publications by Thomas Sowell is available at http://www.tsowell.com.