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What Parts of The Classics were Removed from Education in the Progressive Era?

  1. Sep 29, 2011 #1
    According to Wikipedia in the progressive era the classics were removed from education. I know this isn’t completely true (At least world wide) because I learned a small amount of Greek Mythology (I live in Canada) in school. However, there was no study of Plato or any amount of philosophy at all were I went to school. I recall being in high school once and a teacher mentioned that they the teaching of philosophy in high school was tried but it was a failure. This seems false because from my reading of Wikipedia It seems as philosophy may have been taught for a significant period of time in Secondary school (At least in the United States).

    Further reading of Wikipedia tells me that in the time of Woodrow the importance of both philosophy and the constitution (i.e. checks and balances) was downplayed in favor of “pragmatic administrators” who can be accountable to their citizens. How do we reconcile this shift from government by the people to government by “experts” in a world that still believes so strongly in democracy which is government by the people?

    Even though Plato’s Republic was still highly authoritarian, in Plato’s Republic the importance of a set of principles to found the state (A.K.A. a constitution) was essential to the proper functioning of the state. It seems odd that a country founded so strongly on Jeffersonian principles of liberty (which were inspired by advocates of separation of powers from the age of enlightenment such as John Lock) would trust the governing to state/instructional sanctioned experts.


    What I want to know is exactly which parts of the classics were removed from education. There seems to be a ton of important concepts that could have been removed. For instances:

    -In Plato’s Republic he said that trying to solve problems via legislation was like trying to cut the head off a hydra. A point of debate for essay style questions could be: How does the progressive era approach of trying to solve problems though legislation address this critic found in Plato’s Republic?

    -In Canada they teach some dystopian works (one of Animal Farm, 1984 or Brave New World). When they teach, Brave New World in Secondary school do they compare and contrast how the guardians in Plato’s republic are raised like the children in Brave New World (they don’t know who their parents are). Do they discuss the greater impact of the state and corporation in the raising of the family and debate if this further separation between family and child moral?

    -Plato’s Ideals of Forms seem relevant when discussion geometry and science.

    -There is much to be learned about logic from Plato and Aristotle.

    -In school they they try to address media literacy but they don’t teach informal logic (logical fallacies). With regards to the classic there is no discussion of Rhetoric. The study of Rhetoric is not only relevant to media literacy but also relevant to modern theories of psychology like cognitive dissonance. For instance in Aristotle’s rhetoric he argued to convince people one should using facts which people already believe. One of the most effective use of this technique was Martian Luther Kings use of the following phrase from the United states constitution: “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal in the eyes of god”

    And I am sure there is many many good things that may have been removed from the education system in the name of progress.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 29, 2011 #2

  4. Oct 3, 2011 #3
    My thinking is that the classics, literature, along with much of the other humanities and the idea of a strong liberal arts education became less and less important, while educational focus shifted to preparing for professional fields and learning trades.

    I think that there are pragmatic tendencies (especially in the U.S.), caused in part by economic pressures and concerns, that have people believing the purpose of an education is to get a good job as opposed to bettering their minds.

    Plus, the classics are old, and usually written by men and brought over from Europe, so for an American progressive, the classics will lose value, not mean much. It becomes a political stance to advocate them or not. Instead an instructor might make a reading list from a more diverse range (including women and minorities) of contemporary authors.

    Plus, because the liberal arts/humanities major is on the decline, instead of having a deep curriculum, a student may only have a single introductory class.

    I have a master's degree in humanities, albeit in visual arts, and I don't remember being assigned any classics, except Hamlet and Madame Bovary and a few other scant selections (in Literature and Composition and World Literature classes, which I didn't have to take for my degree). Nothing by the ancient Greeks. I certainly don't remember reading any in high school. Unless you consider Shane and The Pearl classic. It's somewhat distressing really.

    So, to answer what part of the classics were removed, I'd have to say most all of them, unless you were to specifically take a class or major in the classics.
  5. Oct 3, 2011 #4


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    Staff: Mentor

    The Curriculum varies from school district to school district in each town. There is not a set standard in the US. Philosophy classes were taught and a heavy emphasis on literature were in my daughter's high school.
  6. Oct 3, 2011 #5
    I really think this is a mistake especially for secondary school. What professional skills or trade skills did you learn in high-school. Are you qualified to be a welder or build furniture? Perhaps it is different in say Brittan but my understanding is the British school system is less conducive to movement between classes. I went to school in Canada. The best I can think of with regards to practical skills they may have taught would be home ec. (cooking and crafts), shop class (we called it industrial arts), and PDR (personal development and relations. A.K.A sex e.d. in the united states).

    I don't feel home ec, qualifi3ed me to be a chief, shop didn't prepared me to do any trade and I doubt it takes three classes to teach someone how to have safe sex. I of course went to school on the east coast of Canada and I understand on the west coast they have more extensive options for some of these things but no doubt at the expense of other academic areas.

    I mean if you want to learn to cook read a cook book, if you want to learn practical skills and you don't have a parent that knows these things read a do it your self book. If you are interested in these professions take them in trade school. I can't help feel that the purposes of these classes is more a form of roll playing (analogous to encouraging kids to play with dolls) then about teaching people anything substantive.

    I also think that the confusion between goals of educational institutions hinders the quality of education since training people to fulfill roles is similar to indoctrination in that it is more about installing behavior skills. This is in opposition to teaching people to think freely (which is a necessary trait of a good academic) which requires people to be able to recognize the flaws in what they learned in order to leverage what they learned to move in new directions of research.

    A little bit about my background. My first degree was in physics, my second degree electrical engineering and I started a Masters in electrical engineering. What I found is that my physics degree did not teach enough mathematics to properly understand the foundations of quantum mechanics. What it did instead is teach enough quantum mechanics to make students useful assistants to researchers. This approach to physics is only relevant to those people who go on to do graduate studies in physics.

    I created a more detailed note about this here:

    because some of my cousins asked me the best way to learn quantum mechanics.

    It is not necessary to gut the classics to teach contemporary issues. To me dismissing a work because it is old is the height of arrogance. People who lack an understanding of history are dazzled by people who profess ideas as new which existed for the ages. When people understand history they will have already heard a much greater amount of the arguments which have been made on all sides of many issues though-out the ages. When people don't understand history they think they are debating something new and miss the historical context of the successes and failures of those ideas.

    We tell people history is important and if they don't learn it we are doomed to repeat those mistakes but most of the history taught seems to be about war an conquest. What is the message? Is it a social Darwinism message of might makes right or is it a Christian, thou are a sinner message were we must repent for the sins of the past.

    Additional there is a considerable amount of propaganda in our states about democracy and many have argued the importance of education in a properly functioning democracy but there is no study of the history of education and it's impact on democracy in secondary school.

    Fortunately the first University I went to was a liberal arts school, so well, I studied physics, I took one course in art history, two in philosophy and two economics.I considerably enjoyed attending this school more then the second school I went to where I studied engineering. I found my engineering education was considerably more theoretical then was required in our overly specialized systematic corporate world.

    In high-school I learned a bit about Greek Mythology. I was fortunate enough to be able to take on course in political science at high school but they removed it the year after I took it. I studied about three shake-sphere plays (not consider "the classics" but still old). I also did a project on Galileo in an ancient history course in high-school.

    In university I didn't studied the classics but I studied some of the history of philosophy in the course ("The rise of scientific Europe") and in Canada most Universities teach a course in Plato's republic (Although I am not sure they should subject first year students to that text in full).

    Post university I watched this entire lecture series:

    and a reading of Kevin A. Carson
    http://c4ss.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Thermidor-of-the-Progressives.pdf [Broken]

    as well as a previous reading of John Gatto's Seven lessons of education have inspired me to want to learn more history about education and more history about the progressive era and the enlightened age. I feel this is essential history to underhand, in order to analyze the weaknesses in our education system.

    I was looking more for what important things were once taught in the classics which might help people have more intelligent debates about politics given the dumbing down of mass media and the importance of education in democracy.

    I am glad to see they teach some philosophy in some areas. I hope there will be in the future a larger recognition of the importance of this type of instruction.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  7. Oct 4, 2011 #6
    Hey John,
    I really appreciate your reply.

    Yeah, I remember taking electives: aviation science, drafting, electricity, art, graphic design, photography, woodshop. But not enough to really learn much.

    I seem to remember that I was only required to take one year of English and one year of math in high school, compared to three years of physical education! I thought this was a crime. Still do.
    I was so turned off by high school at the time, feeling that it was a repeat of junior high, and offered nothing of educational stimulation, that it sort of messed me up.
    I felt that it was trying to be more of a social situation rather than an educational one, and I resented it.
    I lost faith in the system of society.
    With no guidance and no motivation I turned to alcohol and other intoxicants.
    It wasn't until later that I overcame my grudge against high school and educational institutions and tried to give college a chance, but honestly I feel that I was slowed way down developmentally.
    I am trying to catch up now on my own, but often feel that I'm fifteen years or so behind where I should have been, had I a proper education.
    It's really a shame.
    I scored in the top three people on the PSAT test in my high school class too, a class of 500 hundred, in one of the better school districts in Los Angeles county...

    Anyway, I agree with many of your comments, and I'll have a look at the links.
  8. Oct 4, 2011 #7
    Out of curiosity when were you born? I was born in 78. In some ways education is improving (e.x. literacy rates and math), but in other ways it's digressing like grammar. I would be curious to know what more peoples experiences were like in different locations and time periods.
  9. Oct 5, 2011 #8
    Yeah, the answer to this offers a great deal of explanation.
    I was born in '67.
    In '78 California passed prop 13, and state funding for schools dropped from $9 billion to $3 billion overnight. California school rankings went from something like 7th before prop 13 to 27th after.
    (They were in the top 5 in the 60's, but I think they've been in the mid forties this last decade.)
    I started middle school/junior high in '79, and graduated high school in '85.
    So, it was probably a bad time for California public schools, the time when they were in the most disarray over the loss of funding.
  10. Oct 6, 2011 #9
    I think that classics were always seen as part of the education of the ruling class, for instance taking a degree at Oxford meant studying Literae Humaniores. The reduction in the study of the classics was partly due to the widening of education to other parts of the population.

    Also all the stuff that's happened in the last 300 years means that there's more to learn about, so that there's more specialization and less space for the classics.

    Of course, if you followed the ideas of Plato then you'd study maths until you were 30 and then think about other subjects.
  11. Oct 6, 2011 #10
    Aren't the people in the democracy suppose to be the ruling class? "A government for the people, by the people of the people"

    The funny thing is that in Plato's time he thought the same thing which makes me wonder why he thought philosophy was so different then all the trades and crafts. In essence he must of thought a philosopher could have known the best way to do everything without being able to do anything well.

    (I'll dig up quotes later)

    The easiest way to make people think they are limited to one role in a society is to teach a mass of information in a disorderly and non cohesive manner. John Gatto calls this "the lesson of confusion". Our mind naturally connects patters. Long term memory is semantic. That is we remember what has meaning. The more connections we make between knowledge the more meaning it will have and the more neural connections we will build to help sustain that piece of knowledge.

    We remember what means something to us, we remember what we use. Knowledge which we see little meaning and rarely used is quickly forgotten. Teaching students to learn arbitrary facts via rout condemns them to forgetting most of what they learned.

    Learning history doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with history. Plato's political views were quite fascist regulating everything from how we talk about the gods to what type of music the people should be allowed to listen to. What confuses me the most though is - how can someone write something as fascist as Plato's Republic and say something as libertarian as which Plato wrote in trials of Socrates where Socrates said something like "what does it mean when the wisest of men is the man who knows he knows nothing at all". This is what baffles me the most about Plato's politics.

    To me this is one of the most important quotes in humanity and it has so many forums yet so many people are ignorant of the origin.
  12. Oct 7, 2011 #11
    I can see why a better understanding of subjects such as economics would help people to play a better role in a democracy, but ancient battles - no.
    But that sounds like learning the classics to me, in particular philosophy. It's always puzzled me why philosophy is made so difficult. In other subjects the material might be difficult, but an effort is made to present it to make it easier to follow. Philosophy could follow the same pattern, clearly setting out important ideas and the arguments for and against them, but instead we're expected to read ridiculously incomprehensible stuff like 'The Critique of Pure Reason'
  13. Oct 7, 2011 #12
    I'm in complete agreement here.
    I'm curious.....was it university or high-school where you studied Kant? I would agree that the critique of pure reason is not the best primary source of high-school students. If we want to study the philosophy or reasoning I would Karl Popper for high-school students.

    Here is something very easy to digest for high-school:

    and here are his seven simple conclusions which I consider extremely relevant:

    If I was going to recommend reading from Kant's era (The progressive age) I would suggest John Lock (even though I haven't read him yet). I suggest Lock because his writings inspired some of Jefferson's writings especially those with regards to the balance of powers. Both Hobbes, and Kant can be dealt with through secondary sources and very small excerpts.

    Primary sources are always the best but aren't always practical due to time limitations. The next best option is books which give long but carefully selected experts. However, for high-school students the relevant ideas should be communicated within a reasonable amount of space. I think both Hobbes and Kant fail to do this so I think they are pour choices for primary sources.
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2011
  14. Oct 8, 2011 #13
    I sincerely hope this depressing nonsense is never taught to high school pupils, since it is so far off the mark for the scientific (rational?) method.

    Why learn about ancient battles?

    Well, was Hitler the first to employ ethnic cleansing or concentration camps and if not who was?

    History teaches those democracies vigilant enough where an autocracy can (and many have) lead.

    That is a valuable lesson.

    Experience teaches that current 'scientific' economics is at about the same stage as medicine was in 1303 ans something to be extremely wary of.

    That too is a valuable lesson.
  15. Oct 8, 2011 #14
    I didn't study Kant either at school or university, (maybe I studied mathematics till I was 30 :rolleyes:) but tried to read 'Critique of pure reason' for my own entertainment. So possibly I'm being unfair on philosophy courses in assuming that original works are central to their teaching.

    Then again Popper and economics hardly count as 'Classics'. Also I didn't bring up studying maths until you're 30 to make fun of Plato, but to say that there might be some sense in it. If you want to be a generalist rather than specializing in a narrow topic, then rather than starting your education by learning a little bit of everything, to me it makes more sense to start off as far to the right in this picture as possible.
  16. Oct 8, 2011 #15
    I agree with you that a strong focus in math is very important but aside from that, I don't think the natural sciences are much more important then the humanities/social sciences for the average person to learn. I would even consider putting philosophy ahead of the natural sciences for areas such as, grammar, linguistics, logic and even the philosophy of science.

    How much natural science does a person do in there life. When was the last time for instance you saw the average Jo pull out a calculator to try and compute the equilibrium state of a given chemical reaction. I think the average Jo might be better served studying some economics so it is harder for politicians to pull the wool over their eyes when discussing economic issues.
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