Commentary

Educational Theory

By Bruce Goldberg
March 15, 1997

Professional educators claim that their treatment of children in school rests on a foundation of science, educational science. The school curiculum, they say, is a course of study designed by experts and based on a scientific understanding of the mental development of children. Its purpose is, among other things, to help children achieve their fullest potential as individuals.

But those claims about the school curriculum do not withstand examination. When the ideas of educators are looked at closely, their notion of educational science appears to be a myth.

Horace Mann, the 19th-century “father” of the public school sysytem, was one of the first educators to claim that the process of schooling is based on science. Without verified scientific knowledge of how a child’s mind develops, he said, “one would have no right to attempt to manage and direct … a child’s soul.” But Mann’s belief that he possessed such knowledge was unjustified. The “science” on which he based his theory of education was phrenology, the now entirely discredited pseudoscience of bumps on the skull.

Educational theory has not improved since the time of Horace Mann. In the 20th century, the psychological view that has dominated educational thinking has been behaviorism, whose most influential exponent was the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner. Scrutiny has shown, however, that the behaviorist psychologists, in claiming to have a scientific understanding of psychological development and a scientific foundation for schooling, were vastly overstating their case. Behaviorism turned out to be little more than grandiose claims without supporting evidence. For example, Clark Hull, one of the leading behaviorists, claimed to have a theory that gave a scientific explanation of “familial behavior, individual adaptive efficiency (intelligence), the formal educative processes, psychogenic disorders, social control and delinquency, character and personality, culture and acculturation, magic and religious practices, custom, law, and jurisprudence, politics and government.” What Hull actually offered was considerably less substancial. It consisted, as the philosopher R.S. Peters pointed out, of nothing but “some simple postulates which gave dubious answers to limited questions about particular species of rats.”

There is, in fact, no scientifically confirmed theory of learning supporting the school curriculum. As Noam Chomsky puts it in a survey of the field, “There exists no behavioral science incorporating nontrivial, empirically supported propositions that apply to human affairs or support a behavioral technology.”

Not only does the school curriculum fail to be an ordered course of study based on science — it is not an ordered course of study at all. Even the most casual look at what the school system offers reveals it to be quite the opposite. Critics David and Micki Colfax write, “The public school curriculum — which embodies, at least theoretically, what is to be learned and when — is in fact nothing more than a hodgepodge of materials and assumptions resulting from the historical interplay of educational theories, political expedience, education fads and fashions, pretensions to culture, demagoguery, and demography. It is by no means, as the professional educators would have it, a coherent ’course of study’ or, as the more pretentious among them would have it, a ’distillation of our common culture.’”

What is more, the claim that the school curriculum benefits children as individuals is unwarranted. Indeed, by forcing all children to learn the same things, by imposing on them a “one-size-fits-all” plan of development, the curriculum ignores their individuality entirely. The public school curriculum represents a group-orientated way of thinking about children, in which the interests, inclinations and talents of the individual child are treated as essentially irrelevant. It is not surprising that a system containing so much falsity, whose practices are so much at variance with its stated goals, is failing.

An education that would benefit an individual child, any individual child, would begin with an understanding of the interests, drives and aptitudes of that child. The grand plan of educators begins at the wrong place — with their goals for all. Those goals are supported by nothing but pseudoscience and rhetoric about elevating the spirit. Children then fail by not meeting the expectations of the “experts” and their designs. But it is not the children who are failing — it is the experts who are failing to meet the children where they are. We will have better schools when we fit education to the child rather than the other way around.

Bruce Goldberg is professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland and author of Why Schools Fail, just published by the Cato Institute.