150 Years Of The Atlantic November 2006

Education

This is the tenth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Jonathan Kozol, the National Book Award-winning author of several books on public education.
The Standing of Scholarship in America
October 1909
By Hugo Münsterberg

In a 1909 article that might not seem out of place today, a founding father of applied psychology expressed concern that a trend toward permissiveness in the classroom had gone too far.

There may have been a time … when education had become ineffective through its formalism and rigidity. The children were forced by severe methods to do work repugnant to them. The prescribed studies of the college boys were dry and tiresome … A great reaction had to come. School-time was to be made a period of happiness, the child was to learn only what he liked, the college boy was to study only that which seemed interesting … It was a period in which the children were no longer ordered, but begged and persuaded … athletics flourished, and in the school all, with the exception of the teachers, had a good time.

But now in the zigzag movement of educational progress, a new countermovement seems imminent. We have been trying the national experiment long enough to test its results … The outcome seemed more disappointing than ever. Every one who was not deceived by a showy exterior soon discovered the mental flabbiness and superficiality which resulted from the go-as-you-please methods. We began to feel that those who had never learned to obey never really became their own masters; those who had never trained their attention by forcing their will toward that which is unattractive had to learn by severe disappointments later that a large part of every life’s work must be drudgery. The youth left the school with a hundred things in their minds, but without any power of intellectual self-discipline.

Our public life reflects this lack everywhere. The newspapers and magazines, the theatres and the social-reform movements, are more and more made for a public which looks only to be entertained, and which has lost the power of sustained attention to that which is not attractive in itself …

If the nation is not to suffer by a cheap complacency, and the triumph of ostentatious mediocrity, the whole educational life must be filled with a new spirit of devotion to serious tasks.

Volume 104, No. 4, pp. 453–460

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