Jacques Barzun - Where the Educational Nonsense Comes From

The first thing we must know under this heading is where the educational nonsense does not come from. The usual random guesses conceal the facts. I call nonsense any plan or proposal or critique which disregards the known limits of schooling or teaching. Schooling means teaching in groups. Thus a plan that might be workable if applied by a gifted tutor to a single child living continuously in the same house becomes nonsense when proposed for classroom instruction in an institution designed for hundreds or a national system designed for millions.

Similarly, the limits of teaching are transgressed if the plan presupposes extraordinary talents or devotion in the teacher. Finally, nonsense is at the heart of such proposals as replace definable subject matters with vague activities copied from "life" or with courses organized around "problems" or "attitudes." The attempt to inculcate directly, as a subject of instruction, any set of ethical, social, or political virtues is either indoctrination or foolery. That fact is not in conflict with another fact, which is that schools indirectly impart principles of conduct. Schools reinforce some portion of the current ethos, if only because teachers and books and the normal behavior of those brought together exemplify the moral habits of the time and place.

Summing up these definitions and generalities, we may say that educational nonsense comes from proposing or promoting something else than the prime object of the school, which is the removal of ignorance.

__ Jacques Barzun, in Intellectual Digest, October 1971, originally an address at the Third Annual Meeting of the Open Court Editorial Advisory Board, Chicago, June 1971.