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What Schools Teach: Then and Now

By Sam Blumenfeld
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #68, 2005.

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Sam Blumenfeld


People often wonder how it is that the fledgling nation created in the North American wilderness by courageous and brave settlers was able, in the space of only three hundred years, to become the richest, most powerful and advanced nation on earth. The secret is to be found in the character of the early colonists who settled New England. The leaders were the best-educated men to come out of England. They had attended Oxford and Cambridge and were steeped in learning, both Biblical and secular.

It should also be noted that at the time that the Massachusetts colony was being settled by the Puritans, the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays was being published in England in 1623. Those plays are an indication of the level of literacy that the educated class in England had attained. The colonists brought that standard of learning to North America, and it is on their shoulders that the future of America was built.

Anyone who collects antiquarian textbooks is always amazed at how much more advanced they are in subject matter than what passes today for textbooks. First of all, the books were physically much smaller than the large heavy tomes that weigh down today's students. Also, those old textbooks did not have the kind of pictures that fill today's image-oriented school books. They might have some engravings, but printing technology was quite crude according to today's standards.

Geography Then & Now

Take for example J. E. Worcester's Elements of Geography, Ancient and Modern, published in Boston in 1828. Its pocket-size 294 pages can be easily and comfortably held in one hand, and are packed with more information than you will find in today's door-stoppers. It is illustrated with about a dozen small engravings. It asks such questions as: What did the public debt amount to in 1791, 1812, 1816, 1824? How many millions of revenue were received into the treasury from 1789 to 1815? How many millions were derived from customs? What is the largest library in the United States? In what countries of Europe does the Lutheran or Protestant religion prevail? How many inhabitants in Iceland to a square mile?

Today, geography is not even taught as a separate subject. It is now subsumed under the heading of Social Studies. The very term Social Studies indicates that the curriculum was devised to propagate socialism, not facts about the world. Just ask a teenager to tell you the capital of Argentina or Hungary, or the population of Australia.

According to our progressive educators, geographical facts are not considered relevant to social needs. If you study ancient Rome, students will dress up in togas and pretend they are Romans. If you ask the students to name the Roman emperors in their proper succession, they will hem and haw. If you study Spain, you'll be required to get the ingredients of a Spanish dish and cook it up for the class. Who cares whether or not you know the population of Madrid? What matters is that you have had a "taste of Spain."

Worcester's geography also has a section on ancient Palestine. It is largely based on Scripture, which today would be considered inadmissible in a public school.

Literacy Then & Now

Everyone now acknowledges the decline of reading skills in America. Nineteenth century America probably had the highest literacy level in the entire world. More newspapers and magazines were published in the United States than in any other country. In those days children were taught to read by the alphabetic phonics method. The famous New England Primer of the early colonies not only taught the ABCs, but also conveyed religious education. For example, in teaching the letter A, the child was told that "In Adam's fall, we sinned all." The letter B: "Heaven to find, The Bible mind." C: Christ crucify'd, For sinners dy'd." All of that would be forbidden in our public primary schools where Dick and Jane reigned supreme until being dethroned by the latest version of whole-word teaching.

Today children are taught by the whole language method, which deliberately denies children the knowledge of our alphabetic system. With the decline of reading skills has come the need for dumbed-down textbooks. But all of this was planned by the progressives in order to prepare American children for an atheist socialist society.

Why Things Changed

Nothing that goes on in public education is accidental. If you want a complete history of the progressive curriculum and how it was imposed on our education system, all you have to do is read the Annual Reports of the National Society for the Study of Education, founded in 1900 by the progressives as the establishment's vehicle of organized curriculum change. Reading those 103 reports ought to be a great project for an ambitious homeschooler.


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