Reflections on Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult
by Sara Breetzke, TCA Head of School
In chapter three of his recent book, The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse explains how the US education system has changed over the past 150 years, and he elucidates the goals of a modern progressive education - the education offered in most American schools today.
Below I’ve summarized some key ideas from that chapter, and I end with a question for the reader: is your child being educated? Or just going to school?
Before the Civil War, American schools were small, unregulated communities of learners. Between 1870-1940, public schools expanded exponentially to give young adults something to do in a newly urban America and immigrants a way to enter American culture.
While these sentiments behind school growth seem harmless, the growing American schools took on aspects of the era in which they flourished: The Industrial Era. With bell schedules and statistics reigning, American schools took on the characteristics of the factory.
Additionally, John Dewey, the “Chief Prophet of Progressive Education,” was key in shaping the modern school. Here are some of the radical views he advocated:
The school’s primary content should be what is discoverable by students. Dewey was skeptical of academic content handed down from experts.
The school’s primary vehicle of instruction should be the image. Dewey called an early interest in teaching children to read a “perversion” and was skeptical of the school’s dependence on book knowledge.
The school need not focus on a child’s individual flourishing. Dewey believed a student’s actions within modern society were a separate – and far more important – matter than his soul. Ultimately, students must be prepared for effective participation in the “social consciousness of the race” and its flourishing.
Dewey believed all of a child’s life was “nurtured in and only in the school. There are no other institutions … everything about the child’s life centers on the modern school.” No family. No church. School is ultimate.
Dewey was an atheist. He believed that religion and all other forms of dogma – including the idea of an absolute truth or morality – are dead and buried and have no place in school.
These philosophies were subtly woven into the culture of our American schools and are still present today. Objective truth is questioned. The image trumps the written word. The school has taken over family life. God has no place at school.
But are these schools working? America’s academic performance consistently ranks near the bottom among industrialized nations in subjects like math, science, general literacy, and cognitive skills.
Sasse suggests our hope for educational reform begins in a new understanding that school and education are not the same thing. If we ever hope to change education in this country, we have to remember our primary goals. We must consistently ask, “What is the role of the schools? Are they fulfilling that role effectively?”
School is a large scale cultural institution. It teaches a way of living and being. “Going to school” results in young adults who have learned the habits and routines of success within a particular system – but not necessarily the routines of a life well lived.
The school system is flourishing. Our students are not.
In contrast, education is the practice of growing an individual child in character and knowledge. As English author Dorothy Sayers writes, education “is inherently about the goals of life well lived; it is about the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is not the private domain of experts. It belongs to all of humanity.”
A reminder that education doesn’t only happen at school offers hope that the task of education need not only be carried out by “experts” within the school system.
All parents can help direct their children toward a life well lived, and the classical model of schooling provides a guide for parents to follow. This model teaches students differently according to how they learn best at each stage of their development, and it encourages wonder, a love of the classics, and reflection.
At Trinity Classical Academy, we’re are recovering this family-centered, humanity-honoring model of teaching and learning together. We long to educate students, not just "do school." We long to educate in ways that don’t imitate a factory, teach students passivity, or ignore the God who made all things.
It is a joy to see the children at TCA flourish as we return to teaching the good, the true, and the beautiful. We hope you’ll consider joining us in this pursuit.