In a special interview, Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 am to 8:00 am – host Michael Patrick Leahy spoke with Can America’s Schools Be Saved: How the Ideology of American Education is Destroying It author, Edwin Benson about the origins of American education and how it’s affecting the minds of young students and teachers alike today.
During the course of the interview, Benson and Leahy discussed John Dewey who’s political and philosophical views shaped the education system. They also noted that they found it interesting that nobody seems to know much about a Dewey considering his historically large influence on American education as we know it today.
Leahy: We are joined now by Edwin Benson. A retired public school teacher and author of the 2017 book, Can America’s Schools Be Saved: How the Ideology of American Education is Destroying It. Welcome, Edwin.
Benson: Thank you very much, Mr. Leahy.
Leahy: So, your story is fascinating. By the way you live in York, Pennsylvania. Isn’t that the site of the cotton mill Congress in the 1770s?
Benson: Yes it was. For nine months York was the capital of the United States.
Leahy: Is the building still in existence there or has it been torn down?
Benson: It was torn down a long time ago. It was rebuilt in 1976 as a bicentennial project and actually it’s about 10 blocks from where I’m sitting at this moment.
Leahy: We’ll talk about that a little bit later. I told our audience before you came on that I’ma big critic of John Dewey and basically he’s the mastermind of the disaster of progressive public education here in the United States. He died in 1950 but his philosophy continues.
And I was looking for a really thoughtful critique of John Dewey’s political and educational philosophy. There was an article, there’s not a lot out there as it turns out.
Benson: No, there’s not.
Leahy: There should be.
Benson: Almost nobody knows who John Dewey was.
Leahy: Which is fascinating.
Benson: He’s just an incredibly influential person but nobody knows him.
Leahy: Tell us who he was.
Benson: Well he was a philosopher. He was born in 1859 and died in 1952. He was a New Englander. He got a philosophy degree in the 1880s. He was one of the first people to write a book on psychology and pretty much everything in it is wrong.
But he was one of the first people before Sigmund Freud he’s writing about psychology. He got most of his influence as the man that was in charge of Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. And from that, if you will that pulpit, he trained generations of presumably the best American teachers.
And then they went on to teach their students and many of them then became teachers themselves and university professors of education. That influence just spread until today you cannot walk into an education school. You can’t walk into a public school. Or you can’t walk into many private schools that haven’t been seriously affected by John Dewey’s philosophy.
Leahy: What’s wrong with that philosophy Edwin?
Benson: Well, basically there are three things that people should know about Dewey. First, he’s a utilitarian. Basically nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. That sort of amoral philosophy. He was a socialist. Probably the easiest place to see that is in this thing called Group Work that has been part of American education forever.
But its an inherently socialist thing. All the students get the same grade no matter what you put into it and so on. But in a sense, it’s a little tiny socialist community in a classroom. And he’s really the person behind that. And he was a relativist.
He did not believe in the absolute fact that there were things that were true or that there were things that were false and that they would always remain that way. So if you look at and I look the representative from New York City who’s making so much news as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And if you look at John Dewey’s philosophy, all three of those words apply to her.
Leahy: Yes. Exactly.
Benson: Utilitarian, socialist, relativist.
Leahy: And she’s basically ignorant of history and science but very certain that she’s got the right solutions for everything.
Benson: Absolutely. And that’s typical of anybody who’s come through a John Deweyish system.
Leahy: So you are a retired public school teacher. You went to the University of Michigan at Flint. Is that where you’re from? Are you from Flint?
Benson: Yes I am.
Leahy: You started teaching in the Florida area?
Benson: I started teaching in 1984 in the Miami public schools.
Leahy: That must have been something.
Benson: (Chuckles) It was an interesting experience. And that really was where I found out that all of this stuff that I have learned in education schools just didn’t work.
Leahy: Now you’re a passionate student of American history as I am, I love American history and have written some books about that as well. You publish a blog called traditionalistteacher.com. So you had teaching experience in Florida and then I guess you went later up to Maryland. It sounds to me like you’ve been persuaded that much of the public school experience is a disaster for both students and teachers.
Benson: Oh, certainly. And the thing that is so corrosive about it is that all of these people, these bright young people that are going into teaching, and there are some really intelligent good people that go into the profession. But they get kind of sold this bill of goods.
And it doesn’t even occur to them to think about it because it’s the way they were educated. So if you got somebody who’s entering the filed now, they probably started in kindergarten in the year 2000 or maybe a little before that. And you know they don’t even think of it as a philosophy of education they just think of it as education itself.
And until it occurs to you that the system itself is broken the fate that often cripples many teachers is that they begin to think one of two things. Either they’re broken, they just can’t do it. Or that the students are acting so badly that it can’t work. Well, neither one of those things is true. They’re just trying to put together a decent lesson out of a system that’s really broken.
Leahy: Well your book in 2017, entitled Can American Schools Be Saved: How the Ideology of American Education is Destroying It. People can go to Amazon.com and search under your name Edwin Benson and buy it. But let me ask you this. Can American schools be saved? And what would be the top two or three things you would do to save them?
Benson: First off, one of the things that you learn if you look at the history of American education is that American education once worked. If you looked at what happened during the turn of the 20th century they took whole generations of immigrant children many of whose parents had a third-grade education at best and within the generation we were the most literate country in the world.
We know how to do this. And it’s simply transmitting information. Teaching skills. Teach them how to read. Make sure they know how to read before they go on to the next grade.
Leahy: Oh wait, you are a revolutionary. Edwin Benson! Really? Students should be able to read before they do anything else? I can’t believe you said that.
Benson: I think the Roman philosopher, Cicero and I don’t know if they actually did things this way but he was talking about what his favorite education system would be. And he said we should teach nothing but language until they’re about 14. And if you know enough language then you can teach everything else really quickly.
Leahy: And your experience of teaching 30 years in public schools, and you taught high school students, did you find that the ability of these students to actually read had declined over that 30 year period?
Benson: Oh goodness yes.
Leahy: It did really?
Benson: And just that sense of not knowing much of anything. I’ll never forget one day and I taught some very intelligent students. One of the classes I taught was the advanced placement of US History class.
Benson: As I said, I was teaching this class of high school juniors. They were the most intelligent kids in the school. There were some really bright kids in there. And I kind of threw out this question, when did the Pilgrims get to Plymouth, Massachusetts?
And I’m expecting to hear this chorus of ‘1620.’ And there wasn’t a single kid in the room who knew this. (Leahy chuckles) And I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Even when I was in school in the early 60s this was first and second-grade stuff.’ And at that point it hit me. (Chuckles) Holy cow, we’re in worse shape than I thought. And nothing has happened to make it any better in the years since.
Leahy: We here at the Tennessee Star. I don’t know if you’ve seen this. We published a book for secondary students. Our Guide to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And we conduct a constitution Bee every year in Tennessee. And we are expanding to Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio this year. We’re going to have a national Constitution Bee in Washington, D.C. and I think we’ll have quite a significant prize this summer. When did you retire?
Benson: June of 2018.
Leahy: So you retired. But you were in the classroom teaching American history. When you got these kids, how much did they know about the American Constitution?
Benson: Well you know it was funny. They knew a whole lot about the first amendment. They knew the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. They knew that they could say anything and get away with it. (Leahy laughs) Other than that, the lower level classes knew a whole lot about search and seizure. (Chuckles) You know, that whole fourth amendment. But other than that almost nothing.
Listen to the full second hour:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 am to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Kids in School” by NEC Corporation of America. CC BY 2.0.