Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Review of Rand-Influenced Book on Education

Today, I reviewed Jerry Kirpatrick's book "Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism." It is a book that defends (a) a free-market capitalistic model of educaiton; and (b) the appropriateness of Dewey's and Montessori's methods of education in that framework.

I gave the book 2 out of 5 stars.


First off, Jerry Kirkpatrick has written one of only a few books that defend education in an environment of the free market. For that, he deseves some praise. While I find fault with much that he says, I am in agreement with Kirkpatrick that schools need to be opened up to the competitive forces of the market.

Kirkpatrick is concerned to defend a particlar type of education - that utilizing the insights of progressive educators John Dewey and Maria Montessori - as the only proper plan of education in a capitalistic society. He suggests that in a capitalistic society, the "old way of educaiton" that teaches students to submit to the school's authority would be in contradiction with capitalism's anti-authoritarian structure.

My first objection is that, despite Kirkpatrick's argument, I do not see how any social structure REQUIRES a certain type of education. I do not see how a mixed economy or socialist country could not just as easily have a "lecture" style of education as it could a Montessori style. To suggest that a philosophy of educaiton and a philosophy of social organizaiton must be alligned is like saying that that a nation's philosphy of science must be alligned with its philosophy of social organization.

Secondly, Kirkpatrick takes it as unquestioned that Montessori's anti-authority method of education meshes well with capitalism's anti-authority structure. I do not see this as correct. When students move past high school, they will experience many "authoritarian" relationships, like that between them and employers and that between them and moneylenders. (I have even heard it argued elsewhere that an "anti-authoritarian" style of education leaves kids ill-preared to function in a capitalistic system, which involves learning to obey rules, laws, and mores.)

While I am not against the Montessori method of educaiton, I suspect that Kirkpatrick's confidence in it is exhuberant. Many well-argued books have been written outlining the dangers of current schools' infatuation with "progressive education" ideas ("whole child" education, "whole language" education, education as self-discovery rather than subject-discovery). The interested might read Stout's "Feel Good Curriculum" and Hirsch's "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them," as starting points.

In brief, Kirkpatrick makes a big mistakes, probably related to his belief in Ayn Rand's philosophy. First, he is very much against coercion, extremizing this view into the idea that coercing children is an unqualified wrong. It is interesting to note, though, that even in a capitalistic society, the need to coerce children is recognized in an almost universal agreement that kids below a certain age need to be restricted in certain ways, as they lack the executive functioning skills to self-regulate. Kirkpatrick recognizes that students need freedom, but does not recgnize that students also need a good amount of structure. Before one can be self-disciplined, one needs to be taught discipline. (One cannot just "discover" how to be disciplined.)

Kirkpatrick goes on to describe what an educaiton system in a free market would look like. I think the discusison is a bit facile to be honest. Kirkpatrick is confident that a free-market system would do away with grades, rankings, standardized tests, degrees, and certificates. I see this as a very hasty and wrong judgment that misinterprets a key role of schools: to signify to future employers, colleges, etc, that the child has mastered a certain content and acquired certain skills. Without diplomas, grades, and tests, the very term "graduation" loses all meaning. (How would we know when a chlld is graduated? How would we know when to pass a child on to the next level? How would future employers know how their perspective employees did in school?)

Kirkpatrick also sees rankings, letter grades, and degrees as very bad things. Of course, as an educator, I can attest that the grading system is what often keeps kids motivated to work harder, and without it, students would find it very hard to know where they need improvement and how much improvement they need. If there were no such things as "exit requirements" I question whether many people would see any point to education at all (aside from those who learn solely for the enjoyment of it).

Quite simply, I think Kirkpatrick's book could benefit from a lot of rethinking. Particularly, he discusses his own ideas, but not once discusses existant or possible criticisms (as for his championing of Montessori and Dewey, there are many, many critics he could have dealt with. He chose not to.) As for his facile confidence that a free-market would gravitate towards a Montessori appraoch, he did not bring up the fact that the large majority of private schools in existence are non-Montessori schools with more "authoritarian" structure. (Is there a reason to suppose that this trend would reverse? We don't know; Kirkpatrick doesn't bring it up!) There are also many critics of a free-market approach to education that not once do we hear Kirkpatrick grapple with.

I give this book two stars. One star is for being one of the handful of books discussing education in a free market framework. The second was for Kirkpatrick's very learned, but skewed, history of the transition from "classical" to "progressive" education.


  1. This issue is of personal importance to me. As best as I can be "Objective" on it, and as a man who has taught high school Science & Biology for a dozen years, I have to say I agree with you, Kevin.

    I should add that I have NOT read Kirkpatrick's book. So, I can only go by your comments and by Amazon reviews and descriptions which I have, indeed, read.

    With the forgoing caveats, I an confident to say, Dewey was an "anything goes", denier of objective principles in knowledge. He was the false alternative to the Prussian ("You WILL LEARN!") approach to education.

    In contrast, Montessori developed a system of *showing* students what was immutable and what was not. Her approach enabled the child to think, whereas the Prussian school only allowed the child to obey whereas the Dewey "anything goes" school gave the child no guidance at all.

    As you say, it is not "social structure" that requires any particular type of education. It is only the method by which a child's mind operates, thru
    1) concept formation, that dictates how a child should learn
    . Therefore every lesson must respect
    2) practical induction,
    3) respect for identity and causality (cause & effect) in Nature & in thought,
    4) respect for the hierarchy of concepts, and
    5) logic.

    Yes, children do require a certain amount of "authoritarian" guidance... but it is not a *political* matter. These two realms should not be confused. Though parenting differs from corporate management, each is a 'kind', and can eventually be muddled if the terms of the relationship aremisunderstood morally, or are a cause of *rational unhappiness*. Each entails a very different treatment by parenting adults (a different topic).

    The discussion in this post risks a considerable equivocation on the term "authoritarian". The usual usage is in Politics, but here it is used to refer to the determined principles of individuals —say a businessman working with his employees. His position is, indeed, one of authority, but it is NOT Authoritarian in the Political sense.

    As said, the latter is not Political. It is the employer's business, as owner. His choices are His Right, and His authority is His Right. As such, his decisions are NOT an "Authoritarianism" that an employee must obey, instead it is a reflection of the Right of the owner to dispose of his Property as He sees fit (it's HIS business). This is an essential aspect for a young person to grasp if he is to properly operate as an employee... and also, in fact, if he is the employer.

    Property Rights are not an understanding that engenders obsequious subservience, nor arrogant dominance, ...they are just the terms of the employer/employee relationship!

    The irrationality of such equivocations as described above are an enormous problem in modern Western Culture. They destroy the very principles that enable modern civilization to be civilized.

    On the more abstract level: widespread improper use of concepts is a product of modern, Dewey, "anything goes" education.

    I recommend "The Comprachicos" by Ayn Rand, and "Why Johnny Can't Think" by Leonard Peikoff.


    Kevin, on an aside, I must castigate you, with considerable respect, for terrible grammar and spelling in this most recent post. You have rushed, using poor grammar and spelling. Grammar is a reflection of the accuracy of thought, spelling is a reflection of one's grasp of the accuracy of Nature. There are mistakes that are rare, and there is incompetence. Your post was a let-down on both. Fortunately, the latter did not significantly effect meaning.

    In my own defence, I treat comments as "one offs" so, though I may proof-read them, they are extemporaneous and are therefore likely to be subject to a host of minor errors. However, those who host a blog, present a reflection of standards they wish to set. You, Kevin, clearly wish high standards. Yet, you have not adhered to your own intellectual standards.

    With well earned respect, Kevin, I suggest that, since grammar is a reflection on clear thinking, do not undercut such excellent standards.


  2. Richard,

    Thank you for your response. We are very much in general agreement, though disagree on minor details.

    Your writing indicates that you dislike Dewey and don't mind Montessori. Actualy, my thoughts are the opposite: it is Montessori that I think was the "anything goes" false alternative (I like that phrase you use) to the authoritarian style of teaching.

    Dewey very much emphasized content, and added that content should be learned experimentally and actively, while Montessori emphasized lack of structure, and "teacher as facilitator rather than instructor."

    I advise that if you have not read these two, you should. I would not rely on anyone's summaries of the two thinkers - particularly Dewey - as he was such a horrendous and complex writer that many summaries are innacurate.

    One thing I do dislike about Dewey was his attempts to make the school an instrument of social engineering via his linkage between educaiton and "democracy" (meaning equality, pluralism, scientism, and anything BUT democracy as majority rule). MOntessori did not, as far as I know, make the mistake of making schools the "instrument" of some social end.

    Also, I do not mean to imply that Kirkpatrick uses the word "authoritarian" in an ambiguous way. The book makes clear distinctions between "authoritarian" as an education, and as a political, concept. Yet, I do think that his statements that capitalism somehow necessitates the Montessori method are tenuous, as there is no reason that a particular social order REQUIRES a particular philosophy of ed.

    "Kevin, on an aside, I must castigate you, with considerable respect, for terrible grammar and spelling in this most recent post. You have rushed, using poor grammar and spelling. "

    Guilty as charged! I was quite eager to review the book and, while I did use a computer spell checker, I did not give it a close enough read-through. I am a very fast thinker and typer, which means that while my thoughts may be decent, I generally ahve to re-read a few times before I "publish." I should not have "rushed to press" so soon.

    Thank you for your high appraisal of my "work." I quite enjoy the back and forth with you as well. (I LOVE talking to those with different ideas and perspectives of my own in civil conversations. Too often, people not only disagree, but become rude. I hope the conversations continue.)

  3. Hi Kevin,

    I don't think Maria Montessori advocated lack of structure in any way. Each student had to grasp a particular understanding based on *physical manipulatives*. These manipulatives were designed to demonstrate surprisingly abstract understandings. But those understandings were based on reality. As they progressed, they could be shown a manipulative that teaches "the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of each side". On examining the 'manipulative' that demonstrates this basic principle I was amazed at how perfectly instructive it was.

    The Montessori teacher guides the students through levels appropriate to the child's level of understanding. This, too, is structured. Just as one must learn to skate to learn hockey, so one must understand addition, to properly understand multiplication. Montessori schools that adhere to those principles are not "anything goes".

    Within the child's level of intellectual development, Montessori allowed children to examine "anything", however, the laws of Nature were still there, to restrain them to what was Real. As such, the "teacher" did not set limits as "anything goes" but, enabled the child to experience the constraints of reality. Nature set the limits, the teacher ensures age appropriate development.

    In contrast, Dewey viewed concepts as arbitrary human constructs. As such, the meaning of concepts were not a matter of physical reality, but were a matter of cultural convention. Yet it is concepts that make thinking possible. The less clear their meaning, the more fuzzy one's thought, the more vague the child's grasp of Reality. He wrote,
    "What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life. This education consists primarily in transmission through communication. Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession." (Wikipedia)
    Note that Dewey's education is not about learning Natural Law and actual fact, it is about shared experience and collective agreement.

    When obtaining my B.Ed and the U. of Toronto, the most common definition of education was, "the socialization of the child". It completely divorces the child's mind from Reality, and renders him/her subservient to the masses.

    Yet, Reality does not give a damn about cultural convention (think of witches who float: they were "guilty" and were therefore stoned to death; the women that sank, & drowned, were not witches). Reality leaves it up to each person to figure out Reality for his or herself.

    Dewey, without delving into his ideas in enormous detail, is demonstrably "anything goes", whereas Montessori says to each child, as an individual, explore nature however you want, but nature has rules the student will discover.

    The Montessori approach provides guidance and individuality.
    The Dewey approach takes away clarity of thought and wipes out the individuality of the child.

  4. "Dewey, without delving into his ideas in enormous detail, is demonstrably "anything goes", whereas Montessori says to each child, as an individual, explore nature however you want, but nature has rules the student will discover."

    I am not sure how you can sum Montessori up this way and NOT see her as an "anything goes" educator. Just because she acknowledges that students will discover existant facts of reality does not mean that she is not quite free-form in her ideas. She is essentially saying, "The student can study what she wants, when she wants, how she wants, and how fast she wants, but I will still make sure that she discovers facts." Anything goes (but they will learn; just on their own. I won't teach them.)

    That this is a fiasco is evident in the "whole language" appraoch to educaion two decades back. The idea was that students would not be taught phonics, but would learn language on their own - with the teacher "facillitating" - by reading (or looking at) books, gradually "discovering" what words mean what. What resulted was students who never learned to read (and certainly never learned how to decode new words).

    This is Montessori's way: somehow, students will discover the rules behidn things (like language, physics, etc) by following their own leads, rather than an instructor's.

    When I say that Montessori is "Anything goes," I mean that this is her position on how teachers should behave in teaching students: allow students to dictate their own course, rather than helping them with a proscribed one. By "anything goes," I do not mean that Montessori disbelieved in facts, but only disbelieved in the direct teaching of facts from instructor to pupil.

    I agree with you that Dewey "viewed concepts as arbitrary human constructs," excepte for the "arbitrary" part. (Not sure where you got that.) As one who HAS studied Dewey in much detail, I can attest that he never saw concepts as arbitrary, but rather, pragmatically necessary inventions that enabled us to think about the world. This is what he wanted students to do: learn how to mentally handle concepts in a way that prepared them to interact with the world.

    In a nutshell, he was not nearly as "process over content" motivated as Montessori was, and saw that "process" was as important as "content." He did not disbelieve, as did Montessori, in the idea of proscribed curriculum, but he only thought there was a better and more interactive way for students to recieve it.

    And, yes, Dewey was one of the prime movers of teh "socialization of the child" movement in educaiton (still around today). I agree very much with your critique of that movement, and would add that I do not see how it is the school's place to "socialize the child" rather than the job of parents and the social network in which the child is brought up.