MUCKRAKING AND LESSONS FROM THE TURN OF THE CENTURY (19TH CENTURY)
Updated: Nov 1
The recent Times Magazine “I’m a Teacher in America” story about the lives of thirteen teachers follows a long tradition of journalists bringing the currency of the American condition into our homes. Education has been a popular topic of Times Magazine since 1925 when John Dewey was covered. High Schools in Trouble, Help...Teachers Can’t Teach, Back to Segregation, Is America Flunking Science, Dropout Nation, How to Make Better Teachers, Who’s Teaching Our Children, How to Fix America’s Schools, and Rotten Apples are among the ninety-eight covers featuring education. While there are a number of neutral covers, and many early-years’ covers featuring prominent education leaders, the majority of covers paint a bleak prospect for America’s future.
Given the powerful impact images have on the human brain, the indelible message Times Magazine covers have historically etched into the American psyche is that the institution of education leaves much to be desired.
This journalistic practice can be traced back to Joseph Mayer Rice, who introduced muckraking to the field of education in the 1890s. A pediatrician by trade, Rice’s interest in the physical fitness programs offered by NYC schools led to an interest in education research and a second career studying schools first-hand. An originator of comparative methodology in educational research, he became a major figure in the Progressive education movement, along with Lester Frank Ward and John Dewey. Starting in 1892, Rice visited schools and classrooms in thirty-six American cities. He spent the school hours of every day observing actual classroom events. He interviewed thousands of teachers, school officials, school board members, parents, and students over the course of his work as a reform-minded researcher and journalist. He reported his findings in The Public-School System of the United States in 1893.
Rice embarked upon a second tour observing the condition of America's school in 1895. This time he conducted a16-month study of 33,000 fourth-to-eighth-grade children. Utilizing his comparative methodology for the first time in American education, he carefully tabulated variables such as age, nationality, environment, and the type of school system. In addition to his observations, his study consisted of administering a survey that focused, in part, on the pedagogy of spelling. Rice argued that the time spent on spelling drills and students' performance on spelling tests was a waste of time, coining the practice as "The futility of the spelling grind."
In addition to publishing his findings, he regularly published essays. His continued critique of public schools became legendary. He exposed traditional schools as ineffective, harboring pedantic teaching practices under the inattentive eyes of unassisted and overmatched superintendents, in schools with often deplorable conditions. He argued for change and was instrumental in what became the New Education movement, credited to his predecessors Charles W. Eliot and Colonel Francis Wayland Parker, and punted along to his successors Lester Frank Ward and John Dewey.
Rice was among the most influential educators of his era. Dewey's Experience and Education (1938) echoed the sentiments of Rice, who insisted that schools focus on the emotional, artistic, and creative aspects of human development.
According to Rice, "The aim of the new education is to lead the child to observe, to reason, and to acquire manual dexterity, thereby developing the child naturally in all its faculties, intellectual, moral, and physical."
In contrast, the aim of the old education was mainly to give the child a certain amount of information, a philosophy of education that Eliot, Parker, Rice, Ward, and Dewey, among others, all rejected. While information was considered important, the new education movement considered it secondary to learning how to gather information. Children should be shown how to investigate, how to go to sources such as nature, mankind, and books, for the information they need. They should have experience in thinking about and weighing the facts discovered, in reasoning about them and coming to conclusions in regard to them. They should learn to act upon the judgments reached and to be able to express those judgments to others, in spoken and written form, definitely and effectively. They should not, as is too often the case, be expected to learn great numbers of facts and recite upon them, only to forget them as soon as the immediate need has passed. This 19th to 20th century shift from instructing for content to process skills could have come straight out of the 21st century learner playbook.
The more things change the more they remain the same. Joseph Meyer Rice’s turn of the 20th century philosophy of education is the desired approach today. We have survived the Back-to-Basics and Excellence-in-Education movements, three times over. We have listened to our teachers and learned from our students, returning to a healthy embrace of art, music, physical education, foreign language, and career education as core elements of curriculum. But beware, politicians and policymakers aren't likely to refrain anytime soon from misdiagnosing education's complex problems and proposing more quick-fix remedies. We as educators must be fortified with the expertise and wherewithal to avoid the pitfalls of personal agendas by standing tall in the face of political pressure. I follow this simple aphorism to guide my conscience:
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
― Mahatma Gandhi