Randolph Bourne: Educational Reformer

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“There has been no handle by which heterogeneous minds and wills could be taken hold of and directed.” — Randolph Bourne, ca 1915 [198]
“Sometimes, the most brilliant and intelligent minds do not shine in standardized tests because they do not have standardized minds.”
― Diane Ravitch, ca 2015

His youth bona fides well established, Bourne was put on the education beat of the fledgling New Republic. He visited schools, sat in on classrooms, and reported on American education in the second decade of the new century, its transition to “industrial” education, the impact of progressive reforms, the first inroads of standardized testing.

Waverley College

He goes “Into a Schoolroom,” takes a seat in the back of the room, and feels “that queer sense of depression” he had once known as a grade school student. Bourne quickly identifies two main types of student, the “bumptious” and the “diffident,” for which read “good” and “bad” child. (Bourne acknowledges himself as having been among the latter.) No matter where the child might fall on the rule-following/rule-breaking spectrum, Bourne noted little or no opportunity for social interaction and thus cognitive growth. For, Bourne says,

thinking cannot be done without talking. …Thinking is primarily a social faculty; it requires the stimulus of other minds to excite curiosity, to arouse some emotion. Even private thinking is only a conversation with one’s self. Yet in the classroom the child is evidently expected to think without being able to talk. In such a rigid and silent atmosphere, how could any thinking be done, where there is no stimulus, no personal expression?

Reading this passage, I wondered what Bourne would make of today’s classrooms, which are far from “rigid” or “silent.” The emphasis on “cooperative learning” since the 1980s has almost completely obviated Bourne’s concern. On the contrary, some of today’s classrooms may not be silent enough; they are sometimes too loud or chaotic for good, hard thinking. Some learners, some of the time, benefit from a silent classroom. Furthermore, the talking that students engage in often does little to “excite curiosity” or “arouse emotion” about the topic under study.

Bourne was there at the dawn of educational mass production, as the United States scrambled to accommodate and assimilate millions of immigrant and migrant children flooding American cities. (“Hand-educated children have had to go the way of hand-made buttons. Children have had to be massed together  into a factory.” [188]) He was there at the adoption of standardized testing, too, with its lofty goal of applying “scientific” principles to this quintessentially human endeavor, of industrializing this hold-out cottage industry. In more recent decades testing has been exploited in the service of ensuring that all children learn and none are “left behind.” The effort has spawned no shortage of critics, whose objections sound a lot like Bourne’s of a hundred years earlier. Of the initial testing mania, he wrote, “Now nothing could apparently be more deadly and mechanical than this treating of living children as if they were narrowly isolated minds.”

NWI Times

Bourne had the acuity to recognize multiple intelligences decades before Howard Gardner, even if he did not yet put the idea to rigorous study or elaborate exposition. In “The Democratic School,” Bourne makes the relatively obvious point that “when we try to educate all the children of all the people, we are not dealing with a homogeneous mass, but with sliding scales of capacity.” [203] In subsequent sentences he draws attention to the less obvious heterogeneity within the  individual, referring to “mental,” physical, artistic, and mechanical aptitudes. It would take another seventy years for this idea to be more fully fleshed out by the Harvard professor and others.

Bourne endorsed progressive educational reforms he witnessed especially in the Gary, Indiana, schools. He correctly predicted that the “practical approach to knowledge through objects and projects and concrete facts” would soon enough become the predominant mode of learning in elementary schools. Academic drudgery and rote memorization would be replaced inexorably by what we now call hands-on learning.

Bourne condemned a one-size-fits-all approach to education which continues to bedevils us today. We have made attempts to differentiate instruction that work more or less well, but too often they are “tracking” by any other name. For too many young people, we have made school a kind of prison that serves mainly to reinforce their failure. More than a hundred years ago, Bourne questioned schools’ focus on making “intellectuals of all its children.” [203] (Others would make a similar critique.) Today, I often wonder why we put so much focus on literary analysis, for example, as if the skill of writing book reviews is among the most universally necessary. Aided by an explosion of quality middle grade and young adult literature, both fiction and non-, teachers are making an effort engage their students with high-interest books. And yet: standardized testing and state standards have their effects. Teachers still feel a need to force-feed material they otherwise might not. (There is a positive side to the focus on testing and standards, but that is not the concern here.)

We are still, and may always be, within the shadow of what Bourne calls “the tyranny of the best.” In his essay of virtually the same name, visual art is his focus, yet the concern applies to all art forms. Bourne argues that students be taught to develop their own tastes rather than to parrot back the reasons for the gatekeepers’ tastes. “The emphasis must be always on what you do like, not on what you ought to like.” [194] And, in fact, the argument extends beyond art to the humanities and all learning. For today, we say we want to develop critical thinkers, students who think for themselves (which is easier said than done).  Yet, there is an inherent tension in the educational enterprise. Unless we are to jettison the likes of Shakespeare and Melville for John Green and Angie Thomas, it is our job to help students appreciate the value of long dead writers. No easy task, but Bourne is right that we will always fail if we try to teach students what they are supposed to think about them.

What is most appealing to me about Bourne generally and his approach to education specifically is his realism. Yes, he was a progressive who was critical of old methods that concealed “uselessness” behind a façade of great “effort” to attain it. He advocated instead that school should create an experience that can “stimulate, guide, organize [and] interests.” [210] A  certain type of reader today might accuse him of squishy child-centeredness. But Bourne believed in rigor when it was judiciously applied and productive of genuine learning. He did not expect schools would make every child “marvelously to blossom into ideally alert and skilled intelligence.” [205] He did believe fervently that schools should provide students with the “opportunity for the development of the most varied aptitudes in the free play of a child community life.”

Bourne, Randolph. The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992 (1977).

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