The American School: Why Johnny Can’t Think

by Leonard Peikoff
From The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought
The Voice of Reason
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This lecture was delivered at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum in April 1984, published in the October – December 1984 issues of The Objectivist Forum and anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought in 1989.

We are now a few hours from Income Tax Day in George Orwell’s year — an ominous moment, symbolically, when we feel acutely the weight of an ever growing government, and must begin to wonder what will happen next and how long our liberty can last.

The answer depends on the youth of the country and on the institutions that educate them. The best indicator of our government tomorrow is our schools today. Are our youngsters being brought up to be free, independent, thinking men and women? Or are they being turned into helpless, mindless pawns, who will run into the arms of the first dictator that sounds plausible?

One does not have to be an Objectivist to be alarmed about the state of today’s schools. Virtually everybody is in a panic over them — shocked by continuously falling SAT scores; by college entrants unable to write, spell, paragraph, or reason; by a generation of schoolteachers so bad that even teachers-union president Albert Shanker says of them: “For the most part, you are getting illiterate, incompetent people who cannot go into any other field.”1Quoted in USA Today, Aug. 12, 1983.

Last November, a new academic achievement test was given to some six hundred sixth-grade students in eight industrialized countries. The American students, chosen to be representative of the nation, finished dead last in mathematics, miles behind the Japanese, and sixth out of eight in science. As to geography, 20 percent of the Americans at one school could not find the U.S. on a world map. The Chicago Tribune reported these findings under the headline: “Study hands world dunce cap to U.S. pupils.”2Dec. 12, 1983.

A year ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education described the United States as “a nation at risk,” pointing to what it called “a rising tide of mediocrity [in our schools] that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.”3Quoted in the New York Times, Apr. 27, 1983. These are extreme words for normally bland government commissioners, but the words are no exaggeration.

To prepare for this evening’s discussion, I did some first-hand research. I spent two weeks in February visiting schools in New York City, both public and private, from kindergarten through teachers college. I deliberately chose schools with good reputations — some of which are the shining models for the rest of the country; and I let the principals guide me to their top teachers. I wanted to see the system not when it was just scraping by, starved for money and full of compromises, but at its best, when it was adequately funded, competently staffed, and proud of its activities. I got an eyeful.

My experience at one school, a famous Progressive institution, will serve to introduce my impression of the whole system. I had said that I was interested in observing how children are taught concepts, and the school obligingly directed me to three classes. The first, for nine- and ten-year-olds, was a group discussion of thirteen steps in seal-hunting, from cutting the hole in the ice at the start to sharing the blubber with others at the end. The teacher gave no indication of the purpose of this topic, but he did indicate that the class would later perform a play on seal-hunting and perhaps even computerize the steps. The next class, for thirteen-year-olds, consisted of a mock Washington hearing on the question of whether there should be an import tax on Japanese cars; students played senators, Japanese lobbyists, Lee Iacocca, and so on, and did it quite well; the teacher sat silently, observing. I never learned the name of this course or of the seal-hunting one, but finally I was to observe a meeting described to me as a class in English. At last, I thought, an academic subject. But no. The book being covered was Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days, a memoir of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962; a typical topic for discussion was whether a surgical air strike against Cuba would have been better policy than a blockade.

The school, undoubtedly, would defend these classes as exercises in ethnicity or democracy or relevance, but, whatever the defense, the fact is that all these classes were utterly concrete-bound. Seal-hunting was not used to illustrate the rigors of northern life or the method of analyzing a skill into steps or anything at all. The issue of taxing Japanese cars was not related to a study of free trade vs. protectionism, or of the proper function of government, or of the principles of foreign policy, or of any principles. The same applies to the Cuban discussion. In all cases, a narrow concrete was taught, enacted, discussed, argued over in and of itself, i.e., as a concrete, without connection to any wider issue. This is the essence of the approach that, in various forms, is destroying all of our schools: the anti-conceptual approach.

Let me elaborate for a moment on the crucial philosophic point involved here.

Man’s knowledge begins on the perceptual level, with the use of the five senses. This much we share with the animals. But what makes us human is what our mind does with our sense experiences. What makes us human is the conceptual level, which includes our capacity to abstract, to grasp common denominators, to classify, to organize our perceptual field. The conceptual level is based on the perceptual, but there are profound differences between the two — in other words, between perceiving and thinking. Here are some of the differences; this is not an exhaustive list, merely enough to indicate the contrast.

The perceptual level is concerned only with concretes. For example, a man goes for a casual stroll on the beach — let’s make it a drunken stroll so as to numb the higher faculties and isolate the animal element — and he sees a number of concrete entities: those birds chattering over there, this wave crashing to shore, that boulder rolling downhill. He observes, moves on, sees a bit more, forgets the earlier. On the conceptual level, however, we function very differently; we integrate concretes by means of abstractions, and thereby immensely expand the amount of material we can deal with. The animal or drunk merely looks at a few birds, then forgets them; a functioning man can retain an unlimited number, by integrating them all into the concept “bird,” and can then proceed deliberately to study the nature of birds, their anatomy, habits, and so forth.

The drunk on his walk is aware of a vast multiplicity of things. He lurches past a chaos made of waves, rocks, and countless other entities, and has no ability to make connections among them. On the conceptual level, however, we do not accept such chaos; we turn a multiplicity into a unity by finding the common denominators that run through all the seemingly disconnected concretes; and we thereby make them intelligible. We discover the law of gravity, for example, and grasp that by means of a single principle we can understand the falling boulder, the rising tide, and many other phenomena.

On the perceptual level, no special order is necessary. The drunk can totter from bird to rock to tree in any order he wishes and still see them all. But we cannot do that conceptually; in the realm of thought, a definite progression is required. Since we build knowledge on previous knowledge, we need to know the necessary background, or context, at each stage. For example, we cannot start calculus before we know arithmetic — or argue about tariff protection before we know the nature of government.

Finally, for this brief sketch: on the perceptual level, there is no need of logic, argument, proof; a man sees what he sees, the facts are self-evident, and no further cognitive process is required. But on the conceptual level, we do need proof. We need a method of validating our ideas; we need a guide to let us know what conclusions follow from what data. That guide is logic.

Perception as such, the sheer animal capacity, consists merely in staring at concretes, at a multiplicity of them, in no order, with no context, no proof, no understanding — and all one can know by this means is whatever he is staring at, as long as he is staring. Conception, however — the distinctively human faculty — involves the formation of abstractions that reduce the multiplicity to an intelligible unity. This process requires a definite order, a specific context at each stage, and the methodical use of logic.

Now let us apply the above to the subject of our schools. An education that trains a child’s mind would be one that teaches him to make connections, to generalize, to understand the wider issues and principles involved in any topic. It would achieve this feat by presenting the material to him in a calculated, conceptually proper order, with the necessary context, and with the proof that validates each stage. This would be an education that teaches a child to think.

The complete opposite — the most perverse aberration imaginable — is to take conceptual-level material and present it to the students by the method of perception. This means taking the students through history, literature, science, and the other subjects on the exact model of that casual, unthinking, drunken walk on the beach. The effect is to exile the student to a no-man’s-land of cognition, which is neither perception nor conception. What it is, in fact, is destruction, the destruction of the minds of the students and of their motivation to learn.

This is literally what our schools are doing today. Let me illustrate by indicating how various subjects are taught, in the best schools, by the best teachers. You can then judge for yourself why Johnny can’t think.

I went to an eighth-grade class on Western European history in a highly regarded, non-Progressive school with a university affiliation. The subject that day was: why does human history constantly change? This is an excellent question, which really belongs to the philosophy of history. What factors, the teacher was asking, move history and explain men’s past actions? Here are the answers he listed on the board: competition among classes for land, money, power, or trade routes; disasters and catastrophes (such as wars and plagues); the personality of leaders; innovations, technology, new discoveries (potatoes and coffee were included here); and developments in the rest of the world, which interacts with a given region. At this point, time ran out. But think of what else could qualify as causes in this kind of approach. What about an era’s press or media of communication? Is that a factor in history? What about people’s psychology, including their sexual proclivities? What about their art or their geography? What about the weather?

About the Author
Leonard Peikoff
Leonard Peikoff
Leonard Peikoff, author of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, is the foremost authority on Rand’s philosophy. Learn more at his website.
  • 1 Quoted in USA Today, Aug. 12, 1983.
  • 2 Dec. 12, 1983.
  • 3 Quoted in the New York Times, Apr. 27, 1983.
  • 4 The New York Times, Apr. 18, 1983; the professor is Hazel Hertzberg.
  • 5 Benjamin J. Stein, “The Cheerful Ignorance of the Young in L.A.,” Oct. 3, 1983.
  • 6 Pose Lamb, Linguistics in Proper Perspective (Charles E. Merrill: 1977, 2nd ed.), p. 29.
  • 7 Dolores Durkin, Strategies for Identifying Words, p. 83; quoted in Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read (Harper Colophon: 1983), p. 81.
  • 8 Dixie Lee Spiegel, in Reading Teacher, April 1978; quoted in Flesch, op. cit., p. 24.
  • 9 Lamb, op. cit., p. 19.
  • 10 From Students’ Right to Their Own Language, Conference on College Composition and Communication, Fall 1974; quoted in Arn and Charlene Tibbetts, What’s Happening to American English? (Scribner’s: 1978), p. 118.
  • 11 See College English, Feb. 1976, p. 631; quoted in Tibbetts, op. cit., p. 119.
  • 12 Basic English Skills Practice Book, Orange Level (McDougal, Littell), p. 17.
  • 13 Tibbetts, op. cit., pp. 80, 76.
  • 14 Alfred De Vito and Gerald H. Krockover, Creative Sciencing (Little, Brown: 1980), pp. 15, 70, 74, 19.
  • 15 Quoted in the New York Times, Jan, 31, 1984.
  • 16 Op. cit., p. 33.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 38.
  • 18 “Are Your Kids Learning to Think?” Changing Times, Dec. 1983; quoting the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
  • 19 Mar. 9, 1984.
  • 20 Quoted in the New York Times, Apr. 27, 1983.
  • 21 The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, “Freedom and Education,” p. 274.