Meaningless Engagement

The effects of progressive education
Teachers Reading to Kindergartners
Allison Shelley, EDUimages

Some books read like a bowl of uncooked oatmeal. No amount of chewing or supposed nutritional benefit can make them worth the effort. Others you can finish in 48 hours, and they offer such a buffet of insights that you plan to revisit to make sure you’ve gotten all that you can out of it. Eric Kalenze’s excellent book “Education is upside down” falls into the latter category.

One section stands out as particularly useful. I found myself annotating in agreement over and again all through his chapter on engagement. He counters the idea that if kids are engaged, that’s a sign of quality teaching and rigorous classroom instruction.

As an English teacher, I particularly bristle at the sentiment that so long as children are reading, it doesn’t much matter what they’re reading. Give a student a graphic novel or contemporary articles; they’re all the same so long as the student is engaged – or so runs the argument.

Kalenze points to a number of issues with this approach. As students progress in their educational career and into the real world, professors and managers won’t much care if this same student finds an advanced textbook or contract “engaging;” they will simply be expected to read it. Also, it’s an unfortunate reality, but many students won’t continue reading for the rest of their lives, and so we as educators must consider what stories, arguments, and historical texts are essential for citizens to know. Finally, there’s substantial evidence that easing our expectations for reading does little to bolster a student’s development of literacy skills; learning requires effort.

In the end, he summarizes his point: “Engaging activities that lack academic rigor (and do not promote academic growth) are essentially worthless.” Perhaps we could run a few engaging projects on, say, a Friday before winter break, but they should not be the modus operandi of our classroom.

The book shares much in common with Yuval Levin’s book “A Time to Build.” Levin’s central argument is that our society no longer views our institutions as places for molding individuals but as platforms from which advocates and would-be politicians can shout their slogans. Kalenze seems to worry that schools are developing a similar fault. Rather than taking it upon themselves to form and mold the future generation – instilling institutional virtues, developing academic excellence, pushing kids into challenges even when they don’t want it – Kalenze sees schools simply pandering to student interests.

I also appreciated Kalenze’s grace towards teachers. They are neither lazy (as the ed reform movement of the last decade would portray them) nor are they ideologues (as modern advocates too often portray them) but victims to a broken system as well. They want to see students succeed, but faulty ideologies leave them unable to accomplish their goals.

By the end, he covers lots of ground – from the essential place of knowledge in reading comprehension to a history of progressive education’s takeover – making it a good primer for and introduction to more traditionalist theories and approaches to education. Perhaps the most common question I’m asked is what books to read if not John Dewey or William Kilpatrick. Kalenze’s book is a good place to start. 

Daniel Buck
Daniel Buck is a teacher, editor in chief of the Chalkboard Review, and a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute. His writing can be found at National Review Online, City Journal, and the New York Post.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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