It has nothing at all to do with mathematics, but a great deal to do with leftist ideology
These columns have tended to focus over the last two weeks on the apparent determination of the Alberta Department of Education to apply what is called the “Discovery” method to the teaching of elementary mathematics. Put simply, it means that the student “discovers” on his own the multiplication table rather than learning it by rote memory. What is rarely if ever explained, however, is why so-called “progressive” educators are so persistent in the student “discovering” the tables rather than simply memorizing them.
The discovery method was introduced in Alberta under the former Progressive Conservative government and set off an explosion of protests from university and high school maths teachers. The method, they said, just doesn’t work. It simply confuses many students and turns them against the whole study of mathematics. Nevertheless. “advanced” thinkers from the education faculties still push for it. Why? Therein lies a wondrous story, for the fact is that the insistence on the discovery method has nothing whatever to do with the teaching of mathematics. It has another origin, and it is one hundred percent ideological.
It goes back, that is, to the educational revolution launched early in the 20th Century by the philosopher John Dewey. How it took over the school system of much of the western world, dumping the serious study of history in the process, is detailed in two little books I wrote, one eight years ago, the other late last year. (See note at the bottom of this column.) Dewey’s philosophy is known as subjectivism, because it holds there can be no such thing as an objective truth or morality. It holds that our concepts of truth, goodness and beauty are all mere feelings, illusions, fashions, which can be changed as life’s circumstances change. Similarly, our concept of the beautiful is purely illusionary.
Therefore, said the innovators, the old dependence on rules must go — rules ,as to what is rational and what isn’t, rules as to what is morally right and wrong, all standards that offer to distinguish good art from bad, or good music from awful — all these absolutes must go. History must go because, they said, every historical statement is nothing more than someone’s opinion. Moreover, history tends to set up some figures as role models or heroes, implying an objective standard of good. Similarly, the rules of grammar must go because they inhibit the free expression of emotion, and Euclid must be struck from the maths courses because he focuses the student’s attention on the rules of logical thought. At bottom, only feelings matter. Reason doesn’t.
It is plain upon reflection that such thinking led directly to the two major cultural revolutions of the last century — the feminist revolution and the sexual. But the source and vindication of both lay in the educational revolution, which nobody covered. The media totally missed the story. Yet it was the biggest revolution of them all because it has changed us as a people. And in Alberta, where the socialist government is pledged to conduct “a revolution in thinking,” it means, of course, that this is the way it wants us to view everything. It wants us to get rid of the old rules. This is what its sweeping changes in the school curriculum are about.
It’s a matter of record and pertinent that the performance of American schools since they adopted Dewey, measured against that of other countries, has been one of steady decline. Canada’s is not much better. The progressives, that is, have led us into an educational calamity of staggering dimension, and Alberta’s curriculum revolution will follow precisely the same path.
There are other problems. One is the mathematics curriculum. It lives on, thrives on, survives on, and totally depends on absolutes. Five times five will not equal 26, no matter how fervidly the believer “feels” that it does. And if the bridge falls down or the building collapses because the architect was adhering to his feelings when he assessed the calibre of steel required, rather than use his brains, this will not be accepted as exculpating him.
Now the progressives could see that they were not going to win this argument. But neither could they at one moment tell the student that all the old rules were gone, and then hand him a whole regime of old rules in the multiplication table, and tell him he had to memorize them. But then somebody somewhere got a brilliant idea. Why not adopt just the teeniest bit of deception? Why not persuade the youngster that he’s “discovering” his own personal multiplication table?
Thus was born the “discovery” method of learning maths. Its effect, however, was to leave many students totally baffled. Well, that’s just too bad. We must progress, you know. We can’t let a generation or two of mere children obstruct the advance to the socialist utopia. But we’ll let the education minister explain all this when he unveils his sweeping curriculum.
Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.