Pedagogical Traffic Jam

I read a book some decades ago the title of which, The Dilemma of Education in a Democracy, expresses the problem perfectly. But allow me to explain.

A few weeks ago, I took issue with the idea that “age- segregated” education was a Prussian invention, and as such, a pedagogical corruption to be steered away from by contemporary Christian educational reformers. This was true, but only partly, and not in an important way.

A friend thought the Prussian link a fair one, and pointed out to me that the first reference he could find to age-segregation in schools, at least in North America, was in 1848 in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Surely this is consistent with the idea that the whole idea came in with modernity, when industrialists of the intellect were trying to standardize everything, turning schools into little factories of knowledge. Well, yes, and — not to be too cooperative — no.

Age-graded schools (tightly defined) did come in around this time. Age-graded schools (loosely defined) have been with us forever. But what was it that caused the age component to become much more important? Americans were trying to get themselves organized like the Prussians, and they did bring across some of their their ideas about how to organize schooling. But to focus on this element is to miss the whole point.

When did traffic lights first come in? As I write this I am at 30,000 feet, and not in a position to come up with the exact date. But without checking the exact date, I am in the highest degree confident that traffic lights came in after the traffic did. After we got a significant number of cars, we were faced with the problem of organizing and sorting them out.

The same thing happened with education, and there were two aspects of the problem. The first is that this was the age of democracy, the age best represented by the rise of Jackson. There was enormous pressure for universal formal education. The second element of this was that the population was exploding. If you are going to increase the pedagogical traffic like this, you are going to need traffic lights. That is what age segregation was — a means of traffic control.

There was a massive ideological shift at this time, but it was seen in the demand for universal education, on a democratic foundation, for a burgeoning population. I used the qualifying phrase ” on a democratic foundation” to distinguish it from earlier efforts that sought to provide widespread literacy as an aspect of Christian discipleship. Luther in Germany and Knox in Scotland were examples of this. What we had going on in America at the time was completely different.

In order to strike at the root of the problem that came into our culture in the early part of the 19th century, we would have to start a fight with the idea of universal education. Getting rid of age -segregation without getting rid of “schooling for every child” is ditching the traffic lights and keeping all the cars.

If you read John Milton’s program for education, you begin to see what it was like to be a bright child in that pre-industrial era — you seemed to your parents to have some aptitude for learning, and so a rich uncle would undertake the expenses of having you thrown into the deep end of the pool. Generally, the children so thrown would figure it out and learn to swim. But this only worked because it was generally only happening to the best and brightest.

A Moravian educational reformer named John Amos Comenius figured out how to make this system more productive by introducing the idea of prerequisites — before you take this course it might be a good idea to take that one. This helped make universal education much more of a possibility — you can get away with a sink or swim approach if a real education is a glorious opportunity for a small percentage of the population.

But all this was long before vast hordes of Americans began scampering toward the Kentucky frontier and the New Jerusalem, and all with loud shouts of self-confident and egalitarian exuberance. As one woodsman put it — when he got to “fightin’ b’ar,” he felt ” mighty numerous.” If it was good, and education was good, within a generation, everybody wanted it. Voila, as the French say. Traffic jam.

Now none of this is necessarily an argument against computer assisted ” blended learning.” As I have argued before, this could all be great, depending on what we are trying to achieve, and what we are comparing it to. But if we are trying to do something different from what has gone before, we need to make sure it is really different, all the way down. In addition, we need to make sure that we have mechanisms in place to solve problems that have been previously solved by another means.

So then, if we are going to be educating millions of children at roughly the same time, we need to have some sort of coordinated and graded approach — or its equivalent. I certainly agree that age should not be the only consideration, but simply a first rough cut. After all, we still have all these cars.


  • Lucas Weeks

    Now that’s a cliff-hanger! :-) I think I just fell off…

  • Douglas Wilson

    Lucas, try it now!

  • Fredericka

    The idea of prerequisites is a helpful one, which is why Quintilian says, “We make it also a subject of inquiry, when a boy may be considered ripe for learning what rhetoric teaches. In which inquiry it is not to be considered of what age a boy is, but what progress he has already made in his studies. That I may not make a long discussion, I think that the question when a boy ought to be sent to the teacher of rhetoric, is best decided by the answer, when he shall be qualified.” (Institutes of Oratory, Book II, Chapter 1, Section 7).

  • David Axberg

    You Go Massachusetts we seem to always be at the front of the pack whether for good or not.

  • Andrew Lohr

    ‘ When public schools came in, they reduced the diversity of education available, sometimes deliberately stifling it ‘ — from “The Theory of Market Failure,” ed. Tyler Cowan (Cowen?), quoted from memory after 15+ years.

  • Nicholas J. Gausling

    A friend once told me that middle school was made separate from elementary and high school because those are the most identity-forming years, thus the social engineers isolated those three or so years in order to most indoctrinate students before they went on to high school. It may be true.

    The whole public education system is a cartel meant to nourish the growth of a humanistic society. I don’t have an easy answer for how to get rid of it, other than to say that the success of the Great Commission ultimately will.

    In the meantime, for parents who can’t home school their children or send them to private schools, they need to be diligent in knowing what their children are being taught by the public school system and helping to correct falsehoods. Make sure they’re learning real history, philosophy and free market economics. Thankfully, it’s not as daunting as it sounds because there are resources available to help you:

    1. Gary North’s Free Christian Curriculum:

    2. The Ron Paul Curriculum (also developed in large part by Gary North):

    3. Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom:

    4. For more advanced material, the Ludwig von Mises Institute at has thousands upon thousands of free books, lectures, journal articles and more. They also offer coursework at the Mises Academy: