Horse-Hair Justice

Peter Wood

Where do we begin? That question, as Jacques Barzun reminded us a few years ago, is always at the center of education. It has been especially prominent since the progressive movement burst on the educational scene in the early twentieth century. Progressives wanted to rethink the very basics of education, and they viewed the legacy of traditional pedagogy as an obstacle to be overcome.

One hundred years later, it often seems we are frozen in that historical moment. The rhetoric of educators today often sounds eerily like the pronouncements of the progressive theorists of Teddy Roosevelt’s time. Our schools of education and their excitable graduates are perpetually rebuking the imaginary schoolmaster of the 1880s drilling his students in ablative and dative declensions, all the while brandishing his hickory stick.

If we back off from the details, the most noticeable feature of this educational dynamic is that it is driven by the need to repudiate. It is forever saying that the real problem we must address is the focus of education on teaching children substantive knowledge. The newest form of this repudiation is called 21st-Century Skills. We have written about it before (see “21st Century Ignorance”), and we are not alone. The term 21st-Century Skills sounds thoroughly up-to-date, but it doesn’t really mean learning how to use Twitter and Hulu. The movement really aims at promoting that amorphous concept, “critical thinking,” and it puts critical thinking in the context of learning to appreciate our global community and developing warm empathetic feelings towards one another. The larger goal, in principle, is that students will acquire a mysterious ability to compete in the global economy.

A number of scholars have joined in a group called Common Core to criticize this movement. Their principal complaint, which we endorse, is that the architects of 21st-Century Skills intend to diminish the emphasis in schools on teaching basic and important knowledge. The co-chairman of Common Core, Diane Ravitch, points out in an op-ed in the Boston Globe today that the 21st-Century Skill-ers are just one more iteration of a reform that has been proposed, implemented, and discarded over and over again since 1911. That same old reform, that progressive educators like so much that they keep bringing it back, is the insistence that teachers “abandon their antiquated academic ideals and adapt education to the real life and real needs of students.”

At the college level we hear few complaints from professors who find their students lacking connection to “real life.” Professors, however, frequently complain that their students don’t know how to write. Last week, for example, the New York Times invited nine prominent professors to offer advice to college freshmen. Four of the nine focused on the need for students to improve their writing. Stanley Fish observed that there are many students who “manage to get through high school without learning to write a clean English sentence, and if you can’t do that, you can’t do anything.” Gary Wills observes “most incoming college students, even the bright ones, do not [write well] and it hampers them in courses and in later life.” James McGregor Burns suggests that students study newspapers to learn how to write. It seems a low standard, but you have to start somewhere.

Where do we begin? We ought to begin by making sure that students have the foundational skill on which all else is built. Not that this was ever easy.

Back in the dark ages, before the era of progressive pedagogy—back in the time of those stern, unsmiling schoolmasters and their imposing rods—one of America’s most popular children’s writers was Samuel G. Goodrich (1793-1860), better known as Peter Parley. He wrote or edited more than 170 books, including Peter Parley's visit to the city of New York and Peter Parley's tales about ancient Rome. He had a light touch and his stories, though antiquated, are still winsome and amusing. In Goodrich’s autobiography, Peter Parlay’s Own Story, he expresses his own skepticism towards the pedagogy with which he grew up. He describes Master Stebbins, his teacher at Up-Town School, as having only one great accomplishment—his penmanship: “He was guided by good taste and native instinct, and wrote a smooth round hand like copper-plate.” Master Stebbins, however, spared his students lessons on things he didn’t understand. The class used Webster’s Grammar, which Goodrich declares “was a clever book, but I have an idea that neither Master Stebbins nor his pupils ever fathomed its depths. They floundered about in it, as if in a quagmire and after some time came out pretty nearly where they went in.”

Goodrich, further reflecting on the schooling of his youth, mentions the experience of a clergyman friend of his who attended a country school in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He too studied Webster’s Grammar, where he read, “A noun is the name of a thing—as horse, hair, justice.” As Goodrich tells the tale, the youth “in his innocence” read it thus: “A noun is the name of a thing—as horse-hair justice.” The young man recognizes that in order to comprehend the definition of a noun, he must first “find out what horse-hair justice is.”

Where do we begin? Perhaps seeking comprehension of a garbled definition is not so bad a start. Today’s students are more likely to hear about “social justice” before they encounter the definition of a noun. Confusion is the natural state of someone setting out to achieve literacy and real knowledge. A gentle willingness to embrace these difficulties is all that’s needed. The pedagogues who have hectored us for a century to get “practical” and to focus on “skills” instead of knowledge are themselves highly impractical. They could learn a lesson or two from Peter Parley.

The boy who was flummoxed by Webster’s Grammar soon found an answer. His father was a justice of the peace whom he observed sitting on a horse-hair settee. “I have found it!” he exclaimed, “My father is a horse-hair justice, and therefore a noun!”

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