November 4th, 2017

Robert Frost on progressive education 100 years ago

[NOTE: This is written in conjunction with this post on recent events on college campuses.]

Robert Frost has long been one of America’s best-known poets. During his lifetime, he was also seen as a sort of folksy New Englander on the lecture circuit.

But Frost was far more than that (as I’ve previously discussed in many posts). Frost not only had a great deal to say about politics, human nature, science, and literature, but he’d been a teacher and a college professor for many years and he had a great deal to say about education as well.

The following excerpts are from a fascinating book called Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher, by Peter J. Stanlis. I think they are remarkably apropos to what’s been happening today, because they describe some of its roots [emphasis mine]:

To Frost, progressive education [Dewey] was a closed system that would “compel liberality.” Like Rousseau, it would force students to be free, not merely from self-discipline, but from social traditions and normative beliefs…To Frost, the progressive theory of the child-centered school was false. Its worst feature was to encourage immature and uneducated students to have a decisive voice in determining the curriculum. Frost’s response was to declare, “There is such a thing as not being old enough to understand.”…

Two things in progressive education provoked Frost’s particular rage—their abandonment of the ancient Greek and Roman classics and their attempts to apply the scientific method to teaching. The latter separated form or technique from genuine content…

Frost also rejected the social objective of progressive education—to indoctrinate students in favor of egalitarian democracy. He always favored education that would allow “the cream to rise to the top.” He believed that in secondary education the progressive theory stressed emotion too much, whereas graduate studies were too centered in abstract reason…To Frost, sound education involved all of human nature….

Frost began teaching at Amherst in 1917 (that’s exactly a century ago), under Amherst president Alexander Meiklejohn:

To Frost, Meiklehohn’s conception of academic freedom was merely a collegiate adaptation of Dewey’s progressive education in the form of doctrinaire compulsory liberalism, centered in social problems rather than in psychology. Meiklehohn’s educational reforms were in the spirit of what Frost called “the guild of social planners,” men who assumed that abstract reasoning and logic were sufficient to solve the world’s great perennial problems. After meeting with some of Meiklejohn’s young faculty appointees, Dwight Morrow, an Amherst trustee, described them to a friend as “bumptious young men…who insisted that nobody thought or studied at Amherst until they came.”

Here’s how Frost described them:

They fancied themselves thinkers. At Amherst you thought, while at other colleges you merely learnedI found that by thinking they meant stocking up with radical ideas, by learning they meant stocking up with conservative ideas—a harmless distinction, bless their simple hearts…They had picked up the idea somewhere that the time was now past for the teacher to teach the pupil. From now on it was the thing for the pupil to teach himself using, as he saw fit, the teacher as an instrument…I sat there patiently waiting, waiting for the youth to take education into their own hands and start the new world. Sometimes I laughed and sometimes I cried a little internally…

Here’s more from Stanlis:

The hubris of their young teachers deluded egotistical students to imagine that through their rational discussions they could find easy and valid solutions to the complex problems of society.

Frost wrote of the experience:

I discovered what the Amherst Idea was that is so much talked of, and I got amicably out. The Amherst Idea as I had it in so many words from the high custodian is this: “Freedom for taste and intellect.” Freedom from what? Freedom from every prejudice in favor of state, home, church, morality, etc. I am too much a creature of prejudice to stay and listen to such stuff. Not only in favor of morality am I prejudiced, but in favor of an immorality I could name as against other immoralities. I’d no more set out in pursuit of the truth than I would in pursuit of a living unless mounted on my prejudices.

Stanlis writes:

It was clear that, like Edmund Burke, whom the poet greatly admired, by “prejudice” he simply meant moral habit beyond reflection built into human nature from infancy in favor of home, church, and state. Frost was convinced that Meiklejohn’s “freedom for taste and intellect” was destructive of the norms in the basic institutions of civil society and involved a chronic separation of the intellectual virtues from the moral virtues.

Well, we know how that all turned out, don’t we? Frost experienced a sort of fractal of what was to develop into our current university woes, and recognized at once what the dangers were and what the denouement was likely to be.

12 Responses to “Robert Frost on progressive education 100 years ago”

  1. delta6 Says:

    Very, very interesting, thank-you!

  2. sdferr Says:

    From Frost’s remarks on Meiklejohns’ “students” one might nearly conclude Frost has in mind one such as Scott Buchanan who graduated Amherst 1916, one year prior to Frost”s start there. Buchanan was to go on to found St. Johns College New Program with Stringfellow Barr in 1937. That “program” of great books education (including study of ancient Greek, Latin, French and German, btw) was rigorously imposed from the “top” downward, so to speak, with nary an elective in sight. The program was, and still is so far as I know, heavily dependent on the Platonic/Socratic notion of dialogue as our sole human means of exploration of truth, whatever that may be. We simply have no other entities to whom to appeal. So, along with one another we try to work it out for ourselves, with help from the books as teachers (our “authorities”), with which we argue in concert with our fellow students and tutors, who are understood to be students themselves, though advanced in experience somewhat.

  3. Frog Says:

    Meiklejohn was at the helm quite long enough (1913-1923) to chart and maintain a new course, from which Amherst College has never since deviated. It is of course the ‘highest ranked’ liberal arts college in the US.
    He was quite the radical, and today would encourage BLM and Antifa.
    By leading the Left and downward turn of liberal arts academia, he must be deemed a rather huge success.

  4. Gringo Says:

    Incidentally,Dwight Morrow, the Amherst trustee mentioned above, was Charles Lindbergh’s father-in-law.

    The hubris of their young teachers deluded egotistical students to imagine that through their rational discussions they could find easy and valid solutions to the complex problems of society.

    That describes the university, a hundred years later, with the change that today many students consider rational discussions unnecessary, as they assume that venting their feelings will suffice for finding solutions.

    OMG, I am sounding like an old fogy.

  5. om Says:

    Calvin Coolidge graduated from Amherst in 1895. I recall from Amity Shlaes’ book, that he and other alums didn’t view Meiklejohn favorably.

  6. Matthew Says:

    Is it comforting or frightening that this has been going on for a long time?

  7. Manju Says:

    Matthew’s question demonstrates the power of the Socratic Method. It’s also very funny. Profoundly so.

  8. Frog Says:

    Schlaes’ book, “Coolidge”, makes most worthwhile reading. His presidency is symbolic of our condition. He stanched the early erosive liberalism of the Wilson era, but only, as we know, briefly. Imagine a 25% reduction of the national debt by one president!

    Now, even as we watch the Left eat and abort its own, I fear Trump’s term(s) will have results as evanescent as Calvin’s.

  9. TommyJay Says:

    The book “Freedom Not License” by A.S. Neill was floating around my household as a teen and I read it. It is very much a Rousseau style concept of education with the added detail that the kiddies do need some supervision so that they don’t go berserk.

    A friend of mine sent one or both of their children to St. Johns college. The curriculum struck me as odd at the time; now less so.

  10. sdferr Says:

    Mr TommyJay, a couple of things possibly to your interest: Peter Stanlis was betimes a contributor to The Imaginative Conservative website.
    So also is Eva Brann.


    If you have some residual curiosity regarding St. John’s College, may I commend to you Miss Brann’s article “A College Unique and Universal”?


  11. AesopFan Says:

    Matthew Says:
    November 4th, 2017 at 11:28 pm
    Is it comforting or frightening that this has been going on for a long time?
    * *
    “There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation” or university, as the case may be.
    However, the problem with liberalism of this kind is that eventually you run out of other people’s brains.

  12. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    My grandfather had Frost as an English teacher at Pinkerton Academy in 1910. He didn’t think much of him. Gramps would have been a 9th-grader, and I am betting that this age group did not fit Frost’s skills as well as college students did.

    However, having dealt with 9th-graders might have been a good course of instruction for the poet. It tends to destroy illusions.

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