April 2008 -- Jerry Kirkpatrick, a professor of International Business and Marketing at California Polytechnic Institute, has come out with another book applying his passion for philosophy to the practical world.
Kirkpatrick says that his interest in education theory was launched when, as a high-school sophomore in the 1960s, he refused to cooperate with his teacher’s demand to “just memorize” an out-of-date biological classification system without an explanation of its meaning. This incident launched his quest to answer what evolved into the following question: What type of education properly suits individuals in a free, capitalistic society, preparing them for a life of productive work and the ability to pursue their own interests?
His answer: an educational approach that cultivates independence of judgment and action and that enables the individual to develop purpose in life.
In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Kirkpatrick lays out a theory of education that develops and respects the autonomy of the individual. It’s a product of hard study and deep thinking applied across a wide array of subjects, including history, psychology, epistemology, and sociology.
His resulting “Theory of Concentrated Attention” is deceptively simple. It proposes an education that fosters the ability to apply concentrated attention to tasks—an education that leads to independence and autonomy by encouraging the development of long-term purposes. Kirkpatrick argues that educators can develop this capacity in students by teaching according to the students’ interests, because individual interest drives attention and helps to create purpose. Simply put, if a student is interested in a subject or activity, he or she will be motivated to pay attention to it. And the student who learns how to pursue personal interests with concentrated attention will be able to find and pursue lifelong purposes, such as a career.
Ultimately, he argues that the Montessori Method, when properly implemented, achieves these aims of education. Along the way, Kirkpatrick finds that John Dewey’s theory of undivided interest and many of Dewey’s specific practical recommendations for curriculum and teaching integrate well with the proper aims of education in a free society. Of course, the devil is in the details, but Kirkpatrick gives us plenty of them.
Kirkpatrick shows how the coercion of bureaucratic government schooling sets the context for educational practices that undermine the development of student autonomy. It is impossible to consistently develop free, independent human beings under such a coercive system. Its structure and incentives are all wrong, producing followers ready to be told what to do, not autonomous personalities capable of living fulfilling and successful lives in a free society.
This is a little book packed with a wealth of thought and information, stemming from a deeply grasped and integrated knowledge of the nature and needs of education. Expect to hold onto your hat in reading it, because you will be drawn through a hurricane of information and ideas, some fairly arcane for the lay reader. The storm ends in sunshine, when Kirkpatrick lays out a detailed description of his excellent theory of education.
Then and Now
Kirkpatrick opens the book with a quotation from Adam Smith that summarizes the experience of many a student at today’s colleges:
In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.
The discipline of the colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefits of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students, in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability.
It is remarkable how little has changed in more than two centuries since this was written, which supports the author’s contention that educational practices are largely motivated by two factors: deep views of human nature and cognition, combined with a political context.
Kirkpatrick gives a fascinating, sweeping account of educational theory from Plato and Quintillian through the Jesuits, Locke, and Rousseau, to Dewey and Montessori—always with an eye to thinkers who recognized the need for concentrated attention. He does not examine current theoretical writing in any detail, but spends time on Locke and Rousseau because their thinking is seminal to modern theories of education, including those of Dewey and Montessori. “Locke refutes original sin and emphasizes the primacy of nurture. And Rousseau develops the notion of the organic child who must be left free to unfold.” In searching for those who understand the importance of attention to education, he hits the mark a number of times, including Locke’s statement “The great skill of the teacher is to get and keep the attention of the scholar.”
Dewey: Friend or Foe of Independence?
According to published comments, early in his intellectual career, Kirkpatrick attended private lectures in which John Dewey and the Progressive Method of education must have been excoriated. For this book, he started reading Dewey with great trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised at what he discovered. Throughout Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, he refers to Dewey’s great knowledge of learning, his recognition of the importance of “undivided interest,” and his concern for the individual child’s well-being. And although Progressive education was roundly criticized for promoting method over content, Kirkpatrick found that Dewey himself criticized Progressive schools for their content-light approach.
However, I had to ask myself why, if Dewey’s ideas about education were so good, the schools following his philosophy have been so unsuccessful. I asked Dr. Kirkpatrick about this in a telephone interview. He posited that government-run schools make it impossible to implement the Progressive Method successfully. However, this doesn’t explain the same problems in private Dewey-Progressive schools, such as the University of Chicago Laboratory School, founded by Dewey in 1896. This school suffered “content-light” complaints early in its existence.
Perhaps the answer lies in the deeper philosophical foundations of Dewey’s theory, especially in his basic moral values. Dewey’s deepest philosophical debt is to Rousseau, revealed in “My Pedagologic Creed,” in which Dewey states, “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.”
Dewey’s Creed is straight out of Rousseau’s Social Contract, in which “personal desires must be subordinated to the General Will.” With this, Rousseau throws down the gauntlet against the individualism of the Enlightenment; Dewey picks it up in the late nineteenth century and implements it with the socialistic principles of twentieth-century Progressive education.
Like so many anti-individualist theories, Dewey’s addressed important issues and thereby seduced many to accept his whole package. For example, children are stimulated to develop many of their powers due to their social context: a normal human child will learn language without instruction, but only if placed among those who speak. And most toddlers are happy to repeat and repeat a new skill when they see their parents’ delight at the accomplishment. This lent plausibility to Dewey’s emphasis on socialization.
Another seductive aspect of his theory is his rebellion against the practice of learning abstractions removed from action, a tendency encouraged by the German philosophy that was so influential in nineteenth-century education theory. In the context of the high abstractions of German Idealism, such as Kantian thing-in-itselfism and Hegelian Worldwill, Dewey seems refreshingly sensible and this-world-oriented. His ideas seem appealing—until we remember that he was one of the founders of the philosophy of Pragmatism. In his writing, Dewey makes clear his Pragmatist view of human nature: that action precedes thought and action is what is most important. Perhaps the unruliness in Progressive schools is the logical consequence of this view?
As Dr. Kirkpatrick discovered, Dewey was a very insightful philosopher, teacher, and observer of learning processes. He enunciated many of the principles which enable successful learning to occur. Still, the larger political issue, which Kirkpatrick recognizes, is that Dewey wanted to use this knowledge to shape the child for social, collectivist purposes.
By contrast, though Maria Montessori was a political socialist, her goal was deeply individualistic: a method aimed at developing the individual mind of the student to create an independent human being. While she incorporates many principles and skills for social interaction in her program, every fundamental principle of instruction and action incorporates deep respect for the individual nature, needs, and aims of the child. Children emerging from Montessori schools know how to function well as productive, responsible, rational, civil, self-disciplined, and independent human beings who deeply respect the rights of others.
It’s therefore no accident that Dewey’s staunch adherent and highly influential follower, William Heard Kilpatrick, criticized the Montessori Method for its individualism in his book The Montessori System Examined. Still, Dr. Kirkpatrick’s experience in reading Dewey underscores the importance of first-hand knowledge in making a judgment about any thinker. A thinker’s odious purposes do not negate his real knowledge and accomplishments—or what we might learn from him. Nazi engineers achieved some amazing feats, for example, the V-2 rocket. (See the review of Von Braun in this issue. —Editor.) If the United States had ignored their discoveries simply because they used them for evil purposes, would we have gotten to the Moon?
The Roots of Education Theory
Kirkpatrick devotes considerable time presenting the philosophical and psychological ideas he believes underpin his theory of concentrated attention—a theory based on his view of the good life:
Success in human life requires the expert use of consciousness to guide one’s choices and actions. At root, therefore, education is intellectual, meaning that the knowledge, values, and skills acquired in school consist primarily in the accumulation of concepts and principles and in the application of these concepts and principles to concrete situations. “Intellectual” here does not mean that learning is an end-in-itself disconnected from practical action. It means that abstractions and, especially, their use in everyday life are prerequisites to living a happy, independent life in a free society; it means that mind and body are one integrated unit, but that bodily action is controlled and directed by the mind.
He emphasizes the active nature of the mind, and his arguments are anchored in Ayn Rand
’s theory of concept-formation, which he explains at length. The abstraction and classification of data from awareness of concrete, specific things is an active process. The primary action of the conscious mind is differentiation, finding the differences between and among things. In contrast, the primary action of the subconscious is integration, a dynamic connection-making process. In this view, the conscious mind distinguishes one thing from another, while the subconscious discovers their relations.
According to Kirkpatrick, the subconscious tends to overgeneralize. Consequently, “the key to learning and, more generally, to the correct identification of the facts of reality, would seem to be differentiation . . . .[L]earning, therefore, can be described as a process of greater and greater differentiation, an act controlled by the conscious mind. . . [T]he crucial role of the conscious mind is to direct and control the subconscious.”
He goes on to explain the importance of “thinking in principles” and colorfully describes the process. In his sweeping account, Kirkpatrick also includes his views on emotions, values, and subconscious processing. He examines the problems of repression, defense mechanisms, how values are developed, how self-esteem is nurtured or crushed, creativity, imagination, and volition in their relationship to learning.
There are many valuable ideas and insights incorporated in this discussion of foundational ideas. However, I have questions about many of his claims. Just to name one area: his ideas on the nature of the subconscious, differentiation, and integration.
Primitive peoples, for example, are known to conceptualize only themselves as “people,” regarding everyone else as “others”—especially if the foreigners are quite physically different. Think of the Aztecs encountering Cortez and the Spaniards on horses, and their belief that the Europeans were some different kind of being, perhaps gods. Is this an error of integration? Or of differentiation? I think it could be argued both ways. Further, I’m not sure how consciously these people formed their concept of “people.”
That’s just one example. I don’t presume to know the answers to my own questions—that would require some difficult and extensive research on how people go about forming concepts and ideas. All I know is a case can be made for several different explanations of such processes, which Kirkpatrick does not address.
Don’t get me wrong: His exposition contains a mound of useful ideas and information. It’s not that his discussion of the subconscious and the psychological foundations of learning is generally wrong-headed. I merely think he sometimes overstates his case, not considering enough possibilities or offering sufficient evidence.
Learning with Purpose
After laying extensive groundwork, Kirkpatrick presents his views on the best principles, methods, and environment for learning.
“Three concepts—interest, attention, and independence—form the core of the theory and constitute the criteria of educational accomplishment. If successful, the education will have enabled the young to choose values that will give their lives meaning and significance,” he writes. “What drives concentrated attention is interest, and concentrated attention, in turn, drives independence . . . by directing effort to the achievement of a goal.”
Developing the capacity to pursue goals over extended periods of time enables an individual to attain life’s most important values, such as productive achievement, successful personal relationships, and even excellent health and well-being.
The biggest failure of traditional education is in capturing the interest, and therefore the attention, of the student, because traditional education uses external motivators—punishment and reward. Rather than a taskmaster demanding performance, in Kirkpatrick’s view the parent or teacher should be a kindly guide, showing the child the way to intellectual and emotional maturity. As Montessori puts it, parents and teachers should make their basic dictum “Help me to help myself.”
To that end, he proposes that parents and teachers provide an environment rich with the knowledge and activities needed for development, surrounded by “guardrails” of guidance. Within this environment, the child is encouraged to actively explore and absorb the mental and emotional nutrients required for excellent growth. The Montessori principle “freedom in a prepared environment” sums it up.
Further, he hones in on the inherent problems with the command-and-control approach to child-rearing and teaching. For example, the toddler who is constantly rebuked or slapped while exploring breakable objects implicitly concludes that he will get in trouble for pursuing his natural interests, and he can become withdrawn and passive. The rebellious teenager whose parents impose arbitrary rules instead of reasoned principles doesn’t have the chance to exercise her assertiveness appropriately if all she hears is “Go to your room! You’re grounded!” when she breaks adult rules. Nor does she learn how to resolve conflicts.
By contrast, concentrated attention is a superior means of learning because it integrates a child’s natural interests with his developmental needs. Kirkpatrick distinguishes this kind of attention from other intense forms, like meditation and what he calls “defensive attention,” i.e., in difficult situations, focusing evasively on some object or activity like a videogame or book, to forestall feelings of fear and anxiety.
For me, Kirkpatrick’s Theory of Concentrated Attention immediately brought to mind the theory of “Flow.” That’s the name Positive Psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has given to that state of intense, complete concentration resulting from optimally enjoyable activities, activities pursued for their own sake. Indeed, Kirkpatrick recognizes “flow” as a form of intense concentration and accurately describes the theory. Though he acknowledges that “flow and concentrated attention have much in common,” he dismisses its relevance to his theory, saying that “the goal of education is not to achieve flow experiences; flow is just a pleasant consequence sometimes achieved as the result of concentrated attention.”
I think he might have missed the significance of flow to learning. Over time, the repeated pleasure derived from flow experiences becomes a driving force in maintaining a person’s interest in an activity. We cannot always account for a person’s initial interest in something—likely there are some inherent tendencies to fixate upon one object or activity over another, which vary from person to person. But individuals remain interested in an activity only if some pleasure results from it. The experience of flow is a major motivator. It keeps a person coming back for more.
Montessori recognized this phenomenon about a century ago. She found that new students tended to flit from one activity to another until they hit upon something that caused them to become deeply engaged. She advised teachers to present new students with different activities and to observe carefully which caught and held their interest. Once the young student experiences deep involvement and attention in an activity, he becomes remarkably self-disciplined and purposeful.
Kirkpatrick turns to the intellectual conditions that result in optimal learning. He argues that real learning requires conceptualization, not just memorization—understanding the principles of the matter, not just remembering some facts or procedures. Students learn most from well-prepared presentations that help them focus on essentials. And self-correcting activities are the most valuable, because they prepare the student for adulthood. In adult life, there’s no one hanging over your shoulder, telling you when you’ve made a mistake; you have to figure that out yourself and learn how to fix it.
He also discusses the emotional and social environment necessary for good learning, an environment in which the student’s independence is supported and respected. Here he pulls together a bevy of ideas from insightful thinkers including Maria Montessori, Haim Ginott, Thomas Gordon, and Alfie Kohn.
As for the content of education, Kirkpatrick presents only an outline, stressing that any educational system should be content-rich and emphasize cognitive skills that can be used to acquire any type of knowledge. These include generalization, evaluation, application, introspection, and execution. Thinking in principles, thinking in ranges of measurement, and forming definitions are essential skills. So is learning logic. In addition, skillful introspection allows a person to be more fully in control of his consciousness—to know what he’s thinking, doing, and feeling, and why. And while all educational systems convey values, with a superior education, students become highly conscious of what values they are learning and why.
Kirkpatrick goes into more detail about the principles of learning and teaching than I can possibly convey here. My only regret is that he did not provide more concrete examples for his excellent discussion of the teaching and learning processes.
Bureaucracy and Education
After presenting his theory, Kirkpatrick shows how economist Ludwig von Mises’s theory of the nature of bureaucracy applies to education under government control. However, he points out that today’s private schools are subject to so many governmental regulations that they, too, are often deformed into bureaucracies.
From first to last, Kirkpatrick is opposed to government-run schools. Only a free market will truly serve children. Frankly, from my own study, I concluded that when public schools succeed, they often do so only through the drive and ambition of achievement-oriented families.
Kirkpatrick speculates that a real free market in education would produce a cornucopia of new approaches. However, it is unlikely we will see such a flowering, given the continued use of force through the gigantic, ever-consolidating government education bureaucracy we now have. Supported by taxes, its tentacles reach from preschool to graduate school. Centralization of power, bureaucratization of systems, and decreases in quality are the more likely future.
Kirkpatrick closes his book with a thoughtful consideration of the need for independent judgment in a free society—and an examination of the psychological reasons that people may have difficulty with independence. He contends that children need to learn “a healthy disrespect for authority” and “to be taught how to differentiate true expertise from the specious varieties and how to react to all forms of adult thoughtlessness, intimidation, and coercion.” The alternative—the mindset of obedience to authority—results in “mental passivity . . . a lack of ability and willingness to make first-hand judgments about the world, other people, and oneself and, more importantly, a lack of ability and willingness to stand by and act on the judgments made.”
Given what students will encounter in school, especially in college and beyond, they need such abilities more than ever.
Picking a Few Nits
While I highly recommend this book as thought-provoking, original, and educational, I had a few difficulties in reading it.
For one thing, I’m not sure what audience Kirkpatrick is aiming for. The text is at a middle level of abstraction: neither crammed with specific detail, references, and factual research nor, for the lay reader, unapproachably abstruse. Consequently, the reader can follow Kirkpatrick’s reasoning—if he has his own adequate supply of examples or personal knowledge about the issues of education and factual experience of classroom practice.
One problem is that he makes many conclusive statements about theories and historical issues without a great deal of argument or factual support. Often, I agreed with his statements because I had sufficient knowledge of the issues to validate them or supply the qualifications that would make them more exactly true. Other times, I thought his statements were interesting and intriguing and sounded as if they could be right, but I wondered about their full justification, or found myself disagreeing.
Moreover, I wished he had cast his statements in a more persuasive style rather than the teacherly-academic tone he tends to use. For example, he chose to save many examples and references for footnotes, leaving the text somewhat dry. On almost every page, I had to stop reading the text to note his supporting data and mull his side-bar comments. This was distracting. It was as if he was torn between writing for the general public and writing for an academic journal. I think his story and arguments would have been more compelling if he had interwoven his many interesting facts and specific comments into the general text. Paul Johnson’s book The Renaissance and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation are good examples of this style.
In the main, his argument is a philosophical/psychological one, supported by some references to developmental research and his own experience. Happily, the research evidence of which I am aware, plus my long Montessori teaching experience, also support his theory. However, inclusion of more of the psychological research in his book would have bolstered Kirkpatrick’s arguments.
Finally, the book could have profited from some additional editing. On and off, I found slight syntactical mistakes, such as “newly unpublished” when he seems to have meant “new, unpublished.”
But these are minor flaws in comparison to his achievement in bringing together a vast amount of historical, philosophical, and psychological material to present a truly original theory of learning. Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism will educate you about the kind of education suitable to members of a free society—and educate you far beyond your expectations.