Should we trust the judgment of pre-adolescents to decide for themselves what makes educational sense?
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While visiting a local high school as a liaison between my department at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and the high school’s Advanced Credit program, I had occasion to speak with its young principal—a newly minted doctor of education. I told him about a challenge facing those of us who teach in K–16 education: the difficulty of getting students to summon the patience, stamina, and will to read dense text, particularly book-length writings, in an age of instant gratification, sound-bites, jazzy graphics, and condensed versions of knowledge. In short, I asked him, do students still have the capacity for deep reading, followed by deliberation and reflection? Can they conduct serious discourse? The principal’s response struck me: “Today’s students are actually smarter and better than students of yesteryear, since students today get to choose their own readings.” Really? I immediately wondered whether we should trust the judgment of adolescents, much less pre-adolescents, to decide for themselves what makes educational sense. And for that matter, since when has the mere act of “choice” been a measure of intellect?
Bizarre as this principal’s comment seemed at the time, it was grounded in mainstream progressive thinking—the student-centered, active, discovery-learning paradigm—that goes back to Rousseau, Dewey, and Piaget...