Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Miseducation via Age Segregation

While a public fight was going on over what would be taught in the public school science curriculum, evolution was being applied to the schools in a more subtle manner. In the late 1800s, Granville Stanley Hall was a prominent educator at Johns Hopkins University. He believed in evolution and was a leader in the developing field of psychology. In 1904, he published a book on adolescence, advocating a new theory of child development based on evolutionary recapitulation. This theory was soon to be applied to classrooms across America.

Hall's recapitulation belief was that child development reflected evolutionary ancestry; certain ages, he argued, represented stages of evolutionary development. Infancy and early childhood corresponded to early "pre-civilized" mankind just grown out of its animal stage. Ages 6-7 were "crisis" years, where children could enter school and leave the "pre-civilized" state behind. Ages 8-12 corresponded to "the world of early pigmies." Ages 13-18 were what he declared to be the stage of adolescence. This period, Hall claimed, was critical, as the child entered a "stormy" ancient civilization stage, and finally grew into full civilization.

Hall's book was a major influence on the public schools as age segregation became more emphasized. Before Hall, the "stormy" period of adolescence was virtually unknown. John Quincy Adams, later to become US president, received a diplomatic appointment overseas for the federal government when he was only fourteen years old. For those who acquired a college education in the 1700s, thirteen-year-old freshmen were not uncommon. But Hall made little allowance for the fact that children mature differently. Now all six-year-olds, seven-year-olds and eight-year-olds get their own classes, learn to stick with their age group peers, and it is regarded as odd--if not suspicious--if a ten-year-old associates with a fifteen-year-old. Today it is often a terrible thing for a child to be ahead of his peers--public school children must fit into Hall's evolutionary mold. (Perhaps this is why we don?t see children like John Quincy Adams anymore.)

-Lael Weinberger

I'm hardly a fan of "Answers in Genesis" creationism, but Weinberger's sources seem solid. These passages dovetail with my own interests in the development of the contemporary education system and the creation of youth culture. I've long pondered a saying I picked up somewhere or other which claimed that in the past we segregated by sex, and now we segregate by age. I had not suspected our present state was formed in part by such eccentric interpretations of evolutionary theory.

To my surprise, Hall's speculations are similar to those I made in my high school years. But rather than rely on evolutionary history, I based it on an crude equivalence between a man's progression in age and a sophomoric caricature of the centuries Anno Domini. In my own system, the tumultuous years of adolescence corresponded to the dark ages, and the later teens corresponded to the Renaissance. I do not recall how I would categorize the centuries past the twenty-first. We are fortunate indeed that my ruminations never made it into educational theory. I suspect Professor Hall's theories have not been so innocuous.

Link from Homeschool Blogger by way of Domenico Bettinelli

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