This is the last post in the “Making Connections” series. After this, I will turn to other topics: P21 and advertising, the worship of change in education reform, and more.
In my second and third year of teaching, I started reading Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch, Jr. I don’t know how I would have fared without their books. They made sense of the confusion I saw around me and showed me the way to other kindred thinkers. Thanks to Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform by Diane Ravitch–my favorite book on American education—I learned about the brilliant and delightful work of Michael John Demiashkevich (1891-1938) and found my way to his books. Demiashkevich was by no means opposed to progressive ideas, but he railed against excesses such as the obsession with “integrated learning,” an attempt to make all subjects revolve around a given theme. He relates the story of the “daffodil project” (An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, pp. 282-283):
A teacher relates that she organized the entire instruction in one of the grades around the daffodil project. She devoted her time, first, to the anatomy and physiology of the daffodil; next to the poetry about it; and finally, to dancing around the flower bed. The daffodil project was still on at the time we heard about it last. We do not know how much or how little the students have learned through it in terms of information and mental habits; this depends very largely on the ability and culture of the teacher, whom we do not have the pleasure of knowing personally. But we are wondering if the majority of the daffodil project students did not finish by hating the daffodil and waiting as for deliverance for “the clang of the school bell,” which some new educationists would do away with as the sinister symbol of the conventional school which “shatters valuable attitudes.”
I see nothing wrong with teaching the anatomy and physiology of the daffodil (and other flowers) in science class, and poetry about the daffodil in English class. The problem with this “daffodil project” is that it makes everything revolve around the daffodil. It gains a false eternity and a forced community. In this daffodil project, what becomes of Wordsworth’s “They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude”? Or Amy Lowell’s “I too am a rare / Pattern. As I wander down / The garden paths”? Or Robert Herrick’s “Like to the summer’s rain; / Or as the pearls of morning’s dew, / Ne’er to be found again”? Would the daffodil theme enhance the understanding of these poems or stand in the way, a giant daffodil idol demanding worship?
And would Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring” be omitted because it does not mention a daffodil? (“Nothing is so beautiful as spring / When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush…”) That would be the most grievous mistake of all, the omission of non-daffodil-mentioning things.
There is something sound about studying a variety of subjects and keeping the overarching themes at bay. Students learn more concrete material in this manner and are at liberty to find larger meanings on their own.
Not that a good theme or project here and there couldn’t be wonderful; it could, especially if the teacher had the knowledge to execute it and the wisdom to refrain from forcing it. The error lies in taking a theme and making everything fit into it. The error lies in the assumption that if everyone and everything dances around the daffodil bed, we will learn more and marvel more. Not so.