Sherman Dorn: William Torrey Harris Warned Against “Hothouse” Education in the 19th Century, and the New York Times Is on It!

Science writer David Kohn has an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, Let the Kids Learn Through Play. For historians, the first three words ring alarm bells:

Twenty years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing… [emphasis added]

Great: another Myth of the Golden Age. Maybe my memory is flawed, but Google Books and I both agree that the early 1990s was a time when “child-care crisis” was on the tip of many tongues, or at least on far more tongues and keyboards than before or since:

For many parents, any child care they can pay for is an uncertain proposition; debates over play vs. early academics are a luxury for millions. For others, the quality of interactions between teachers and young children trumps the question of what happens during the day. And in practice, the divide between “play” and “academics” is often specious. When my son’s preschool teachers in the late 1990s cut up samples of almost a dozen types of fruit for his class to try, was that play or academics? And when they asked each child to take an icon of the types of fruit they liked to put up on a board (laminating machines and velcro are magic), what was that? And when the children’s putting those icons in vertical columns created a bar chart of the class’s fruit preferences, what was that? Towards the end of the op-ed, Kohn writes, “many educators want to curtail play during school,” but never names any of these evil educators. They are the invisible playtime vigilantes.

Yes, I suspect that you can find many classrooms where young children are asked to sit for too long and engage in stupid exercises. If you do not remember the same in your own classroom, you were lucky. Not only has poor early-childhood education existed for many decades, so has this debate over the relationship between academics and other school activities for young children. If you are curious, you can read Caroline Winterer’s 1992 article Avoiding a “Hothouse System of Education”: Nineteenth-Century Early Childhood Education from the Infant Schools to the Kindergartens, or many other sources: this is a settled issue in the literature. In this country, there has never been a time in the past two centuries when someone has not argued that young children need to be prepared for success early, or when others have argued against early education with any academic content.

So please go ahead and debate play vs. academics in early education. Do not claim history as your high ground: like David Kohn, you would be wrong.

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Sherman Dorn

Sherman Dorn is the Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and editor of the Education Policy Analysis Archives. His research interests include how schools educate children they have treated poorly in the past and how we define...