Peerless Educator: The Life and Work of Isaac Leon Kandel with a Foreword by Diane Ravitch by J. Wesley Null

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

by Richard K. MUNRO, MA 2004 Renshaw Fellow,UVA

PEERLESS EDUCATOR, the life and works of educator and author, Isaac l. Kandel helps clarify the mystery of our often ineffective, biased and aimless Teacher’s Education programs in America. Kandel is certainly not a household word and his writings are not likely to be in any high school anthologies -but they are so magnificent they should be they are that good. Kandel was in his time an inspired classroom teacher but Null’s PEERLESS EDUCATOR makes clear that Kandel also was an original educational theorist of what Null calls the democratic traditionalist' school. Wesley Null is right when says only by studying authors like Kandel can we understand the need to provide an alternative to the dominance of liberal progressivism in our schools and teacher colleges. I find Kandel's argument convincing that we must have a common American culture (I call in an American Paideia) grounded in our English-speaking democratic heritage of limited government as well as our Judeo-Christian Greco-Roman ethical traditions. Null calls Kandel a "Democratic Traditionalist" because Kandel believed strongly in American ideals such as public schools for all, universal citizenship and equality before the law. America, Kandel recognized, was strong and a land of opportunity and freedom but it was not perfect and certainly was but not invulnerable. I think Kandel recognized America's tendencies towards anti-intellectualism, excess and crass materialism but he loved her all the same and recognized that America was basically a kind, tolerant and forgiving place capable of reform and improvement. He lived through the challenges of Nazism and Communism and he knew so we had to do everything possible to strengthen our free society, nurture it, to preserve it and to protect it. If we undermine the family and deny a quality education for all, Kandel believed, we undermine and weaken education. Therefore we must nurture, protect and preserve the most vital traditions of our civilization -what John F. Kennedy called "our ancient heritage"- through our schools, our houses of God, our families, our military, our jury boxes and all our multitudinous, autonomous private quasi-educational institutions as well as through the freedom of the individual citizen. Kandel understood, I think, like Acton, Kirk and Hayek, the link between our free institutions, our basic rights of life, liberty and property and education. Ultimately, the collapse of the private life, of the family and public schools could prefigure the collapse of our republic and free Constitution. Kandel was controversial in his time and often treated in a petty fashion by the Progressive elites of his time. Nonetheless, he clearly understood one of the great dangers of the modern age: the power of the Bold State (the Totalitarian State) to corrupt education and destroy freedom. This threat, this totalitarian temptation, of course, could come as easily from the Left as from the Right. It can come with crashing speed or gradually like a slow poison. As early as 1934 Kandel wrote the MAKING OF NAZIS, though it is sad to relate it made little impression at the time. But in writing such a book Kandel proved his brilliance and prescient wisdom. Kandel was also right on the mark when he clearly identified the danger of Dewey's educational philosophy which he characterized as a "direct attack on all past educational traditions" and their authentic standards. Isaac Kandel was, in his time ( fl. 1930-1960), a respected international educator and an author of numerous articles, book reviews and books on education, culture and political theory, not merely in English but also in French and Spanish. Kandel was also one of the founders of the field of comparative education. Yet today, almost mysteriously, his books have vanished from curricula and are not likely to be mentioned in current bibliographies. How did this happen? Basically, Kandel like many others (Gilbert Highet, for example) was "purged" after his retirement and replaced by PC progressives. In the 1960's and 1970's Americans were caught completely unaware of the radical changes in the liberal arts and teacher education programs. Classics like A CULTURAL HISTORY OF WESTERN EDUCATION by R. Freeman Butts, LIBERAL EDUCATION by Mark Van Doren, PAIDEIA by Werner Jaeger, THE ART OF TEACHING and the CLASSICAL TRADITION by Gilbert Highet were, essentially discarded as "Western Civilization" and the "Great Books" were downgraded to occasional electives in an age dominated by deconstructivists, multiculturalists and Secular "Progressive" Liberal-Socialists who have a wild and credulous belief in behavioral psychology, Marxism, Radical Feminism and the Bold State and who have a la Dewey -who was a devoted Socialist- rejected traditional values, and traditional thought and wisdom as irrelevant even harmful and oppressive. I daresay most Americans and even most Teacher- Ed students have never heard of these master authors of the 20th century let alone read any of their books not to mention classics such as Cicero's ON MORAL DUTIES, Augustine's CONFESSIONS or Boethius' THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY let alone Hayek's ROAD TO SERFDOM, Barzun's AMERICAN TEACHER or Russell Kirk's masterpiece THE ROOTS OF AMERICAN ORDER. Gradually, in the 70's and 80's Americans of the right and center grew to distrust and challenge the liberal intellectual establishment hence the success Bloom's CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, the rapid expansion of home schooling, the establishment of competing alternative schools as well as works by E.D. Hirsch, Ravitch and now Wesley Null. Similarly they have never read Kandel's worthy antidote to Dewey THE CULT OF UNCERTAINTY nor his virtually lost gem "Address at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University" (1940). Only by recurring to fundamental principles, Kandel believed, could we hope to preserve our free society. Kandel wrote "The basic principles of democracy are rooted in the religious traditions of Jew and Christian alike." "Man ....cannot live on negation...he needs values that have stood the test of time." "Education, true education, should liberate it should cultivate the genuinely free man, the man of moral judgment, of intellectual integrity.....intolerance and hatred are the foundations of the new [totalitarian] ideologies...Love thy neighbor as thyself is the injunction of the Hebrew prophets and of the Golden Rule." Kandel was not a fundamentalist Christian, but in fact was an observant Jew, but he understood that the greatness of American society was based on its ethical and moral traditions which were based as much or more on the Bible than the Enlightenment. And, of course, it is a calumny, lie and a falsehood that persons of a sincere Christian faith cannot be democratic and moderate in their political views even though it is true they embrace moral absolutes and reject the moral confusion and nihilism of secular progressives. But embracing a moral absolute does not mean embracing intolerance and rejecting pluralism. Most Americans have, like Kandel, alive and let live attitude’ as far as people’s private lives and private beliefs. Kandel, obviously, was not an intolerant man of the “Far Right”; in fact , ironically, he saw the threat from the TRUE FAR RIGHT (the fascist/totalitarian right , the Nazis) as early as Churchill. How telling that many people of the Left (like Dewey) were completely blind to the crimes of Stalin and the growing menace of Hitler and Japanese Militarism.
Everyone who knows anything knows about Hitler, the Gestapo and the Luftwaffe but who knows about Ernst Krieck and his role in strengthening Nazism via the control of public education? I did not. I knew in general terms what totalitarian education is about and about the subversion of the legal system in Nazi Germany but I did not know the specifics of the Nazi educational program. So once again kudos to Kandel (and Null).
Kandel is right of course that education can become a murder machine “to mold the rising generation to this {Nazi} law and will.” Kandel is also right that the democracies must meet the challenge thrown out by the Revolutionary ideologies' which to Kandel was clearly Communism as well as Nazism (Fascism) . This is very applicable to the Islamo-fascist challenge of today. It is sad to realize that KANDEL's THE MAKING OF NAZIS was essentially ignored (selling only 300 copies!) although I think see the influence of Kandel's work on Disney's classic anti-Nazi cartoon EDUCATION FOR DEATH. But MAKING OF NAZIS was against the zeitgeist of the time. It took the catastrophe of the Nazi Blitzkrieg, its Air War over Britain, its U-Boat campaign AND Pearl Harbor to wake the American people up to the reality of the extreme danger. But things haven't changed in that regard. Most Americans have no real sense of the great danger we are in at present (2007)/ which threatens our freedom, our economy and our whole way of life.But we cannot be a Festung America either; Kandel knew America must operate and communicate in the World Court of Opinion. Kandel's work in the UN I think had great educational, political and moral value. Too many conservatives want to throw out the UN and dismiss EVERYTHING it has done. That is clearly, foolish and a mistake; the UN is flawed -and in my view should never be seen as a precursor to a "World Government" but it can be tool for peace and important forum for educational, diplomatic and medical exchanges. I am glad to relate that Kandel seemed genuinely a nice person and a devoted husband and father though in the home he might be considered very old-fashioned by today's equalitarian standards. There is no question he was a very talented and successful classroom teacher. I should have like to have taken "Historical and Comparative Foundations" with Kandel. Null shows some of the great questions -and still relevant questions- posed by Kandel! Kandel was absolutely right that one of the primaries aims of public education MUST BE TO TEACH STUDENTS HOW TO CONNECT AMERICAN EDUCATION (and the American experiment) to what I call our splendid ancient heritage’. All of the books mentioned in Kandel’s curriculum are indispensable for any broadly educated person. We may not be experts in Aquinas or Hegel BUT everyone should have read at least some of the Federalist Papers and Aristotle’s Ethics and writings of Plato (I would add Cicero as well). Education, Kandel taught, cannot be separated from culture or politics because the political life itself is a very important form of life-long community education. Kandel was a strong supporter as were his contemporaries, Mortimer Adler, Hutchins and Gilbert Highet of a broad but liberal education for all.

And I might add Kandel knew the obvious: teachers who are not broadly educated lose MORAL AUTHORITY not only to their students but to the educated public as well upon whom the fate of public education ultimately depends. Teachers gain respect and authority by demonstrating competence as well as caring.

If Teacher Ed becomes (and it seems to me it has become already) cut off from its cultural roots and spiritual roots it will just become a self-perpetuating pseudo-scientific cult, a Null writes, with “no purpose beyond itself”. So much of multiculturalism and postmodernism is hypocritical and false, especially when it is taught by persons who pretend to be “Native Americans” (but who are not) and who cannot speak let alone read one word of a foreign language. Many Ivory Tower intellectuals, particularly in the liberal arts are so insular and over-specialized that they are unreadable. Their concepts choke in obscure jargon which they themselves cannot make clear. The Satraps of Teacher-Ed may sneer, as they often do, at rural schoolmasters and the public and men like E.D. Hirsch (who like Hutchins, Highet and Bloom came from OUTSIDE the Teacher’s Ed World) but in large measure they are responsible for their own repudiation.

Kandel knew that it was vital that American teachers and American schools must not lose their faith in America’s deepest ideals' (Null's words) and their Great Aim. This Great Aim in my view is the American Experiment or the American Promise that is to say the preserving, protecting and defending our civilization and culture by providing educational opportunity to all young people and all citizens and potential citizens who are in turn committed to the survival and success of the commonwealth. Every student and citizen must be aware of how American society works economically, politically and socially this Kandel knew. I think too he would agree they must be taught to appreciate WITH UNDYING GRATITUDE the magnitude of the struggles and sacrifices to make our country secure, prosperous and free. That is the meaning of Yorktown, Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Guadalcanal, Belleau Wood, Omaha Beach and Bastogne. I think it worth noting that old Kandel -though he was beyond military age- tried to enlist to serve his adopted country and it is noted Kandel's son DID enlist and fulfill his civic duty honorably in a time of war and great national crisis. Kandel, I am sure was proud of him. But I have to ask just who was the peerless educator’ of Columbia University of the 1930’s 40’s and 50’s.? Wesley Null says it is Isaac Kandel; he will forgive me, I know, if I say it might have been in fact Kandel’s contemporary Gilbert Highet, a man whom I am sure Kandel read and respected (see for example […] ) This is like the old baseball argument of the 50’s who was greater Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider? They were all magnificent all-around players but the answer in fact was none of the above! It had to be Babe Ruth -he was also a great pitcher- or Hank Aaron who came by his achievements honestly ! (it will never be that ersatz Frankenstein of our time Barry Bonds). That having been said, Kandel WAS one of the great educators of his time and certainly he was peerless and almost unique as far as Columbia’s Teacher’s College is concerned.

My one criticism of Null’s book is that he does not show the relationship of Kandel vis-à-vis other great educators of his time such as Hutchins, Mortimer Adler or Highet but that is perhaps the theme of another book. I should have liked to know more of what Kandel thought of them and THEIR defense of traditional liberal education and THEIR critiques of Progressive Education. Null does a good job, however, of outlining Kandel’s friendship with his mentor Paul Monroe and William Bagley two distinguished educators of their time who are still worthy of mention and study themselves. That having been said, there is no question that Null’s PEERLESS EDUCATOR is a valuable, useful and highly accessible introduction to the thought and life of a man too little known. PEERLESS EDUCATOR makes for an excellent companion book to Null and Ravitch’s FORGOTTEN HEROES OF AMERICAN EDUCATION (2006) and is an excellent introduction to the life and thought of I.L. Kandel. This book tells Kandel’s life story fairly and in an interesting manner as well as giving the background to his educational and political philosophies. For those who are interested in learning more Null provides a very complete bibliography of Kandel’s principal works.
Every American teacher, concerned citizen and educator should become acquainted with Kandel. Kandel clearly identified the danger of Dewey’s educational philosophy -which now dominates Teacher’s Colleges- as a “direct attack on all past educational traditions” and their authentic standards. Kandel was and is a `man for all seasons.” Diane Ravitch is right when she said whenever Dewey is read, Kandel should be read as well. Wesley Null is right the study of Kandel and other writers and educators who appeal to the traditional -yet clearly democratic- foundations of education is vital. They may provide a balance and an antidote to American teacher’s colleges which all too often are cut off from their historical and intellectual roots as well as alienated from the discipline which they were created to nourish. After reading Null’s PEERLESS EDUCATOR I must admit at times I was almost wistful so great was my desire to have experienced Kandel the man an immigrant who never forgot his heritage nor the past but who made good in America by dint of hard work despite, I think, much discouragement and opposition by (liberal-left) “Progressive” educators. Kandel’s story is not just the story of a erudite teacher but also a very American story of the immigrant (he was of English and Romanian-Jewish extraction) who made good after much travail.
PEERLESS EDUCATOR is a great introduction to a great man, a great American and a citizen of the world: Isaac L. Kandel.

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