The essentialist rejects the progressive theory of growth with nothing-fixed-in-advance, a planless education based upon the unselected experiences and needs of the child or even selected by cooperative, shared discussions of pupils and teachers. Growth cannot be self-directed; it needs direction through a carefully chosen environment to an end or ends in the minds of those who have been entrusted by society with the child’s education. The problem is not new; it was first posed in modern times by Rousseau and has been the subject of controversy ever since. It was answered for all time by Coleridge nearly 100 years ago in the following story. –Isaac Leon Kandel, Prejudice the Garden Toward Roses?, 1939
Kandel then quotes from Coleridge’s Table Talk, July 26, 1830.
Thelwall thought it very unfair to influence a child’s mind by inculcating any opinions before it should have come to years of discretion, and be able to choose for itself. I showed him my garden, and told him it was my botanical garden. “How so?” said he, “it is covered with weeds.”—“Oh,” I replied, “that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice. The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair in me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.”
E. D. Hirsch argued that Romanticism took root in American education and has continued to infect it with the kind of naturalism prescribed by Rousseau (The Schools We Need, 1996). What I continue to appreciate about Coleridge is that he breaks the Romantic mold as it displaces the divine with the human. The result is, as seen in the above quote, that Coleridge perceived the true nature of education as that which seeks to “exhibit the ends of our moral being.”