American Education in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Academic Preschool: So What’s the Problem?

Research out of the University of California at Berkeley is worrying some parents. It found that youngsters who attended an “academic-oriented preschool” for about eight months outperformed peers who had received no such program. Gains were substantial, especially for Black children.

“Academic preschool” means that teachers spend some class time on activities that emphasize language, preliteracy, and math concepts; it does not mean that children have no time to play and explore.

What interests me is not this finding (which confirms earlier ones), but the hand-wringing to which it’s led. Who’s upset? Mostly college-educated parents!

That’s right. The New York Times says college-educated parents are worried that “academic preschool will quash the love of learning before children make it past their holding-hands years.” One parent persuaded preschool staff to “reassure her that they would not use flash-cards.”

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many better-educated Americans have adopted ways of thinking about young children that gained popularity among Europeans more than two hundred years ago. I’m referring to “romanticism,” the roots of which are revealed in my 2013 book, The Aptitude Myth (see chapter 7). Early childhood was a key focus of romanticism. Among its major thinkers were Jean-Jacques Rousseau (French), Johan Pestalozzi (Swiss), and Herbert Spencer (British).

Their influence on child-rearing was strengthened by that of the 19th century Romantic Poets. Consider these lines from William Wordsworth, in which he equates early childhood with Heaven and warns of the coming “prison-house” – school – awaiting each child:

But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, he sees it in his joy;

Or my favorite, by William Blake, in which he equates school with a cage:

Ah! then at time I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour,
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn thro’ with the dreary shower.
How can the bird that is born for joy,
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring?

The Romantics’ views about early childhood became prominent in Europe and America during the 19th century, so enduringly that its impact has continued into our 21st century. It infuses the way in which many Americans think about children’s learning. The Romantics gave us two key assumptions:

1. What is most valuable about a child is inside him or her. The Romantics strongly promoted the notion that whatever is innate or inborn within a child is capable of spontaneous, glorious unfolding into something wonderful, like a flower. But such “organic” blossoming will occur only if the child is closely involved with nature and remains innocent of adult ideas and society’s strictures – such as the distracting requirements of academic learning.

2. The organic principle is a passive principle. The organic principle states that the most admirable beings come into fullness in a manner similar to the growth of a plant, that is, not planned and constructed by an external agent, but internally driven toward spontaneous, unpredictable, holistic development.

Therefore, I – I the plant, I the animal, or I the human child – do not blossom because I intend or strive for it, or because my parents or teachers intend or strive for it. It simply happens. It’s beyond anyone’s control. It happens when, internally, I become “ready.”

And therefore, everyone should remain passive, including me, my parents, and my teachers. Just let me play and do my thing!

Let’s face it: Most young children are adorable! The Romantics responded to their beauty and innocence. Their “hands-off” message resonated with parents. That message said, “Young children are naturally Good. They will organically blossom. You need only to shield them from physical danger and from corrupting influences such as unnatural notions that they need to start learning academic stuff at a tender age.”

So what’s the problem with academic preschool?

There’s no problem with academic preschool. Its benefits have been measured and found significant. There’s zero evidence that the youngsters are harmed psychically or physiologically.

The problem is within us. Under the influence of poets and philosophers who lived over two hundred years ago, we’ve come to assume that very young children’s well-being will be undermined by an introduction to basic academic learning skills.

The New York Times article is at

The University of California research report is at