Education Opinion

Progressivism & preparing the young for society

By Deborah Meier — April 23, 2007 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Amen. Right on target. And well said, to boot.

So, let’s leave Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg for a while, although it’s hard to do. The amazing thing is—as you note—the complete lack of accountability behind their schemes. Like many a revolutionary the object seems to be to ensure that the past is smashed and cannot be put together again, in the hopes that something new and glorious will emerge out of the ashes. The only hint we have about the “new” is that it should be market driven, “competitive”, and rest largely on test scores—or whatever some future Mayor chooses to believe in?

Enough on them for a moment.

Let’s go back to your earlier critique of progressive education, and then, another day to the idea of a national curriculum and assessment system.

Let’s take it more slowly—separating for the moment the complex idea of nomenclature (the history of the word progressive—which has meant so many different things to so many different people)—from the form of progressivism largely identified with John Dewey’s efforts, and those of his “ilk”. It includes the interesting crowd that gathered around schools like Chicago’s Lab School, Lincoln, Parker, Dalton, Ethical Culture and Bank Street, founded to think through the connections between democracy and education. A concept of progressivism central also to the work of Jean Piaget, the post WW II Infant School movement in England, Ted Sizer, etc. There’s a strong and common thread that runs through this list. It borrows probably from both traditional ideas and those that grew out of what’s sometimes called “free schools” (Summerhill, etc). Schools inclined to Dewey’s form of “progressivism” were seeking classrooms and schools that were simultaneously highly respectful of teacher and adult initiative and judgment, and the importance of the child initiative and judgment (what was called in early-childhood-education jargon—the agency of the child.) Probably, too, these were school people with a foot in academia and another foot in the social and political movements of their time.

This tradition contrasts to equally “innovative” reform efforts that script both teachers and kids—which seem popular again these days. Some reformers saw teacher and kid as empty vessels, some one, some the other, and some neither. (Even those who saw children as empty vessels often wanted to fill them with different things.)

The question Dewey asked was: What must we do to prepare the young for a society that proclaims everyone a member of the ruling class, that rests on the fragile and new idea that being a citizen is every one’s vocation? Does this simply translate into claiming that every member of the ruling class needs to become an academic expert, or that whatever the small ruling classes of the 19th Century taught their male young is right (only now for everyone)? You refer, I suspect (?) disapprovingly, to a Charters and a Bobbitt who wanted to replace academics with “activities and tasks that would be useful in the adult world.” What concerns you with that Bobbit/Charters aim?

What’s wrong with demanding of Academics that they persuade us of their utility? Alas, when parents and average citizens applaud the importance of academic subjects it’s generally because they misunderstand (confusing them with the 3 Rs), or because they fatalistically accept the proposition that it’s a game that must be played in order to get a diploma, which in turn is a license to pursue utterly unacademic ends. There is no love affair between the American public and “the academy"—as Bush (like many a past politician) takes pains to remind us. I want a love affair.

The American public has, I contend, always viewed “academics” in one of the three ways I heard it used on the radio on my way to the airport. (Once again the car is one of my favorite solitary think tanks.) One time it was used to mean irrelevant—no longer pertinent, once it was used to mean boring, and finally to mean obtuse.

You and I have a much higher regard for academia, its history, traditions and importance; you are an eminent member of the academy.

I make a distinction between being academic and being intellectual, “smart”, etc. And since I believe that “all children” rhetoric, I assume human beings with some exceptions are all potential intellectuals, but not all potential academics (or all any other form of “smarts"—except a common “citizen” smarts.) Fortunately, one can embrace multiple smarts. I think all citizens should be people who accept responsibility for their ideas and who, on the whole, enjoy the responsibility. This includes the “play of ideas” which does not always take academic forms.

The “five habits of mind” (see below) were a rough, unfinished attempt to get at what such “play” might look like at some Sizer-led schools. These “habits were an effort to describe the essential responses of adults in their vocation of citizenship (and, fortunately, useful for a lot else as well). Such habits were, as Sizer noted in “Horace’s Compromise” (1985), better exercised in the shop class he described and not at all in most high school academic courses he observed.

I’ve a lot to say about why having a national course of study and national exams to go with them are a bad idea, some of which flows from the preceding. But, first, let’s see where we part company on this description of progressivism.

(It’s eminently clear that Bloomberg and Klein are counting on NYC citizens not exercising such habits of mind, for example.)



p.s. Briefly, the five habits that defined “using one’s mind well” in some of the Coalition “progressive” schools are summed up as follows. Being in the habit, whenever confronting something of interest and importance, of asking:

(1) How do we know what’s true or not true? How credible is our evidence?
(2) Is there an alternate story? Perspective? How might this look from another viewpoint?
(3) Is there a connection between x and y? A pattern? Have I come across this before?
(4) What if... supposing that…? Could it have been otherwise if x not y had intervened?
(5) And finally, “who cares”? Does it matter? (And, perhaps, to whom?)

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