Education Opinion

Varieties of Progressivism

By Diane Ravitch — April 25, 2007 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

You choose to set aside the “complex idea of nomenclature,” but I don’t. Not out of orneriness, but because I wrote a book about the varieties of progressivism, as did Lawrence Cremin (“The Transformation of the School”). Educators who saw themselves in the mainstream of progressivism, and who at the time were acknowledged as such, were responsible for the advent and mass production of standardized testing and intelligence testing; for tracking of students into academic and vocational education; and for such extremes as “life adjustment education,” where the intellectual stuff was withheld from all but about 20 percent of the students.

You would prefer to stick with only the form of progressivism identified with Dewey’s Lab School, and I can understand why. Dewey’s Lab School, the Lincoln School, and the Dalton School had a wonderful curriculum, not a Summerhill approach at all. I spent quite a lot of time getting very excited about what was happening in those schools, but it did not pass my notice that the Lab School at the University of Chicago in Dewey’s brief time had about 4 students for each adult, and that the students were the children of university faculty and other professionals. Their families were white and professional. Nor were the Dalton School or the Lincoln School (where I believe the student body included children of the Rockefeller family) known for their economic, cultural or racial diversity.

Since I am writing from a hotel computer while on travel, I don’t have my books nearby, but I do recall that all of these private “experimental” schools had a wonderful, rich, coherent academic curriculum, augmented by lively hands-on activities and projects, taught by top-notch teachers to very small classes. The children were not doing whatever they wanted to do. Teachers today would have a great time reading a description of the courses at the Dewey school, as described in a book called “The Dewey School” by two of its teachers.

If you don’t see anything wrong with the curriculum analyses and recommendations of W.W. Charters and John Franklin Bobbitt, then you need to read some of their studies and proposals. They were as far from the Dewey tradition as one could imagine. Bobbitt, in particular, was an efficiency expert who tried to do a cost-benefit analysis for every course, and concluded that there was nothing to be gained by teaching much more than vocational studies.

I think you never read my book “Left Back,” which looks at the ideas of these guys rather closely. Consider along with them the work of their fellow “progressive” Thomas Jesse Jones, widely credited as the founder of the social studies. As a teacher, he introduced the first program in “social studies” at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a school for native Americans and black students. His idea of social studies was that it would prepare students to assume their future role in society, learning about their place in society (and not aspiring far above it). Jones (who was white and a social worker) prepared a massive federal study of black schools in the South (it may be found in major libraries, titled “Negro Education”). In that survey, which was used by philanthropists deciding what to do about the condition of black education, Jones complained repeatedly about black parents and communities who wanted the wrong kind of education for their children; he complained about schools that were giving their students an academic education and insisted that they should be realistic and should align themselves with “modern,” “progressive” education that emphasizes practical skills like making bricks, domestic service, shoeing horses, matwork, canning, and other occupations that were then open to black workers. W.E.B. DuBois referred to Jones’ survey as “dangerous” and “sinister.”

And I can’t let John Dewey off the hook altogether. If you go back and re-read his “Schools of To-Morrow” (1915), you will find a chapter praising a segregated black school in Indianapolis that was teaching its students how to be shoemakers. That chapter, surrounded by descriptions of schools where children were doing exciting, mind-opening explorations, is an embarrassment. And it reminds me how many progressive educators thought that vocationalism was the same as progressivism.

I love your emphasis on learning how to think, thinking about evidence and its credibility, looking for patterns, etc. I associate this approach with you and Ted Sizer. This is NOT, however, what I associate with Summerhill. As you know, A.S. Neill said again and again that children should get lessons only when they wanted lessons. If they didn’t want them, it was okay with him. He reveled in the fact that some children in his “school” went for years without a lesson. Forgive me, but I think that the Meier/Sizer strand of progressivism is not only different from Summerhill, but suffers embarrassment when linked with Summerhill. Summerhill is the form of progressivism that is the basis for the New Yorker cartoon where a child plaintively asks his teacher, “Do we have to do what we want to do today?”

So, yes, we continue to agree and disagree. We may never actually “bridge our differences,” but it helps to air them.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.