Progressive Education Revisited

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The Bell commission's report and its call for educational "excellence" are before us. But if we are to combat the "rising tide of mediocrity," we would be wise to rethink our educational philosophy and pedagogical methods, or else more homework, longer school years, and elaborate testing can only result in repeating our present mistakes on a larger scale. To avoid this, I suggest we could do a lot worse than to reconsider the insights and usefulness of John Dewey and progressive education.

It was precisely at the nexus of school and society that progressive education originated. Its guiding ideals were science and democracy. Its guiding purpose was helping people to be effective in the newly born industrial society with problems of work, labor organization, human rights, and the emergent modern city. Reflecting a simpler past, the "old education," as the existing system was called back then, saw the school as a place where passive students repeated rote lessons to ill-trained and intimidated teachers. Repetition and recitation were the stuff of schooling--the result, when we penetrate our nostalgia for the "good old days" that never were, was a schooling that did not educate many people to be effective in the world that was coming to be. Of course, most people didn't go to school at all, or at best had very few years of formal schooling.

Progressive education, by contrast, held that no class or group or person was bound by birth or place to permanent inferiority. For all its faults, there was an Emersonian appreciation of the talents in everyman and a certain genius for inclusion in that philosophy that today's conservative critics miss.

Their language is so cramped and narrow. It is the fashion today, and not least of all among liberals manque, to sneer at the universalism and egalitarianism of the American dream, to satirize the ideal by confusing egalitarianism with sameness or universalism with homogeneity--mistakes the progressives who worried about the question of individual differences to a fault didn't make.

Many forget, too, that achievement is always the work of many people. That is the accuracy of the progressive notion that learning is a social and not an isolated experience. Too many of today's "reformers," with their eye on performance and testing--on rote learning--simply didn't pay enough attention to how learning happens. They would benefit from the progressive tutoring they so easily reject.

Before buying into an "old" education that didn't work, we might want to recall what progressive education was really all about--and what it was not about. Progressives never thought that driver's education was as good as Shakespeare or that the "creative" art of a six-year-old was the aesthetic equal of Picasso's.

Progressives began at a different point in looking at education--at the point where learning starts--and at how it develops through a lifetime. They began, too, by asking serious questions about social needs, because they knew that society came through the doors of the school each day with students and teachers. And they began with a hopeful view of human abilities based rather solidly on the then-new science of developmental psychology and on the experience of human achievement where and when one least expected it.

Progressives also relied on a certain common sense about people. They knew, for example, that we like to express ourselves. We talk--oh, how we talk! By implication, language--reading, writing, and talking--is naturally welcomed by human beings when they aren't in school. Yet it seems to be a struggle in the classroom. By analyzing that contradiction and using careful observation, they experimented with the consequent ideas of progressive pedagogy, searching for interests and motives that would build a structure of learning on what we were. What Picasso and Shakespeare were would be revealed more effectively--and it was--in those schools that took the philosophy seriously.

Of course, progressives concerned themselves with discipline and drill. But they wanted learning to "take," and not simply to satisfy the test maker. To understand this, consider how many of us can recite a multiplication table but how few of us can grasp a mathematical idea. The progressive classroom appealed to our playfulness as well as our practicality. The colorful richness of the modern classroom with its library corners, posters, pictures, and clay models--even for those who deny its source--is a tribute to that insight.

Progressive pedagogy in language, as in other fields, rooted itself in careful observation of what we are--how we behave, how we relate to each other. That was its genius and that's really what was meant by "experience-based" schooling. Progressives reminded us, too, that we are an inquisitive species. This natural curiosity--Einstein called it "holy curiosity"--was the ground on which science education was to be built. Because of that fundamental human trait, the laboratory and the experiment, not just the lecture, became part of science education as well as the basic working tools of scientists. Dewey knew, as the scientist knows, that discovery comes from "noodling around," from trial and error, from a certain serendipity. That's where "learning by doing" comes from, not from a blind and stupid activism or an irresponsible permissiveness. In short, when we probe the progressive inspiration and avoid the temptation to blame progressivism for all the mistakes of the last 50 years, we still find a very sensible approach to schooling.

This shouldn't surprise us once we penetrate the rhetoric that attacks "educationists" who, admittedly, have an unfortunate penchant for inane jargon. If, however, we look at our own experience--in our jobs and our hobbies, for example--we find that it is precisely when challenged by genuine problems and through our "natural" interests and propensities that the best and most long-lasting learning and achievement takes place. Trying to find out how to reconstruct the school to take advantage of these insights was the essential point of progressive education.

The challenge, never completely or successfully met, was to work out how skills like reading, writing, and calculation could be integrated with interests and activities that meant something to students. Where, for example, a core curriculum or integrated education is used--as in kindergartens and some interdisciplinary graduate programs--learning (even of tedious routine) takes place readily if not painlessly.

There are certain silly slanders about the progressive classroom that ought to be laid to rest. For example, it is simply false that the teacher was only to be a glorified educational traffic cop while the students expressed themselves. As Dewey remarked in Intelligence in the Modern World, in response to those who accused progressivism of this foolishness or who, in the name of progressivism, indulged in it, "... such a method is really stupid ... Since the teacher has, presumably, a greater background of experiences, there is the same presumption of the right of the teacher to make suggestions as to what to do as there is on the part of a head carpenter to suggest to apprentices something of what they are to do."

It is simply false to claim that progressives didn't believe in discipline. Instead, they took what was really a classical and even an old-fashioned point of view, that self discipline is finally all that we can truly rely on. And, as good democrats, they set out to try to include everyone and not just the few in the process. A police approach works only as long as authority is visibly present. It is obviously unrealistic, even if it were desirable, to have the policeman present always and everywhere. Obedience for free people is obedience to laws and rules that we understand and that we make our own. Learning how to do this and why we should care about doing it is the heart of progressive governance in schools. Before it became a slogan used in the 1960's to romanticize the notion of "doing your own thing," ''participatory democracy" was the name Dewey gave to this notion of democratic discipline.

If there was so much common sense and democratic idealism in progressive education, how then do we account for its ill repute? Clearly, Dewey's love affair with science, too often uncritical, had something to do with it. In his anxiety to develop the science of teaching, he neglected something of its art. More to the point, his less-than-able followers confused science with mechanism and specialized jargon. In other words, too many who imitated progressivism when it was the "latest" and the "best" educational theory never really understood the philosophic origins and intentions of what they were doing, confusing the social basis of learning with mere sociability, creative play with aesthetic standards, and self discipline with permissiveness.

So, when we looked, we could find enough horror stories to fill as many reports as we'd care to sponsor. But the horror stories fell and still fall on willing ears. That suggests that motivations other than the correction of error were at work. After all, progressive education, in taking democracy seriously, undercut the privilege of authority in schools, at home, and in the state. Authority, however, does not easily or voluntarily give up its prerogatives. Nor should we forget that freedom, as Jean Paul Sartre put it, is an "awful burden"... Many of us really prefer, without admitting it, that authority stay exactly where it is and that it not yield to democratic participation. Adults, whether teachers or parents, like their children to be obedient. But a search for self discipline means that obedience will evolve as we learn from disobedience; it will not be there at the outset.

Progressivism, in other words, aimed at the "transformation of the schools" to reflect what we actually do when we learn, and it was a radical challenge to our comfortable--if less than effective--traditional ways of doing things. The vigor and the viciousness with which it and its founder, John Dewey, are still attacked, suggest that they struck a politically sensitive nerve. After all, error would long since have been forgotten, as the "new" math has been, and triviality would have been dismissed. Dewey and the progressives would rightly be rejected if they had proposed anarchy in the classroom or aesthetic barbarism or illiteracy in the guise of free expression. They didn't, but they did offer a radical criticism of business as usual.

And long after Dewey's death and progressivism's descent into silence, the popular mind condemns, even though we know, for example, that poor performance in reading and writing has more to do with an illiterate culture than with teachers, corrupted by Dewey and unwilling to teach those skills. After all, the reduction of language to primitive grunts is a media achievement and not a progressive lesson plan.

But Dewey and the progressives make a convenient target. That helps us evade the more serious and radical criticism of school and society that our educational problems warrant.

Ironically, it was just the progressive inspiration of an earlier day that forced such criticism on the "old" education in the "old" society. We could use that spirit again. But that doesn't mean a blind return to Dewey or to the progressives, for that would violate the point of our history. Reconstruction was and is its genius.

Vol. 02, Issue 35, Page 24, 19

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