Progressives: The 1950s and the 1960s


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The 1950s: Progressives Under Fire

Educational Wastelands: The Retreat From Learning in Our Public Schools 1953 / by Arthur Bestor (1908-1994), a professor of history at the University of Illinois. Reprinted with permission from University of Illinois Press.

The economic, political, and spiritual health of a democratic state depends upon how successfully its educational system keeps pace with the increasingly heavy intellectual demands of modern life. Our civilization requires of every man and woman a variety of complex skills which rest upon the ability to read, write, and calculate, and upon sound knowledge of science, history, economics, philosophy, and other fundamental disciplines. These forms of knowledge are not a mere preparation for more advanced study. They are invaluable in their own right. The student bound for college must have them, of course. But so must the high school student who does not intend to enter college. Indeed, his is the graver loss if the high school fails to give adequate training in these fundamental ways of thinking, for he can scarcely hope to acquire thereafter the intellectual skills of which he has been defrauded. ...

Progressive education became regressive education, because instead of advancing, it began to undermine the great traditions of liberal education and to substitute for them lesser aims, confused aims, or no aims at all. Regressive education is the direct consequence of the fact that public school educationists have severed all real connection with the great world of science and learning.

Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do About It 1955 / by Rudolf Flesch (1911-1986), an author and an advocate of the phonics method of reading instruction. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.

When you get to the subject of "readiness," you approach the holy of holies, the inner sanctum of the whole "science" of reading. In each of the fat tomes on how to teach reading, pages and pages are filled with profound discussions of what makes a child ready for reading, when does he get ready, how to tell whether he is or not, how to speed him up or slow him down, what to do with him before he gets ready, how to instill readiness, how to make it grow, how to use it, treat it, protect it, diagnose it, improve it, ripen it, and direct it. Deep mystery covers this whole recondite subject, and work has been going on for decades to explore its inner recesses. ... If ever there was an example of reasoning in a vicious circle, this is it. You take a 6-year-old child and start to teach him something. The child, as often happens, doesn't take to it at once. If you use a common-sense approach, you try again and again, exert a little patience, and after some time the child begins to learn. But if you are a 20th-century American educator, equipped with the theory of "readiness," you drop the whole matter instantly and wait until the child, on his own, asks to be taught. Let's wait until he's 7--until he's 8--until he's 9. We've all the time in the world; it would be a crime to teach a child who isn't "ready."

The Conflict in Education in a Democratic Society 1953 / by Robert M. Hutchins (1899-1977), a former chancellor of the University of Chicago. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.

If we can ever find out what the educational system should do, I am sure we shall discover that it will be so difficult as to demand all the time and attention we can give it. It follows that whatever can be learned outside the educational system should be learned outside it because the educational system has enough to do teaching what can be learned only in the system. The words of Sir Richard Livingstone should be written in letters of fire on every schoolroom wall: "The good schoolmaster is known by the number of valuable subjects he declines to teach." Even if driving a car, understanding plumbing, and behaving like a mature woman are valuable subjects, they can be, and therefore should be, learned outside the educational system.

Education and Freedom 1959 / by Hyman G. Rickover (1900-1986), a vice admiral in the U.S. Navy. Reprinted with permission from Dutton.

Dewey's insistence on making the child's interest the determining factor in planning curricula has led to substitution of know-how subjects for solid learning and to the widespread tendency of schools to instruct pupils in the minutiae of daily life--how to set a table correctly, how to budget one's income, how to use cameras, telephones, and consumer credit--the list is endless. Add to this that Dewey insisted the schoolroom must mirror the community and you find classrooms cluttered with cardboard boxes, children learning arithmetic by keeping store, and education stuck in the concrete and unable to carry the child from there to abstract concepts and ideas. Our young people are therefore deprived of the tremendous intellectual heritage of Western civilization which no child can possibly discover by himself; he must be led to it."

The 1960s: The New Progressives

How Children Fail 1964 / by John Holt (1927-1985), an author, educator, and social critic. Reprinted with permission from Perseus.

Children are subject peoples. School for them is a kind of jail. Do they not, to some extent, escape and frustrate the relentless, insatiable pressure of their elders by withdrawing the most intelligent and creative parts of their minds from the scene? Is this not at least a partial explanation of the extraordinary stupidity that otherwise bright children so often show in school? The stubborn and dogged "I don't get it" with which they meet the instructions and explanations of their teachers--may it not be a statement of resistance as well as one of panic and flight? ...

We encourage children to act stupidly, not only by scaring and confusing them, but by boring them, by filling up their days with dull, repetitive tasks that make little or no claim on their attention or demands on their intelligence. Our hearts leap for joy at the sight of a roomful of children all slogging away at some imposed task, and we are all the more pleased and satisfied if someone tells us that the children don't really like what they are doing. We tell ourselves that this drudgery, this endless busywork, is good preparation for life, and we fear that without it children would be hard to "control." But why must this busywork be so dull? Why not give tasks that are interesting and demanding? Because, in schools where every task must be completed and every answer must be right, if we give children more demanding tasks they will be fearful and will instantly insist that we show them how to do the job. When you have acres of paper to fill up with pencil marks, you have no time to waste on the luxury of thinking.

Death at an Early Age 1967 / by Jonathan Kozol (born 1936), an author, teacher, and social critic. Reprinted with permission from New American Library.

I noticed this one day while I was out in the auditorium doing reading with some children: Classes were taking place on both sides of us. The Glee Club and the sewing classes were taking place at the same time in the middle. Along with the rest, there was a 5th grade remedial math group, comprising six pupils, and there were several other children whom I did not know about simply walking back and forth. Before me were six 4th graders, most of them from the disorderly 4th grade and several of them children who had had substitute teachers during much of the previous two years. It was not their fault; they had done nothing to deserve substitute teachers. And it was not their fault now if they could not hear my words clearly since it also was true that I could barely hear theirs. Yet the way that they dealt with this dilemma, at least on the level at which I could observe it, was to blame, not the school but themselves. Not one of those children would say to me: "Mr. Kozol, it's too noisy." Not one of them would say: "Mr. Kozol, what's going on here? This is a crazy place to learn."

36 Children 1967 / by Herbert R. Kohl (born 1937), an author and educator, now a senior fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York City. Reprinted with permission from New American Library.

I put an assignment on the board before the children arrived in the morning and gave the class the choice of reading, writing, or doing what was on the board. At no time did any child have to write, and whenever possible I let the children write for as long as their momentum carried them. Time increasingly became the servant of substance in the classroom. At the beginning of the semester I had tried to use blocks of time in a predetermined, preplanned way--first reading, then social studies, arithmetic, and so forth. Then I broke the blocks by allowing free periods. This became confining and so I allowed the length of periods to vary according to the children's and my interest and concentration. Finally we reached a point where the class could pursue things without the burden of a required amount of work that had to be passed through every day. This meant that there were many things that the class didn't "cover"; that there were days without arithmetic and weeks without spelling or my dear "vocabulary." Many exciting and important things were missed as well as many dull things. But the children learned to explore and invent, to become obsessed by things that interested them and follow them through libraries and books back into life; they learned to believe in their own curiosity and value the intellectual and literary, perhaps even in a small way the human, quest without being overly burdened with a premature concern for results.

The Way It Spozed To Be 1968 / by James Herndon (1927-1990), an author and educator. Reprinted with permission from Heinemann.

Grouping by ability, formerly anathema in the district, has caught on. We group them high, low, and average in math and science; English teachers are waiting their turn. Below that we've tried "remedial" classes, and above that, "enrichment." (The remedial kids complain that they ain't learning nothing but that baby stuff, and the enriched that they do the same thing as the other kids, just twice as much of it.) We "experiment" a lot. We teach Spanish experimentally to everyone, then drop it experimentally. We experiment with slow learners, with nonachievers, with core programs, team teaching, with "innovative" programs. These programs, being only "experiments," remain on the fringe of things; the general curriculum, not being an experiment at all, isn't affected by them.

Vol. 18, Issue 32, Page 34

Published in Print: April 21, 1999, as The 1950s: Progressives Under Fire
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