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Saving Progressive Education From Itself

By Adam Laats — March 04, 2014 6 min read
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Who controls America’s schools? And what can parents do if they don’t like what is being taught? In the last few years, we’ve seen a wholesale revolution in the politics of those who hope to shield children from the ideological imposition of public schools.

Over a hundred years ago, John Dewey sparked the modern progressive education movement with his calls to jettison rigid authoritarianism and rote memorization in classrooms. Dewey hoped to free students from the deadening hand of hidebound educational tradition. More recently, socially conservative activists and politicians have come to sound like Dewey’s followers, calling for the teaching of “critical thinking.” Just as Dewey did, they insist that students be freed to dissent from overweening intellectual imposition by teachers and schools. Instead of undemocratic traditionalism, however, they worry that today’s public schools teach secularism, shoddy morals, and evolution.

They would be wise to learn from the bitter lessons of earlier generations of progressive reformers. John Dewey himself concluded glumly that classroom authority can’t be tossed out without jeopardizing education itself.

In recent years, socially conservative politicians and activists in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas have introduced school laws to promote “critical thinking” and to prohibit intellectual “discrimination” against conservative students in public schools.

A new crop of state bills since the beginning of 2014 has been no different. In Oklahoma, for example, lawmakers are considering Senate Bill 1765. This measure would guarantee that Sooner schoolchildren “develop critical-thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.” In Virginia, lawmakers heard House Bill 207, which later died in committee, but stated with eerie similarity that public school students should “develop critical-thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes.” Missouri’s legislature is currently mulling over House Bill 1587, which would also push students to “develop critical-thinking skills.”

Schools cannot function without claiming some intellectual authority over their students.”

These bills have often been discussed as anti-evolution bills, which they certainly are. As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education has argued, today’s lawmakers hope to create room for students to think critically, but only about mainstream science. However, in order to grasp the direction of social conservatives in terms of their thinking about education, we need to see these “critical thinking” bills as part of a broader protest against the ideas on offer in the public schools. To be clear: Many believe that education has long been dominated by an aggressively secularizing elite, out of touch with true morality, good literature, and responsible science. Evolution is a target, but only one target of many.

The true complexity of conservative thinking on this issue can be seen in the leadership of Indiana state Sen. Dennis Kruse. In December 2012, Mr. Kruse, a Republican, introduced a bill that pushed for greater student autonomy and the reduction of “authoritarian” teaching. His plan would have done more than just encourage “critical thinking” or “academic freedom.” He suggested a new truth-in-education rule, by which any student could require teachers to back up their statements with evidence. The bill eventually died in committee, but its wording tells us something about his vision of proper education. As Mr. Kruse told the website of the Indianapolis Star, his plan would have worked like this: “If a student thinks something isn’t true, then they can question the teacher, and the teacher would have to come up with some kind of research to support that what they are teaching is true or not true.”

Mr. Kruse has not been alone in this campaign. In 2012, New Hampshire passed a law allowing parents and families to demand alternative curricular materials for books they deem objectionable. The law resulted from a controversy in which a high school student read Nickel and Dimed by the journalist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich. His parents charged that the book called Jesus Christ “a wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.” They demanded that students be free to avoid this sort of offensive material.

Similarly, a 2011 amendment to the state constitution in Missouri allows students to opt out of any assignment they find offensive. A result of a fight over school prayer, the new wording of Article I, Section 5 underlines students’ rights to pray quietly in public schools. But the amendment also states: “No student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.” This language, like that of the New Hampshire law, ultimately undermines the authority of public school educators. How can a teacher hope to teach if students refuse to participate? How can schools plan curriculum if families opt out?

But the more critical issue remains that the essence of these laws appears undeniably similar in spirit to the original critique articulated by John Dewey at the dawn of the 20th century.

Students, progressives have insisted for generations, must not submit to indoctrination in the guise of education. Students must have the power to think for themselves, even if their ideas push the boundaries of acceptable classroom notions. In their 21st-century incarnations, social and political conservatives have promoted the same goal, using the same language. And while this all makes good sense as a culture-war strategy, it leaves a troubling notion in its wake.

To protect young people from evolution, secularism, and Barbara Ehrenreich, these new policies empower students to reject or question teachers and their curricular choices. Just as progressive educators in the early 20th century aimed to protect students from dictation and rote memorization, today’s social conservatives hope to insulate students from ideas that might question their religion or politics.

Abandoning classroom authority did not work in the 1920s, and it will not work today. Schools cannot function without claiming some intellectual authority over their students. This does not need to be a dictatorial imposition, but at some level, schools and classrooms need to make decisions about what students will learn.

The first generation of modern progressives learned this lesson the hard way. In 1938, John Dewey penned Experience and Education, a critique of the new mania for progressive education. Progressives did well, Dewey argued, when they questioned traditional structures and kept their eyes focused on methods that worked. But too many school reformers, he wrote, were throwing the baby out with the traditional-education bathwater.

Overeager, they rejected all structure of schooling, making the mistake of building progressivism “on the basis of rejection, of sheer opposition.” Dewey warned of the impractical nature of misunderstanding the nature of progressivism. “When external authority is rejected, it does not follow that all authority should be rejected.” In other words, a school can function only if parents, teachers, administrators, and, yes, even students accept the authority of the school, even if they revise that authority to represent their community more equitably and democratically.

Today’s ambitious and conservative school reformers must heed this voice of experience in education. The attempt to protect individual students with a simple and total rejection of teachers’ authority will not work. In order to keep students free of indoctrination, we must accept Dewey’s much harder challenge. As Dewey concluded in 1938, “there is a need to search for a more effective source of authority.”

Maybe that source of authority will not be one that forces evolution or secularism down the throats of social and political conservatives. But those reformers should acknowledge that these questions of school authority have been wrestled with before. If we want to fix schools, we must do it in a way that doesn’t break public education.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Saving Progressive Education From Itself

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