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Varieties of Progressivism


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.



Actually, you two seem to agree more than disagree. Points in common are the chagrin over the debacle in New York politics, the need for an engaged kind of testing, a commitment to getting kids to think and even to know something, a deep respect for the power of education in shaping a citizenry. Your differences revolve around the content of the curriculum, yes? And could those differences come from your differing approaches, the scholar/practitioner versus the practitioner/scholar? Can you talk more about your disagreements about the curricular issues and the source of those? And can you talk about the possibility that both of you are "right"? What is the implication of that for future practice?

Thank you immensely for this unusual model of civilized discourse.

Thanks for the summary--and I do hope we'll expand on that curriculum/pedagogy difference. I do agree that many of our disagreements are related to our inside vs outside of the classroom perspective. But since there are scholars who agree with me and practitioners who agree with her, it's more complicated than that. And I am hoping that in that sense we can explore solutions that allow for our differences to remain open-ended. Some of our differences involve different trade-offs we each consider acceptable. Deborah

Your conversation is truly wonderful.
I wonder if it is so much trade-offs as it is finding common ground. I think there will always be differences of philosophy about practices, but civil discourse, not political posturing, is the only way we will move ahead. I am interested in reading during this dialogue a discussion about how children learn. It seems to me that question is one of the reasons we have so many prescribed answers in legislation. It historically seems to be the belief around this underlying question that drives much of the educational "answers."

I am glad to see that both of you are continuing the conversation from last year's Town Hall Meeting on NCLB. We seem to be caught in a paradox of hope and dismay. On the one hand, things in education have never seemed more bleak. Teachers in NYC tell me that in many cases, it's not even about teaching to the test, it's all about test prep, which is literally replacing all curriculum and instructional time. When I first heard this was the case during Bloomberg's attempt to retain 15,000 third graders a few years ago, people thought I must be wildly exaggerating. Now they are beginning to see more and more evidence that it is so. Meanwhile, the "best practice" wars rage on, and teachers have so little autonomy they must resort to squeezing in some meaningful time with students on their lunch breaks. On the other hand, where I teach at The City College of New York, we are admitting new teachers to our programs who are are so outstanding in their committment to careers as educators, so articulate about the potential for public education to make a meaningful contribution to democratic life, and so imaginative in their solutions to thorny classroom and school problems that I cannot help but feel there is yet some hope for us. The sad truth is that statistics tell us half of them will quit or move on within five years. Until we do something serious to support and energize the ranks of new teachers, we have only ourselves to blame for the constant hemoragging.

I have heard from many people that there are a legion of well educated, idealistic young people entering teaching, which is great news. We must wonder how long they will remain idealistic and how long they will remain in the profession when they discover that they are expected to devote most of their energy to preparing students to take tests, and that their reputation as teachers will hinge on those scores. The profession itself is under siege, and I hope that many of those who care about teaching and education will resist these pernicious trends.

Diane Ravitch

Dear Diane,

As per the comments above, this is an excellent thing that you and Deborah have going here. Please keep it up!

Historical Note: On Dewey and the black school in Indianapolis, was it not the case that he praised the school for using shoemaking to branch into other issues? Also, could it be that he was only praising the school in the context of his times?

I'm no general defender of Dewey, and I have not read 'Schools of Tomorrow,' but I just can't picture him praising a "school" that made shoemaking its sole end. I keep thinking of how he saw cooking as a portal through which one's mind might approach chemistry, physics, the natural environment, etc.

- Tim

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