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Progressivism & preparing the young for society


Dear Diane,

Amen. Right on target. And well said, to boot.

So, let's leave Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg for a while, although it's hard to do. The amazing thing is—as you note—the complete lack of accountability behind their schemes. Like many a revolutionary the object seems to be to ensure that the past is smashed and cannot be put together again, in the hopes that something new and glorious will emerge out of the ashes. The only hint we have about the "new" is that it should be market driven, "competitive", and rest largely on test scores—or whatever some future Mayor chooses to believe in?

Enough on them for a moment.

Let's go back to your earlier critique of progressive education, and then, another day to the idea of a national curriculum and assessment system.

Let's take it more slowly—separating for the moment the complex idea of nomenclature (the history of the word progressive—which has meant so many different things to so many different people)—from the form of progressivism largely identified with John Dewey's efforts, and those of his "ilk". It includes the interesting crowd that gathered around schools like Chicago's Lab School, Lincoln, Parker, Dalton, Ethical Culture and Bank Street, founded to think through the connections between democracy and education. A concept of progressivism central also to the work of Jean Piaget, the post WW II Infant School movement in England, Ted Sizer, etc. There's a strong and common thread that runs through this list. It borrows probably from both traditional ideas and those that grew out of what's sometimes called "free schools" (Summerhill, etc). Schools inclined to Dewey's form of "progressivism" were seeking classrooms and schools that were simultaneously highly respectful of teacher and adult initiative and judgment, and the importance of the child initiative and judgment (what was called in early-childhood-education jargon—the agency of the child.) Probably, too, these were school people with a foot in academia and another foot in the social and political movements of their time.

This tradition contrasts to equally "innovative" reform efforts that script both teachers and kids—which seem popular again these days. Some reformers saw teacher and kid as empty vessels, some one, some the other, and some neither. (Even those who saw children as empty vessels often wanted to fill them with different things.)

The question Dewey asked was: What must we do to prepare the young for a society that proclaims everyone a member of the ruling class, that rests on the fragile and new idea that being a citizen is every one's vocation? Does this simply translate into claiming that every member of the ruling class needs to become an academic expert, or that whatever the small ruling classes of the 19th Century taught their male young is right (only now for everyone)? You refer, I suspect (?) disapprovingly, to a Charters and a Bobbitt who wanted to replace academics with "activities and tasks that would be useful in the adult world." What concerns you with that Bobbit/Charters aim?

What's wrong with demanding of Academics that they persuade us of their utility? Alas, when parents and average citizens applaud the importance of academic subjects it's generally because they misunderstand (confusing them with the 3 Rs), or because they fatalistically accept the proposition that it's a game that must be played in order to get a diploma, which in turn is a license to pursue utterly unacademic ends. There is no love affair between the American public and "the academy"—as Bush (like many a past politician) takes pains to remind us. I want a love affair.

The American public has, I contend, always viewed "academics" in one of the three ways I heard it used on the radio on my way to the airport. (Once again the car is one of my favorite solitary think tanks.) One time it was used to mean irrelevant—no longer pertinent, once it was used to mean boring, and finally to mean obtuse.

You and I have a much higher regard for academia, its history, traditions and importance; you are an eminent member of the academy.

I make a distinction between being academic and being intellectual, "smart", etc. And since I believe that "all children" rhetoric, I assume human beings with some exceptions are all potential intellectuals, but not all potential academics (or all any other form of "smarts"—except a common "citizen" smarts.) Fortunately, one can embrace multiple smarts. I think all citizens should be people who accept responsibility for their ideas and who, on the whole, enjoy the responsibility. This includes the "play of ideas" which does not always take academic forms.

The "five habits of mind" (see below) were a rough, unfinished attempt to get at what such "play" might look like at some Sizer-led schools. These "habits were an effort to describe the essential responses of adults in their vocation of citizenship (and, fortunately, useful for a lot else as well). Such habits were, as Sizer noted in "Horace's Compromise" (1985), better exercised in the shop class he described and not at all in most high school academic courses he observed.

I've a lot to say about why having a national course of study and national exams to go with them are a bad idea, some of which flows from the preceding. But, first, let's see where we part company on this description of progressivism.

(It's eminently clear that Bloomberg and Klein are counting on NYC citizens not exercising such habits of mind, for example.)



p.s. Briefly, the five habits that defined "using one's mind well" in some of the Coalition "progressive" schools are summed up as follows. Being in the habit, whenever confronting something of interest and importance, of asking:

(1) How do we know what's true or not true? How credible is our evidence?
(2) Is there an alternate story? Perspective? How might this look from another viewpoint?
(3) Is there a connection between x and y? A pattern? Have I come across this before?
(4) What if... supposing that…? Could it have been otherwise if x not y had intervened?
(5) And finally, "who cares"? Does it matter? (And, perhaps, to whom?)


“What's wrong with demanding of Academics that they persuade us of their utility? Alas, when parents and average citizens applaud the importance of academic subjects it's generally because they misunderstand (confusing them with the 3 Rs), or because they fatalistically accept the proposition that it's a game that must be played in order to get a diploma, which in turn is a license to pursue utterly unacademic ends.” Deborah Meier

YOU ARE RIGHT THERE. For many people a diploma is just something one jumps through hoops to get at a lower level and then one 'buys' to gain a degree and a credential. Americans have many virtues -and traditionally among these has been good sense, civic virtue and generosity- but deep love and respect for "the academy" and higher culture are not among their virtues.

I teach in a high school and from time to time at college and know many university educated people; yet most of the time I hear the name of a college or university it is to speak of a sports team. I would say the ratio between speaking of sports teams and serious books is easily 1000 to 1. We admirers of books, poetry and classical music are almost a secret society (of course I live in the philistine hinterland)

For many students in so far as the teacher stands before his pupils as a surrogate of the intellectual life of the mind and its 'rewards', he or she more often than not makes this life appear altogether unappealing. For most of our history teaching has been considered no better than a way station in life for a person of real ability and character.

I myself have been told this hundreds if not thousands of times. But this does not disturb me as much as watching the tens of thousands of high-quality hard covered classics discarded. These are quality editions that were made to last 50 or 100 years. But someone has to make way I suppose for The Bluest Eye. I do my best to rescue them -Cervantes, Homer, Dickens, Boorstin, Hemingway, Twain-and see that they find good homes. I find they make excellent gifts to talented adult aides and ambitious students. There is much waste in American education. Frugality is not I have noticed a high virtue. Americans think if they spend money and 'renew' a curriculum they will have a 'better' product. That is why they are enamored with the 'fad of the year.'

I also genuinely enjoy teaching languages and helping students develop their language skills and not only in English but other langauges as well both the great world languages and the delicate Alexandrine roses and rare small sweet mountain gentians.

At present I have students from about ten different language groups. I speak standard English reasonably well but of course standard English, and I say this without exaggeration, a foreign, acquired language for me though from my earliest years I was taught that it was THE LANGUAGE of commerce, government law and higher education. Languages are of course, a wit once said, merely dialects with an army and a navy and if English is important it is because it has long been and still is the langauge of the banks, the ships and the long-range-guns. It is important I tell my students because it is, at present, the great LINGUA FRANCA of our time. So as the old saying goes "'tis not good for an Earl, a servant or a soldier not to have the English."

So I know how difficult it is to learn to speak, read and write English and other languages properly. The tendency of most is to wallow in a semi-literate patois of limited utility. This state of semi-literacy is at the root of the academic failings of many immigrant and non-immigrant students. It is what students already know that forms a barrier to understanding and learning. In my opinion, the only way to academic success is restrain the tendency to favor the patois or mixing it indiscriminately with the standard language. One must learn to respect the standard literary language and how to express oneself in it without disrespecting or disregarding the charms, humor, warmth and color of one's native dialect. In fact, I often point out -using Shaw, Twain and Jose Camilo Cela as examples- that mixing and matching a standard language and the popular language is often hilarious.

When a culture is in its historical phase of growing towards unity, its language reflects unity and power, whereas when a culture has be usurped and is in the process of change, dispersal, subtractive bilingualism and disintegration a language loses its power, then its prestige and then the affection of its speakers.

Spanglish some say is the flowering of a a new culture and literature but I think rather it is the moth-eaten shroud of a proud old language which syllable by syllable shall be abandoned and forgotten.

I spend and have always spent much of my personal life swimming outside or besides the Saxon stream of the English-speaking peoples.

But, I genuinely enjoy, for example studying the Odyssey -which I have taught in English and Spanish or Pygmalion or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (which I have also taught in both languages).

I always tell my students there are TWO educations:
1) one is the practical that teaches us what we need to make a living -most of us have to make a living. This is why my father and uncle encouraged me to get a Spanish credential as well as an English and history credential rather than spending precious tuition dollars on subjects which I loved but were bound to lead to unemployment. One think I have always endeavored to do is to be gainfully employed and pay my bills. But materialism is not enough. If we are to retain our freedom, our national unity, our understanding of our rights, we must have broadly educated informed citizens who care about the common good.

2) the other education teaches us how to live our lives more fully by teaching us to think AND to appreciate what the Gael would call “ar dualchais airidh” or “our splendid ancient heritage” which the Gael knows is the source of much wisdom as well as pride and joy. If you have a disastrous history you is not apt to take for granted your current prosperity, safety and independence. We must face firmly towards the future but it is a tragic mistake to forget or lose our link to the past, in my opinion.

Of course, the debate between utility (relevance) and the “liberal education” is the leitmotiv for almost every educational debate from Plato and the Sophists, to Franklin and the more traditionalist John Adams, to Charles Elliot and Babbit and to Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois right until our present day.

This ‘liberal education’ is vital because we don’t know what challenges or questions we may face in our lives. The mere training of today may soon be obsolete.

Our very language –of which we are so proud and so certain of it utility, importance and greatness, could be subjugated, dispersed and pushed to the fringes of isolated mountain communities in the Rockies. But the educated person can respond and survive by adapting to the new situation through force of will and intellect.

There is no question I believe though I have had to make concessions for number one number two has always been the most important education for me. Even if we were to live 100 years we can never exhaust the pleasures of music and verse, art, history and literature. And I think education can help us survive not only hard times and poverty but especially wealth!

One has only one life on this earth so one has to make choices.

One can spend all one’s life of pleasures of the belly, trying to satisfy every possible lust old and new or dedicate one’s self to making a fortune or dedicating a good portion of one’s life to the life of the mind and something important for me passing to my own children as well as many youth the, cultural heritage, values and faith that are all the world to me and greater than any nation, school or empire. Unlike Dewey, I value heritage and tradition. I remember the people I came from and honor their memory, their efforts, their tender care, their sacrifices and their love with gratitude. I could be mistaken but the way to teach youth is above all is to invite them to learn FOR THEMSELVES and for their future progeny as well as for honor of their line, people, race and nation.

At some point they must take their school work as their personal responsibility. We do homework to learn and review but ALSO as a discipline. There are many tasks in life we must do to the best of our ability even if it is not fun. Calculus, geometry and advanced algebra were never fun for me but I did them at became at least competent through discipline and pure perseverance.

A teacher must convince his students that if they make sacrifices for education, if they are willing to learn, then the quality of their lives will improve and not just materially.

Material improvement should be just a sideline and nice dividend.
It should never in my view be the primary purpose of an education.

Chesterton said “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” There is no shame in being ignorant or poor; the shame is being unwilling, ungrateful or too proud to work and study to improve one’s lot. Quien joven no trabaja, the Spanish say, Viejo duerme sobre paja. Work while you are young or you will regret it when you are old. Also as a society the world of Fahrenheit 451 or of Winston Smith and room 101 is indeed a not an impossibility. We may be halfway there already. I think it was Hutchins who said we don’t have to burn books we can just leave them unread and our minds will petrify.

Deborah you say:
“There is no love affair between the American public and "the academy"—as Bush (like many a past politician) takes pains to remind us. I want a love affair.”

Oh, Deborah, yes, I, too, would wish the same. If a people do not get carried away by music, verse and art –they should be.

Dreaming of music he slumber'd the while,
Till faint from his lip a soft melody broke,
And Venus, enchanted, look'd on with a smile,
While Love to his own sweet singing awoke.

Then sing - sing - Music was given,
To brighten the gay, and kindle the loving;
Souls here, like planets in heaven,
By harmony's laws alone are kept moving.

They are myriad treasures but perhaps –I say only perhaps people cannot get beyond the first education. They get what they need to meet their material needs and stop.
More’s the pity but that is just how it is sometimes. But teachers must remain, with great patience, dispensers of hope.

In this, I think, we are in in complete agreement though temperamentally and philosophically we are quite different.

But it takes all kinds to make a world. “All God’s creatures have a place in the choir, some sing low and some sing higher. Some just clap their hands.”

I'd like to have been a student of Mr. Munro! There is also the matter of educating the heart and the soul. Where after all did the impetus for big exams come from? If you're a school leader, you probably know every day that comes from feeling a responsibility to insure that at least some agreed upon habits of mind, capabilities, knowledge, skills have been attained by the children under your care and under the care of your colleague teachers. Can one always trust one's colleagues or definitively insure that they are imparting the agreed upon skills/habits, etc? And if one is then the superintendent, the commisioner, the legislator, the buredn perhapps becomes greater and the distance from knowledge frighteningly greater. The real care for such matters, for the students themselves, also dininishes as one moves away from the teacher, at least the dedicated teacher.

Our international school in China has adopted the IB's PYP (primary years)curriculum, which is classic constructivist inquiry approach built around units of inquiry and transdisciplianry skills (aka habits) and attitudes such as being caring, principled, reflective, etc. As an administrator, when my colleagues tell me that a lot of the math and science won;t be stand alone explicit lessons, but will be instead imbedded in the units of inquiry, that requires a lot of trust from me and even more from parents who won't always see textbooks going home.But the program is underpinned by explicit outcomes that should be accomplished over the course of the year. Those outcomes can be visible in a portfolio, in a presentation (especially the grade 5 exhibition)in work displayed all over the school in the reading level development monitored by a simple runing record, and ultimatley the readiness to preform in the Middle years rogram and later the diploma program. The key is that in their daily lives, kids do not see learning as a series of tests, nor do teachers. Teachers see themselves as having a huge responsibility and autonomy to structure and orchestrate the inquiry so that kids ultimately become inquirers themselves. And yes, from third grade we'll do an annual ISA (International Schools Assessment, created by ACER in AUstralia, the people who create PISA, and the results of which are linked to performance by students of various countries on the Pisa). So one can deal with the insecurity and still not have school feel so "scripted" for both teachers and students who are often made to feel herded by national curriculum- like actors rather than agents. The teacher can create units of learning but within a pedagogical and philosophical framework.
Of course to do this one needs, like those original progressive schools, small classes, willing gifted teachers, spacious classrooms, and lots of resources, as well as access to the outside world. How about this national education agenda, and better international: every kid should have access to a Dalton School or Milton Academy education. With the environment, the resources, the class sizes, and the teachers of those schools. And every kid should delight in going to school each day. I keep hearing about this phrase "data driven" over there in the states. Since when has it become a virtue to be driven in any way? How about this measure: do kids love being in school each day? Are they delightfully perplexed and trying to understand? Maybe we can withdraw funding from schools that have a low level of intellectual engagement. Instead, there has been established a ntional program to bribe schools into performing, and now the proposal in NEw York to bribe kids to perform... and next? Bribe parents to make their kids perform? And all this from the same party that back in the 80's said of social problems, "don't just throw miney at them!" Progressive education is not dead; it's only limping." But it wil probably take a couple of more years down this futile path before it recovers its stride. I discovered this site today and it is great fun. Thank you!

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