The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance."...  ...Will Durant.

Commentary of the Day - October 26, 2003:  Progress in the Wrong Direction.  Guest commentary Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

"Progress" is a loaded word.  My dictionary defines it as "movement toward a goal," with "movement toward a higher or better stage" as an amplification.  This reminds me of an old Mad magazine cartoon that shows a moviegoer at a ticket booth confronted by two signs.  One details the outrageous cost of a ticket, while the other banner proclaims, "Now at popular prices."  The guy in the ticket booth replies to the patron's predictable question with a shrug.  "Well, they're popular with us anyway."

When General Electric used to tell us, "Progress is our most important product," they didn't mean that their goal was to change the American consumers life in order to make it worse.  Progressives like Woodrow Wilson also thought they were improving things.  Whether or not that was the result of their policies and programs is a matter of opinion.  It's just that very few candidates ever got themselves elected by calling themselves "regressives."

In education progressivism is characterized by some common principles and practices.  Naturally, progressive educators think their goals and methods drive schools and students in a "better" direction.

This ain't necessarily so.

Progressivism is largely based on ideas outlined by John Dewey, a prodigious turn-of-the-last-century philosopher.  Dewey opposed excessively authoritarian classrooms and encouraged teachers to focus on students as individuals.  At the same time he saw education as the "fundamental method of social progress."  The chief duty of teachers and schools was to prepare students to make their individually appropriate contributions to society.  Modern reformers have heard the voice of Dewey, and much of what you hear today about "the whole child," "hands on," and "student-centered learning" rests on their interpretation of his ideas.

On the other hand, Dewey expected teachers to be in control of their students' education, disapproved of "amusement" as a classroom objective, and viewed "punishment" as a legitimate tool for "arousing" a student's "interest" and understanding.  Many Dewey disciples have apparently missed that part of his message.

Progressives typically aren't big fans of No Child Left Behind.  This, of course, makes them members of a rather large and varied non-fan club, which includes all sorts of teachers, parents, school board members, and politicians.  Progressives especially don't like NCLB because it imposes standardized expectations on all students.  This puts them at odds with Mr. Dewey's declaration that "all questions of the grading of the child and his promotion should be determined by reference to the same standard."

Progressive Perspectives is the journal of the John Dewey Project at the University of Vermont, Dewey's alma mater.  These folks voice some typical contemporary progressive opinions.  Like many reformers, they're not keen on teaching kids facts.  They're more ardent about "thinking skills" and "deep understanding."  Somehow, although they contend that "every piece of knowledge depends on every other one," they don't want to teach kids very many pieces.  They urge instead that students "experience life" and blame discipline problems on student "alienation" at the "utter meaninglessness" of school, preferring to imagine that the disruptive ten-year-old in the next row is having an existential crisis instead of just being obnoxious.  They also exalt "a child's ability to reason, to care, and believe in her or his ability to act, think critically, and problem solve."

Unfortunately, it's tough to think without some facts to think about.  It also doesn't do much good to believe in your ability if nobody's helped you develop any.

One Project spokesman takes his anti-facts-and-standards campaign to a common progressive extreme.  "I don't think there should be a curriculum," he comfortably declares.  Kids should just "follow the interests that they have."  The teacher's job is to "guide them to topics that follow from their original interest."  This particular "guide," for example, objects to having been "forced to take math."  He maintains that no student "should be compelled to study" a subject if he isn't "ready to appreciate" it.  Instead teachers should help kids "identify and cultivate their natural, inevitable interests."

Attention all students.  The line for nine-year-olds naturally and inevitably interested in long division forms over here.

This is how we've wound up with so many self-satisfied twelve-year-old specialists in whales, wizards, and dinosaurs.  It's also why the intervals of progressive reign in our public schools, especially the past thirty years, have been such a disaster.

Progressives also emphasize the social mission of schools.  As far back as the 1930s, the official goal of Los Angeles’ progressive "activity movement" was to "promote a happy and healthy group life."  Today the Progressive Project expects teachers to be "socially responsible individuals."  This means I'm supposed to lead "by example" and "encourage" my students to "promote change."  I'm also supposed to "introduce" my students to "examples of injustice and suffering, while promoting empathy."

I'm all for responsibility, personal and social.  I'm also in favor of empathy.  In fact, my students often ask me how come I assign so many sad stories for them read.  But I disagree that those goals constitute my job description.  As an English teacher, my job is to teach kids to read and write.  As a history teacher, I'm supposed to help them know and understand their nation's past.  Hopefully along the way some of them will develop empathy, but that's not the primary task of school.

Another Project partisan complains about teachers who think that the point of school is "not about being nice or kind or helpful."  She laments that "social responsibility has no place" in most schools, which, as she sees it, are instead "about being the best."  She defines "best" as "getting the highest grade, doing the best work, following directions, and completing assignments in a timely manner."

It's tough to understand how doing your best, following directions, and doing your work on time aren't responsible traits that we ought to encourage.  It's also easy to understand how educators and schools that deliberately discourage that kind of "best" wind up doing a lousy job.

I don't think that schools are about being nice, kind, or the best, though these are all worthy things.  I think schools are for teaching kids a specific constellation of academic knowledge and skills while they're in the process of growing up.

It's true that we need to remember that they're growing up.

But we also need to remember that growing up isn't the reason that we send them to school.

©2003 Peter Berger
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont.  Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments:  The IP agrees with much of what Poor Elijah has to say about progressive education; however, he does have some differences on the matter of No Child Left Behind.  The first difference is that while having standards is a good thing, it's unrealistic to assume that all children will be able to meet rigorous standards.  Some just never will for a variety of reasons that are beyond the control of any school or any teacher.  Thus, it is unfair to punish schools and teachers if they have done their best to help all their students meet the standards.  The second difference is that NCLB puts too much emphasis on high stakes tests to determine if the student has met the standard.  The IP feels that it is better to give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate that they have met reasonable standards.  Finally, NCLB is turning out to be another unfunded mandate from the federal government that drains resources from other aspects of the educational enterprise.

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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.