The inevitability of anti-intellectualism

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Peter Lang, a publisher of academic books, has been kind enough to send me an electronic copy of the International Handbook of Progressive Education (here’s a review by John Howlett). It is a quirky mix that is enticing for education anoraks like me. Each chapter is preceded by an abstract in the fashion of an academic paper, and this enables a reader to dip in and out. I will write more as I read more but, for now, I wish to focus on a chapter by Wayne J. Urban of the University of Alabama.

Urban focuses on three critics of progressive education from the 1950s and 1960s; Arthur Bestor, Richard Hofstadter and James Bryant Conant. I knew about Bestor’s writing, having researched him for my new book, but I knew less of the others.

Urban concedes that progressivism is difficult to define and has a ‘tendency to contradiction’. However, he focuses on curriculum as a key feature of progressive education. To Urban, progressive education has been, at least in part, ‘a movement to diversify the school curriculum to allow it to include nonacademic studies and concerns’. This speaks loudly to our contemporary social media debate about progressivism, where philosophies are sometimes reduced to teaching methods. Certain critics of this debate have sought to focus instead on curriculum, but these issues are all connected.

It also makes clear the connection between some odd currents in contemporary progressivism. If we associate progressive education with left-wing politics, then it can be jarring to see progressives call for 21st century skills on the basis that employers value these supposed skills. Equally, it can be strange to see the unqualified promotion of tech companies and their products. These seem like capitalist concerns. But despite enthusiasm for progressivism on the political left, it is an error to associate it with any particular side of politics. It stands on its own. So, when Kenneth Baker, a former Conservative education minister, called for a greater focus on vocational studies, he did so from within a part of the progressivist tradition.

Urban’s three critics of progressivism are therefore critics of the degradation of an academic curriculum. Despite being scholars, they attack education in polemical terms that are not always to Urban’s taste. Bestor critiques the ‘life adjustment’ movement, a fully-formed forerunner of the 21st century skills movement that sought to supplement, and perhaps replace, academic goals with, ‘studies that addressed issues of how one was to live and prosper in a modernizing society’.

Schools of education are to blame for propagating these ideas, and this is something that Urban himself concedes when he largely agrees with these critics. Urban quotes Richard Hofstadter musing on the quality of trainee teachers and wondering, ‘To what extent able students stayed out of teaching because of its poor rewards and to what extent because of the nonsense that figured so prominently in teacher education.’ Having spent his career in education faculties, Urban indicates that he has a few tales to tell himself about doctoral dissertations with titles that appear to be an ‘academic joke’.

Urban muses on the role of Dewey. Dewey never sought to abandon an academic curriculum; it was his followers who did that. Or did they? How much responsibility should be Dewey’s? Urban wonders whether the evolution of schools of education is part of the problem. Despite having only his own reflections to draw upon, Urban is in no doubt that there is a problem.

I would go further and claim that anti-intellectualism is hard-wired into progressive education through its values. It is not some 1930s appendage; a path that could have been avoided. This is because, whatever Dewey’s pragmatism, progressive education is essentially romantic in origin. It asserts the primacy of the child’s nature, his or her surroundings and interests. Few children are naturally academic because, as relatively recent, technical, cultural constructions, academic subjects are fundamentally unnatural. And so antipathy towards them is inevitable.


14 thoughts on “The inevitability of anti-intellectualism

  1. ….Urban wonders whether the evolution of schools of education is part of the problem…

    I have wondered this myself many, many times.

  2. I’m not too sure about Dewey’s support for an academic curriculum; he argued that the study of the past was significant only when it “enters the present”. I’ve not read him in the original, so I can’t comment as to whether this was owed more to utilitarian thought or whether it was a reflection of the evolution of the modern curriculum in 18th century dissenting academies, which were a reaction against education centred on the classics. Ironically, the former were part and parcel with the notion that a good dissenter should always have a trade, even if wealthy and educated. Such a debate seems a bit antiquated when one considers the extent to which progressivism became the province of romantics in the 19th century–the only ‘progressive’ who cared a jot about science was Herbert Spencer.

    I think it’s safe to say that in modern times, progressivism has become almost exclusively a reaction against dead white males. Now, even study of the humanities is avoided, because until very recently almost all literature reflected this ‘hegemony’. Now, perhaps the main tension in progressive thinking is between post-modernism and utilitarianism–but we now have the strange spectacle of science being relegated to a very secondary role at best, whereas tech and ICT have been elevated to a central role in the progressive pantheon.

    Insofar as politics is concerned, until very recently the left had relatively little truck with progressivism, which quite rightly was recognised as politically regressive. After all, knowledge really is power. Which is no doubt why, as a Tory-voting libertarian, I have never had any problem finding common ground with my Marxist friends.

  3. That Richard Hofstadter was a critic is interesting and I’d be interested in knowing the title of the Hofstadter source. His work on the American political tradition is a classic in political science. Also, his famous article in Harpers on the paranoid and anti-intellectualism of far right politics is relevant, especially if he is seeing anti-intellectualism in progressive ed.

  4. I’m not convinced that an education that results in politically aware and active citizens (a main aim of progressive education) is inevitably anti intellectual. It’s difficult for a young person to understand the causes of global warming and contribute to the debate that will eventually eliminate the views of climate change deniers if they don’t have a good grounding in physics and chemistry. If some of these young people are going to work in industries that develop solutions to global warming then again understanding physics and chemistry will be high on the agenda. And my experience of teaching is that although initially some, may be many, young people might not be predisposed towards science subjects – your inevitable antipathy – good teachers can, and often do, motivate their students to appreciate the intrinsic worth of the subjects.

    1. Thanks for your comment. You say,

      “I’m not convinced that an education that results in politically aware and active citizens (a main aim of progressive education) is inevitably anti intellectual.”

      Although I understand that this is the aim, I am not convinced that progressive education actually does result in politically aware and active citizens.

      1. Thanks for replying Greg.
        You raise an interesting question – how would one demonstrate that a progressive as opposed to a traditional education might result in politically aware and active citizens. I began thinking about what one might regard as a traditional education – the English public school and there is little doubt that the academic studies that take place there could be regarded as traditional but a lot of time is also given to music, drama, the arts, sport, debating societies etc. and these activities might be seen as developing the social capital required to enter into politically aware and active circles which might lead one to conjecture that the education in English public schools is progressive.
        Then I wondered about looking at particular groups in society which are politically active and find out what sort of education they had. Many, but not all, of the current government ministers attended public schools in England. But what about those who work for activist organisations like Avez, Greenpeace or 38 degrees. Not sure exactly where one would get funding for this sort of research.

        And I wondered what you thought about teaching young people about the nature of science (and also technology) as part of an academic education in those fields. It seems that teaching young people about scientific method and how results from this approach have influenced society, is only half the story. A key question is who decides what science gets done? Ever since the enlightenment science has had an interesting and entangled relationship with commerce. Once you decide a) that you don’t know everything there is to know and that there are discoveries to be made and b) that there is money to be made in exploiting those discoveries those who wish to make money fund scientific ventures. Modern science is expensive. Different stakeholders fund science for different reasons. Which science ‘gets done’ is a result of a combination of political, economic, social and cultural priorities. The relative significance and hence influence of these priorities changes over time. Science is funded by governments who may wish to use the findings for national prestige, to support the national economy and provide safety and security for their citizens, venture capitalists whose primary aim is to make money, industrialists who want to exploit the findings to produce goods and service they can sell for a profit and Charitable Foundations which generally want the findings of science to be used to enhance the common good and improve the lives of the underprivileged. Technology is similarly expensive and a similar range of stakeholders, priorities and influences operates in deciding which technologies are developed. Often the stakeholders operate at the interface of science and technology leveraging one against the other. The role of capitalism either state or commercial in supporting science and technology is significant.
        So I wonder a) if you think teaching about this topic is important and b) if so how you would go about it?

      2. Looks like you are talking about social and economic history, which has tended to givs way to study of twentieth century political history lately. Teaching economic and social history, including trade unionism, social reform as well as economic, industrial and agrarian changes is very enlightening, and interesting too.
        The most politically active generation lately is that educated between 1945 and 1970. They got a traditional education plus art music dance, debating etc taught mainly Iman explicit way . Later generations have had less of this type of education.

    2. Not a good choice to use climate change.

      The belief in dangerous climate change drops with increasing physics and chemistry. Seriously, it’s a finding that has been replicated several times. My understanding of chemical equilibria makes me a sceptic, yet I cannot dicuss this many of the most concerned greens because they don’t have the science. The loudest shooters in the media are social sciences trained.

      This is one of the fables of progressive education — that if you teach the subject correctly the students will agree with your political views. It didn’t hold when the Soviets taught evolution to reduce religious belief either. It simply is not how people behave.

      Increasing education doesn’t make people better citizens. Harvard trained lawyers are not more ethical than butchers. (They tend to be better at hiding their lapses under pious cant though, which is what their education has actually taught them.)

      1. Agree that climate change is a bad choice for suggesting that knowledge will make citizens clearer about the causes. I am not aware of the chemistry involved in climate change, but I have studied medieval history, in which climate change actually plays a part (the high middle ages were a time of a more benign climate). It is not possible to show people without a background in science or medieval history (or paleontology for that matter) that climate change is a cyclic phenomenon and that the chemistry for apportioning change to humanity’s activities does not properly add up.

      2. OK say we might not think that global warming is a suitable topic (I do, see later) but there must surely be some topics that are – plastic pollution (see for an intriguing possible solution), effects of fertilizer run off, causes and effects of acid rain, health effects of tail pipe emissions, impact of obesity, possible uses of crispr to cure but then to enhance maybe etc. all of which require some basic understanding of science.

        Re the loudest shooters in the media being social science trained there is no doubt that science and scientists do have a communication problem so they might learn something from the social scientists but there are interesting notable exceptions David Attenborough who has bought the attention of millions to the problems of pollution in the ocean, Brian Cox and Steven Hawkin.

        It does seem a council of despair that education either progressive of traditional will make no difference to citizens’ values and the way they behave. As far as I see it neither form of education wants to inculcate particular political views but to enable young people to develop knowledge, understanding, skills and values which will enable them to make their own minds up about where they stand politically; it being perfectly possible for people to hold particular ideals dear and yet choose to meet these ideas through different politics.

        But to go back to climate change and whether global warming is real and the result of human activity …

        I was impressed by Sustainable Energy without the hot air (by David Mackay published in 2008 and available free to down load at especially the first chapter which seemed to demonstrate conclusively that the increase in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was the result of relatively human activity namely burning fossil fuels.
        I was also impressed by IPCC’s Policy Makers Summary for Policy Makers PCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) available at which I think would make a good document to discuss with your Green friends.

        I do have difficulty in finding anything of similar significance in the opposition camp. Trump’s environment nominee Kathleen Hartnett Wright and others made a very poor showing before a senate committee, see

        Also think it’s worth introducing the idea of tipping points which might cause catastrophic change outside that of possible cyclical phenomenon – see IPCC report Climate Change 2014 Impacts Adaptation and Vulnerability Summary for Policy Makers available at

  5. I don’t at all believe that to be progressive means to be anti-intellectual. I can’t say I’m the most keyed up about progressive ideas that are out there already but I have my own take.
    It seems like most people are still to stuck putting everything in to the same box without realising that you can put it in a bowel, triangle, etc. A whimsical analogy I know. What I hope you understand is that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding can be passed on in a way that doesn’t require children to sit at desks from a young age, and lose any intrinsic intrigue they had about life, because they’re learning the subjects in a such a disconnected way from the real world implications.
    I’m for knowledge, against living in a box already carved out by a society that is losing focus of what its ideals should be.

    1. Children don’t mind sitting at desks. It’s adults who “know better” that oppose it. Desks help reinforce a “this a learning time” from this is a social time.

      If subjects are disconnected from the real world, how does that affect student’s intrigue?

      It’s a pretty myth, that learning at school destroys interest. Actually it’s just an effect of getting older, and school has nothing to do with it. It’s why, unsurprisingly, it continues after school as we age. We get more set in our ways.

  6. I saw my step-grandson’s bright, interested childhood regress into anti-intellectualism as he grew. He was a bright six year old who was intellectually curous.. What I did not realise was that he had not been taught to read properly by his touchy-feely child-centred primary school. Not being able to read properly is most definitely a turn off from being intrigued by lessons or anything outside immediate experience. His parents were told by the school that he was dyslexic (along with his maternal grandfather, his cousin, and his siblings). Unprintable is what I think of that diagnosis.
    I taught in the school for a while and never worked out what they were trying to do with the children or the curriculum, but it was a popular school and it kept getting top of the league table for year 6 SATs (by drilling the just below level 4s) – and then it failed its Ofsted (which did not surprise me in the least).

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