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.