Halting the Damage of Progressive Education

A Progressive Calls a Halt to Progressive Education

By Irwin Edman

ECONOMIC and social crises in the past have been reflected by crises in the educational world. It is not surprising that it should be so at the present time. For education in any period is necessarily concerned with two things: the transmission of the culture, that is to say, the traditions of the past, and the development of techniques for dealing with the future. In periods of settled and ordered civilization, or periods when conservatism is in the saddle, the transmitting functions of education are accentuated. “The wisdom of the ancients” becomes the chief them of educational institutions. And it is generally accepted that the wisdom of the ancients should be taught in the established ways. Authority is the atmosphere of teaching and acceptance the way of learning.

There are again periods of adventure and discovery in civilization when it seems more important to discover ways of dealing with the new and the changing than simply to learn the old conventional patterns. Not the best that has been known and thought in the world, but the best and most flexible ways of dealing with the novel, the unprecedented, the future come to the center.

Education for the last twenty-five years has been accenting the tradition of experimentalism, of techniques for handling the new rather than ways of inheriting the old, however cherished and beautiful the old may be. In the last twenty-five years the pace of change has been so accelerated that even the most stupid and sleepy can recognize it. It is no use emphasizing authority in a world where all the old certitudes have come into question, no use accenting exclusively the inheritance of “culture” in a world uneasy with the most urgent problems of survival.

For it is not only the acceleration of invention and machinery that have changed the face of the world to which the young must be educated. It is the profound change in the whole matrix of social and economic life, of which the first five months of the present administration have been so notable an instance. We are passing from a society of competing individuals to a society of cooperative members of a co-operative commonwealth. The old values, the old traditions, even the old virtues may be more transformed than we now realize before the lifetime of most of us is over.

About twenty-five years ago, largely under the influence of my old teacher, John Dewey, there began that general movement known as Progressive Education. It tried to substitute intelligence for authority, freedom for discipline, concern with the future for reverence for the past, fact for formula. It emphasized the fact that it was more important for the pupil to form the habit of thinking things out for himself than for him to acquire simply texts and formulas. It insisted that it was more fruitful to teach the student to think freely for himself than to accept the straight jacket of discipline, follow in the goose step set by authority.

Much of the dullness and sterility of traditional education the Progressive Educators found, and justly, in the emphasis on the past, the fixed, the conventional. Students were no longer to be asked to center their attention, just during the period when they were most eager and alert to the life about them, on the debris and ashes of things long dead. Only the present is genuinely alive, and the future is the field in which the young are going to run their race. Progressive Education, therefore, tried to emphasize those aspects of the past, those ways of doing and thinking that a student might look forward to using in controlling the changes in a changing society.

There is not the slightest doubt that the Progressive movement in education got rid of a lot of dead wood. There is no doubt that the whole educational world has been freshened by the emphasis on freedom, spontaneity, by the interest in the future rather than obeisance to the past. Education had been too long in a rut, and had been passing on conventional wisdom rather than inculcating the habit of intelligent understanding. The revolt was revolt against the dead hand of the past, the paralyzing hand of fixed authority, the repressive hand of discipline for its own sake.

But there have been any number of educators, themselves fairly entitled to be called progressive, who have looked with serious question on some of the orthodoxies that have grown up in Progressive Education. They have looked with such doubt because they have seen some of the products of extreme devotion to progressive theories. They have seen some of the results of the New Spontaneity. They have seen young men and women full of enthusiasm, but with neither direction nor responsibility nor disciplined capacity. They have seen youngsters with an enthusiasm for the future who could not punctuate nor add two and two. They have seen young men and women who were free from everything, including information. They have seen students, brought up in the most modern schools, so devoted to the future that they acted naively as if the world, as well as themselves, had been born yesterday. So successful has the New Education been in developing the habit of “thinking a thing out yourself” that some of those who have attended modern schools have not stopped to inquire whether they were not wasting their mediocre talents thinking out what had been competently worked out and thoroughly thought out before them.

We are beginning to think, in other words, that the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. There has been a failure to distinguish the difference between discipline for its own arbitrary sake and that discipline of the mind and habits which constitutes the only effective freedom. The progressive education turns out often to be a dangerous form of sentimentalism. The world did not begin yesterday, and the past in not a rubbish heap. In two senses there is a necessity and already the symptoms of the beginning of the return to a more adequate realization of the relation of the past to the present and of discipline to freedom.

The past is full of techniques and habits, already developed, that we at our peril dispense with. IF we were really to overthrow the past, we should have a brand new world with a complete set of ignorant fools in it who would have to learn everything from the beginning again. Secondly, the past is a patrimony, an inheritance of solace and delight. Whatever our progress may be in physical things and mechanical control, it is to the past we turn to discover that golden thread of art and thought and imagination which is the birthright of every student.

Even in a society undergoing the most fundamental social and economic changes, the great tradition is still alive, more alive by far than the passing fashions in current literature and art. It is almost fantastic that the professional educators should have come to talk of the past as an old attic full of useless lumber. It is rather the fountainhead of all that we have and are. The realm in which Plato and Milton, Bach and Mozart and Beethoven abide is not dead. It is the source of life. It is not simply a realm to retreat to for refreshment and delight; it is filled with rejuvenation for us, the youngest generation of all mankind. It is almost criminally narrowing the horizon of a student to rob him of the meaning and beauty of his past.

In the same way there has been a dangerous emphasis on spontaneity and freedom. The greatest things, Spinoza once remarked, are as difficult as they are rare. He is really free who has the greatest autonomous control over his materials and himself. A great vogue of wishful thinking has been substituted for disciplined power. The progressives in education have overthrown the authoritativeness of the expert with the authority of the autocrat. They have overthrown the discipline that comes with knowing what one is doing with the discipline imposed by martinets.

Progressive education has done many services. It has rescued education from the doldrums and from stereotype and routine. But a service could now be done to progressive education by reminding it of two things: the beauty and use of a cultural tradition for our leisure and the importance of expert training for our work.

In our confuses and perilous work it is only the discipline of the expert that will save us, not romantic talk about spontaneity and freedom. We must be careful that we do not rebel too completely against the hard won discipline and cumulative tradition that has given our civilization such order and stability and beauty as, even in its present crisis, it still possesses.

Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana) Oct 29, 1933

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