Saturday, November 01, 2008

Progressivism and Politics

I've had a number of people comment to me over the years on the connection between forms of education that are labeled progressive and a kind of liberal "slant" or "bias." Try as they might not to be, old-line progressive schools that hew to their heritage tend to be bastions of political liberalism. Why, I've been asked, must this be?

The answers lie both in history and in the philosophical meaning of liberalism, and the current election season seems to offer some illumination, although somewhat obliquely.

Here in New England there is suddenly a great deal of chatter about the end of "Yankee Republicanism," or what I knew growing up as Rockefeller Republicanism--a kind of fiscally conservative but generally libertarian approach to politics based on an ethic of civility, of profound respect for the Constitution, and of capitalism tinctured with enough regulation to prevent gross abuse. For better or for worse, this kind of Republicanism was the creed of Lincoln, of Theodore Roosevelt (the Big Stick walker and the trust buster), and of Ike. Its broadest premises were pretty benign, although it was always a creature of its time with regard to issues like race, the environment, and social justice. It kept its laws mostly out of bedrooms and its religion mostly out of laws. And it served the power brokers of the Northeast probably all too well for too long. Perhaps its imminent demise won't prove to be much of a loss.

I've been thinking about all this in the context of the deep philosophical roots of progressive education, which go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's and even earlier notions of human capacity and human perfectability. Student-centered education with constructivist notions of curriculum and the power of inquiry presuppose, necessarily, that children are innately capable not only of acquiring knowledge but also that they will do so naturally when placed in circumstances in which they are allowed to exercise their own will. On the simplest level, progressive education is based on the idea that children are inherently positive, inherently curious, and inherently good. Guided by the gentlest of hands, children will learn well and be good as they do so.

Truly progressive schools not only subscribe to this belief, but they also tend to be built around missions that are themselves positive and idealistic, even utopian. The doctrine of perfectability, whether spiritual or secular, is that people can achieve profound of moral and ethical goodness if they are placed in the right circumstances; progressive schools are intentional communities, aspiring utopias if you will--nothing less than places of "right circumstances" for the perfection of children.

As recently as a generation ago the opposite pole in education styled itself "traditional." Proudly coercive in its methods, traditional education took as its philosophical guide Thomas Hobbes and embraced the idea that children were something akin to untamed savages in a state of nature (imagine Lord of the Flies) who needed rules administered by firm hands to keep their worst impulses in check. Learning was not a matter of appealing to curiosity but of defeating sloth and laziness by the sometimes violent inculcation of rote knowledge and didactic moral teaching. Traditional schools might express great aspirations, often expressed in terms of the requirement that students subjugate themselves to the will of the school for its greater glory; the most successful individual students might then bask in the reflected glow of this glory. The beauty of the traditional model was that the notion of allegiance could be transferred upward to the university, the corporation, the faith, and the state.

I have painted too rosy a picture of progressivism and too bleak a picture of traditional education here, and I apologize. In both structures, the optimism of youth and the flexibility of the human spirit among both students and teachers have usually triumphed over ideology, and wonderful schools full of wonderful educators teaching wonderful kids in wonderful ways could be found on both ends of the spectrum of schools and school types that various iterations of these philosophies fostered.

Traditional education today, incidentally, seems to be a hollow shell of its former self. I'm sure there are a few schools that still operate on hard-core Hobbesian premises, but I'm going to guess that they generally exist in the 21st century as excretions of marginal ideologies, mostly political or religious. Traditional ideals seem to be most persistent in the spread of standardized testing, which most educators see as apart from their real work but which politicians and the public see as authentic and valid measurement of something important. A great many public schools have to devote time and energy to "teaching to the tests" in ways that would have been familiar a century ago and more even as their teachers learn of and yearn for better ways. Usually these are the ways of the New Progressivism., whose ideas have now become part of the philosophical landscape in most educational venues, even if they cannot always be found in practice.

This essay began with two seemingly unrelated premises: about "liberal bias" in progressive schools and the death of Rockefeller Republicanism in one region. The thread that ties them together, perhaps too obscurely, is a shared view of human nature. Just as Lincoln acknowledged "the better angels of our nature," progressive educators celebrate the better angels of our students' natures and insist on liberating these angels in the ways we teach and the ways we organize our schools. Historically, political Progressivism in the United States tended to grow out of the Republican Party, and the forward-thinking political reformers of the first quarter of the 20th century--the age of John Dewey educationally--were every bit as committed in their way to social justice and the full realization of positive human potential as are the most forward-thinking educators of today.

Although it's the belief I grew up with, I'm not going to miss Rockefeller Republicanism, but then I actually don't believe that it has gone away. Rather, I see the better angels of its nature enshrined in the finer ideals of the Democratic Party. As an educator, I also see in these ideals an identifiable version of the philosophical underpinnings of progressive education, both old and New.

If certain schools feel particularly political and "liberal," it is because for the hundred years since Dewey's heyday their ideals have been aligned with a set of philosophical principles that are educationally, socially, and, yes, politically progressive. It's almost inconceivable that a school built around these principles could be or could attract numbers of teachers and families who were anything but progressive. (Of course non-progressive teachers and families do become part of such schools, and they are often surprised to learn that they represent a portion of these schools' diversity; but they really shouldn't be shocked to find themselves in the minority. The hope and expectation is that in progressive classrooms and hallways a wide range of beliefs can be respectfully aired and discussed, and that progressivism should not be suppress diversity of thought. )

As an election nears that appears likely to put progressive politics on top for a while, it's worth a moment or two to consider the role of principles and ideals in education in general. Teaching kids is the most important work that humans can do, and doing it intentionally from ideals grounded in fundamental beliefs about human nature is critical. If we are in a time of the ascendancy of Rousseau, I think that's a pretty good thing. I don't think New Progressivists who share these beliefs have anything to apologize for, or that schools need to hide their commitment to ideals that may seem "liberal," if that's where their missions and values lie.

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