Sunday, November 09, 2008

Some alarming views of "progressive education"

I promise this will be short.

For the past few weeks I've had a Google Alert set to "progressive education" just to trawl the net and see what's going on.

I'm not going to dignify the Alert sites I've been given with links or specific citations, but those of us in the business of educating progressively might take note of a disturbing trend. In the post-election world, there seems to be a strange coalescence on the paranoid right of people who include "progressive education" in a list of bizarre social evils they expect to emerge in an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it Obama America. "Progressive education" (I'm going to keep the term in quotation marks as their usage, not mine) seems to equate with socialism, One Worldism, totalitarianism, and a host of other "black helicopter" fantasies. Out there in the reactionary blogosphere, "progressive education" is apparently seen as depriving our children of individual identity and individual will in the service of a set of social beliefs ranging from atheism to a love of abortion to heaven-knows what else.

Apparently much of this stems from reading John Dewey's comments on education as having a social purpose; apparently any "social purpose" is equated with the worst kind of "social engineering," in which citizens are stripped of free choice in every area by a controlling state. The people become zombies. The rest seems to come from any educational initiative (or school assignment, for that matter) that asks students to offer an opinion on pretty much anything. In an intellectual contortion whose irony confounds me, these folks assert that asking children to express their own ideas and thoughts--to suggest that opinion or point of view may be relative or held by the individual--is equivalent to taking away their freedom to give their allegiance to absolutes; thus "relativism" = fascism. These ultraconservative opinion-givers (yet another irony) have their own notions of what is absolute (and therefore correct), and any educator who allows students to differ or even to construct their understandings through reason and experience (yet another pernicious Dewey idea, apparently) is guilty of this kind of social engineering.

Now, how anyone can reach these conclusions is beyond me, but the writings to which my Google Alert has pointed me in the last few weeks certainly underscore how poorly educators have communicated with the general public in, say, the last century. If schools embracing New Progressivist ideals shy away from using the P word, they are perhaps not to be blamed if this is the context in which the word is coming to be used. Oddly, independent schools have taken leading roles in ideals like "social justice education," which seems to give the ultraconservatives hives, and yet they are all about school choice, citing private schools as far more desirable than public education.

In the end, I don't entirely get it, but it's there, and it's a bit scary when 3 out of 4 of my Alerts in a day cite bloggers who label what I do and believe in as a kind of absolute moral evil. It's sadder, still, that these folks somehow see the recent election as a first step in establishing a kind of global fascism in which progressive education plays a leading, terrible role. I've read the first volume of the Left Behind series, and I guess I can see where some of this "end of days" talk is coming from in the minds of some, but it is really pretty creepy.

At points in the past I have wished that my own school didn't use the word "progressive" to describe itself, in part because the word always seems to demand functional definition. But I don't think I'd ever want to avoid the term out of fear of being associated with black helicopters.

1 comment:

Laura Webber said...

Oh, I so agree. I have seen this happening and it fascinates me. Having actually read the work of John Dewey (as opposed to diluted re-interpretations), I am consistently amazed at how his ideas are bastardized and argued to promote relativism and social irresponsibility. I wrote a piece for Encounter magazine a few years back that discussed some Right-wingers blaming Columbine on Progressive Education. One of my arguments was that some tenets of Progressive Education promote the "experiencing" of social responsibility as opposed to blindly following authoritative (and thus lacking "meaning" if the responsibility is not "felt") strictures.

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