The Progressive Ethos in Education

To learn theory by experimenting and doing.
To learn belonging by participating and self-rule.
Permissiveness in all animal behavior and interpersonal expression.
Emphasis on individual differences.
Unblocking and training feeling by plastic arts, eurythmics and dramatics.
Tolerance of races, classes, and cultures.
Group therapy as a means of solidarity, in the staff meeting and community meeting.
Taking youth seriously as an age in itself.
Community of youth and adults, minimizing ‘authority.’
Educational use of the actual physical plant (buildings and farms) and the culture of the school community.
Emphasis in the curriculum on real problems and wider society, its geography and history, with actual participation in the neighboring community (village or city).
Trying for functional interrelation of activities.
Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd

Discussions of progressive education often confuse means and ends: is this what we want to achieve, or what we will do to get there? Creating a community of youth and adults, participating in the wider society, tolerance, individuality, even “learning theory by experimenting and doing”– these are not executable tasks, they are an expression of one set of purposes of education.


More precisely, they are an expression of opposition to another set of purposes of education (tradition, authority, discipline, absorption of a settled corpus of knowledge.) Most people- most adults at least- would choose an Aristotelian mean somewhere in there as their ideal state for a classroom: dynamic but not noisy, convivial but not undisciplined, engrossing but not edutainment.

Not entirely a progressive educator.

But education is difficult because living is difficult: a good life is a life worth growing up to become. So who knows what is the right way to run a school?

The larger issue is that school is not an accidental or natural community; 35 seventh graders do not of their own individual wanderlust end up together in a small classroom learning about the Bill of Rights or the parts of an animal cell. The law puts them there, could in theory take them away from their parents if they are not sent there, and the law decrees what they are to be taught, when they can get up and leave, what happens if the teacher sends them out of the room for punching another kid in the stomach.

Forgetting that it is the law that does this– pretending that it all just happened naturally and that the kids can come up with their own rules, learn to live together in peace and harmony, while learning the parts of an animal cell in a way that mitochondria shall never be severed from their mind– is a recipe for hypocrisy and mandated untruthfulness, as my older daughter discovered recently when after a dozen school assemblies about kindness, she told the teacher that the boy next to her had punched her hard in the stomach and the teacher asked her how that made her feel.

Schools are the places where kids spend a good portion of their lives; they are, outside the home, the place where most of their important relationships are found; they are, increasingly, in a world of telecommuting and virtual offices and the inherent electronic anomie of 21st Century life, the closest thing to an in-person community that many parents experience as well.

potok_pod_jezerom_1Connecting the lesson or the school to the “continuum of existence” (in Dewey’s phrase) or the “stream of life” (in Wittgenstein’s) is sometimes a little silly, when the school is the closest thing to a fast flowing stream of life that most of us can step in and splash about in, from day to day, from week to week. “What did you do in school today?” we ask plaintively of our children, because damned if we didn’t do much ourselves.

As Wallace Stevens put it,

We keep coming back and coming back
To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
That fall upon it out of the wind.
-An Ordinary Evening in New Haven

But what’s the hotel and what’s the hymns? To a kid, who is more real: Mike Bloomberg, the school principal, Luke Skywalker, that block-shaped guy from Minecraft, George Washington? In the end, you’re left with what the law says is important to “know and be able to do,” as the curricular guides say.




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