Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Rise and Fall of Progressive Education

 The following text is a draft of a chapter I am working on for an upcoming book. Text is copyrighted under my name. There are several quotes near the end which are not sourced, but their sources are, in most cases, obvious. I hereby give permission to quote short passages for scholarly purposes. Formatting irregularities are unavoidable.

The Rise and Fall of Progressive Education 

by Martin Cothran

At the beginning of C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace Clarence Scrubb, a spoiled and troublesome child, finds himself at a “progressive” school called, “Experiment House” where his progressive parents have sent him.  Eustace calls his teetotalling, non-smoking, vegetarian parents by their first names, and they wear a special sort of underwear.  Experiment House has all the interesting quirks his parents have—and more. The subjects in the curriculum all have familiar names in order to make sure they are “relevant” to the children. In addition, each subject is taught differently, and Bibles are “not encouraged.” Discipline is different at the school: instructors do not consider children who bully other children as “bad,” but rather as “interesting psychological cases,” and think that “children ought to be allowed to do as they like.”

If Experiment House doesn’t sound familiar, it should.  Lewis was obviously lampooning some of the schools in the England of his day.  The sort of romantic educational permissivism that manifested itself at Experiment House was quite evident at schools like Summerhill in Suffolk, England, which had become a mecca for progressivist educators in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s.  And England wasn’t the only place you could find such schools.  The romanticism, the relativism, and the utilitarian rationalism that characterized Lewis’ imaginary school could be found in the 1880s in places like the Laboratory School and the Cook County Normal School in Chicago, and the Horace Mann School in New York.  If modern American education went in search of its roots, it would find them here.

  The movement that came to be known as the “Progressive education movement” had its origins in two impulses that came to dominate schools in the early 20th century.  The first was a utilitarian vocationalism that attempted to transform schools into glorified job training centers to fit children into the industrial and agricultural economy; the second was a romantic progressivism that sought to harness the schools to help realize a utopian vision of society. Both of these movements had the effect of moving schools further away from their original academic emphasis.  The “Manual Training” Movement of the late 19th century and the Progressives Education movement of the early 20th century pulled schools away from their original academic moorings and towards purposes never before conceived to be educational.  Both of these impulses in America’s educational history are documented in Lawrence Cremin’s The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education 1876-1957.[i]  Cremin, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College for many years, is still regarded as the greatest historian of American education.  His three volume history of American education, one of which won the Pulitzer Prize, is still the standard reference work on the subject.  Cremin documents the many attempts to hijack schools to serve some societal purpose other than actual education.  The Manual Training Movement and progressivism are only the most notable and general of these attempts.

The Manual Training Movement
What came to be known as the “Manual Training” movement began in the 1870s, when John D. Runkle, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) happened to walking through the industrial exhibits at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and came across the Russian display cases in Machinery Hall.  It was a time when America, like other Western nations, was becoming more intentional about their role in the industrial revolution.  Runkle was interested in the problem of how to train students for the kinds of jobs that were increasingly coming into demand in America’s cities: jobs that required skilled workers to operate the new machinery that was driving industrialization.  Up to that point, technical institutions did not really have hands on training of the kind that was needed to fuel the new industrial economy, but Runkle saw in the work of the Moscow Imperial Technical School, headed by Victor Della Vos, exactly what he thought was wanting in American technical schools: construction shops that would give aspiring workers the hands-on training they needed to service the nations burgeoning industry.  Rather than having students spend all their time with books, actual experience in what they were being trained to do had to become a part of the schools daily activity.  He wanted a schooling that would “marry the mental and the manual.”[ii]

In the meantime another man, Calvin M. Woodward of Washington University in St. Louis was already preparing the way by having become an outspoken critic of the exclusive emphasis on academic instruction in the nation’s schools.  Woodward too had become convinced—by his own experiences unsuccessfully trying to teach students how to work in a woodshop—that students needed hands-on vocational training along with the academic instruction they were receiving in schools.  He concluded that the traditional book-oriented method used by schools, with its emphasis on gentlemanliness and culture, was outmoded and that it “oftener unfits than fits a man for earning his living.”[iii]  Initially, Woodward claimed that he was not asking for schools to change their purpose from academic institutions to trade schools, only that they should include manual training in their larger academic mission. He also claimed that he was not asking for schools to teach with specific and immediate vocations goals, but only that schools teach the basic manual arts that would fit them for a wide range of trades.  “The trades are many,” he said, “but the arts are few.”  Training students in the general manual arts would be the best preparation for fitting them for the trades.  To limit the education of students to purely academic subjects when many of them would be entering trades was to ill serve them, he argued.  We must therefore teach the “whole boy.”[iv]

Woodward’s cause was not unpopular.  In fact, it attracted an increasing number of adherents during the 1870s and early 1880s until finally its detractors counterattacked.   At its national meeting in 1882, Woodward was challenged to what amounted to a showdown by Albert P. Marble, superintendent of Worcester, Massachusetts school system.  Marble argued that the kind of manual training championed by Woodward simply did not fit the mission of the school:

[T]he schools we have to conduct are to train boys and girls in those directions that are common to everybody, and one of the things that the boys and girls ought to learn in those schools is how to get information from books.  There is no information stored up in the plow, hoe handle, [or] steam engine; but there is information stored up in books … The saw is brought into the recitation room, and the teacher says, “now, saw.” It is a thing that does not belong to the school at all. It belongs outside, and ought to be attended to outside.[v]

But the most significant opposition to Woodward’s manual training ideas came from William Torrey Harris, the influential superintendent of St. Louis schools.  Harris argued that Woodward’s idea of the “whole boy” reeked of “Rousseauianism”—a reference to the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose romanticism would, according to many later critics, come to be one of the chief influences on the philosophy and practice of schools.  As for tool work being educative, recounts Lawrence Cremin, “Harris noted that so were marbles, quoits, baseball, and jackstraws, but this did not command for them a place in the school … To teach a child carpentry, Harris warned, is to give him a limited knowledge of self and nature; to teach him to read is to offer him the key to all human wisdom.” And to punctuate the point, he added, “It is the difference between a piece of baked bread, which nourishes for the day, and the seed-corn, which is the possibility of countless harvests.”[vi]

But the Manual Training Movement continued to gather steam, and the subject became the topic of even broader debates at the NEA’s 1889 meeting.  Not only did the impetus for this come from the industrial interests, it also had support among the nation’s still prominent agricultural interests.  While Woodward and others were pushing to make room for industrial training, people like “Uncle Henry” Wallace of the influential Wallace’s Farmer and William Dempster Hoard, editor of Hoard’s Dairyman, were battening at the doors of the educational establishment demanding that schools spend more time training farmers.  More and more of the common schools not only introduced manual training in schools, but began to displace their academic programs to make for them. 

In 1903, Woodward, who had claimed he was pressing for manual training but not direct vocational instruction, dropped any pretense that vocationalism should be just part of the schools’ curricula, announcing that “by multiplying manual training schools we solve the problem of training all the mechanics our country needs.”[vii] The debate about whether schools should be involved in vocational instruction as a major goal was essentially over, the only question remaining being, not whether to do it, but how it should be done.  The final stroke came in 1917, when the U. S. Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act, which launched the federal involvement in the promotion of vocational training in schools that has lasted to this day. 

The consequences if this change in the purpose of schools is still being felt today, but even early on, the problem with schools trying to anticipate the vicissitudes of the economy was clear.  The old apprenticeship model, where young men spent time with those in a particular trade and learned it first hand from someone who did it for a living was in the course of being replaced by hands-on instruction in the schools.  That trades are learned better through apprenticeship rather than school instruction—even it is hands-on—will seem common sense to some.  Was it a purpose, in other words, that was best served by schools?  In addition, there was the problem with the idea that schools were capable of anticipating the kind of jobs that would be available for the students graduating from manual training programs—and it didn’t take long to determine how big a problem that was.  In 1921, just four years after the passage of the Smith-Hughes act, the evidence began coming in.  Cremin writes:

As Paul Douglas pointed out in a perceptive criticism written shortly after World War I[viii] the very sort of craft-oriented instruction to which the Smith Hughes Act had committed the nation had already been left behind by the onrush of technological advance.  The craftsmen who left industry to become the teachers of vocational subjects too easily isolated themselves from the mainstream of industrial innovation.  With the machinery purchased for school use was itself soon outmoded by technological improvement.  It took less than forty years for American industry, facing a new apprenticeship crisis after World War II, to reclaim for itself educational responsibilities it had so easily abandoned in the early decades of the century.

Not only has this problem of school keeping up with the economy to which they have been charged with fitting students not improved: it has become even worse thanks to the increasing pace of technological innovation.  The question is not whether Marble and Harris were right in the criticisms, but whether they were more right than they could have known.

The Educational Science

As the advocates of vocationalism were trying with increasing success to force the nation’s educational enterprise onto a new course, the champions of science and psychology were tugging it in another direction. The 19th century saw the exaltation of the sciences to a position of cultural influence and authority far beyond the dreams of scientists themselves.  When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, he was surprised at the enthusiastic reception it received.  He couldn’t figure out why a book which went into painful detail about beetles and barnacles and the process of their development had captured the imagination of so many people. There was increasing interest and respect for this new field which promised to explain so many things that had thus far remained a mystery.  The explanatory powers of science had been evident for some time.  Copernicus had published his heliocentric hypothesis in 1514; Galileo had invented the telescope in 1609; and Isaac Newton had announced his three laws of universal motion in 1687.  But for a movement to have wide influence and appeal, it needs a name and a distinct identity.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “scientist” didn’t even exist as a distinct term until the 1800s, and was only coined in 1934, coming into popular use only around the turn of the century.  Before that time, scientists considered themselves “natural philosophers.” 

A number of thinkers and events conspired to bring the influence of science to bear on education in America.  The first of these was Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher and political thinker who was one of the first to fully appreciate the broader significance of Darwin’s ideas.  In fact, it was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the expression, “survival of the fittest.”  Spencer took Darwin’s ideas on evolution and began to apply them to areas of thought outside natural science.  He wrote on ethics, religion, and psychology, and it was Spencer who earned the dubious distinction of being the inventor of what later came to be known as “social Darwinism.”  But it was his book Education that had the greatest influence on Americans.[ix]  In it, he propounded the idea that the purpose of education was to “prepare us for a complete living.”  And for such a goal, which to Spencer involved instruction on the necessities of life, the discipline of offspring, social and political relations, as well as gratification of tastes and feelings, the thing needed was science. 

Spencer’s influence was directly felt on what came to be known as the Report of the Committee of Ten.  It is hard for those of us living at a time in which reports on education seem to be a daily event to appreciate the significance such a report could have in a far less jaded time.  Headed by Charles Eliot, who 24 years earlier had been elected President of Harvard, the Committee of Ten collected together a group of scholars and education professionals who, under Eliot’s leadership, attempted to restate what it was that schools were for.  It articulated what Eliot had long been saying: that the nation needed a “new education,” on which placed science on a parity with the other disciplines.  This “new education” would emphasize applied sciences, modern languages, and mathematics.  But ironically, Spencer, along with his American disciple, William Graham Sumner, a political and social science professor at Yale, were among the most ardent opponents of sweeping reform schemes of the kind working themselves out in people like Eliot and groups like the Committee of Ten.  Social Darwinism of the kind Spencer propounded (along with Sumner, his American lieutenant) spurned the idea that the natural and inevitable forces of evolution could be stymied.  But while Spencer and Sumner believed in a sort of inevitable evolutionary determinism, those who believed evolution could be guided and controlled had them outnumbered, and Eliot was among the most prominent of those who believed in a reform-minded social evolution.

For Spencer evolution was essentially purposeless, but for Eliot and others it was amenable to the purposes of reformers like themselves. So Eliot and figures like paleontologist Lester Frank Ward took Spencer’s idea that the school should prepare students for a living, and left Spencer’s determinism behind. For them, students were not a social tool in the hands of an inexorable evolutionary process, but rather education was the malleable enterprise in the hands of society for society’s betterment. And here we have the origin of the modern idea of Education as the great panacea.  Education, in the minds of Eliot and others, became a road to utopia—a scientific enterprise that could reform society.  Education from this time forward would command an almost religious devotion.  It had now become something much more than it was before.  Before, education could only bring children to a knowledge of the truth; now it could change society.  It could also change human nature itself.

Along with the rise in the influence of the hard sciences, came the rise of psychology.  Over the last 200-300 years, the hard sciences—biology, chemistry, physics—have soaked up most of the intellectual spotlight.  Science gained an intellectual prestige which other academic disciplines came to envy.  After all, science “works” in a way that other disciplines do not.  In fact, “to work” in the sense of practical application, is part of what science is in a way that it is not for other disciplines.  But by the 19th century, many of what we used to call the “moral sciences,” such as history, economics, and political philosophy (now recast as “political science”) were re-categorized as “social sciences.”  In fact, the whole idea of “social sciences” is a testimony to the desire of other disciplines to acquire some of the prestige of the hard sciences.  The result was a set of disciplines which mimicked the language, the practices, and the goals of science.  The academic robe once worn by the old educational masters was figuratively replaced with a white coat, and every subject wanted to be science when it grew up.  Enter psychology.

The first doctorate in psychology granted by Harvard University was conferred on Granville Stanley Hall in 1878.  After studying in Germany for a few years, he returned to America and took a professorship at Johns Hopkins University, where he taught many students.  One of them was a young man named John Dewey.  Hall’s influence in the new field of psychology grew to massive proportions, and (thanks in part to his influence on Dewey) it spilled over into education.  A friend once introduced him to an audience as the “Darwin of the Mind,”[x] largely because of his introduction of evolutionary concepts into psychology.  According to his “general psychonomic law,” the development of an individual mimics the evolution of the race; in other words, individual humans go through stages of development on the path toward adulthood in the same way that human beings go through stages of evolution on their path toward becoming a human. [xi]

Hall became the first of many thinkers who made child development the center of their study. It was Hall, armed with this new view of child development, and glowing with the scientific aura that attended it, who first urged that the contents of the curriculum should be determined on the basis of “the data of child development.”  “Here,” says Cremin, “his key concept concerned the difference between the scholiocentric and the pedocentric school”[xii]—between, in other words, the scholarship-centered school and the child-centered school. No longer would the child be forced to approximate some scholarly ideal devised by the community of learned people: now the ideal would have to adapt itself to the child.  Under the Manual Training Movement, there was a shift from academics as the material cause of education to job skills.  Under the New Psychology, there was a shift in the formal cause of education: from being determined by academics to being determined by the psychology of the child.  “The shift was truly Copernican,” said Cremin, “its effects legion”:

On the one hand it hastened the acceptance of academic studies long barred from the school by reason of tradition, custom, or simple apathy.  On the other hand, it opened the pedagogical floodgates to every manner of activity, trivial as well as useful, that seemed in some way to minister to “the needs of the children.” Reformers had a field day, as did sentimentalists, and American schools were never quite the same again! (Cremin, p. 104)

But Hall did not break ranks with Spencer on the issue of changing the student to fit some outside purpose.  Like Spencer, Hall’s view of evolution involved only adaptation to environment, and his educational views involved only helping to adapt the child to his environment: it did not involve changing the environment to which he had to adapt. He was not “reform-minded,” he was “adaptation-minded.”  Another thinker was required in order to complete the progressivist picture: William James. 

James, a philosopher who gained great influence and repute within his lifetime, was one of several American philosophers called “pragmatists.” James, also an adherent to the evolutionary gospel, scorned the idea of naturalistic determinism and believed that, in addition to the environment molding humans (where Spencer and Hall stopped), humans molded their environment.  We are ever reacting to our environment in manifold ways, and the kinds of reactions we choose ultimately form themselves into habits.  But, by the decisions we make, we have a role in determining what these habits eventually become.  The purpose of education, thought James, was to actively guide the impulses and reactions of youth in such a way as to turn the child into a “purposeful, thinking adult” who will “use his talents to the fullest in the struggle for a better life.”  The educational enterprise was now not only child-centered, but focused on improving the child around whom education was centered—and, that once done, improving the environment by which he was surrounded. 

But how exactly to change the child who would then go on to change society? This required one more thinker: Edward L. Thorndike.  Thorndike was a student of James at Harvard University who inaugurated his scientific life by studying the instinctive and intelligent behavior of chickens.  He went on to write his dissertation on animal intelligence—a dissertation which Cremin calls a “landmark in psychology.”[xiii] Through his experiments with cats in what he called a “problem box,” Thorndike discovered that, through a process of conditioning, animals could figure out that certain behaviors had certain favorable and unfavorable consequences, and could learn over time to follow the behavior that was associated with favorable responses and avoid those with unfavorable consequences.  Thorndike simply took this stimulus/response model, which he called “connectionism,” and applied it to humans—who, according to evolutionary theory, were only advanced animals anyway. 

But the most significant aspect of Thorndike’s ideas was his rejection of the concept of the mind as anything other than the response of the organism to its environment:

As Thorndike later pointed out in his classic three-volume work Educational Psychology, this conception does more than render psychology a science by making it the study of observable, measurable human behavior.  In one fell swoop, it discards the Biblical view that man’s nature is essentially sinful and hence untrustworthy; the Rousseauan view that man’s nature is essentially good and hence always right; and the Lockean view that man’s nature is ultimately plastic and hence completely modifiable.  Human nature, Thorndike maintained, is simply a mass of “original tendencies” that can be exploited for good or bad, depending on what learning takes place.[xiv]

These thinkers in the late 19th century had begun by applying science to education; they ended in transforming education into a science—a science that, they believed, could improve children, and through the improvement of children, could improve society itself.

All of these sometimes competing tendencies in education were brought together in the thinking of John Dewey.  A one-man clearing house for the experimental educational thinking going on around him, Dewey brought together the emphasis on the importance of preparing students for real life preached by Calvin Woodward; the child-centered focus of G. Stanley Hall; the reform-oriented pragmatism of William James; and the “connectionism” of Edward L. Thorndike.  All these thinkers, with Dewey ultimately at their head, were opposed to the old classical system, with its exclusively academic emphasis, its focus on fitting the child to the curriculum, its emphasis on passing on a culture, and its idea of a perennial human nature.  Dewey’s Democracy in Education, published in 1916 stands as the ultimate statement of educational progressivism. 

Progressivism seemed to be sweeping the field, but there were a few of the old guard who refused to go down without a fight.  The year 1917 was also the publication of R. W. Livingstone’s A Defense of Classical Education, a clarion call to man the battlements of the old classical education.  “The nation is discontented with its education,” he begins, “probably too discontented.”  Indeed it was.  But Livingstone was still hopeful, thinking that it would all blow over: “When the black fit passes,” he assured, “we shall take a more reasonable view of our deficiencies.[xv]  As compelling as was the book’s case for Latin and Greek instruction, his hope that educational sobriety would follow the progressivist binge was misplaced.  Soon would come the end of World War I, and as many observers have pointed out, the end of an age.  What many called the “Great War” (World War I) had destroyed many things, and what many called the “Old Order” itself was weakened or crumbling.  The European map had to be completely redrawn to reflect the reconstitution of entire nations, and those who ruled before the war could not be counted upon to remain. What was once taken for granted could no longer be relied upon.  It was a time of wholesale cultural change, and this was more the case in Europe than in United States, but America felt it too:

By the time the Armistice was signed in 1918, calls for commercial and useful knowledge on both sides of the Atlantic, combined with blasted ideals and the horror of those fine young men now lying in foreign graves, carried too much firepower to resist … A new world waited to be built.  Time had run out for the niceties of learning the words of the dead.”[xvi]

Greek, says Tracy Lee Simmons, was no longer even required to enter Oxford by the 1920s.  Only Latin remained, and even that classical language was eventually expelled from the lower grades and relegated to the high school, and the focus on systematic Latin grammar began to yield to newer methods.  A handful of classical scholars put up a brave defense: “Scholars like Gilbert Murray, J. W. Mackail, and Richard Livingstone became evangelists and hit the lecture circuit with the zeal of men on a military campaign,” says Simmons.  “They didn’t want to go down without a fight.”[xvii]  Had there been bridges to burn in their retreat, they would have burned them, but what classical structures were left standing could be counted on to be destroyed by the Progressives anyway. Where classics were still taught, translations took the place the original Greek or Latin, and classical studies themselves were taken over by the experts, rendering them the exclusive domain of the experts.

As often happens with lost causes, by the time those apologists had erected their buttressed defenses, the brave had fallen.  It remained only to collect the wounded.  Whereas once Latin and Greek, together with their literature and all else they drew in their train, were thought to make the complete human being and lay a foundation for higher culture, now they were dead weight in a leveling age, millstones dragging down the new day dawning.  People began to think that classical knowledge closed more doors than it opened; it shut out the light; it slowed the pulse of a quickening world.  All things were to be made new.  What good is climbing a Parnassus within when we can build skyscrapers without?  The dikes could hold back the waters no longer.  Pres nous le Deluge.[xviii]

The gaggle of progressivist ideas that had been taking shape since 1876 had now been brought together into a tenuous alliance, but they needed to be permanently housed in something more substantial than the mind of John Dewey.  In 1919, Stanwood Cobb, the principal of Chevy Chase Day School, founded the Association for the Advancement of Progressive Education, which later became the Progressive Education Association.  They met on April 4 of that year, and they left the meeting with the feeling of missionaries being sent out to save the world.  “Our aim from the very beginning,” said Cobb, “had in it little of modesty.  We aimed at nothing short of reforming the entire school system of America.”[xix]  But the group began under something less than favorable auspices when Dewey himself refused to join, a slight that was compensated for by Charles Eliot agreeing to become the organization’s first honorary president.

Through conventions, bulletins, and journals, the hopes of its founders seemed to have been well-founded.  The Journal of Progressive Education in particular became the organization’s chief propaganda tool, and it seemed to work.  By 1928, Margaret Nauburg, writing for The Nation, could write with some plausibility, “Anything less than ‘progressive education’ is now quite out of date in America. No one wishes any longer to be called conservative.”[xx]  Indeed the organization had gained such widespread favor that, in 1926, Dewey himself finally agreed to accept the honorary chairmanship upon the death of Eliot.  It was a heady time.

It was a matter of dogma with progressives that they had no particular program or position—or even philosophy.  They had set down a “statement of principles” when the Progressive Education Association was founded which was carried in each edition of the journal, but the journal dropped them in 1930 just to underscore that they, in fact, didn’t have any.  They got around the somewhat untenable position that what they stood for was not standing on anything by saying that their movement was characterized by a “spirit,” a “method,” an “outlook.”[xxi] So averse were they to any kind of explicit authority or philosophical rigidity (this, after all, was what they were using the authority of their position to get schools themselves to avoid) that they ended up dropping the reformist emphasis of their early years.  Dewey himself, only two years after accepting the organization’s honorary presidency, rebuked the Association for its failure to live up to its original ideals. The term “progressive,” after all, assumed progress, and progress was the movement toward some goal.  For Dewey the goal was reforming society to make it more explicitly democratic, and the progressive movement, which had gotten caught up in fitting children to society, had forgotten the original goal of changing the society they were being fitted to.

Dewey’s rebuke reverberated throughout the movement, and it gave the more left-leaning political forces within the movement an excuse to assert themselves.  At the Progressive Education Association’s 1932 convention, George S. Counts delivered a fateful address, entitled, “Dare Progressive Education be Progressive?”  His rallying cry was heavy on Marxist rhetoric, and directed much of its venom against capitalism and tradition, advocating a more socialist economy and a new tradition.  He also scolded the progressive movement for shrinking from the practice of indoctrination in dealing with students:

You will say, no doubt, that I am flirting with the idea of indoctrination. And my answer is again in the affirmative. Or, at least, I should say that the word does not frighten me. We may all rest assured that the younger generation in any society will be thoroughly imposed upon by its elders and by the culture into which it is born.[xxii]

Counts views were the result of the ferment at Columbia University Teachers College, where he and others such as William H. Kilpatrick and R. Bruce Raup had been meeting in a study group since 1927 to discuss the effects of social change on education.  His speech lit a fire among the conference participants, who talked in the halls late into the night about its implications.  The scheduled talks for the next day were abandoned as excited delegates talked on about Counts’ speech.  Two days later, the Association appointed a committee to deal with the issue, with Counts at its head. 

Counts speech was undoubtedly an overreaction to Dewey, and one which Dewey himself would probably have disapproved of, but it was not Dewey whom the progressives would ultimately have to worry about.  When his committee later issued what came to be called the “Counts Report,” it set the stage for the final battle the Progressive Education Association would have to fight—and which it would not be able to win.  The Report, says Cremin, “branded the stigma of radicalism on the PEA, like it or not.  It was a stigma destined to exert growing influence as the decade progressed.”[xxiii]

But the immediate effect of the report was to prompt a new debate among the progressives about what exactly their movement was about.  And what better way to settle the issue than convene yet another committee.  In 1938, the Association appointed a committee on the philosophy of education which in 1940 rendered another report, which set forth the principles of progressive education along Deweyan lines.  But these principles were never formally adopted, and they came too late anyway.  The larger progressive era was over, and the public had become more conservative.  The Progressive Education Association began to take on public fire for its more widely known radical political and social positions.  By the early 1940s, the organization had begun to bleed members until it came into imminent danger of collapse, and by the spring of 1944, at its lowest ebb since its founding, the Association finally adopted a set of principles. “The Association was by 1944 a shadow of its former self,” recounts Cremin, “indeed there were so few members that or the first time in its history it adopted a formal policy statement … After a quarter-century, the PEA finally had a creed; but few people cared, and even fewer read it.”[xxiv]

Although weakened and with little actual remaining influence on education policy in the country, that didn’t prevent the Association from bearing the brunt of the public fury that was already building.  The ideas that the Association and the larger progressive movement espoused—displacing academics with social skills; moving the locus of authority away from the teacher and to the student; deemphasizing thinking in favor of doing; abandoning the curricular emphasis in favor of “child-centeredness,” in addition to its increasingly radical political priorities—were to mark the movement’s impact on schools, and the forces opposed to them were now taking shape.

At the same time as the movement was acquiring a politically and socially radical image, another force was at work.  The Progressive Education Association was not the only institution pushing progressivism, and among the other influential forces was the U. S. Office of Education.  In 1947, after convening regional gatherings to study problems in the nation’s secondary schools, it set up a nine-member Commission on Life Adjustment Education for Youth.  It had decidedly non-academic purposes in mind. It’s purpose, it said, was “to equip all American youth to live democratically with satisfaction to themselves and profit to society as home members, workers, and citizens.”[xxv]  It was one particular strain of the progressive movement, and it ended up being the one to take most of the heat in the national educational crisis of the 1950s.  It had its last hurrah in 1954, but by that time it was clear that all it had succeeded in doing was to simply give the critics of progressivism more ammunition to use against it.

The opposition to progressivism had been building since the 1940s.  It was aggravated by a number of societal changes going on in the country.  There were a host of economic problems consequent upon the end of World War II, particularly a lack of money for things like school buildings and the problem of rampant inflation.  And at a time when the “war babies” were descending upon the schools, teachers were leaving the profession in droves—some of the female teachers perhaps, because they were having babies.  In addition, there were increasing national security concerns as a result of the expansionist communism of the Soviet Union and communist China.  The public, in other words, was in a bad mood.  So when the problems which progressivism had wrought in schools began to be made, progressive educators made an easy target.

When Willard E. Goslin, a nationally known progressive educator, was fired in June of 1950 as superintendent of schools in Pasadena, California, the battle began in earnest.  Goslin had been deposed by an array of conservative groups who saw educational progressivism as one of the many tentacles of a larger political and cultural menace.  It was the Cold War, and many Americans were now looking askance at individuals and organizations which had been a part of social progressivism, which they saw, with some reason, to be a part the larger global socialist movement now associated with America’s chief international nemeses, the Soviet Union and communist China.  The Korean War began in the same year, and Americans were once again sending young men to be killed in foreign places they had never heard about, fighting armies who professed a political agenda which seemed to many to be similar to that espoused by those who were directing the nation’s schools.  The radical rhetoric of the Progressive Education Association’s “Counts Report” was now a part of the identity of progressive education, and the public was now taking notice.  Counts had succeeded in painting a target on the door of the organization’s headquarters and the enemies of progressivism were taking aim.

There was plenty of anti-communist sentiment that was as reactionary as progressivism was radical.  The National Council for American Education, for example, published a pamphlet entitled, “How Red is the Little Red Schoolhouse?” “The pamphlet’s cover,” said Douglas T. Miller and Marion Nowak, “pictured a Soviet soldier injecting a hypodermic labeled ‘organized Communist Propaganda’ into the Little Red Schoolhouse.”[xxvi]  But there were other, less reactionary conservative critics concerned about the state of education. In the same year, Life Magazine devoted an entire issue to the crisis is American schools.[xxvii]  There were also a number of books by more level-headed critics.  The response of the progressivists was to accuse its critics of being “enemies of education,” a tactic they have often used since against those who disagreed with their educational philosophy.  But that defense did little to deflect the onslaught.

The perceived political radicalism of the movement, along with it the lack of academic emphasis combined to doom progressivism.  Its real problems were bad enough, but these were aggravated by the practices of its less competent adherents, who took what were already bad ideas and made them worse:

As progressive education became the new orthodoxy in the second quarter of the century, however, it was seldom practiced as originally preached.  Much of the intellectual vitality of the movement seemed sapped.  School curricula had been vastly expanded but often at the expense of learning basic skills thoroughly.  In some schools students could choose from such subjects as how to date, dance, dress properly, drive a car, decorate a living room, flycast, shop, cook, curl hair, budget money.  These were functional skills to be sure, but not when they nearly replaced reading, writing, and mathematics.[xxviii]

The Life Adjustment Movement was a sort of break-off group from the main column of progressivism.  It was the central split resulting from the chief fissure in the philosophy of progressivism: that between the social reform ideal and the ideal of preparing children for “real life.”  Dewey had tried to keep the two ideas together, but they came apart readily, and the Life Adjustment movement marched under the latter banner.  It was even more self-evidently anti-academic.  “We shall some day accept the thought that it is just as illogical to assume that every boy must be able to read,” declared one professional educator addressing the National Association of Secondary-School Principals in the early fifties, “as it is that each one must be able to perform on the violin, that it is no more reasonable to require that teach girl shall spell well than it is that each one shall bake a good cherry pie.”[xxix] The public anger at this kind of touchy-feely attitude among those who were supposed to be readying their children for college caused a firestorm of protest. 

Not only was the political and social reform aspect of progressivism undermining American values, but it was dumbing down the younger generation.  Numerous pamphlets and books were produced by the critics.  In 1955, Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It.  Flesch was an editor at the Saturday Evening Post and had written several popular books on how to write clearly and understandably.  The book, an assault on the new “look-say” method of reading used by the progressivists (one species of the larger genus of whole word reading strategies that neglected decoding skills) and a defense of the systematic phonics they had thrown out of schools, was a model of the clear and compelling prose he preached.  Although it did not directly attack progressivism, it fit in perfectly with the wider critique of the progressivist attempt to dumb down a nation.  “[A]s the book sat on the best-seller list week after week, giving rise to dozens of articles in national magazines, it strongly reinforced the notion that the progressive educators were the culprits.”[xxx] 

Although much of the criticism of progressivism seemed itself a bit radical, the anti-progressivism movement also produced some of the most reasoned and articulate defenses of traditional education ever penned.  Among the bevy of anti-progressive books published during the period was Educational Wastelands, by Arthur Bestor.  It was Bestor who proved to be the progressivists’ worst enemy.  “[It] was Bestor,” said Cremin, “whose attacks were destined to exert the most telling impact on the progressive movement.”[xxxi] Bestor was a history professor who did a short stint at Columbia Teachers College but had also taught at Stanford and the University of Illinois. His scholarly credentials were impeccable, and no one could plausibly accuse him of radicalism.  He launched his attack in the American Scholar, the Phi Beta Kappa society’s flagship journal.  And that was only the beginning.  “There followed,” says Cremin, “a series of brilliantly polemical essays in The New Republic, the Scientific Monthly, and the American Association of University Professors Bulletin that ripped savagely into the theory and practice of the life-adjustment movement—and then, in 1953, Educational Wastelands.”[xxxii] Educational Wastelands stands as the quintessential case for traditional education.  It may well be the single greatest defense of traditional education ever written.

“If we really believe that education is vital to our safety,” said Bestor, “then we need to know exactly what kind of schooling constitutes genuine education, and what kind is merely a gaudy show.”  Freely quoting Thomas Jefferson, he articulated clearly and succinctly what he thought education was:

The kind of schooling that is vital to a democratic society is the kind that results in the "spread of information" and the "diffusion of knowledge, … the kind that recognizes that "the general mind must be strengthened by education;" the kind that aims to make the people "enlightened" and to "inform their discretion." These are the ends that the schools must serve if a free people are to remain free. These, be it noted, are intellectual ends. Genuine education, in short, is intellectual training.[xxxiii]

Bestor slammed the progressives, not for failing to educate well, but for failing to educate at all.  The problem, he argued, was not that the nation’s educators were not implementing education properly or not teaching well.  The problem was that they were opposed to education itself.  They had redefined what schools were for: “The concept of education that I have just stated is not guiding the American public schools today,” he charged. “It is a concept which professors of education have repudiated, and which they caricature at every opportunity.”  Progressive educators were not failing to meet the nation’s education goals; rather, they simply did not have education goals.  The schools had detached themselves from the scholarly world altogether, setting up what he called an “interlocking directorate” made up of educations bureaucrats, education professors and teaching colleges, all of which served to house the enemies of learning.

 Bestor’s book, along with Albert Lynd’s Quackery in the Public Schools, Robert Hutchins’ The Conflict in Education, and Paul Woodring’s Let’s talk Sense about Our Schools, served to provide the intellectual grounding for the rejection of progressivism.

So discredited had the progressive movement become that in 1955 that the New York Times announced that the Progressive Education Association was closing its doors.  Its publication, Progressive Education continued publication for two more years, and then folded.  Then, on October 4, 1957, an event occurred that served to drive a stake through the heart of the whole progressive education movement, and it came from outer space.

“Sputnik” was the name of the first orbiting satellite launched into space, and it was launched by the Russians.  It was followed a month later by another Russian satellite which carried a live dog.  It was a stunning public relations victory for the Soviet Union, which could now plausibly claim that it had proven its technological superiority over the United States by beating the U.S. into space.  A stricken nation now looked for the cause.  What had happened?  How had the Russians been able to fly past America on the road to scientific progress?  There was only one answer: the schools. All fingers were now pointed toward progressive education.  “After two Sputniks,” lamented Douglas T. Miller and Marion Nowak in their irreverent and defensive treatment, The Fifties: The Way We Really Were: 

the already swelling outcry against the educational system became a deafening roar.  Everyone joined in—the President, the Vice-President, admirals, generals, morticians, grocers, bootblacks, bootleggers, realtors, racketeers—all lamenting the fact that we didn’t get a hunk of metal orbiting the earth and blaming this tragedy on the sinister Deweyites who had plotted to keep little Johnny from learning to read.  Special commissions were set up.  Congressional hearings were held.  TV and radio stations interrupted the flow of commercials and soap operas to air educational grievances.[xxxiv]   

Blood was in the water, and a full feeding frenzy was on.  In 1958, Life magazine devoted four full issues to the “Crisis in Education.” “The schools are in terrible shape,” it said, “…What has long been an ignored national problem, Sputnik has made a recognized crisis.”[xxxv] It was “the deepest educational crisis in the nation’s history,” said Cremin.[xxxvi]  

By the end of the 1950s, the progressive education movement was completely discredited, its utopian, child-centered, social reformist agenda in tatters.  It is hard to find any other popular cultural movement in American history that had experienced so fine a rise and so final a fall. So successful had it become in the 20s, 30s, and 40s that it was irrefutably the reigning pedagogy in nation’s schools, but in the 50s it had met its cultural Waterloo.  Now nothing was left to do but gather up the wounded—and retreat to the teachers colleges.

The Swinging Pendulum

Diane Ravitch has referred to the “pendulum swing” that has characterized education policy in the 20th century: the movement from a progressivist emphasis in schools to a traditionalist one and back again.  When the Life Adjustment movement was driven from schools at the end of the 1950s, there was a short-lived attempt to return to the trappings of more traditional academic programs.  But the attempt was unenthusiastic and short lived, perhaps due to the lack of understanding and training on the part of professional educators. 

Since the early 20th century teacher education has been conducted largely at the hands of teachers colleges, where progressivism in its various guises has always found a refuge.  Like the monster in Stephen King’s horror novel, It, progressivism runs in cycles lasting from 20 to 30 years that go something like this:

·       Acquires a new label and is trotted out of university education departments as a novel educational idea;

·       Enjoys brief public support through appealing rhetoric;

·        Attracts critical attention when it lowers academic achievement;

·       Is expelled from schools by parents and the general public, going back into hibernation in teachers colleges;

·       Acquires a new label when the public forgets how badly in worked the last time, as the cycle begins again

In other words, once the progressivist monster has eaten its cultural fill, it is driven out of schools by torch and pitchfork-wielding parents, going into hibernation in teachers colleges, and awaiting the right time to return once again.

The year 1960 saw the publication of A. S. Neill’s book Summerhill, a book Ravitch calls “one of the most influential books of the era.”  It described the progressive school Neill founded in Suffolk, England in 1921.  Neill was perhaps one of the most extreme of the romanticists operating in the world of education in the 20th century. “I believe that to impose anything by authority is wrong,” he declared.  “The child should not do anything until he comes to the opinion—his own opinion—that it should be done.” He went on to refer to any external compulsion imposed on the child as “fascism.”[xxxvii]

Summerhill was the quintessential progressive school.  Ravitch describes Neill’s permissivist approach to education:

Echoing Rousseau, Neill wrote that “a child is innately wise and realistic.  If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.”  Neill renounced “all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction.” When children arrived at Summerhill, it was up to them to ask for lessons.  If they did not want any lessons, they were left undisturbed to play all day, if that was what they wanted, for months or even years (Neill proudly described one student who had spent twelve years at Summerhill without ever attending a single lesson).  Neill hated examinations, prizes, and marks, and he was contemptuous of books, which he considered “the least important apparatus in a school.” Summerhill had no special teaching methods, Neill wrote, “because we do not consider that teaching in itself matters very much.  Whether a school has or has not a special method for teaching long division is of no significance, for long division is of no importance except to those who want to learn it.  And the child who wants to learn long division will learn it no matter how it is taught.[xxxviii]

Neill was nothing if not consistent about his romanticism, and consequently his laissez faire approach extended to virtually every student activity, including sex, overlooking sexual liaisons between both students themselves, and students and teachers.  Somewhat along the lines of Aldous Huxley’s dystopia The Brave New World, Neill believed the sexual impulse should not only not be suppressed, but should be encouraged. “He maintained that unfettered heterosexual play was ‘the royal road’ to a healthy sex life,” says Ravitch, and was somewhat obsessive about the point. 

When Summerhill was published in 1960, not a single American bookseller placed an advanced order for it.  It was not yet time for the monster’s return.  But by about 1964, the public’s short memory had already forsaken it, and Neill’s book began to sell, and by 1970 it was selling at a clip of about 200,000 a year, and “was required reading in at least 600 university courses.”  Ravitch wryly remarks on the irony that a book on educational freedom would be “required reading in American universities.”[xxxix] Neill’s book was only the most notable of a spate of books released between 1964 and 1968 championing the new version of educational permissivism.  It was essentially the romantic progressivism of the 1930s repackaged and made to look new again, and it had a tonic effect on educators always looking for the latest thing and who had undoubtedly themselves forgotten what had happened in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, history (or any other legitimate academic subject) not being a strong suit in university education programs.  And it came at just the right time.

The counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s, in fact, seems in retrospect to have been the ideal cultural environment in which such educational ideas could thrive.  The period was marked by a cultural revolt among many young people whose motto was to “question authority,” and who professed not to “trust anyone over thirty.”  It was a time when a movement marked by immaturity was reaching maturity and where thousands joined hands, and, together as a group, proclaimed their individuality.  And, if their parents were wealthy enough to afford the requisite chemicals, they follow the advice of the Timothy Leary to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”  It seemed the perfect time for educators too to let it all hang out.  And they did.  “Meeting ‘the needs of youth’ was back in fashion,” says Ravitch, “’Relevance’ became both a slogan and a goal, to which many campuses responded by creating courses on revolution, youth movements, rock poetry, popular culture, and other topics intended to satisfy the student rebels.”

During this era, the word “requirements” became anathema.  College graduation requirements were reduced, and college entrance requirements, especially the foreign language requirement, tumbled; this, in turn, removed one of the most important incentives for studying a foreign language in high school. The demand for relevance in the curriculum encouraged students to turn inward and pursue their own interests; the necessity of appealing to students’ interest also spurred schools and colleges to “market” courses with alluring titles as if students were consumers in a vast education marketplace.[xl]

The term “progressive” having negative historical associations, the monster donned a new disguise: “Open Education.”  But, like the Life Adjustment movement, its unfortunate consequences quickly tarnished its reputation.  In his book Open Education and the American School, Roland Barth described his own attempt to impose open education on two inner city schools.  He recruited six teachers trained in open education who straightway moved their own desks to the back of the room, removed the rows of student desks, created “learning centers” for the now heterogeneously grouped children, and stood back and directed traffic.  But there was trouble in the new educational paradise:

The program succumbed to the resistance of both children and parents.  The multitude of choices confused the children; the more options were available, the less they were able to follow through on any one of them and the more disruptive they became.  Children “ganged up by tens and twenties outside the bathrooms and at the water fountains.  A teacher would turn his back on a class, to find only three of twenty-five youngsters left in the room when he turned around again.”  The children demanded “teacher-imposed order” and rejected teachers’ attempts to shift the responsibility for learning to them.[xli]

In three months, the program joined the growing scrapheap of abandoned progressive schemes.  Back came the teachers’ desks to the front of the room, back came the straight rows of student desks, back came ability grouping and hall passes and directive instructions.  The romanticists were foiled once again by the need for order and discipline.

Test scores reached a peak in 1963 and 1964, and then began a precipitous decline.  By 1975 parents had once again lit their torches, grabbed their pitchforks, and headed for the front doors of schoolhouses.  Panels and commissions once again set to work to identify the problem, and once again found that the problem wasn’t education done badly, but education not done at all.  One study of high school transcripts from 1964 to 1981 found a fractured curriculum, devalued coursework, and a curriculum overpopulated with nonacademic classes.  Most students were enrolled in the “general track.” “Neither academic nor vocation,” says Ravitch, “the general track consisted of courses such as driver education, general shop, remedial studies, consumer education, training for marriage and adulthood, health education, typing, and home economics.” Schools were failing to hit their educational targets because they weren’t aiming for them in the first place.

The educational ideology of the 1960s was a rehash of the progressivism of the 20s and 30s, but with a difference.  The older progressivism was the product of a larger cultural movement: it had come out of the Progressive Era and had in a sense been derived from it.  But the progressivism of the 60s was produced and sustained by what Arthur Bestor had described in the early 1950s as the “interlocking directorate” of teachers colleges, state education departments and teachers unions.  While the progressivism of the early 20th century was partly directed at breaking the hold of corruptive institutional interests (including labor unions) on schools, the new progressivism was driven by new institutional interests that were at least as corruptive.  In fact, as bad as the old labor unions were (teachers jobs in places like Chicago were handed out as part of the political patronage system), at least it wasn’t intentionally directed at purging academics from schools.  Progressive education—in all its manifestations—was.

The progressivism of the 20s and 30s, which morphed into the “life adjustment” movement of the 40s and 50s, which then became the “modern education” of the late 50s and early 60s, which was then recast as “open education” in the mid-60s and 70s, has manifested itself most recently in what is called “constructivism.”  Like all of the monster’s previous mutations, this one is animated by the soul of romanticism.  Students would be motivated to learn “only if they were active learners, constructing their own knowledge through their own discoveries.”[xlii]

The Corruption of the Disciplines

But its repeated chastisements at the hands of an angry public—not to mention the facts—has not left progressives bereft of lessons learned.  Its advocates are wiser in at least one regard: driving academic subjects out of schools has become increasingly problematic.  Parents have become more aware of the increasing ideological gulf between them and those who make education policy, and there is an increasing distrust of experts.  Consequently, progressivists began to shift their strategy.  Rather than simply try to push academic subjects out of the curriculum, they began an effort to change the academic disciplines themselves. 

This seems to have occurred first in reading instruction, which began in the 1930s to deemphasize phonics in favor of word guessing methods.  The typical example of this method is the Elson readings, better known as the “Dick and Jane” books, which began publication in 1930.  They used the “whole word” or “look-say” method of simply having children memorize whole words instead of sounding them out according to letter-sound correspondences.  It was this method that Rudolf Flesch savaged in his Why Johnny Can’t Read for producing a nation of illiterates. [quote from Flesch’s book here]. 

The long battle—what Harvard reading specialist Jeanne Chall called the “reading wars”—was thought by some to be over in 1967, when Chall concluded on the basis of extensive research, that children need to know both how to decode words (phonics) and how to read good literature.  The problem with progressives was that they were not particularly concerned with what actually worked but seemed more concerned with the ideology of reading which, from their romanticist perspective, required freeing children from the oppressive idea that there was an actual order inherent in language that was being forced on children.  But in the 80s and 90s the debate flared up again with the onset of the “whole language” movement.  Whole language was a wholly constructivist approach to reading described by its originators as a “psycholinguistic guessing game” which purported, as with all progressive approaches, to address the “whole child” by giving him “authentic” reading experiences.  Reading instruction, said whole language advocates, had to be “whole, real, and relevant.” Consequently, it spurned not only phonics, but explicit instruction in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Children were encouraged to use “invented spelling,” and teachers were warned against correcting the writing of their students.  Children were to read when they wanted to read, not by being forced by a teacher to do it.

The nation’s schools of education, long committed to progressive educational ideas, provided a ready audience of a theory that said that children are naturally motivated to learn and that they need to be insulated from instruction, textbooks, tests, and anything else that might interfere with their natural desire to learn.

A 1985 report, Becoming a Nation of Readers, found, once again, that children taught using phonics are better readers, as did another 1990 report by Marilyn Jager Adams.  But the most damning setback for the movement came after California launched a statewide whole language program in 1987, which it implemented over a nine-year period, only to land the state at the bottom of National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores in 1996.  The statewide whole language experiment, far from improving reading, put the Golden State behind Mississippi in national reading comparisons.  Bill Honig, the state superintendent of public instruction over the period, was so chastened by the experience that he public repudiated the very plan he had instituted—surely one of the few times a public official has admitted publicly that he had blown it.[xliii]

The corruption of mathematics instruction came in the 1960s with what came to be called the “New Math.” The professed purpose of the New Math was to place more emphasis on concepts as opposed to procedures.  Like whole word—or look-say, or whole language—reading methods, the New Math was entirely progressive.  It too would liberate children from medieval methods of classroom instruction.  There would be no more “drill-and-kill” memorization of multiplication tables and “boring practice” of long division.  Instead, students would be introduced early to more advanced mathematical concepts.  As a result, facility with basic mathematical operations was replaced with “the concepts and language of sets, algebraic properties of number systems, non-standard numeration systems, informal properties of number systems, and number theory.”[xliv] Once again the progressives ignored the order of learning, confusing it with the order of knowledge.  As Morris Kline, a prominent mathematician and writer who excoriated the movement in his 1973 book, Why Johnny Can’t Add pointed out, the proponents of the New Math were promoting an entirely top-down approach to teaching mathematics.  A method Bestor had earlier compared to trying to build a house “by starting with the roof first.” They really thought that the best way to teach the subject was by beginning with the abstract, rather than the concrete. “In every case,” said Kline, “learning proceeds from the concrete to the abstract and not vice-versa.”

The logical approach to teaching [Kline’s term for the top-down approach] is reminiscent of a reply that Samuel Johnson gave to a man who asked Johnson for further explanation of some argument he had given.  Johnson barked, “I have found you an argument but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.”

 Kline criticized the New Math approach for its deductive, rather than inductive approach, and for “the premature teaching of abstractions such as abstract algebraic concepts, linear vector spaces, finite geometries, set theory, symbolic logic and fundamental analysis…”[xlv] But if Kline was the New Math’s chief critic, he also gave the appearance of serving as its undertaker.  “By the early 1970s,” he declared, “the New Math was dead.”[xlvi]

But was the New Math monster—a Grendel terrorizing the educational mead hall, spawn to its progressivist mother—really dead?  Or had it simply slunk off to the teachers colleges to lick its wounds? 

With 1967 as the peak of New Math influence, by the mid-1970s it was driven out, followed by the customary interregnum of a more sober but merely ostensible traditionalism that always follows a progressivist binge.  And, as usual, it didn’t last long.  By 1989, the thing was back, this time in the form of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards (NCTM), with a program known among many educators as “Reform Math.”  But it soon became apparent that the NCTM authors, like the New Math proponents that preceded them, were intent on driving drill and practice out of schools again, only this time to replace them with “student-led activities, mathematical games, working with manipulatives (e.g. blocks and sticks), using calculators, and group learning…”[xlvii]  It also “discounted the importance of correct answers.” Again—like the progressivists of the 20s and 30s, who were replaced by the life adjustment movement—the meliorists were out, and the pragmatists were in, both being variants of the old romanticism:

The underlying approach of the NCTM standards was solidly grounded in the familiar principle of progressive education that learning should be student-centered, not teacher-led, and dependent on students’ activities rather than teachers’ direction.  The new theories of the 1980s were similar to the pedagogical thinking of the 1920s and 1930s but were called “constructivism,” rather than progressivism.[xlviii]

The sheep’s clothing was marked “Reform Math,” but the wolf underneath was the “New Math.”  Some simply called it the “New New Math.”  Again the torches were lit and citizen posses formed. They formed a group called “Mathematically Correct,” made up of mathematicians, parents, and citizens, mostly from California, where a particularly malignant form of mathematical progressivism had metastasized. One of the forms in which the constructivist math reappeared was in such programs as “Everyday Math” or “Chicago Math.”  These programs were tried in, among other places, Penfield, New York, which, because of the close proximity of companies such as Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb, housed a significant number of engineers and scientists. In 2004-2005, they became the advance guard of the parent educational militia there. 

When in the spring of 2005 Jim Munch became the town’s top math student, the school district paraded him around as an example of the success of the district’s constructivist math program.  But it turned out that Munch, far from having benefited from the schools’ program, had in fact succeeded despite it.  “My whole experience in math the last few years has been a struggle against the program,” he told a New York Times reporter.  “Whatever I’ve achieved, I’ve achieved in spite of it.  Kids do not do better learning math themselves.  There’s a reason we go to school, which is that there’s someone smarter than us with something to teach us.”  One parent complained that she had taken her daughter to McDonalds for lunch and realized she couldn’t calculate the change from a $20 bill.  Another told the reporter that her daughter had to solve a multiplication problem by “counting 23 groups of four apples.” As it turned out, many of the parents in Penfield were taking their kids to Kumon to learn their math because of the school’s insistence on the constructivist idea that students should “construct their own knowledge” through their own reasoning process.[xlix] If the schools refused to actually teach them, they would take them to someone who would.

In 1997, the state of California abandoned the NCTM standards, and other states and localities have since followed suit.  “Reform math” still lives in the form of a new version of the standards was released in 2000, which was written to quell some of the dissent.  But the newer version still has much of the progressivist emphasis of the original. 

Other disciplines were longer in becoming infected with the progressivist spirit.  In 1994, the Goals 2000 program was inaugurated, and a federal board created to set state and national standards in various subjects.  The first set of standards came that year.  They were the national history standards.  But when they were released to the public, it soon became apparent that many of the left-leaning political and social goals of the larger progressivist movement had snuck in.  That fall, former National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Lynne Cheney (whose husband Dick Cheney later became Vice President under George W. Bush) issued a stirring and widely read condemnation of the history standards in article titled, “The End of History, published in the Wall Street Journal:

“Imagine,” she declared, “an outline for the teaching of American history in which George Washington makes only a fleeting appearance and is never described as our first president. Or in which the foundings of the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women are considered noteworthy events, but the first gathering of the U.S. Congress is not.”  She went on to savage the document’s poorly concealed political correctness:

African and Native American societies, like all societies, had their failings, but one would hardly know it from National Standards. Students are encouraged to consider Aztec "architecture, skills, labor systems, and agriculture." But not the practice of human sacrifice.

Counting how many times different subjects are mentioned in the document yields telling results. One of the most often mentioned subjects, with 19 references, is McCarthy and McCarthyism. The Ku Klux Klan gets its fair share, too, with 17. As for individuals, Harriet Tubman, an African-American who helped rescue slaves by way of the underground railroad, is mentioned six times. Two white males who were contemporaries of Tubman, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, get one and zero mentions, respectively. Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk and the Wright brothers make no appearance at all.[l]

The authors of the standards consistently portrayed America in a bad light, and the country’s warts were exaggerated to the point where it seemed as if it had few other features.  But it wasn’t only the political agenda that so bothered the critics.  As might be guessed, some of the same educational philosophies plagued the history standards that seemed to have seeped into everything else.  UCLA historian Gary Nash, far from trying to douse the fears ignited by Cheney, seemed happy to throw gasoline on the flames.  The goal of the history standards, he said, which he had helped to formulate, “was to bring about nothing short of a new American revolution in history education … we want to bury rote learning and the emphasis on dates, facts, places, events and one **** thing after another.”[li] He invoked an unlikely vision of American students, apparently crushed under an avalanche of facts and dates, their minds overstuffed with knowledge.  It was the job of educators, he said, to “let children out of the prison of facts and dates and make them active learners.”

A national debate ensued, with the initial conservative opposition being joined even by liberals. U. S. Secretary of State Richard Riley washed his hands of the project, and by January of 1995, the heat had become so intense that the United States Senate voted to condemn the standards in a vote of 99 to 1.  Review panels were subsequently set up to correct the most egregious problems, but the taint of controversy permanently hampered the effort to implement them on any large scale.

In English too, the progressives attempted to eat away at the foundations of academics. But they picked a time when the public was on the alert.  In fact, the English standards were defunded almost in embryo.  As Ravitch puts it, they were an “unmitigated disaster.”  In 1994, because of a clear lack of content and standards, the Department of Education simply cut off funding.  The groups writing the English standards, made up of the educational establishment (now the permanent lair of progressivism), went on with their work under other auspices, and belched forth another permissivist document that purported to herald educational success by undermining academics:

The document buzzed with fashionable pedagogical concepts but lacked any concrete reference to the importance of accurate language usage, correct spelling and grammar, great contemporary or classical literature, or what students at any grade level should actually know and be able to do.

            Like the history standards, the document became target practice for critics across the political spectrum.  “[T]he standards statement,” said J. Martin Rochester of the University of Missouri, “essentially says we should not hold students to any standards!”[lii] Like the history standards, the English standards have themselves largely become irrelevant, but the mischievous influence of the philosophy that undergirds them lurks behind almost every program and policy invoked by the public school establishment.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the nation finds its education system not fundamentally improved in any important respect, and trapped in a matrix of structural impediments that prevent the implementation of any real reform.  Extinguished reform proposals lie about the educational system, to borrow the words of Thomas Huxley, like strangled snakes around the cradle of Hercules.  They don’t work for two reasons: the first involves the practical concerns of those who staff schools and state education departments.  For them, reform proposals serve a primarily cosmetic purpose.  In the face of what seem to be intractable education problems, they must at least look like they are doing something, anything.  And they know that, whatever reform ideas are now being implemented, they will be replaced by others, equally attractive sounding, which ultimately will have no fundamental effect. This at least has been the obvious pattern.

The second has to do with the ideological concerns of those who inhabit the teachers colleges.  The teachers colleges are the spawning ground for almost every bad education idea that has been devised in the past 50 years.  And they are the ones who train the teachers and administrators; they are the true believers of educational progressivism.  But, despite repeated experiments, their ideas have yet to prove to be workable (or wise). They seem incapable of solving educational problems probably becuase their philosophy lies at the heart of the worst problem plaguing schools: an anti-academic attitude that affects not only what courses are taught and not taught, but how they are taught.  If academic performance has not been improved in America’s schools, it is largely because those who fashion the proposals to correct the problem are not primarily concerned with academic performance.

The first thing that has to happen is for educators and the public to gain a clear picture of what schools are for.  And once that it is clear, they need to come to a common understanding of how to accomplish that purpose.  It became fashionable at the end of the 20th century for progressives of all stripes to declare that we needed to “build a bridge to the 21st century.”  But whatever bridge we plan on crossing should be to something better, not to the failed educational ideas of the past.

© Martin Cothran

[i]              Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957 (New York: Vintage Books, 1961).

[ii]              Cremin, p. 26.

[iii]             Cremin, pp. 26-27.

[iv]             Cremin, p. 28.

[v]              Quoted in Cremin, p. 30.

[vi]             Cremin, p. 31.

[vii]            Quoted by Cremin, p. 34.

[viii]           Paul Douglas, American Apprenticeship and the Industrial Revolution (New York, 1921).

[ix]             Cremin, p. 91.

[x]              Cremin, p. 101.

[xi]             Cremin, p. 101.

[xii]            Cremin, p. 103.

[xiii]           Cremin, p. 110.

[xiv]           Cremin, p. 112.

[xv]            R. W. Livingstone, A Defense of Classical Education (London: Macmillan & Co.), pp. 1-2.

[xvi]           Tracy Lee Simmons, Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002), p. 147.

[xvii]           Simmons, p. 148.

[xviii]          Simmons, p. 149.

[xix]           Cremin, p. 241.

[xx]            Cremin, p. 249.

[xxi]           Cremin, p. 258.

[xxii]           George S. Counts, “Dare Progressive Education be Progressive?” Progressive Education, Volume IX, Number 4, April 1932, Pages 257-263.

[xxiii]          Cremin, p. 264.

[xxiv]          Cremin, p. 269.

[xxv]           Quoted in Cremin, p. 336.

[xxvi]          Douglas T. Miller and Marion Nowak, The Fifties: The Way We Really Were (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1977), p. 248.

[xxvii]         Life, October 15, 1950.

[xxviii]        Miller & Nowak, p. 256.

[xxix]          Quoted in Miller & Nowak, pp. 257-258.

[xxx]           Miller & Nowak, p. 259.

[xxxi]          Cremin, p. 343.

[xxxii]         Cremin, p. 344.

[xxxiii]        Arthur Bestor, “Aimlessness in Education,” The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 75, No. 2 (Aug., 1952), pp. 109.

[xxxiv]        Miller & Nowak, pp. 259-260.

[xxxv]         Quoted by Miller & Nowak, p. 260.

[xxxvi]        Cremin, p. 339.

[xxxvii]        Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), p. 387.

[xxxviii]       Ravitch, p. 388.

[xxxix]        Ravitch, p. 387.

[xl]             Ravitch, p. 385.

[xli]            Ravitch, p. 400.

[xlii]           Chall, p. 441.

[xliii]           “The Reading Wars,” The Atlantic, Nov., 1997.

[xliv]           The National Advisory Committee on Mathematical Education (NACOME), Overview and Analysis of School Mathematics, K-12 (Washington, DC: The Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences, 1975), p. 9, quoted in Terese A. Herrera & Douglas T. Owens, “The ‘New Math’? Two Reform Movements in Mathematics Education,” Theory Into Practice, v. 40, No. 2 (Spring, 2001), p. 86.

[xlv]           Morris Kline, “Logic Versus Pedagogy,” The American Mathematical Monthly, v. 77, No. 3, (Mar., 1970), pp. 280-281.

[xlvi]           Quoted in Alan H. Schoenfeld, “The Math Wars,” Educational Policy, v. 18, No. 1, January and March 2004, p. 257.

[xlvii]          Ravitch, p. 439.

[xlviii]         Ravitch, p. 441.

[xlix]           “’Innovative’ Math, but Can You Count?” The New York Times, Nov. 9, 2005.

[l]              Lynne Cheney, "The End of History," Wall Street Journal (Oct. 20, 1994).

[li]              Quoted in Ravitch, p. 436.

[lii]             Ravitch, p. 438.


Rachel Tolman Terry said...

Do you think that part of the problem with teacher colleges is that professors are expected to publish? It seems that academic journals only want to publish "new" theories and research, so the professors are constantly trying to create something that hasn't been seen before. And because they're so invested in their new theories, that's what they focus on and pass on to their students. Outside of Principia and The Consortium, I'm not seeing much published on anything classical.

Marc Ethier said...

I was brought here from Greg Ashman's blog ( I'll repost what I posted over there:

"Having read Martin Cothran's essay on the history of progressive education in the US, I'm not sure I agree with all the connections he's making. He views progressive education as this hydra that always respawns when you cut one of its heads off, which isn't totally off-base, but he ascribes some controversial or discredited trends in education to progressivism when I'm not sure they should necessarily be. For example, the New Math of the 1960s, which he claims "was entirely progressive", but in my understanding came from a desire to catch up to the Russians in science after Sputnik (Cothran also claims Russian superiority in science was because of Western progressive education), and is the result of having a (possibly too) large input from mathematicians in the mathematics curriculum. Indeed, New Math is excoriated as having been too abstract, but modern educational progressives would like mathematics class to be wholly concrete; Cothran himself points at this when discussing Reform Math. Can progressives be blamed both for math class being too abstract and too concrete?"

I should also point out that the essay links progressive education with "progressive" (left-wing) political ideas. While it is true that, at least today (and in the past as well, if the essay accurately describes history), some proponents of progressive education also promote the curriculum actively taking a left-wing political stance (today, that would be so-called "woke" education and the emphasis on EDI), this connection is not a necessary one. For example, back in the early 2000s, my friend who was studying at a faculty of education was confronted with an instructor who espoused both constructivism, and the idea that bullied students deserve what they get and gay students should be forced to get conversion therapy. That instructor's main ideology seemed to be to cut down tall poppies, students who in any way stand out from the norm. In the same vein, appreciation for a certain type of traditional education (say, the value of the classics, or of drill and hard work) does not imply a conservative political ideology.

As for Rachel Tolman Terry's question, I think the low quality of some of the research coming from faculties of education has something to do with the expectation that professors regularly publish and, yes, the fact that "new" things are more interesting. There's also the fact that many professors of education or teacher trainers have very little actual teaching experience, at least at the primary or secondary level (and I include myself here). They are therefore more likely to fall prey to romantic ideals that aren't actually applicable to an actual classroom environment.

Elizabeth Nonweiler (Teach to Read) said...

I found this easy and interesting to read.

I wonder why those training new teachers are so wedded to constructivist ideas, when there is so much evidence to show they're wrong. Why do they not understand that these notions are discriminatory, because they hurt the least privileged more than the privileged in society? Why do they hate the idea of direct systematic well-structured teaching so much? Young children enjoy being taught directly and direct teaching is a relief for older students who have failed in the past.

However, I am naturally suspicious of arguments that use in phrases like, 'belched forth another permissivist document'. It makes the argument sound like a rant, instead of a helpful narrative about what has happened. I suggest words like 'belched' are replaced with more thoughtful words.

The strange fact is that most people, who think it's better for children to learn without being taught, are well-meaning. They will not be persuaded by antagonistic language that infers they are bad. People can be influenced and can change. I was influenced by argument and experience and I changed.