What is Progressive Education?

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“Progressive” Education and Taping Kids to Dumpsters

Cartoon of student being taped to a dumpster as part of a progressive social /physics lesson.


In an op-ed back in March, syndicated columnist Walter Williams slammed public schools for their absurd policies. One of the examples he cited was of Metro Nashville Public School administrators’ decision to stop posting honor rolls or displaying academic results on bulletin boards for fear that the high marks bright students earn might make the dullards feel bad about themselves.


And that reminded me of another academic inanity that occurred in a public school near my adopted hometown of Nashville, which unfortunately illustrates that being a dullard may be all it takes to get you on the public school payroll in Tennessee.


Splayed across the front page of “The Tennessean” about a year ago was a photo of students duct-taping a classmate to a dumpster. What looked like a criminal act or cruel prank was actually a “team-building” exercise that educators at a local high school had concocted to promote “cooperation and communication” among students. (How? The admiring article never explained.)


Another such team-builder had kids pair up and lean on each other’s outstretched arms, London-Bridge style, as they inched sideways across ground-level beams, trying not to step off. This brilliant piece of scholarship, dubbed “wild woosey [sic]” was supposed to induce a sense of trust among classmates. Little wonder why so many kids emerge from public schools wild and woozy (and unable to spell “woozy”) as opposed to civilized and alert.


Certainly games can be good teaching tools. But none of these games involved grasping facts or developing thinking skills. Instead, they were all aimed at promoting “interdependence” and becoming “more social.”


Certainly parents want their children to know how to communicate and cooperate with others, in other words, to be sociable. But that is not the legitimate purpose of education.


Why not? Because communication is valuable only if one possesses mental content worth communicating. Cooperation is valuable only if the one you’re cooperating with is rational.


Thus, thinking skills and a command of facts are the essentials of education. Otherwise a student would be unable to distinguish the communication of a Ben Franklin from that of an Adolf Hitler, and would be as likely to cooperate with one as the other.


The shortage of factual content in public schools is no accident. It’s a consequence of a doctrine of education teachers themselves learn in the universities, called “socialization.”


The socialization approach, known by the innocuous title “Progressive education,” has dominated the educational establishment ever since philosopher John Dewey ushered it in early last century. According to Dewey, the purpose of school is to encourage “the child’s own social activities.”


“The mere absorbing of facts and truths,” Dewey maintained, “is so exclusively individual an affair that it…tends toward selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for…mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.”


Imagine if Galileo had spurned the “mere” truths of astronomy in order to bow to his era’s social standard, Church dogma.


Or imagine if the Wright Brothers had forfeited aeronautical facts to a society that perhaps felt man wasn’t meant to fly. Yet that’s precisely what might have happened if the socialization doctrine had been in full force when Orville and Wilbur Wright were growing up.


I exaggerate the dangers of Progressive education? Listen to a prominent teacher at the 1992 National Reading Conference: “[We] would like to replace the desire for objective knowledge of reality and truth, the desire to be in touch with reality…with a desire for solidarity with the community.”


Apparently “solidarity with the community” is a siren’s song whose lyrics matter not. Imagine if a child complied with this teacher’s wish and jettisoned his “desire to be in touch with reality.” Then what? Then anything! Detached from what’s real, maybe he’d pull a knife on a classmate – or on the teacher quoted above (who then no doubt would implore him to think rationally).


So there it is. From the poison pen of a philosopher last century to the inane words of a teacher last decade to the dumpster ditty in a public school last year, the socialization mongers are busily sacrificing kids’ minds for the sake of society. And evidence is amassing of just how nonsensical – and dangerous – that is.


It’s high time we toss Progressive education in the dumpster, instead of paying “educators” to tape kids to one.

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  1. Hear! Hear!