Reflections on Progressive Education

For the Progressive theorist, education is one great, extended experiment for which society is bound to pay. Here in America the progressive experiments (it would not be just to call it a single experiment) have continued for nearly 100 years, during which the inevitable resistance and the internal contradictions of progressive theory have convinced many that the assumptions of Progressive education need to be re-examined.

Yet, because Progressivism is an on-going experiment, there is no end in sight.

If we can find a counter-thesis to Christian classical education, it would be Progressive education. (More realistically, education is triangulated: on one hand is Progressivism and on the other Rationalism. Balancing the extremes and integrating what is just in each is Christian classical education.)

Progressive education claims to be entirely empirical, appealing to the methods of the natural sciences as the only means to certain knowledge and the only reliable source for trustworthy teaching methodologies. Consequently, Prog Ed concerns itself only with material and efficient causes – that which is observable and measurable – and dismisses as superstitious such notions as purpose (final cause) and idea (formal cause).

Because Prog Ed accepts only the scientic as intelligent, the children they teach are reduced to material beings, lacking a spirit, if not a soul. Knowledge is no longer a spiritual reality, but at its most stable a chemical mixture in the brain. Knowing, formerly a contemplative activity, is reduced to an unstable process of transaction or to a “memorandum of conditions of their appearance.”

“Things in their immediacy are unknown and unknowable,” Dewey tells us. If he simply means that we cannot know them scientifically while we are encountering them, he is quite right. But my concern is what he has done with knowledge. He doesn’t suggest that we can know “things in their immediacy” in some other way, but that they are “unknown and unknowable.” Clearly he has little or no notion of what James Taylor describes in his book, Poetic Knowledge.

And yet, this very notion of poetic knowledge should have been the strength of Dewey’s theory. He clearly grasps the unified, interactive, and existential nature of experience. He holds to a dynamic, flowing, experiential theory of knowledge; but, for whatever reason, he never grasps this idea.

The reason he doesn’t may be found in that last word.

The Progressive educator does not believe in ideas in any philosophical sense. He is convinced that Darwin proved that things do not have a permanent nature, that nature itself is in perpetual flux, and that nothing is eternal. Thus, the child is not the Image of God and what the child’s mind does has no link to anything eternal, but only to the material world around him. Ideas themselves are, therefore (and since they exist only in the child’s mind) not eternal, but always in transition: permanently changing.

Dewey was responding to the extreme idealism of the 19th century, especially as formulated by Hegel. But it seems to me that he went to far the other way. The child is material. Knowledge is entirely contingent, changing itself and of changing things, therefore unstable. Knowing is itself an ongoing experiment by the knower. It is not that we see through a glass darkly, knowing only in part. Rather, there is no part that is always there to know. In any old-fashioned sense, we cannot know at all.

Knowledge is done by a changing material object and is of another changing material object. It is a transaction between two changing things, not an acquisition by a person (a subject knowing) of some permanent quality in another person or thing (an object known). An idea, therefore, is the fancy of a mind, but has no independent, permanent existence.

I can see how Dewey and Progressive educators can come to these conclusions when they have begun their discussion with the insistance on natural science as the only legitimate form of inquiry. But I have two problems, both of which merit mention.

One, as a Christian, I am not bound by that limitation. I believe in authority outside myself. I recognize that as an empirical matter virtually everything everybody knows is derived from what somebody else has told him. That is why the topic of authority is such a vital part of classical rhetoric: we need to learn to assess and judge authority, not to assert our arbitrary authority over it.

Two, as a practical and empirical matter, Progressive theories undercut education. They do so in a number of ways, some of which are hinted at above. Here I will merely point out the pervasive despair and hypocricy that permeate American education precisely because students no longer believe knowledge is possible but they also recognize that their success and income are tied to their academic performance. Dewey’s sophisticated explanations of the dynamics of knowledge are hard to understand. It took me quite a lot of reflection to figure out what he was getting at and I got mostly B’s and above in college.

What the typical high school takes out of Dewey’s explanation we can’t know because the typical high school student is never taught the theories behind the experiments to which he is being subjected. But he drinks the water of Progressive education when he walks the halls of his center of information administration, known falsely as a school, from class to class through a dis-integrated sequence of unrelated activities. After a few years, cynicism takes a firm hold of his mind and soul. And also of the disheartened teachers who expected to accomplish so much when they left the Progressive teacher’s college, learning the fine art of knowledge as flux.

More later.

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