Reflections on Progressivism, Part II

Not only the child and his knowledge are reduced by Progressivism. So are what we used to call virtues. Nietzsche reduced virtues to values to underscore his theory that we all have our own values which are dynamic and relative. No adult has the right to impose values on a child because values themselves are unstable. What you claim to value may be exposed by experience as a sham. What you do value may be altered by experience.

The premises are somewhat obvious. I am such stuff as dreams are made on, and consequently what I think I value, what I want to be committed to, may expose me to ridicule when I fail to live up to my beliefs and values. Fine. Adults should not impose values on children. A fine application. Only, the application doesn’t arise from the lesson. If values are unstable and relative, whose to say I shouldn’t impose values on children. Why should I submit to the values of the tyrant who insists on such an absolute application?

But what if there are values that are not unstable and relative? What if there are things we ought to value? In that case, the question of imposing values on children is altered. Of course I must not impose MY values on children. But if the cosmos itself emodies values, or if God Himself has revealed His values, then my role is not to impose but to submit.

What reason is there for the Progressive educator not to impose his values on children? What would compel him, for example, to limit the extent of his experimentation? What would compel him to treat children with dignity? What if he changes his mind? Law and a sense of common decency help. But what happens when the Progressive educator determines that law and decency no longer hold the value they once did. After all, both have changed significantly over the past century.

On the other hand, there is plenty to restrict me in my relations with children. I am bound by the law of nature and of nature’s God to respect their infinite dignity. I cannot harm the child, not because my unstable value system forbids it today, but because God and Nature (two things expelled from Progressive thought) prohibit it permanently.

Children know right and wrong, probably better than adults, we do a fine job of confusing them when we convince them that they only can know what is scientifically demonstrable and that they should follow their impulses. Convince them of those two things and children become helpless against clever adults.

Even  meaning is reduced in Progressive theory. Experience is meaningful and language makes it so. Here is how he puts it, “When an event has meaning, its potential consequences become its integral and funded feature. When the potential consequences are important and repeated, they form the very nature and essence of a thing: it’s defining, identifying, and distinguishing form. As meaning, future consequences already belong to the thing.”

Thus, if I understand him rightly and in context, Dewey has reduced meaning to consequences. I cannot possibly argue that meaning does not include consequences. But that it is reduced to only consequences is a consequence of his radically empirical theory.

Something means something to us if it alters things, if it changes us, if we can act on it. But it has no meaning in and of itself and to me it has no meaning that is not related to me. I would submit that in so arguing, Dewey is making “man the measure of all things.”

You can imagine that if the Progressive theorist reduces method to only scientific experimentation,  the child to merely a material being who responds to material and efficient causes, knowledge and knowing to nothing more than an interactive process, virtue to unstable values rooted in environmental interactions, meaning to consequences, then, along with all these reductions, there must also be an alteration in teaching.

And indeed there is. Because of time and the nature of this forum, I will list a few of these consequences. Perhaps I’ll be able to discuss them more later on. I hope you’ll feel to respond with your own insights.

First, working backward, Progressive theory places extreme emphasis on “consequences,” especially as they are measurable, related to application, and affiliated with power.

Second, it displaces contemplation, because contemplation is rooted in the notion that there is something other than me worth knowing, something that is stable and knowable. You see the diminished value of contemplation in the tendency to avoid geometry in modern math programs and in the tendency to approach literature as samples to be collected instead of embodied ideas to be meditated on.

Third, the grand scale of the experiment leads to a quasi-standardization and the overthrow of uniqueness and personality. This is ironic, because Progressive educators clearly value uniqueness and personality development, but because they see education as a vast socially funded experiment they are continually bound by the bureaucracies they create.

Fourth, an excessive emphasis on “appropriate instruction for the developmental stage”  leads to the loss of great ideas, great books, great works of art, and great discussions.

Fifth, an excessive emphasis on methodology arises from the need for controlled, measurable, and predictable outcomes.

Sixth, the formal side of learning, in math, language (e.g. grammar and usage) are dismissed as mere conventions, thus undercutting the child’s faculties in these areas.

Seventh, the will is neglected, disregarded, and even overthrown. After all, the will is a spiritual faculty and cannot be controlled by material and efficient causes.

Finally, while multiple theories have come out about learning styles and intelligences, these are usually a response to the sameness inflicted on the American classroom by the general standardization of education.

The Progressive educators had much to teach American schools. They challenged the Idealism and hyper-rationalism of 19th century thought. They tried to bring the teachers attention back to the individual, specific realities and experiences that made up their worlds and relationships. They wisely noted the radical changes going on in society and technology and raised the concern that religion and moral theory were unable to deal with these changes. They made a noble effort to respond to those needs.

But by reducing all things to flux, they played into the hands of the very forces of change they sought to respond to. Their theories and practices have contibuted to the wide spread insecurity and feeling of insignifance, the desperate attempts to find meaning for life in any new cause, the worship of change as a good in itself, and the disparagement of what had long been regarded as knowledge, wisdom, and virtue.

It is to the Progressive educator that Lewis’s words in The Abolition of Man is most aptly directed.

The difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old initiated, the new merely ‘conditions.’ The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds – making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propogation – men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propoganda.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: