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Why Was It Called 'Progressive Education'?

Readers of the Huffington Post should not continue to be misled by the accidental lexical residues of the word "progressive" from a rather bizarre moment in European and American intellectual history. Intellectual history may not be very jazzy, but whoever ignores it will be tyrannized by it.
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desk and chairs in classroom.
desk and chairs in classroom.

One of my favorite blog stops is The Huffington Post (I like its politics) but I was brought up short a few days ago by an alarming blog by Lisa Nielsen called "Is Common Core an Attack on Progressive Education?" a mode of education that she characterized as "personalized," "child-centred" "developmentally-appropriate," "motivated" and accessible to "learning disabled" children. The strong implication was that the new Common Core State Standards are hostile to those humane practices.

That claim is wrong, and the most effective illustration is just to invite Ms. Nielsen to one of the happy first- or second-grade classrooms in New York City where Common Core has been field tested for three years, and which are more energetic and cheerful than in the comparison classrooms she is supporting, and where the disadvantaged and learning-disabled kids she is concerned about made six times the progress in first and second grade as the kinds of classrooms she chose to praise. Moreover, she would also find those common core classrooms lively, "personalized," "child-centred" "developmentally-appropriate," "motivated" and accessible to "learning disabled" children.

So it appears that the only crucial thing Ms. Nielsen was really missing from the Common Core was that these first and second graders do not always choose their own topics and books -- only sometimes. So instead of going into apologetic detail on these points, I'm just inviting Ms. Nielsen to come for a visit.

What her piece does prompt me to do by way of response is perhaps more inherently interesting, which is to consider: Why was the new child-centred education that was introduced into our classrooms in the '20s and '30s called "progressive education"? Why didn't people just call it "child-centred" or "developmentally appropriate" or some of the other terms Ms. Nielsen used? And why did this new mode of education get connected with political progressivism? Was it simply association by lexical accident?

As I have studied the standard histories of the movement, I don't find a persuasive answer to the question, "Why did they call it progressive education"? But my researches do make it quite clear that the main reason had nothing to do with progressive politics. The British Secretary of Education Michael Gove quite provocatively made that very point in a remarkable recent speech when he pointed out that the great Communist theorist Antonio Gramsci had objected that what we call progressive education is antithetical to progressive politics and to social justice.

Gramsci had in mind the fascist Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini's education minister -- a committed progressive educator who introduced into the early grades exactly the kinds of reforms Ms. Nielsen praises -- much to Gramsci's disgust, because he thought the "let-them-choose-their-own-books" theory was fated to preserve and worsen economic inequalities. And in fact, the educational and political uses of the term have different provenances. And that is my real topic. Intellectual history may not be very jazzy, but whoever ignores it will be tyrannized by it.

The first and most important step in unravelling the mystery of the educational name is to avoid the false trail of Rousseau. Dewey called him the father of "modern education," which is true enough. But Rousseau did not use the term. Its first important use was by Adrienne Necker de Saussure, who published a book titled L'éducation progressive in 1828 -- quickly translated into English in Boston in 1835. To read this book is to understand that it holds the clue to the whole mystery. Although Mme de Saussure wrote in French, her main intellectual influences were Kant and Hegel. She was also the translator of another German intellectual of the period: Friedrich Schlegel.

The difference between Mme de Saussure's post-Kantian approach to education and that of Rousseau was the difference between the image of a seed growing into a flower while the plant is left to grow naturally, versus against the Hegelian dialectic of the human mind progressing step by step through properly managed interchanges between its own impulses and the impediments which negate those impulses. Although Christ is mentioned dutifully in Madame de Saussure's text, the guiding spirit is the Hegelian dialectic between the mind and the world. The progress of the mind is not simply the unfolding of something already there, but rather the active overcoming of negations to move on to higher realities.

Thus, in the period soon after its birth, the soul does not display its attributes. ... the soul does not comprehend what is announced by the body, and has not yet acquired the power to direct it. Enslaved in his double ignorance, he can only become acquainted with external objects, by exercising the organs of the sense ; and the properties of these organs can only be revealed by external objects.

Anyone familiar with Hegel's 1807 book The Phenomenology of Spirit will immediately recognize the origins of this "progressive" movement of the soul. This isn't the place to discuss the Phenomenology of Spirit in any detail. I'll just observe that it had an influence on mid-century American (and European) intellectual life that would be hard to overestimate. It's chief virtue and attraction in the post-enlightenment era was its naturalization of divine providence as progressively working its way over time in the world. That dynamic philosophy satisfied the need for belief in a divinely ordained "meaning of life" while couching it in a technical, post-enlightenment non-sectarian explanation of the progress of history beginning with the mind's first encounter with the exterior world right through to the final stage of political freedom. It was this progressive, optimistic account of the world that captured the minds and hearts of mid-19th century Europe and America (including that of Marx, needless to say).

The Hegelian progressive principle of negation and synthesis was nothing less than the inward divine making itself outwardly known to itself through time. Progressive education is the participation of the individual in this larger progressive movement both as an individual and as a social being. In Hegel himself (and Gentile) the end of the process was an authoritarian state. For the Americans, it was of course, the good old USA. But liberal or conservative, there was scarcely an American educational theorist in last half of the 19th century who was free of the Germanic, post-Kantian influence. This included not only the "St Louis Hegelians" W. T. Harris, U. S. Commissioner of Education, and Susan Blow key in the Kindergarten movement, along with Elizabeth Peabody, and another Germanophile. Many, like Josiah Royce, Col. Francis Parker, and W. E. B. du Bois actually made the pilgrimage to Germany, attracted by Froebel as well as Hegel.

This German story leads me finally to Dewey. Dewey once said it was his avowed purpose to put the Hegelian lingo into an American idiom. That's what he said before he renounced all things German in 1914 with the onset of the war. But his fundamental Hegelian principles did not change. His long 1897 lecture on Hegel is thought by recent scholars to contain the seeds of his whole philosophical and educational thought. Dewey himself was, of course, a political progressive, and he might have wished to claim that his educational progressivism fitted right in with his politics. But Dewey would have certainly acknowledged that Hegel himself was no political progressive, nor was Gentile whose book on progressive education was published in the United States in 1922. Gramsci was right, and the readers of The Huffington Post should not continue to be misled by the accidental lexical residues of the word "progressive" from a rather bizarre moment in European and American intellectual history.

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