Bryan Caplan  

Grading the Four Faces of Progressive Education

Nothing to the Rumor... Joshua Hall on the Decline of ...
Ayn Rand raised me to despise Progressive education.  Now that I'm reading Diane Ravitch's Left Back, though, I'm learning that "Progressive education," like Walt Whitman, contained multitudes.  Ravitch identifies four distinct - and often conflicting - trends:
First was the idea that education might become a science and that the methods and ends of education could be measured with precision and determined scientifically. This was the basis of the mental testing movement.

Second was the idea that the methods and ends of education could be derived from the innate needs and nature of the child. This was the basis of the child-centered movement.

Third was the idea that the methods and ends of education could be determined by assessing the needs of society and then fitting children for their role in society. This was the basis of the social efficiency movement.

Fourth was the idea that the methods and ends of education could be changed in ways that would reform society. Proponents of this idea expected that the schools could change the social order, either by freeing children's creative spirit or conversely by indoctrinating them for life in a planned society. The first version was the faith of the child-centered movement and the second was the basis of the social reconstruction movement.
Interim thoughts on each of the four (with grades):

1. The mental testing movement.  It's easy to criticize the pioneers of mental testing for their premature self-congratulation and ignorance of comparative advantage.  But their approach and discoveries turned out to be incredibly important and fruitful.  Grade: B+

2. The child-centered movement.  Letting kids do whatever they want and calling it "school" seems like idiocy to most people.  I'm not certain they're right, but I tend to agree.  Still, it's easy for moderns to forget the long history of casual emotional and physical abuse of children in school.  We should think of the child-centered movement as an over-reaction against centuries of needless cruelty.  Grade: B-

3. The social efficiency movement. The rhetoric sounds awful - lots of analogies between kids and cogs or dough.  But the substance is excellent.  The goal is to make education more vocational - to teach kids skills they're actually likely to use, instead of Latin and the classics.  The social efficiency movement could just as easily have cut all the collectivist language and said, "We should teach kids marketable skills."  Grade: A-

4. The social reconstruction movement.  This is the only thoroughly awful component of Progressive education.  Ravitch heavily substantiates Rand's view that social reconstructionists wanted to brainwash the next generation into New Socialist Men.  But what does any of this have to do with mental testing, lax discipline, or vocational education?  Next to nothing.  Grade: F

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
blink writes:

Are your grades based on the desirability of the goals, how close education has come to fulfilling them, or some combination of both?

Dr. Liberty writes:

I know this post is about progressive education rather than Ayn Rand. But it strikes me that THIS is the kind of analysis that should be done of Rand's writings. Teasing it apart to see what is correct and what is overblown.

DougT writes:

My own take:

Tests: sure, everything can be tested. But consider public choice: the fine folks at The College Board have a business model, too, and would love to have a monopoly and extract rents, just as the ratings agencies do. Come to think of it, they've been just about as accurate... B+

Child-centered: Foolishness. Torts can take care of abuses. Selfishness is not a virtue. C-

Social efficiency: Foolishness. Public schools (and publicly sanctioned schools, including home-schools) should provide general education. Math, reading, foreign and classical languages, writing. Vocational training should be a choice, as college is. The State has no need to slot you into the auto-mechanic or forex trading position. The individual is best able to make that choice. What site is this? New Republic? Sheesh. D-

Social Reconstruction: Again, public choice comes into play. I remember my Second Grade teacher telling us to go home and have our parents vote in favor of a school construction bond. The project was a boondoggle. The vote failed. I don't know if the teacher was reprimanded, but she should have been.

Great teachers always create disciples, and since where you stand depends on where you sit, those great State employees tend to be advocates of State programs. One more reason we homeschool. This is an accurate assessment of Gramsci's "Long March Through the Institutions." Foolishness, but accurate foolishness. C-

Noah Yetter writes:

Bryan, you NEED to get your hands on some John Holt books. I don't want to see another education-themed post out of you until you've read How Children Fail and How Children Learn!

I believe in these books strongly enough to put my money where my mouth is. Email me a shipping address at the university and I will buy and ship you copies of these books!

Daniel Klein writes:

I would have thought at the major "trend" of Progressive education was the governmentalization of schooling, no?

ThomasL writes:

I disagree with you on (3) especially.

If I ran a school, pretty much all the kids would working on is math, and reading and discussing Socrates, Cicero, Plutarch, Thucydides, David, St. Paul, and St. Augustine, &c.

Maybe a touch of economics thrown in to relax with.

Vocational training isn't the point. Outside academia, how many people are actually doing the job they got their degree in anyway?

My kids would be successful at being human beings.

Lori writes:

Re. #4, have you seen the first installment of Ken Burns' Prohibition on PBS? It seems the prohibitionist curriculum in what today would be called "drug education" taught that alcohol consumption can lead to spontaneous combustion.

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