In his contribution to A Generation of Radical Change, Peter Wilby attempts to present himself as a calm, reasonable and neutral observer. He puts the terms ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ in inverted commas, placing himself at a distance from any heated debate.
His posture of reasonable neutrality is disingenuous, however. When describing progressive approaches, he calls them ‘flexible’, while traditional methods are ‘rigid’. Who would want a ‘rigid’ approach? What could possibly be wrong with being ‘flexible’?
Thus the caricature of the child-hating traditionalist meanie is perpetuated: stern, frowning and joyless. But because he claims that the debate doesn’t exist, Wilby avoids having to give reasons for his distaste for traditional education. He simply perpetuates his views using loaded, emotional language, without rational substance.
Similarly, when mentioning the Black Papers, Wilby deftly characterises their authors as machiavellian conspirators, manipulating the media to create a popular outcry against progressive education. But of course, he does not deign to engage with their actual ideas. They’re the villains. Why should we give them the oxygen of publicity?
Wilby even claims that most teachers are ‘pragmatists’, by which he means they have no interest in controversy over educational philosophy. This is very convenient for those who wish to promote an ideology but do not wish to justify it rationally. Ignorance of educational philosophy leaves teachers prey to whichever trend the wind happens to blow their way.
Even more useful to the progressive cause is the increasing dependence upon emotionally loaded platitudes rather than rational justification for any policy. This has always been a useful trick for progressives. You claim you are ‘putting the child at the centre’, for example, or that you’re ‘promoting creativity’. Who could possibly disagree? We wouldn’t want to be nasty to children now, would we?
Vague platitudes like this are comparable to a doctor saying they are ‘putting the patient at the centre’ and ‘promoting health’. Fortunately for the nation’s health, doctors do not then go on to say that the patient’s interests should be the basis of their treatment. The doctor has authority, and prescribes the treatment. If he did not do this, he would be acting irresponsibly and neglecting his duties.
But then, there are those who believe that the child needs no treatment. He is perfectly pure and good, and the teacher’s role is to facilitate the natural, spontaneous growth of this inherent goodness. This is a key example of why ideas matter, and thus why they need to be debated. If the child is inherently good and will naturally develop the skills and acquire the knowledge that he needs, then progressives are right. The teacher must stand back and stop obstructing this natural growth. If this is not true, then discipline and formal instruction are essential, and progressive ideas are dangerous nonsense.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t pretend that contradictory ideas about the child can be held simultaneously by ‘neutral’ people who just want to be ‘pragmatic’. Philosophy is not an abstruse, dry subject, suitable for professors but of no practical application. What you believe affects how you act, so you have a responsibility to examine what you believe. I picked up some very bad ideas about education in the past, and they almost destroyed my teaching career. Infected by Romantic naturalism, I began to think that schools themselves were the problem. I’m very grateful to authors such as Robert Peal, Daisy Christodoulou and E D Hirsch for helping me to understand the disease, and begin to apply a remedy.