Being Neutral and Pragmatic Isn’t Good Enough

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.

Why Don’t Progressivists Want to Debate?

I recently had the interesting experience of diligently ploughing through a whole book with which I disagreed on almost every level (Pring and Roberts’ A Generation of Radical Change). I should probably do this more often. It’s intellectually invigorating; it sharpens one’s own thought to scrape it against the thoughts of one’s opponents.

I could have wished, however, that there had been more substance to the thoughts of those who insistently claimed such expertise. I kept waiting in anticipation for the moment when they would really begin to justify their deep seated beliefs, so I could find out whether there was anything convincing in their arguments.

But for the most part, that moment never came. These truths were held to be self-evident. It was so self evident that education must be child centred and based on natural development, not the adult imposition of authority and knowledge, that Wendy Scott, for example, could only throw her hands up in horror at the narrow minded insistence of the government meanies that synthetic phonics be used. Her argument against phonics? She didn’t offer one. She just referred to the ‘complexities’ of teaching reading, but did not deign to offer any examples. And heaven forbid that anyone should try to teach the little lambs anything! She lamented the increase of ‘teacher-led instruction’ and how this was crushing ‘spontaneous’ learning, but neglected to explain why teachers actually teaching was such an evil thing. It just self-evidently was.

Because progressive approaches were just so obviously right, it could not be admitted that the government’s reforms were aimed at improving learning. Thus other motives had to be sought. This is very easy to do, if you work on the assumption that the Conservatives are elitist capitalists who want to oppress the people, and turn them into efficient units of production for their profit making economic machine. Thus Wendy Scott claimed that using phonics was one part of a ‘standards agenda’ based on a ‘simplistic economic model’.

When the Conservatives weren’t turning tender children into units of production for their capitalist friends in the City, they were being ‘reactionaries’. This is a word without substantial content. It is used by those who favour a particular change to attack those who oppose it. But it says nothing about whether the change is a good one; nor does it give any arguments proving why it is good. It just assumes it is good, and assumes that those who oppose it are wandering in the darkness of benighted ignorance, or obstructing reform for self-interested reasons. It is usually attached to accusations of being ‘right wing’, another morally loaded but vacuous label pinned by the progressives onto their enemies. Apparently it is ‘right wing’ to insist that children learn about important events in the history of Britain. It couldn’t possibly be that those who propose this think it will promote learning more effectively than doing projects on the Wild West. That is unthinkable.

This is why progressivists don’t want a debate. Progressivism has never been based on reason. It has emerged in a culture that has rejected reason, because it rejects anything that is not material, while at the same time, in self-contradiction, it has promoted a Romantic view of sacred and pure childhood. The materialistic and the sentimental have marched together, united in their condemnation of an academic curriculum that values knowledge for its own sake. Child worshippers and sociologists have agreed that drilling the three Rs and liberal knowledge into young children is wrong, either because it is an horrendous act of child abuse, or because children need to engage with current social life, not the dead facts of the past.

Therefore, those who promote liberal knowledge and simple, traditional methods cannot possibly be doing so in order to help children grow up knowledgeable and self-disciplined. They must be doing so because they are right-wing-reactionary-crypto-fascist-child-hating MEANIES!

The Differentiated Diet: A Modest Proposal

A_Modest_Proposal_1729_CoverCurrently there is a tyrannical imposition of the same rules of eating and exercise upon everyone. But with modern science, we can measure the growth and development of the young with much greater accuracy. Based on these measurements, we can make reliable forecasts of their likely size and strength once they reach maturity, and begin to establish a much more rational system of nutrition and exercise, differentiated according to individual needs.

Evidently, humans differ in their physical capacities. Some have the potential to be athletes or professional footballers, while others will never be physically capable of anything more than desk work. Despite these obvious differences, which can be detected at an ever earlier age thanks to modern science, there has never yet been established a rational programme of differentiated nutrition and exercise. It’s time for the physical development of the young to be dragged into the twenty-first century.

The first step is ensure that parents do not foolishly insist upon exercising their inexpert judgements as to what should be fed to their children. A sentimental programme of encouraging breastfeeding has regrettably been gaining force in recent years. This represents a retreat from the approach promoted in the sixties, that high watermark of rationalist intervention. We must return to the vigorous promotion of measurable nutrition, administered by experts. We cannot leave the feeding of our tenderest citizens to the fumbling errors of those without professional training.

Thus, from the earliest years, we can provide a programme of physical development that is measurable, and designed by experts exactly to suit the potential of each individual. Those who have been identified as future athletes will receive additional proteins and a vigorous routine of physical exercise to build their capabilities further, but we will not burden the bodies of weaker individuals with such a programme. Indeed, it would be cruel to do so. Why should we push them through such exertions, when their abilities are clearly unsuited to it?

As for the weakest individuals of all, those identified as having ‘special needs’, we will arrange for fully qualified state employees to do all their physical work for them. It would be the cruellest thing of all to expect these feeble children to do anything for themselves.

Thus, using the latest scientific methods and the efforts of the most highly qualified experts, we can ensure a rational distribution of nutritional resources, and a personalised programme of physical exercise, overcoming the current waste and amateurism which tragically prevails in the physical development of the young.

(We would like to thank our many sponsors in the processed food industry for their generous funding of the research which underpins this important campaign to develop rational programmes of physical development for the young. We have also consulted senior officials in the Department for Social, Physical and Emotional Wellbeing, and we believe our proposals are in line with DSPEW guidance).

How Liberal Education Was Stolen from the People


Edward L Thorndike, who pioneered the intelligence tests that sorted young people into ‘appropriate’ tracks.

It sounds terribly sensitive and pragmatic to provide an education which is ‘suitable to the needs of the less academic’, but when we examine the historical origins of this concept, it becomes increasingly clear that it is aimed at denying the majority an academic education, in the name of rationalist social engineering imposed by a cultural elite.

In-school vocational education was invented just over a century ago by those who claimed that most children could not access the academic curriculum. In Left Back, Diane Ravitch describes how, early in the twentieth century, as huge numbers of immigrants poured into America from southern and eastern Europe, professors in the newly created schools of education speculated about how to integrate these new arrivals, whom they presumed to be of feeble intelligence and dubious character.

Their solution was to place them on a track towards a certain type of work as early as possible, and provide them with practical training, rather than a general academic education. In fact, it was common among the pedagogical experts to consider it dangerous to provide a liberal education to the seething masses who were arriving at Rhode Island. It would give them ideas above their station.

Unsurprisingly, the working people were not calling for this a century ago. On the contrary, a rapidly increasing number were enrolling in high schools during the first few decades of the twentieth century. And despite the efforts of the experts, the high schools remained largely traditional for a generation after theories about vocational education and a differentiated curriculum were first proposed. Those reactionary old schoolmasters and schoolmistresses continued to fill the poor children’s heads with antiquated knowledge, whatever the experts might say.

But over time, as younger teachers began to replace the old guard, progressive ideology tightened its grip. They had been trained in the latest methods by the experts, so they knew that it was cruel to impose an academic education on all these feeble minded children. No, they should spend their elementary education discovering nature, and their later years should be spent fitting them to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Thus it was that America lost the noble ideal of nineteenth century educators, who had believed in providing a liberal education to all, so that anyone, whether the son of a lawyer or of a carpenter, could develop his intellect as far as he wished. American idealism gave way to American pragmatism.

The old idealism did not fit into the twentieth century, the century in which big business wanted docile employees and consumers, and big government wanted docile clients. It was these interests that funded the schools of education, and it was these interests that provided the underlying motivation for denying a liberal education to the majority in the name of rationalist social engineering.

Experts, Evidence and Ordinary People

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to heaven yet at the same time likely to make a hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on the level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. (C S Lewis)

A government expert in a problem is someone who is paid to address that problem. Because he is not paid by his clients, but by the government, he has no incentive to fix the problem. On the contrary, he has a strong incentive to increase it. The greater the problem, the higher his professional prestige. He builds an empire on the misery of others. And he does so with a perfectly clear conscience, even with a sense of moral superiority, as he patiently tries to enlighten the masses about all the things for which they need his expert help.

This logic clearly applies to the special needs industry. State schools receive more funding based on how many special needs pupils they have. Managers also have to tick boxes on ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’. So really, there had better be some special needs. Let’s go find ‘em.

The system is riddled with perverse incentives. But there’s another thing which keeps the army of special needs experts ever growing: the cult of evidence. By evidence, the experts mean large scale research projects, funded by the government, or sometimes by pharmaceutical companies with drugs to sell. These projects will be guided by . . . the experts. And these projects will find lots more problems that the experts need to fix.

Faced with this juggernaut, what is the ordinary person, the parent or classroom teacher, to do? Unless he is a multimillionaire, he can’t fund alternative research. So he must either submit to the experts, or stubbornly hold out, using his own reason and observation. If he does the latter, of course he will be accused of being unscientific, which is one of the mortal sins of the religion of the expert. Either that or he will be labelled uncaring, another mortal sin, this time anathema to the other side of our schizophrenic culture, the side which holds emotion to be decisive in all situations.

The stubborn ordinary person, accused on the one hand of coldness, on the other of unreason, has a battle on his hands which he can never really win. He can’t change national policy, but he can try to defend those in his care from its worst consequences. If he is a parent, he can refuse to allow his son to be hooked on addictive drugs to sort out his ‘hyperactivity’. If he is a teacher, he can do his best to frustrate the designs of the well meaning vultures who hang around every child not making ‘expected progress’, ready to inflict a thousand theories upon them and create permanent learned helplessness. As a son, he can keep his elderly parents out of the hands of the experts who want to solve their ‘quality of life’ issues by ‘helping’ them to die painlessly.

An expert advised my mother to abort me. Perhaps that’s why I keep fighting against the self-serving experts, in an attempt to keep the ordinary, messy, painful business of human life going, not crushed by their pills, needles and intervention strategies.

Why We Need More Habits and Less Thinking

Humanity is underrated (yes, I know I stole that from Spiked). All this talk of how we have problems because of our caveman ancestors is tendentious and unhelpful. We work by habit most of the time. So what’s the problem?

Habits are excellent things, when they are good habits. The fact that we don’t think before we act most of the time is not necessarily a problem. It’s simply a reality with which we must work, as educators, as human beings. Habits can be trained. We’re not at the mercy of some hereditary, genetic predestination.

It is actually very important that we should not be thinking about most of the things we do. If I have to think about whether I will be polite or rude to an interlocutor, if I have to think about whether I will shake somebody’s hand when I meet them, or slap them in the face, there’s a problem. Politeness and good manners are the result of training. They are the result of repeated practice over years.

Likewise, to take something which is oddly controversial at the moment, with times tables, they should be practised so often that pupils give the answer without thinking. That’s how you free up your working memory for more complex problem solving.

Drill – that is, repeated, guided practice of fundamental knowledge and procedures – does not require much thought from anyone involved, once you get the hang of it. But a well designed programme of drill, such as Engelmann’s Direct Instruction, builds up knowledge and skills highly effectively. Pupils are not scratching their heads and thinking hard, but they do learn and remember very well. This is because such programmes take such small steps and drill each step so thoroughly that it is mastered. It becomes automatic, so you don’t have to think about it.

We don’t want our pupils to have think hard about where they put a full stop, or to have to spend lots of time pondering over important scientific formulae or historical dates. They need to be drilled in these things, so that they can do the hard thinking where it really counts: in applying this core knowledge to more complex problems.

We need less thinking and more drill. As Daniel Willingham points out, the reason pupils don’t like school is that they have to do too much thinking of a frustrating and ineffective kind. Their working memory is constantly being bombarded with information and becoming overloaded, because so many teachers have swallowed the progressive lie that drill is a form of child abuse.

The Myth of Thinking Skills

Latin Labelled Brain

A century ago, half of all American high school students were enrolled on Latin courses. It was a high water mark for traditional academic study in the USA, following the recommendations of the Committee of Ten, and before the progressive influence began to take hold through institutions such as Columbia Teachers College.

The vast majority of these students of Latin were not intending to go to college. Their decision to study such traditional material was not therefore part of a college prep programme. Why was Latin so popular? The answer lies in the fact that Latin was the subject which had the highest reputation as a method for training the mind. Most parents and students believed that the intellectual element of education primarily consisted of developing mental discipline.

In other words, Latin, and other traditional academic studies, were primarily justified on the basis of what we would nowadays call transferable skills. Even if you never read a word of Latin after school, the argument ran, you would have a more agile mind which would perform better in any task, if you put yourself through the mental gymnastics of translating Caesar. It’s an argument we still hear today from the likes of Neville Gwynne.

Unfortunately for those who justify the study of Latin in this way, experimental psychology has consistently shown, from the late nineteenth century onwards, that it is a myth. Your ability to translate Latin does not have any measurable impact upon your general mental capabilities.

There’s a delicious irony here, of which few people are aware. A century ago, traditionalists used the concept of mental discipline to justify the study of Latin. They lost the argument, and Latin faded from the curriculum, along with the general respect for academic study for all, regardless of whether they were bound for college. A hundred years later, the same argument was used to empty the curriculum of content in, for example, the 2007 National Curriculum for England and Wales. It didn’t matter what you studied, the argument ran, so long as you developed thinking skills and creativity. Knowledge would quickly become obsolete anyway in the rapidly changing world of the twenty-first century, so you just needed to ‘learn how to learn’.

Progressives helped to destroy the myth of transferable skills in the early twentieth century, only to revive the same myth in the early twenty-first century. In both cases, it was the traditional academic curriculum which was the enemy. In both cases, this curriculum was seen as outdated and irrelevant to the lives of most students in the modern world, so it ended up being reserved for the privileged few.

Most traditionalists shot themselves in the foot by depending on a myth a century ago. But there have been other voices, then and now, who have defended teaching academic subject matter to all students not on the basis of mental training, but on the basis of powerful knowledge. As Diane Ravitch points out:

Mental discipline was objectionable not only to progressive educators, but to liberal educators who believed that knowledge and understanding were of far greater importance than the alleged power gained from mental gymnastics. James H. Baker, a dissenting member of the Committee of Ten, had argued that “mere form, mere power, without content, means nothing. Power is power through knowledge. The very world in which we are to use our power is the world which we must first understand in order to use it. The present is understood, not by the power to read history, but by what history contains.” (Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, p62)

The mind grows when it is nourished with powerful knowledge, and all are capable of acquiring a huge amount of such knowledge if traditional methods are used to inculcate it. It really does matter what you study, and the best preparation for a useful and enjoyable life is a broad, knowledge rich curriculum that gives students access to serious reading and discussion.