Why Progressives Can’t Make Progress


How do we know in which direction we are moving?

Names stick, and we have to make use of them. We might think that socialism is antisocial, that capitalism destroys human capital, that communism doesn’t benefit the community. But we are not at liberty to invent new names for everything. Shared communication depends upon a certain amount of agreement about the terms being used, and discussion is impossible without it.

We can’t change the names, but we can interrogate them and probe their implications. One of the most common terms in the education debate is ‘progressive’. This word implies an onward march into the future, and a belief that the future will be better than the past. It is tied to the Whig view of British history, in which the British people have provided the world with a shining example of rejecting the constraints of tyrannical social structures rooted in past oppression and mental darkness, and moving ever onwards to greater liberty and self-determination.

Whiggish sentiments have combined with Romantic individualism in the last two hundred years to produce a more radical view of progress. In this view, we have a duty to reject the shackles of any dead, stuffy book learning that would constrain our individual self-determination. The Whigs celebrated particular historical events which were seen as landmarks on the road to liberty: the Magna Carta, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But such landmarks are hardly important for the modern progressive, who is more likely to dismiss them as the power games of privileged white men. What we have now is a perpetual revolution in the life of every individual. Thus it is hardly surprising to see the Little Red Book being brandished in Parliament. Progress has gone into overdrive and the past must be utterly rejected. This is the era of Chairman Mao, not Oliver Cromwell. Surely it is only a matter of time before Cromwell’s statue is toppled.

There was a logic to the Whig narrative, regardless of whether one agreed that its overall direction was worth celebrating. But our postmodern notion of progress has lost all substance. It even dismisses substance as oppressive, seeing the inculcation of any definite knowledge whatsoever as a tyrannical oppression of young minds. Everyone must start from scratch and invent themselves from nothing, like the veritable spirit of God hovering over the void. Fitzgerald perceived this with his quintessential modern hero, Gatsby, who ‘sprang from his Platonic conception of himself’.

But Gatsby is a fraud who cannot detach himself from his past, and his attempts to do so lead to his destruction. We are ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’. Whether for good or ill, we have come from somewhere, and we won’t know how to move onwards until we have understood our origins. Modernists like Fitzgerald recognised that we had lost something. Postmodernism celebrates the loss as liberation, as though an orphan saw their loneliness as freedom.

Thus there are two fundamental ironies in the current use of the word ‘progressive’. Firstly, ‘progress’ in human affairs has come to mean a frantic movement in an indeterminate direction. With no objective standard to guide the movement, how do we even know we are going forwards? Having lost our compass, we have come to identify liberty with wandering in a trackless waste.

The second irony is both a cause and a consequence of the first. Having condemned the past as nothing but tyranny and oppression, because our ancestors dared to have objective and fixed standards, we now refuse to pass on to succeeding generations the great ideas of the past. If we touch on them at all, it is with a prim self-righteous confidence in how inferior those poor bigoted, benighted people were. And if our ancestors were all so ignorant and prejudiced, why bother listening to them at all? If Shakespeare was a racist, aren’t we better off reading Benjamin Zephaniah?

But, as any scientist will tell you, progress in human thought depends upon two things. You must know where you are going, and you must pick up where others left off. The natural sciences have, in fact, remained firmly traditional in their approach. It is obvious that no individual could start from scratch here and hope to make any progress; the sum of knowledge is far too great. But oddly enough, in the arts and humanities, no such reality is recognised. It’s almost as though we think humanity is the one part of nature exempt from any law.

If progress means moving forwards towards a definite goal, then to be progressive, we must be traditional. Only with a knowledge of the past can we move purposefully forwards. But maybe being purposeful just isn’t that much fun. Perhaps we’ve come to prefer emptiness. At least it exempts us from all duties.


13 thoughts on “Why Progressives Can’t Make Progress

  1. An interesting perspective on the nature of being human.

    When I engage in a learning transaction with a learner, nothing said above has any relevance to anything I do or the manner in which I do it.

    My learners are happy, they achieve excellent results and I have recently received an email from a previous pupil who is now studying in a US Ivy League University to say hello and thanking me for the progress he made which has enabled him to be where he is. I say this only to explain my view that extreme ideology is ok but it doesn’t necessarily help kids learn, and I see your ideology as a little extreme.

    Sometimes one has to try to avoid the trees in order to see the wood (learners).

    If you are suggesting that the labels traditional and progressive are of little value I agree with you. Any definition of progressive would need to be amended with progress surely.


  2. ps……

    “If progress means moving forwards towards a definite goal, then to be progressive, we must be traditional. Only with a knowledge of the past can we move purposefully forwards”

    Leaving aside the definitions of the terms, this simple statement appears to be completely without foundation. Irrespective of ideology we can obviously move forward without a knowledge of the past and you seem to assume that to have a knowledge of the past is the exclusive realm of the traditionalist.

    I would say however that if I agreed with your definitions of traditional and progressive then I would agree with your general drift, however I believe you have created these definitions for yourself in order to fit your ideology.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Each generation learns from the previous and then can add to the sum of the knowledge learnt over the centuries. Without previous knowledge, our “post modern society” is incapable of moving forward. As George Santayana said: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

    It is like learning the basics of a subject e.g. basic arithmetic or the various sounds of the alphabet in a particular language (this is something very pertinent to me as I am learning Italian). Without understanding the different sounds of the letters in the Italian alphabet I cannot hope to pronounce the words correctly or learn how to spell them. I cannot progress forward effectively and efficiently to the rules of grammar which are peculiar to that language. Without the grammatical foundation, without learning verbs and rules by rote, I cannot converse with others in Italian.

    Throwing away centuries of knowledge under the misplaced view that it was all “oppressive” and (in the feminist world (hummph) is partriarchal etc, is condemning future generations to the infancy that George Santayana refers to.

    Its about time this “post modern” society stopped being so arrogant and started to look to the past again. It will teach us so much about ourselves and what we have lost which was good, what we should avoid that was bad for us and give us the direction that we need to truly progress. A good dollop of humility would also not go amiss.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “One of the most common terms in the education debate is ‘progressive’.”
    This would certainly appear to be true based on the output of Civitas; less true, perhaps, when considering a broader outlook.
    “…seeing the inculcation of any definite knowledge whatsoever as a tyrannical oppression of young minds.”
    Is this really the intention of all progressive educators? Are you sure about this?
    I agree wholeheartedly that looking back and learning from the past is crucial to a proper understanding of the current educational landscape. This is why I wrote an essay about the dismantling of the public provision of education (or, if you prefer, the ‘marketisation’ of education). You can read it here: https://jennycollinsteacher.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/the-marketisation-of-mass-education-in-england-a-brief-history/
    On the subject of ‘traditional’ vs’ ‘progressive’ I think in 2016 we are, fortunately, in a position where we can make use of the best of both traditional and progressive approaches. I also think that those who insist on pitching the two against each other and who claim that we are currently experiencing a dangerously progressive time in our schools do not spend enough time explaining why we have a test-driven system, split up into various academic disciplines much the same as we have had for many, many decades. In fact the primary school system is unarguably, for better or for worse, far more focused on test-outcomes than thirty years ago and more. Surely this is something for the more traditionally minded to celebrate? For me the really interesting question is: why, in these evidently less progressive times (think of some radical examples from the 1970s like the William Tyndale school in Islington) are we seeing this resurgence of a debate that is over?
    I respect your blog because it is honestly based on your own experiences and you refer the visitor to your own reading. I have a very different outlook to you though!


    • The curriculum is still empty of content. Most still leave school knowing very little.

      And there is nothing traditional about technocratic managerialism. Traditional teachers value knowledge for its own sake.


  5. Here are some of those (unanswered) questions again:
    1. “…seeing the inculcation of any definite knowledge whatsoever as a tyrannical oppression of young minds.” Is this really the intention of all progressive educators? Are you sure about this?
    2. I wrote that primary schools are “… far more focused on test-outcomes than thirty years ago and more. Surely this is something for the more traditionally minded to celebrate?” Your complaint about technocratic managerialism and a curriculum empty of content answers this by implying that all these exams are no reason to celebrate. Is this right?
    3. Why do you think we are seeing a resurgence of the prog/trad debate? As I have explained I see it as unnecessarily polarising two approaches that can, and should, be synthesised by the 21st century teacher.


    • I don’t think many teachers intend to deny knowledge to their pupils. But the approaches used, and the curricular incoherence of most schools, has this effect.

      Tests are good insofar as they promote the mastery of liberal knowledge. Most current tests only do this to a very limited extent. Low expectations of what children are capable of learning are ingrained.

      It is nonsense to talk about synthesising contradictory ideas. Either schools should be devoted to the transmission of liberal knowledge, or they shouldn’t. One cannot simultaneously believe contradictory things. This is why it is so important to unpick the fundamental philosophy underlying differing approaches.


      • “It is nonsense to talk abouit synthesising contradictory ideas.”
        Below is part of a definition of synthesis from an online dictionary:
        Political science students can remember synthesis via the famous thesis-antithesis-synthesis concept that suggests societies change when a widely accepted idea (a thesis) is challenged by a new, contradictory idea (an antithesis), and then resolved via synthesis, or a combining of the two to produce something new.


      • Two contradictory beliefs cannot both be true, unless truth itself be abandoned. By many it is, of course. That’s one of the main reasons knowledge is not taught. If it’s all just a matter of opinion, why bother?

        Thesis: 2+2=4
        Antithesis: 2+2=5
        Synthesis: ???????


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