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!

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13 thoughts on “Why Don’t Progressivists Want to Debate?

  1. In a nutshell – you are right about everything in this blog!! Indeed – if you look at how quickly the ‘child abuse’ phrase is reached for, even over phonics, it shows that there is a lack of reason and appeal to people’s fears/emotions to override the lack of argument presented.

    It is truely pathetic.

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  2. I regard myself as a professional educator, informing my practice in a reflective way with my experience, the experiences of others and what the experts tell me.

    Almost all of the teachers I have ever worked with or alonside exhibit the sorts of characteristics you describe as “traditional”. I do not believe I have ever come across a professional educator whose professional practice is exemplarised by the descriptions and examples you have given above. I have seen many teachers who tend to change their practice a bit as a result of pressure from above e.g. SMT, Ofsted, Govt. When the chips are down I find everyone wants to impart knowledge, although some feel that some time spent enabling students to learn independently and god forbid do a little autodidaxy is worth it in the long run.

    I would love to read this book as it might give me some insight into the mind of the evangelistic trditional superhero. However this is an expensive book and I find it unclear to see where the factual review stops and where the polemic starts. If the book actually includes the following I will ask my wife if she is happy for me to spend…..

    “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!”

    “Apparently it is ‘right wing’ to insist that children learn about important events in the history of Britain.”

    “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 was so self evident that education must be child centred and based on natural development, not the adult imposition of authority and knowledge,”

    Are these your interpretations (objective and unbiased as they are) or are these ideas actually stated in the book? If the later I will buy it (if given permission).

    As for “Why Don’t Progressivists Want to Debate?”, I think maybe you slightly miss the target with the question. There is a good deal of debate around teaching practice both on and off the web. In common with a number of high profile bloggers, you feel that people don’t wish to debate. Perhaps, in common with these bloggers you start from the proposition that you are “cleverer” than eveyone else but they can’t see it, that you can see the “truth” when other cannot and that only when people agree with you will debate have taken place. It must be so as you are correct and they are wrong, you have the “truth” and they do not.

    Many people engage in debate, just not the debate as you wish to frame it. A number of the self professed “traditional teachers” find themselves arguing mostly with themselves, followed by people who agree with their view of the world. The whole thing develops into a sort of mutual admiration society while more reflective teachers tend to discuss education in blissfull ignorance of the “truth” that is out there if only they would debate.

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    • I’m making the point that progressive ideas are never justified in the book. The authors do not attempt to justify them. If people will not state their reasons, no reasonable discussion is possible.

      It’s about getting to the heart of the matter: educational philosophy. Without that discussion of fundamental, underlying ideas, any debate remains superficial.

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    • “When the chips are down I find everyone wants to impart knowledge”. Do they? Perhaps most classroom teachers do, but do their managers? Take a look at a few school websites – “our focus must be on skills rather than content”, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” or ” in a changing world, the learned find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” You will no doubt say that such statements are not saying that knowledge is unnecessary – perhaps even progressives find that a step too far. I have certainly met teachers, sometimes in very senior positions, who have said to me they don’t believe in facts and knowledge doesn’t matter.

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  3. I would disagree that these ideas are strongly linked to materialism. A much stronger influence has been post-modernism, and the contention that there is no objective reality, and that everything is thus subjective, implying that “evidence” is subjective as well, and can thus be ignored. This is the very opposite of materialism. An excellent book on this is Higher Superstition by Gross and Levitt. This is the actual background to the rejection of reason by progressivists, and why there is no contradiction between it and their undoubted romanticism.

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    • I agree that the current phase of progressivism has been helped by postmodern relativism. But the roots of progressivism are modern, not postmodern. Dewey, for example, was a socialist, who believed that schools had a duty to contribute to social reform.

      Postmodernism follows naturally from the reduction of humanity to the material, which constitutes an abolition of humanity. If we are merely material, reason does not exist. The Kantian separation of philosophy and science led to the death of philosophy, because it was reduced to mere Romantic idealism, not a rational system for discovering objective truth about what is good, true and beautiful.

      Therefore, I am very much in favour of reason and objective reality, but against the Enlightenment rationalism which destroyed the very foundations of reason.

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  4. Just to add to my point above: here is a quote from an education academic reacting to a call for greater rigour in educational research:
    “Poststructural theorist Michel Foucault (1980) called officially created discourses “regimes of truth” that construct the valued or authoritative knowledge, in relation to power, in particular times and spaces. The governing discourse of “hard science” (based on the authoritative experts who defined research in the NRC report) must then be viewed as having created a regime of truth about good educational research that is based in its own cultural, political, economic, and social context…..understanding in educational research has been obscured by the definition of “objectivity” and the notion that there are established ways to be rigorous and empirical—and therefore, ways that are not rigorous (read this: not good science) and not empirical (read this: soft and fuzzy, unscientific, irrational). The role of power in the naming of rigor, truth, and science is denied.

    Basically, he is anti the idea of “truth” because it is always manipulated by those with power, and in favour of the “soft and fuzzy, unscientific, irrational”. Not really materialism, then. I really recommend the book I mentioned in my previous post: it is an erudite, and often amusing as well as horrifying read about the way these ideas have taken over much of the education establishment.

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  5. Anti-Academics — Voodoo Tactics

    Before we succumb to the anti-enlightenment movements, at least we should go down screaming. Who wants the Dark Ages where superstition governs and monks hold “the knowledge”?

    Fortunately, there is a lot of literature on the gradual dumbing-down of students and society and we should compile these and start doing our homework.

    The puzzle we are grappling with is this: Why, despite all the warnings and evidence against this dumbing-down (e.g. 21st C Learning), is it actually — seemingly — increasing in intensity and scale? AND, why is it tolerated?

    Remember the book, 1955, Rudolph Flesch — Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It? 60 years ago, same problems, same reasons. What can you do about it? What scares us off?

    I discovered some of the MO (modus operandi) in a great book on this topic — The Flight From Science and Reason, Gross, Levitt, Lewis, 1996:

    From the chapter by Cole “Voodoo Sociology”

    “A frequently used constructivist rhetorical trick is to argue that it is impossible to separate the technical from the social; that all science is inherently social.” [constructivism – another term for progressivism]

    In reviewing books that are critical of constructivism:

    “ . . .how the constructivists treat criticism. First, all reviews by constructivists were harshly negative . . .

    “But the most noticeable aspect of the constructivists’ reaction to the book was to ignore it. Where they have to review it they will give it a good bashing, but where they have any control, they feel the best course of action is to keep the book unknown. “

    In the Reading Wars not everyone may be familiar with the attacks on persons, which often supersede criticism of the matter at hand. Here is an account of the legendary experience about Jeanne Chall:

    Marilyn Jager Adams in her forward to Jeanne Chall’s book, The Academic Achievement Challenge (2002 edition) said:
    “ . . . reviewing the research on phonics, Chall told me that if I wrote the truth, I would lose old friends and make new enemies. She warned me that I would never again be fully accepted by my academic colleagues . . . Sadly, however, as the evidence in favor of systematic, explicit phonics instruction for beginners increased, so too did the vehemence and nastiness of the backlash. The goal became one of discrediting not just the research, but the integrity and character of those who had conducted it. Chall was treated most shabbily . . . “

    Let’s gird up our loins. What other literature need we know about? Thanks for the tip re: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. Will get it.

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  6. I think the traditional education you outline above is deeply irrational if our final goal is to maximise the amount children learn. We rank children from best to worst according to their academic ability. That means to the vast majority we’re saying ‘try your hardest and we’ll tell you that you’re average’ – a weak incentive. To those at the bottom we say ‘try your hardest and we’ll give you a grade proving that you’re inferior’. That’s a strong disincentive to work and it’s not at all surprising that the children in this position usually react with defiance and stubborn refusal to do what we want.

    Progressive teaching methods within the same curriculum suffer from exactly the same flaw, but to present an all academic curriculum as rational is nonsensical, unless the final goal is actually to replicate this generation’s social strata in the next.

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