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.


8 thoughts on “Being Neutral and Pragmatic Isn’t Good Enough

  1. Hi Anthony

    I read all of your posts as I am sure that you are on to something but I don’t always agree with your assertions/conclusions. I have a couple of things that are making me think here…

    ” 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.”

    I am not sure whether you are intentionally confusing this issue, but it is clear to all that that is precisely what a doctor does. A doctor, based upon informed practice, does what is in the patient’ best interests.As it is with all teachers however they are labelled.

    “You can’t have it both ways”

    This appears to be just daft, of course you can. Just because a child has an innate ability to learn, doesn’t mean that another individual cannot prsesent information to them in a way that will help them to learn more efficiently and effectively.

    If I accept the parameters within which you frame the debate, I cannot but agree with you. However the premises you construct are without foundation. You complain that others do not present evidence while doing that very thing yourself.

    I have seen a number of people suggest that there is no evidence base for Hirsch’s assertions. I know not either way but I have to say I have never seen anyone respond to such a claim by supplying such evidence.

    I hope there are some illuminating comments forthcoming..

    Liked by 1 person

    • By ‘a patient’s interests’, I didn’t mean their ‘best interests’, I meant what they happen to be interested in. For example, if a patient has no interest in physical exercise, this fictional progressive doctor would not impose this treatment upon him, however essential it were for his health.

      When I said ‘you can’t have it both ways’, I meant that you cannot simultaneously believe two contradictory things. For example, you cannot simultaneously believe that (a) children are naturally good and must be allowed to develop spontaneously and (b) children are flawed and ignorant and in need of discipline and instruction.


      • On the second point: why didn’t you include the word ‘sometimes’ to both (or even ‘often’ for one) so we can then debate when yes when no? That seems much more realistic.

        On picking up bad ideas (and I mean it in a constructive way). You picked them up before, who says the three authors you mentioned are right?

        If I put the binary approach in my first comment next to the second: black/white, I used to believe in black, that was wrong, so now I believe in white, it hardly is an argument?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Saying I’ve changed my views isn’t intended to be an argument. I’m just pointing out that we need to examine our views. We all have them, and pretending to be neutral is just avoiding the issues.


    • Yes, but you couldn’t believe that and argue that spontaneity should be the basis of education. It might produce good results sometimes, which is great, but we can’t base our practices on expecting it to be the norm.


  2. I agree with Anthony. He’s consciously taken a polemical position but I feel that he’s right to identify a prevailing culture over the last couple of decades which means that his views have to fight for survival. It’s not really any wonder that he comes out swinging here. I’ve tended to do fine in lesson observations down the years; however, the areas for improvement have almost invariably been highly constructivist in tenor. ‘Could you get the children doing more of it themselves? Could you create more opportunities for groupwork and peer-to-peer interactions?’ I’ve got that down to a bit of a fine art these days; I know to slide that side a good couple of notches further up than my normal lessons for observations. Yet deep down, I feel that the balance of my normal lessons is fine if not better in the long term for most of my classes. I keep the sharing phases of groupwork really short – one-two minutes mostly – where it usually follows 8-10 minutes of silent individual work. I’m pretty sceptical about longer periods unless they’re arranged as lab style tasks where one group is observed by the rest: there’s just too high a tendency towards social loafing etc among teenagers.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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