Progressive Education and Political Culture

Snake_oil_old_bottleProgressive educational ideas constitute an attack on truth and authority. Traditionally, education consists of passing on to the next generation a body of knowledge, handing on to them the precious inheritance of human wisdom and thought which has built up through the generations. The teacher has authority because he has already mastered this knowledge, and has been chosen for the important role of passing it on to the next generation. But progressive ideas reverse all of this, placing the child on a pedestal, and asking the child what he wishes to learn. In making education child-centred rather than knowledge centred, progressive educators pass on this key dogma: there is no objective truth; there is only subjective experience, and to know more of this relativist ‘truth’, we must look within, not without.

It is well documented that these ideas took a powerful hold of state education in Britain from the sixties onwards, although their dominance was stronger in primary schools at first, and many bastions of traditionalism continued, particularly in the grammar schools that survived. While Harold Wilson had hoped for a traditional academic education to be made available to everyone – ‘grammar schools for all’ – the comprehensivisation of secondary schools in the seventies in fact ushered in ever more radical progressive experiments, as discipline was relaxed and traditional academic subjects either dropped or hollowed out to the point of meaninglessness. Read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools, for more detail on this.

The dominance of progressive ideas in education from the sixties onwards has been part of a larger cultural shift away from received wisdom, traditional morality and objective truth towards a relativist, subjectivist view of human society, and of humanity itself.

What we have seen is an abandonment of the final cause: the fourth of Aristotle’s four causes, and the most important one. Aristotle considered it to be the strongest argument for the existence of God, as the final cause of the universe, and he also considered it to be indispensable for a proper understanding of any phenomenon. We must understand purposes and goals if we are to understand anything properly. We must understand purposes and goals if we are to make meaningful judgements. If I want to judge whether a pen is ‘good’, I must know its purpose. Once I know that its purpose is to write, then I can see if it writes well. If it does, I say it is a good pen. If I misunderstand its purpose, and decide to use it as a can opener, I will not achieve my goal – I will not open the can – and I will also destroy the pen.

This is what has happened in education. The final cause has been lost, and education has been used to achieve all kinds of goals for which it was not intended. And just like the unwise man who tries to open a can with a pen, we have tried to do all sorts of foolish things with education and in the process we have destroyed education.

The collapse of authority and traditional wisdom in state education is so widespread that it is now hardly noticed by most people. It has become normal. Generations have experienced schools where teachers are treated without respect, where history is hollowed out to subjective responses and ‘source analysis’, where English involves the arrogant dismissal of the writers of the past as benighted bigots.

Now we have a political class entering the highest offices of government that has experienced this kind of schooling. They are more likely than ever to see morality in terms of conformity to social norms rather than submission to any objective standard. They are more likely to see the population as in need of management and manipulation rather than as having possession of reason and free will. They will have experienced, in their formative years, a system dedicated to the ideological whims of the experts (seventies and eighties) or to fulfilling bureaucratic criteria (nineties and noughties) rather than to handing on the wisdom of the centuries to the young. So it would be natural for them to consider the role of government in a similar manner. Instead of government serving the people, the people must meet the critieria of government. Instead of government being limited to the maintenance of peace and the rule of law, government must interfere in every area of life, to ensure that ‘standards’ are being met. Government becomes one huge, overweening inspection regime.

That’s why I don’t find it reassuring that ever more government ministers are state educated.


13 thoughts on “Progressive Education and Political Culture

  1. So true. Your point on history really resonates with me. My daughter just does source analysis alongside snippets of knowledge (like what the Roman’s wore) and it doesn’t seem to matter that she doesn’t know anything at all about the content of the subject!

    What this means is that her high schooling is very, very boring. If you attempt to remove the knowledge than the curriculum is “dull as dish water”. No wonder so many students disengage. Generally children enjoy facts. Lets give them back what they so desperately seek and need.


  2. An interesting post.

    A couple of comments that I might make are…..

    1 If you have see the Jason Bourne movies, you will know that there are a number of uses for a pen in addition to writing.

    2 There is not need to talk Aristotle at all. Anderson and Krathwohl explained the situation much more succinctly when they revised Bloom’s taxonomy in 2001. Evalution can be either checking internal consistency or critiquing against external criteria.

    Aristotle’s ramblings were ok for his time, but we have made a good deal of progress since then

    The rest I will leave to others.


      • Why on earth would anyone consider “it is always wrong to kill an innocent” to have universal validity. Surely the only sense in which this statement has universal validity, is if one approaches the statement with the faith that it has inversal validity.

        Surely this is simply a moral construct. It applies only to human beings in the modern age.

        As a traditionalist, I would have thought you would have been keen to refer back to the old days when human beings, as a population, did not think this way.

        I find it interesting also that it is only “wrong” to kill the “innocent”. Clearly we are all “guilty” of something, even if it is only that direct instruction is the best teaching strategy in all circumstances and at all times for all content.


      • You have illustrated precisely what happens when objective truth is denied. Evil actions can be justified. Very few people commit evil actions without justifying them to themselves. Does that mean their actions are not objectively evil?

        It is strange how those who rage against moral absolutism sometimes claim that it was made impossible by Auschwitz. The opposite is true. It was a Nietzschean denial of any moral absolute that made Auschwitz possible.


  3. Your work is really interesting, Anthony. I am becoming increasingly convinced about many of the arguments you and others who argue for a knowledge-rich curriculum make, but I wonder if you could clarify something for me? There is a clear disdain in your writing towards the state sector, but what confuses me about your argument is that the curriculum requirements at GCSE and A Level are national specifications—which apply equally to students in state schools and the independent sector.

    I am persuaded by your arguments, but not that the problem lies solely in the state sector. A student who achieves an A* in, say geography, surely has had a similar experience whether educated in the private or state sector? You are concerned that some new members of the UK cabinet come with a state education background, but wouldn’t they have taken the same GCSEs and A levels as their public school counterparts?

    The line in your argument I’m confused about is that the problem of progressive education lies at the door of state schools. If there is a problem with the dumbing down of knowledge in the modern curriculum, doesn’t that stem from the examination board specifications, which apply equally to independent schools? So independent school students must be getting drawn into the same watered down experience as their state school peers? An A* is an A* no matter which school it comes out of.

    I’m aware that some independent schools use iGCSE and IB programmes, but many (most?) follow the same GCSE and A level courses taken by the majority of state schools.

    My argument here is that any dumbing down must lie partly with the examination boards and national specifications rather than state schools per se.


    • You’re right. I’ve written in other blog posts about the slide towards progressivism in the independent sector, and this is partly driven by the use of the same or similar examinations.

      Progressivism has been dominant for longer in the state sector, but that also means that the battle against progressivism has a longer pedigree. The most encouraging things in education currently are happening in the state sector, with schools like Michaela.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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