What Is Progressivism?

Literacy and numeracy don't grow in the hedgerows.

Literacy and numeracy don’t grow in the hedgerows.

There are two key mantras of progressive dogma: naturalism and formalism.

Naturalism is the idea that education happens naturally, like the growth of a plant, and teachers need to stand back and let it unfurl.

Formalism is the idea that factual knowledge is unimportant; it is transferable skills that count.

Naturalism is plausible because it does describe the way we learn our mother tongue. But it is wrong because there is nothing natural about the acquisition of literacy, numeracy or academic subject knowledge. You could stare at a tree your whole life without ever learning about photosynthesis. The human race existed for many generations before the alphabet or base ten mathematics were even invented.

Formalism is plausible because there is such a thing as general skill in reading and picking up new skills with facility. Formalism is wrong because this general facility is based on good general knowledge. It is also wrong because specific skills always require specific knowledge. Experts are experts because they know a lot about their subject; it is novices who must look things up, and this prevents them from thinking efficiently. In order to think like an expert, you need expertise, which means large amounts of knowledge at your fingertips.

(See E D Hirsch, The Schools We Need, p218-222, for more detailed and eloquent definitions and refutations).

This link provides a summarised version of Hirsch’s masterful dissection of progressive terminology.