Grading the Four Faces of Progressive Education
By Bryan Caplan
Ayn Rand raised me to despise Progressive education. Now that I’m reading Diane Ravitch’s Left Back, though, I’m learning that “Progressive education,” like Walt Whitman, contained multitudes. Ravitch identifies four distinct – and often conflicting – trends:
First was the idea that education might become a science and that the
methods and ends of education could be measured with precision and
determined scientifically. This was the basis of the mental testing movement.
was the idea that the methods and ends of education could be derived
from the innate needs and nature of the child. This was the basis of
the child-centered movement.
was the idea that the methods and ends of education could be determined
by assessing the needs of society and then fitting children for their
role in society. This was the basis of the social efficiency movement.
was the idea that the methods and ends of education could be changed in
ways that would reform society. Proponents of this idea expected that
the schools could change the social order, either by freeing children’s
creative spirit or conversely by indoctrinating them for life in a
planned society. The first version was the faith of the child-centered
movement and the second was the basis of the social reconstruction movement.
Interim thoughts on each of the four (with grades):
1. The mental testing movement. It’s easy to criticize the pioneers of mental testing for their premature self-congratulation and ignorance of comparative advantage. But their approach and discoveries turned out to be incredibly important and fruitful. Grade: B+
2. The child-centered movement. Letting kids do whatever they want and calling it “school” seems like idiocy to most people. I’m not certain they’re right, but I tend to agree. Still, it’s easy for moderns to forget the long history of casual emotional and physical abuse of children in school. We should think of the child-centered movement as an over-reaction against centuries of needless cruelty. Grade: B-
3. The social efficiency movement. The rhetoric sounds awful – lots of analogies between kids and cogs or dough. But the substance is excellent. The goal is to make education more vocational – to teach kids skills they’re actually likely to use, instead of Latin and the classics. The social efficiency movement could just as easily have cut all the collectivist language and said, “We should teach kids marketable skills.” Grade: A-
4. The social reconstruction movement. This is the only thoroughly awful component of Progressive education. Ravitch heavily substantiates Rand’s view that social reconstructionists wanted to brainwash the next generation into New Socialist Men. But what does any of this have to do with mental testing, lax discipline, or vocational education? Next to nothing. Grade: F