The Compatibility of Political Progressivism and “Something Else” Educationally

Gary Marvin Davison, an engaged educator with a perpetual edge, had a particularly pointed counterpoint in the Star Tribune (Oct. 17) about how the “insidious ideology of education professors and their acolytes” is a core reason why kids do so lousy in math, “Minnesota Low Math Scores are No Accident.”  Here’s a key paragraph:

“Over the course of succeeding decades [starting early in the 20th century], education professors appropriated the name ‘progressive,’ applying the term to an array of approaches variously asserted to be ‘child-centered’ and productive of some social good; the unifying element was a creed vowing that systematically acquired knowledge and skills were not important because those can always be looked up.  Instead, curriculum should be driven by students and teacher interest.”

Critiques like this are closer to a century old than anything new.  And even though I’m a long-ago product of a college of education, I agree with Davison in significant ways.  How “long-ago”?  I wrote my dissertation on a typewriter with a quart of Wite-Out.  But let me offer a variation on progressivism in education, especially when it comes to low-income boys and girls, whose educational well-being is at the good heart of Davison’s long-time drive.

Certainly not always, but often, low-income kids do best in clearly structured schools; schools with little that’s undisciplined or free-wheeling about them.  Think, for example, of KIPP (Knowledge is Power) schools.  Places also known as sweat-the-small-stuff schools.  A fascinating aspect about such schools is that while educators who start and lead them are frequently “progressive” politically, they are something else academically.  “Conservative” is usually not the right word, or is “traditional,” though the latter is closer.  Think “regimen” or “regularity,” not “Rousseau.”

Or think of Israel in the middle of the 20th century, in its socialist days.  While the nation’s political center of gravity was leftward (“progressive” in current nomenclature), its educational spirit bordered on elitist.

Or at the risk of religious stereotyping, think of Jewish professors, mostly in New York and the east coast, about 30 years ago.  (I might be able to say things like this more safely than others.)

I was at the first national meeting of a then-new organization, the National Association of Scholars, in 1989 in Manhattan.  NAS was created to fight political correctness in its various forms in higher education, including lower standards.  The group wasn’t founded to do battle in politically partisan ways, and I trust it hasn’t.  Don’t hold me to exact numbers, but I recall about 200 attendees, more than a few of whom were Members of the Tribe, with a large portion well-established and senior in their fields.

Of the 200 or so women and mostly men, I was confident few were Republicans.  And, if on the occasion they voted for one, it was much more likely to be Nelson Rockefeller or John Lindsay than Ronald Reagan or, by an even larger deficit, Barry Goldwater.  Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that a substantial number of them were academically conservative.  Or at least moderately so.  Meaning, they hated what they saw metastasizing on campuses and refused to put up with it.  Or, to clean up what my politically nonconservative, but traditionalist doctoral adviser once said about students who disrespected great colleges and universities, “They’re defecating in the temple.”

Returning to K-12, a key question:  How might more young teachers who view themselves as political progressives be encouraged to view themselves, not necessarily as educationally conservative, but at the very least, less predictable pedagogically?  This is the aim, not for the sake of ideological bragging rights by my side, but because it would help a lot of kids do better, often a lot better.

Mitch Pearlstein is founder of Center of the American Experiment.  His latest book is Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees.