Up from Progressivism
April 1, 1997        

Probably every reader of this journal has encountered that stirring pronouncement by Thomas Jefferson: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers with out a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.” Not many people, however, know the sentence immediately following: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” Nowadays freedom of the press is not in imminent danger (at least not from the government; concentration of ownership is another, and very serious, matter). But less of the populace, arguably, now reads substantive, intellectually demanding newspapers than 100 or even 200 years ago.

Nor do “substantive” and “intellectually demanding” describe contemporary electoral politics. Commenting on the Lincoln/Douglas debates, Christopher Lasch wrote in “The Revolt of the Elites”: “By current standards, Lincoln and Douglas broke every rule of political discourse. They subjected their audiences (which were as large as fifteen thousand on one occasion) to a painstaking analysis of complex issues. They spoke with considerably more candor ... than politicians think prudent today. They took clear positions from which it was difficult to retreat. They conducted themselves as if political leadership carried with it the obligation to clarify issues in stead of merely getting elected.” Comparison with pre sent-day debates between political candidates is, to put it mildly, unflattering to us.

How did we become a nation of political illiterates? Part of the answer is to be found in the work of Lasch and other historians such as Robert Wiebe and Jackson Lears, who have traced the effects of mass production and political centralization on American character and culture. Another compelling line of explanation emerges from the analysis of mass culture by Neil Postman, Todd Gitlin, Mark Crispin Miller, and others.

And then there are the schools. The following anecdotal report (cited by E.D. Hirsch in “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know”) can stand for innumerable others. A pollster who conducted frequent focus groups among Los Angeles teenagers in the early 1980s observed: “I have not yet found one single student in Los Angeles, in either college or high school, who could tell me the years when World War II was fought. Nor have I found one who could tell me the years when World War I was fought. Nor have I found one who knew when the American Civil War was fought. ... Only two could even approximately identify Thomas Jefferson. Only one could place the date of the Declaration of Independence. None could name even one of the first ten amendments to the Constitution or connect them with the Bill of Rights. ... On and on it went.” Egad. What will political debates be like in 2025?

Ignorant and uncurious students become incompetent, economically insecure workers and passive, gullible voters (or, more often, nonvoters). On this all educational reformers can agree. What is to be done? Ten years ago in “Cultural Literacy”, and more recently in “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them” (Doubleday, 1996), Hirsch, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, broached the seemingly modest and uncontroversial notion that “a mastery of national culture is essential to the mastery of the standard language in every modern nation.” That is, without knowing a great many particular — perhaps even specifiable — facts that most other English-speaking people also know, one cannot effectively speak (or read or write) English.

This proposition did not, of course, turn out to be either modest or uncontroversial. The venerable distinction, long enshrined in pedagogical theory, between skill and content, between “knowing how” and “knowing that,” was put in question. The assumption that reading, writing, “critical thinking,” “problem-solving,” “creativity,” and so on are autonomous, content-neutral skills, capable of being transferred from one subject-matter to another, has been central to American educational philosophy since Dewey. In “Lectures on the Philosophy of Education” (1899) Dewey wrote:

“I do not wish to make a plea for ignorance, but the amount of information that a person requires in existing society is comparatively a small thing. The necessary amount of training, of control of his powers, of judgment, observation, and action is very great, but any person who has got that control can ... get on with a comparatively small amount of actual information. When we give up the encyclopedia or dictionary ideal of education and substitute for it the ideal of growth ... it will mean a revolution in the present educational ideals and practices.”

And so it did. The “ideal of growth,” based on an organic conception of human nature derived from the European Romantics and American Transcendentalists, and the belief that a child’s formal abilities, or “control of his powers,” preceded and enabled the acquiring of mere “information,” together constituted educational “progressivism.” In the hands of Dewey’s crusading colleagues at Teachers College, Columbia, it swept the field.

Part of its attraction was its apparently close fit with the ethos of American democratic individualism. There seemed a whiff of collectivism and authoritarianism — not to mention Mr. Gradgrind — about the insistence that all children should learn certain facts in a certain order, presumably determined by some remote bureaucracy. The educational progressives believed that every child has unique capacities and must learn at his or her own pace, free of regimentation and coercion, and that self-directing elementary school students would grow up into self-directing citizens. All this seemed axiomatic, and what’s more, downright American.

Hirsch demurred. In the first place, on empirical grounds: The research results are in and the evidence is undeniable that American schoolchildren perform poorly on language and mathematics tests compared with children in other developed nations, most of which have more standardized, content-oriented curricula than we do. No one, in fact, does deny this; it is Hirsch’s conclusions there from that evoke furious rebuttals. Briefly, he proposes that every school have explicit content requirements for each grade (K-12) and that schools make these available to parents. No child can advance without meeting those requirements, and every child will get all the compensatory help that is needed. Even more specifically and emphatically (the italics are his own): “Because of the sensitivity of academic progress to early conditions, this single, attainable goal — every child reading at grade level by the end of first or second grade — would do more than any other single reform to improve the quality and equity of American schooling.”

What’s so controversial about that? Perhaps it’s the specter of objectivity — the assumption that academic achievement is significantly measurable; or of elitism — the assumption that some kinds of knowledge are more important than other kinds. In any case, the opposition comes mainly from professors and administrators. As Hirsch repeatedly points out (and as Jonathan Kozol noted in “Savage Inequalities”), most poor, working-class, and minority parents favor traditional, content-based curricula over the progressive, “process”-based variety. And they’re not dupes; on the contrary, they appear to understand that — as Hirsch, again, continually emphasizes — the children of affluent, educated parents will absorb at home far more of the background knowledge necessary for cultural literacy than their less advantaged peers. Ineffective public education not only isn’t (in Horace Mann’s hallowed phrase) a “great equalizer”; it actually amplifies inequality.

Still, what about freedom and individuality? Doesn’t standardization inevitably promote conformism? Doesn’t an emphasis on authority and discipline in the curriculum send children the wrong message, even if only subliminally, about the importance of autonomy and initiative? Culturally literate robots are not, after all, democratic citizens.

Hirsch has an answer to these objections. “Children can express individuality only in relation to the traditions of their society, which they have to learn. The greatest human individuality is developed in response to a tradition, not in response to a disorderly, uncertain, and fragmented education. Americans in their teens and twenties who were brought up under individualistic theories are not less conventional than their predecessors, only less literate, less able to express their individuality.”

Hirsch’s point can be generalized, it seems to me. Freedom has value, indeed has meaning, only in relation to constraint. We are our constraints: The limitations (i.e., capacities) imposed by infantile dependence, territoriality, scarcity, and mortality between them define human nature. Human development is determinate: first identification, then differentiation. Early, intense local identifications — with particular persons, objects, places, stories, rites, creeds — are our core. Personality, like puberty, comes later, in evolutionary sequence, and had better not be rushed.

Progressive educational theory, for all its benefits, has neglected the tragic aspect of freedom. Psychological freedom requires the gradual mastery of terrifying fantasies about internalized omnipotent adults. Intellectual freedom requires gradual emancipation from inherited religious and political myths. In both cases, eliminating these painful struggles against the constraints of socialization also eliminates the possibility of depth, emotional or imaginative. Mature freedom and individuality are the result of successfully waging these unavoidable conflicts. There are no shortcuts.

Here is another tragic fact, perhaps even more relevant to the debate over educational reform: Money is the root of all good. Hirsch’s program, if he is serious — as I believe he is — about bringing all disadvantaged children up to grade level, cannot work on the cheap (a fact that apparently eluded Secretary of Education William Bennett, whose enthusiastic and opportunistic support cost Hirsch so much liberal good will). “It will be a great day,” the old New Left slogan went, “when the schools have all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to pay for a new bomber.” Perhaps traditionalists and progressives can agree on this, at least.