The Co-Opting of Progressive Education

I’ve always been really proud of being a progressive educator. I really believe in its core tenet, that the purpose of progressive education is to prepare students to be active citizens of a participatory democracy. I also believe in the pedagogy of progressive education, that students should learn by doing and that teachers should facilitate a classroom environment that is based on active learning rather than passive sitting and listening.

But lately I’ve been thinking that progressive education as educational philosophy is just another tool to uphold white supremacy — not the hardcore ideology of neo-nazi white supremacists — but the structural capitalist enterprise designed to keep white people on the top. I don’t necessarily mean that John Dewey meant it that way; but, over time, that’s how it’s been implemented.

Progressive education loses its bearings

While I’m not an educational historian, I know that in the first half of the 20th Century, public schools caught hold of progressive education as a means of tracking. Principals didn’t consider it a practical solution for students who weren’t going on to higher education; those students should have vocational education. They saved progressive methodologies for those promising young (mostly) men going on to college. For sure, “promising” meant white, Christian students who were not recently arrived in the U.S. Just like that, a philosophy based on active citizenship shifts into the service of upholding the status quo.

Radical lesbian educator and John Dewey-disciple Elisabeth Irwin started her experiment in progressive education in a public school in New York City, but with the onset of the Depression, she was told that it was too costly and was being scrapped. The solution? Make the experiment into a private program. Who benefits, then? People who can pay. People with privilege. People whose right to citizenship isn’t questioned or worse, actively suppressed.

In the past 25 years of schooling, and particularly since NCLB, the push towards “accountability” and the testing that is required to measure accountability means that progressive methodologies have been systematically pushed out of public schools, even at the elementary level. That’s a generation of public school students losing out on the kind of education that centers them as learners, community members, young citizens with ideas and value. So, while they’ve been losing out, who’s been benefitting?

Testing companies. Textbook companies. Charter school networks. And white kids in private schools.

In pursuit of social injustice

Which leads me to take a hard look at what I’ve been participating in as a card-carrying progressive educator. And it’s not pretty. Those of us who benefit from white privilege must persistently interrogate the ways that we participate — often unwittingly — in systems designed or leveraged to uphold one group over others. Doesn’t mean, like in the case of progressive education, that the thing itself is inherently problematic, but the way it’s been co-opted is.

Grit. Mindset. All these philosophies that perhaps begin with good intentions, to develop young people as active learners, are quickly subverted. The urge to keep our systems socially unjust is that strong.

I’ll still carry my progressive education card in my wallet, but when I’m called upon to take it out, I will be sure to take a good hard look at who benefits.

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