EDST 580—Entry 7: Progressivism and Anti-Racism in Mid-20th Century America

Baker, S. (2011)Pedagogies of Protest: African American Teachers and the History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1940-1963.

This week’s article was a joy to read.  Baker explicitly connects his historiography of African American secondary education with the activist politics of the American Civil Rights Movement AND explicitly connects all of the above with John Dewey’s progressive philosophy of education.  I knew it could be done.  I struggled to connect similar dots when I was writing about Black Mountain College earlier this year.  Baker’s paper is exciting, particularly in that his interviews reveal that there remained a subterranean progressivism, which had not devolved into the instrumentalism that is so rightly reviled today in the form it has taken in mainstream American schooling— a philosophical justification for the hyper-rationalization of curriculum with effects ranging from student tracking, to over-reliance on standardized tests, to the rampant marketization of schools.  Baker’s article reveals that teachers in segregated black southern schools translated Dewey’s cries for Democracy as the truest aim of education into a curriculum for racial justice and African American agency.  What’s more, this transformation of the segregated school curriculum along progressive lines took place even as predominantly white school superintendants were pushing painfully outmoded nominally “progressive” vocational education programs for black segregated schools.

Baker’s research is also important to me for its methods.  He combines a historiography of African American teacher agency in the Civil Rights Movement based on archival research as well as interviews with a brief discussion of Dewey’s philosophy of education and the ways it manifested itself in these segregated schools.  He carefully moves back and forth among a variety of different sources as he traces the progressivism of African American teachers from schoolyards to sit-ins.  And more than any other article I’ve read for this course so far, Baker presents progressivism as a still viable ideology for meaningful change, not only within the boundaries of the education system, but in the whole of society by way of education.

The African American teachers and principals whose work Baker celebrates in this article are at once philosophers and activists.  Despite their working in the belly of a terrible beast—a racist education system that used a perverted version of progressive educational ideology to justify pigeonholing bright young students in vocational training programs—African American teachers used their relative invisibility to their advantage.  In Baker’s words, these teachers and principals were “institution builders,” who were able to stoke the fires of the nascent Civil Rights Movement in the United States by creating safe spaces for their students to be able to challenge the authorities, which demanded their continued subjugation and disenfranchisement.

According to Baker, black teachers in America in this era have gotten a bad rap from high-profile civil rights leaders like Stokley Carmichael who thought black educators had sold out their race “for security and status” (Carmichael & Hamilton, qtd in Baker, p.2778).  But as Baker goes on to point out, so much of this is just rhetoric.  And Baker wields his archival evidence to great effect in refuting such remarks.  One of the most inspiring examples Baker gives to this effect is that of Julia Brogdon (p.2787).  Brogden taught a class at the Burke Industrial School in Charleston, South Carolina called “Problems of Democracy” in which she required her students to apply to (and presumably to be rejected from) the segregated College of Charleston.  I can’t think of a more relevant, challenging, and empowering lesson in social studies.  And it is precisely this type of grassroots curriculum design, informed as it was by progressive educational philosophy that Baker argues helped the American Civil Rights movement grow.

I hope that more brilliant teachers such as Julia Brogden continue to be inspired by a progressive aim for democracy and social justice.  I hope that these individuals are not dissuaded by the efforts of the powerful to continue to use education for enslavement rather than for freedom.  I hope that progressivism in education will never completely harden into a rigid instrumentalism.  But it will take the continual efforts of progressive teachers, like those in Baker’s essay, who are willing to be critical, to struggle in whatever niche they may carve out by their strategic non-compliance to create change and further just causes.  Progressivism in education can at least be a means to those ends.

1 thought on “EDST 580—Entry 7: Progressivism and Anti-Racism in Mid-20th Century America

  1. I enjoyed reading this article too, and your blog response to it Fish. It was exciting to read a more contemporary take on how Dewey’s influence could be mapped out past the early decades of the twentieth century. I was also intrigued by Baker’s range of historical sources, particularly as they reminded me of your own work on Black Mtn. The importance of interviews for his work was striking. I wondered if you might have explored more explicitly in your response whether the fusion of African American protest philosophy and Dewey’s democratic progressivism “violates” or is perfectly in keeping with the critique of “aims of education” approaches to schooling children? Perhaps this is where Dewey’s progressivism as a discrete philosophy meets some of its limitations? Is Deweyan thinking in education at its best when it is utilized for ends that are determined to be emancipatory?

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