EDST 580— Entry 1: Framing Progressivism in Education

A reading of Hawkes, G. & Hawkes, E. (2013).

This blog entry doesn’t really fit neatly into the weekly scheme I worked out for this course in the syllabus.  But so it goes.  Glenn and Elijah Hawke’s interesting “article” doesn’t fit neatly into the genre of analysis you normally get from a History of Education Quarterly or an Educational Studies paper.  But their somewhat confessional, father-son exchange of seven lengthy letters touches on a variety of ideas I’ve had with regard to HOW and WHAT kind of work (whether teaching, research, or child rearing!) I want to do around Progressivism.  I’ve linked my marked up copy of the reading above.  The piece is called:  “Miracle and monstrosities:  John Dewey and the fate of progressive education.”  And while it does provide a relatively complete narrative of John Dewey’s various contributions to the doomed progressive movement in early 20th century American education, to be honest, what interests me most about the piece is its form.  First, I’ll do a quick exposition of what the article is.

Elijah Hawkes is a middle school teacher, raised in a white, socially conscious, upper-middle-class New England household in the 1970s and ‘80s.  His Father, Glenn was a teacher too, and a political activist.  Both men are also interested in the various iterations that so-called progressivism in education has had in American schools in the last century.  The letters that comprise the piece begin on a melancholic note:  Glenn has just had a major surgery.  And in an effort to connect with his father, and perhaps to distract him during a lengthy convalescence, Elijah initiates an email thread ostensibly to get to the bottom of an academic question:  Why does the elder Hawkes always talk about the progressive movement in education as a failure?

Presumably the younger Hawkes has reason to disagree with his father’s persistent characterization of progressivism in education (or “progressive education,” as they refer to it).   And this inter-generational tension goes to the core of what I like about how this piece frames its conversation about the movement.  First, it’s a literal dialogue between father and son.  This is unusual in academic writing to say the least; though perhaps it is less so in the journal, Schools:  Studies in Education.  In their correspondence, father and son are not particularly self-conscious about this idiosyncrasy.  But it gives the piece an authentic, un-edited feel, which resonates nicely with certain aesthetic considerations underlying progressivism in education—especially John Dewey’s conception of “organic experience.”  At times these letters achieve a kind of rational stream of consciousness—motivated by certain political and philosophical aims.  Especially the younger Hawkes is actively engaged in a dual quest for learning from his father’s experience and his own desire that the story of progressivism in education continue to be told and told better.  I can certainly identify with this latter aim.

It’s encouraging to see other teachers struggling with the idea of progressivism in education, especially when that struggle leads to deeper historical digging.  The elder Hawkes draws on a few lesser-known titles in Dewey’s oeuvre—books I haven’t read yet—one written in the wake of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles aptly titled Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) and a couple of later works, Individualism Old and New (1930) and A Common Faith (1934).  Hawkes also unearths Dewey’s 1952 New York Times obituary, which is a document I had not considered consulting before.  But aside from pointing to these primary documents, there is not a whole lot of new content to this 40-page piece.  The opening question, about the elder Hawkes characterization of progressivism as a failure in education is ultimately, though vaguely overturned.  And the letters finish on an optimistic note that the authors argue is more fitting to the mood of a movement that lives on—if just below the surface, often obscured, misunderstood or ignored—in American education institutions.  In other words, progressivism in education has not been a failure, but the stories we have been told about it so far will not suffice.

When studies of progressivism in education focus on individual activists—like John Dewey for instance— as case studies in and representatives of the whole, the complexity of the movement is elided.  Myth tends to seep in to the historical narrative and it becomes tempting, and perhaps sometimes more expedient to certain ends to treat the whole affair as a blanket success or failure.  This is the sort of newspaper headline version of history.  “Dr. John Dewey Dead at 92:  Philosopher a Noted Liberal.”  But a history constructed only from newspaper headlines is always incomplete.  The history of progressivism in education also needs to include voices like the Hawkes’ and all the otherwise anonymous teachers, learners, workers, activists, artists.  Furthermore, these letters demonstrate one unusual new (old) way that the history of progressivism in education might be written: as a dialogue, socially constructed, against a backdrop of political struggle, and ultimately with optimism about human beings’ capacity to understand and work towards social justice.

These basic ideas and impulses would have been more than familiar to a John Dewey or a Jane Addams or a W.E.B. Du Bois or a Charles Beard at the turn of the 20th century.  That we are still mulling it all over a hundred years later in our emails and blogs and theses and graduating papers is evidence, if not of success, then certainly of the existence of the proper conditions for continued experimentation and *gasp!* progress in the way the education system in the United States is organized.  These letters illustrate that the possibilities for progressivism in education have not yet been exhausted.  Teachers in the 21st century still have a lot to learn from Dewey and Glenn Hawkes and all of our philosophical and pedagogical forebears.


Next time I’ll be getting into more of the nitty-gritty of pragmatist metaphysics a la Sidney Hook.