EDST 580—Entry 9: Radicalizing (Utopianizing?) Progressivism in Education, Part 2: Leaving Instrumentalism Behind

A reading of Pinar, W.F. (2005)The Problem with Curriculum and Pedagogy.

I originally selected this paper because I was familiar with Pinar’s work (he is currently a professor in UBC’s Curriculum and Pedagogy Department) and his critical position vis-à-vis instrumentalism—that portion of philosophical pragmatism, which took the firmest hold on the educational system in the United States and had the deepest and most lasting impact there.  In this essay, Pinar provides some detailed expansion on this criticism through a reading of a 1971 essay by Robert McClintock in the Teacher’s College Record, as well as a reading of Alan Block, a Jewish scholar of ethics and curriculum.  Pinar sets up the concept of “study” as a more prophetic and expansive alternative to the stifling instrumentalism of “instruction” as it has been conceived in the mainstream of the curriculum and pedagogy field.  Despite his rejection of instrumentalism, Pinar still relies on a pragmatist ethic, borrowed, if not directly from Dewey than certainly from Rorty.  And the promotion of “study” as Pinar and Block characterize it, may indeed be one way that a pragmatist ethic may be manifest in the educational system without resorting to the too-narrow conception of education as purely a means to some end.

Pinar begins this piece with a discussion of instrumentalism in the philosophy of education.  He traces the origin of this instrumentalism, rightly to the progressive movement in education at the beginning of the 20th century.  But he also links it to even larger political projects that took hold in the United States then, such as the idea of “social engineering,” which was bolstered, as Pinar argues by the United States’ preoccupation with business and religion (p. 1).  The business-mindedness of American culture seeks profit, and the religious aspect of American culture “mangles the present by disavowing it.” (ibid.)  In general terms it is this pie-in-the-sky mentality combined with the profit motive and the prevailing instrumentalism that has led to the brokenness of the present-day educational system in the United States.  Pinar’s arguments against pragmatism stem from the fact that, as he notes, “Pragmatism’s progressive formulation of social engineering has been eclipsed… by conservatism, intent on side-stepping culture and history by focusing on ‘learning technologies’ such as the computer” (p.68).  In the same way that John Dewey relied on the “weakest” form of pragmatism, in his support of the United States’ entry into World War I (mere instrumentalism, according to his famous student detractor, Randolph Bourne), so has the educational system in the United States grown up around certain “scientific” ends in view.  And Pinar sees educational policy in the United States, typified by the No Child Left Behind Act, as the result of these tendencies coupled with instrumentalism.

This essay is in large part a lament that historically Pinar’s field of curriculum studies has come out of an instrumentalist view of education.  Pinar rues the founding of the first Curriculum and Teaching Department at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, where John Dewey was an Emeritus Professor.  Columbia was perhaps the epicenter of Dewey’s influence on the philosophy of education.  Pinar characterizes the founding of this department —“institutionalized social engineering at the site of the teacher” as a major mistake (p. 68).  Pinar is also critical of the centrality of the role of the teacher in education—and argues that this institutionalization of the conjunction of curriculum and teaching “inflated the role of the teacher” (ibid.).  From this point in his essay, Pinar introduces “study” as a new subsidiary concept for curriculum—not necessarily as a replacement for “pedagogy” but as a counterbalance to what has become the overwhelming and disturbing centrality of “teaching” in schools.

For Pinar study stands opposed to teaching which risks being authoritarian.  But study is not just undertaken for the benefit of the individual.  Drawing on Montaigne via McClintock, Pinar—wary of those who would mistake autobiography for narcissism— seems to link the “heightening of consciousness” that study brings to a greater social good.  The highest good that study brings in Pinar’s view is not the aspiration for “control” over one’s circumstances, as McClintock suggests.  Rather, it is study’s “capacity to contest comformity” (p. 69).  Thus, after McClintock, Pinar states, “the student draws upon ‘nature,’ ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ as these speak to his ‘situation,’ enabling him to convert the contingencies of time, place and circumstance into ‘achieved intention,’” lending a “creative, singular and social sense” to study (p. 70).  But Pinar is still skeptical of progressivism’s ability to “teach freedom for creativity, let alone for individuality and autonomy” (ibid.)  Pinar, in a characteristically brilliant turn, points to autobiography as a way forward—the substrate upon which the “mystery” of human capacity for “selection,” “focus” and “judgment” might be borne out.

The question remains however: what is necessary of teachers?  Maybe just modeling study and the intellectual interest that fuels it is sufficient?  On this point, Pinar notes that even critics of progressivism in education acknowledge the role teachers play “in enabling children to discover, articulate, and expand their interests” (p. 74).  Thus, in situations where study (not instruction) is central, teachers work to engage each student’s individual curiosity.

So, study begins to have a certain libertarian flavor to it.  However, I think it is important to note that study, in the terms outlined above, does not come with any institutional requirements.  There are no best practices.  It cannot be engineered.  Indeed study could just as easily succumb to the evils of instrumentalist thinking as pedagogy has.  As a teacher and a student I want to start thinking of the reciprocal of learning not as teaching, but as study.  As Alan Block is quoted in the epigraph to the conclusion of Pinar’s essay:  “Education is a private engagement in a public world for the redemption of both.”