Ignorance Log Chapter 1: Traditional versus Progressive Education

Progressive Education in the 1940s (YouTube)

The above video does a pretty good job of presenting what most people in the first half of the 20th century must’ve had in mind when they thought of “Traditional” versus “Progressive” education.  But what exactly does Dewey mean when he uses these two terms?

As Dewey’s soundbite from the close of this video notes, Dewey’s idea of Progressive education consists in, above all, preparing students for an ever-developing future, not, as Hannah Arendt concludes, in somehow burdening children with responsibility for the present or, as proponents of Traditional education would have it, of giving children an opportunity to absorb some knowledge of the past.

But does Dewey see these distinctions as absolutes?  Are Progressive and Traditional modes of education always completely distinct and, if so, how do we tell the difference?

These are questions that Dewey sets up in his first chapter of Experience and Education.  To be answered later in chapters 2 and 3.

Dewey sees school as a uniquely organized institution, as distinct from Family or other social institutions.  Does school organized around Deweyan principles of Progressivism blur this distinction?  What is it that distinguishes the “traditional school” in this way?

Dewey refers again and again to a sort conception of the world as constantly changing.  What is the nature of this change?  How does Dewey conceive of change?  Is he referring to people changing as subjects or to the world changing as the object of experience?  Or both or something else?  How does the world change?  Again these questions are I think answered ultimately in the following chapters, but it will be good to come back to these, even though they’re not exactly central questions.

Dewey asks a lot of his own questions as a means of further unfolding his arguments.  Here are a few of those from Chapter 1:

The problem for progressive education is:  what is the place and meaning of subject-matter and of organization within experience?  How does subject-matter function?  Is there anything inherent in experience which tends towards progressive organization of its contents?  What results follow when the materials of experience are not progressively organized?

In Chapter 4 Dewey is going to dive headlong into questions of authority and control which are hinted at above in this discussion of “organization.”

I don’t want to apologize for Dewey– anyway it would take more than a scholar of my stature to prop him up.  But more than that I am really curious about his beliefs with regard to Empiricism.  Westbrook claimed that Dewey was not a Positivist, but does this mean that he was not a Realist?  Actually later on in Chapter 3, Dewey outlines what is basically a Constructionist view of knowledge production, so that definitely rules out Positivism, but he was keen to decenter epistemological questions anyway in favor of metaphysics (e.g. of experience) and ethics (i.e. Democracy).

Dewey poses the following question towards the end of Chapter 1, and I believe that it is perhaps THE central question in E&EWhat is the role of the teacher in progressive education?  That’s definitely one I’ll want to expand on later and in my final essay.

Final question for Chapter 1:  When Dewey writes,

We may reject knowledge of the past as the end of education, and thereby only emphasize its importance as a means… How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?

Does he recognize the submersion of the past and present in hegemony?  Is the recognition of a “living present” the same as a historical view of the present?

More to the point:  Is it possible that Dewey recognizes the problems of traditional schooling without recognizing their root causes in systematic inequalities and injustices in society?  I don’t think Dewey would have used the word “hegemony” at any rate, but perhaps the phenomenon that he describes later as “educative experience” depends upon some recognition of systemic injustice at play.