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.”

EDST 580—Entry 8: Richard Rorty on Pragmatism and Feminism

A reading of Rorty (1990) Pragmatism & Feminism.  The 1990 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Delivered at the University of Michigan.

For this post, I will return to the work of Richard Rorty, the philosopher who seems to have been mostly responsible for the revival in interest in pragmatism and the work of John Dewey in the latter decades of the 20th century.  I selected this piece in an effort to further investigate the relevance of pragmatist theory to social justice aims.  And while this piece is not specifically about a theory of education, the recommendations Rorty makes vis-à-vis feminist politics could easily enough be translated into the realm of the politics of education, in part because many of the points he makes in this lecture on feminism stem from larger claims about social justice and how it is (re-) conceptualized.  And so, after a little bit of exposition, I will use this post to think through how Rorty’s bigger pragmatist social justice claims might be applied in the context of education.

In this lecture, Rorty draws on several feminist theorists and activists, starting with and centering on Catherine MacKinnon, but including many others including Frye, Lovibond, and Rich.  As I saw before in the essays of Rorty’s I read previously for this course, his major axe to grind is with universalism—those thinkers (be they on the left or the right of the political spectrum), who, “assume, with Kant, that all the logical space necessary for moral deliberation is now available” (p. 3).  Rorty sees MacKinnon’s work on the side of “historicists like G.W.F. Hegel and John Dewey” who Rorty reads as saying that “moral progress depends upon expanding this space”(p. 4).  Rorty explains that MacKinnon’s criticism of a 1990 sex-discrimination law is based on her rejection of the current linguistic and practical treatment of women within the logical space already prepared for them by the patriarchy.  The law doesn’t know how to treat women as women.  And Rorty’s starting point is here, in MacKinnon’s refusal to be confined by a misogynist moral space.  As Rorty notes, MacKinnon “sees feminists as needing to alter the data of moral theory rather than needing to formulate principles which fit preexistent data better” (p. 5).  In Rorty’s view, this runs contrary to the typical universalist point of view.

Universalist thinkers, Rorty argues typically believe that moral judgements are validated by something out there in the world—a set of norms or laws or scriptures perhaps.  Historicists, (including Deweyan pragmatists) know that humanity is the sum of its shared practices through time.  And so, in a certain sense, the nature of humanity is to remain mysterious, since presumably human practices will continue to change until the last person dies.  The trick, then is not to get bogged down in thinking about those practices which humanity has actualized so far  Sure, misogyny exists, but that’s no reason to privilege it over social practices we have yet to imagine yet.  Substitute misogyny for any historical social practice in that last sentence, and you get, according to Rorty, pragmatist ethics in a nutshell.

Although Rorty admits that whatever importance a philosophy like pragmatism may have will always be eclipsed by politics in a given historical moment, he still argues that pragmatist philosophy might be useful to feminist politics thus:  “Pragmatism redescribes both intellectual and moral progress by substituting metaphors of evolutionary development for metaphors of progressively less distorted perception” (p. 8).  Rorty extends this progressive development concept back into evolutionary history, and notes the similarities in the functions of biological genes and cultural memes as units of meaning (citing Dawkins and Dennett).  But, the key here, lest pragmatism be taken as backsliding towards a sort of social Darwinism, is that “no gene or meme is closer to the purpose of evolution or to the nature of humanity than any other—for evolution has no purpose and humanity no nature” (p. 9).  For Dewey, and Rorty and pragmatists, misogyny is not an intrinsic evil.  Rather it is a “rejected good, rejected on the basis of the greater good which feminism is presently making imaginable” (p. 10).  The ethics of pragmatism is a creative, imaginative force constantly pushing outward against the confines of history and culture.  And insofar as a feminist politics is an instance of such imagination, it is aligned with pragmatist ethics.

I’ll end this portion of my exposition of Rorty’s speech by pointing to his section on Adrienne Rich.  I first learned about Rich through her powerful autobiographical poetry (i.e. “Diving into the Wreck”), and I was intrigued by her lesbian separatism at first for its utter novelty.  I was still in high school when I was exposed to this idea.  But returning to lesbian separatism through Rorty’s pragmatist ethics lens, I have a much fuller appreciation for what Rich was doing by enacting such a radical politics.  When I was 18 I vaguely understood that rich was “pushing the envelope” so to speak.  But pragmatism, as Rorty has described it in this essay gives a much thicker description of “pushing the envelope.”  It goes beyond the predictions (however accurate or inaccurate) of radicalism to a utopianism.  Rorty concludes powerfully:

Pragmatists cannot be radicals, in this sense, but they can be utopians.  They do not see philosophy as providing instruments for radical surgery, or microscopes which make precise diagnosis possible.  Philosophy’s function is rather to clear the road for prophets and poets, to make intellectual life a bit simpler and safer for those who have visions of new communities.

Although I said, I would use the remainder of this essay to relate Rorty’s general point about the relationship between philosophy and politics (theory and practice), I think I’m going to hold off on that in this entry.  Pinar basically takes this up in his 2005 paper, criticising curriculum studies as a discipline.  Indeed he cites Rorty in a couple of places in that paper.  So, rather than repeat myself (and Pinar and Rorty), I will turn to the question of pragmatist philosophy informing utopian educational practice in my next blog post—the final post for this course.



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.

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.

EDST 580: Course Blog Introduction

Philosophical origins, historical realities and political consequences of progressivism in American higher education in the last 100 years


As part of my final FINAL reckoning with my UBC graduation requirements as I prepare to move back to Japan to welcome my son into the world, I am going to be devoting part of my blog space over the course of the next twelve weeks or so to discussing some selected readings around progressivism in education in the United States.  I will link the course syllabus and rationale here: FISHER EDST 580 Proposal.  As you can see, I’m a little behind schedule already with the blog posts.  But I aim to be caught up by the end of next week.

I am still not sure exactly what shape this course blog is going to take—how much depth I will go into in my analysis of the articles I am reading.  But, as I discuss in the rationale for the course (linked above) I’ll be reading in the historical, philosophical and other education-centered literature for three broad themes:

1.  What progressivism in higher education meant for its practitioners, promoters and philosophers during its heyday in the first third of the 20th century.

2.  What impacts progressivism has had in higher education in terms of curriculum and other structural changes to institutions.

3.  How progressivism continues to (or fails to) influence the way we think and do higher education in the 21st century.

A few texts kind of exist in the background of my readings for this course, even though I will not be reading them this term.  John Dewey’s Democracy in Education (1916) is one.  Another is Lawrence Cremin’s Transformation of the School (1961).

This quote from a 1954 speech given by Cremin, whose later work on progressivism in education still stands as a benchmark in the history of higher education:

Granted we have gone beyond the reform programs of the last generation, there are still kindergartens that could learn much from Patty Smith Hill, slum schools which could take profitable lessons from Jane Addams, and colleges which still haven’t realized that the natural curiosity of the young can be a magnificent propellant to learning.  The Progressive Education Association is dead; and progressive education itself needs searching reappraisal.  But I think we will find that some of the best of what the progressives tried to teach has yet to be applied in American schools (Cremin 1954, quoted in Reese 2013).

I couldn’t agree more with Cremin’s 1954 appraisal.  And furthermore, I’d be willing to apply most of what he says here to 2014.  As Cremin outlines elsewhere in this speech in some detail, progressivism in education was always in some sense opposed to more conservative American cultural movements.  On this basis, nearly 60 years after Cremin was writing, with neo-conservative elements dominating the education system in the United States again, a return to progressive educational values is long overdue.

In my reading for this week, William J. Reese, in a 2013 History of Education article, gives a good exposition of the history of progressive education in the United States, with emphasis on the Lawrence Cremin’s contribution to the historiography of the movement during its decline in the middle of the 20th Century.  Reese, I think rightly, points out that whatever claims historians like Cremin have made about the dominance of progressivism as a political ideology or otherwise as a social force in American society, adherence to “progressivism” meant many different things to the different actors in American education systems.  So, clearly, as Reese warns, relying on the writings of only a few elite public intellectuals like John Dewey, or Jane Addams as exemplars of progressive voices, elides much of the complexity of the larger movement.  And the work that these early activists, philosophers and teachers started still needs to continue.

Despite the added complexity that Reese wants to add to the history of progressivism in education, he is still comfortable identifying a few overarching ideas that can reliably be glossed as central to the movement.  Reese does not go so far as to deny that progressivism in education exists as a cohesive movement as he says Herbert M. Kliebard has argued.  But the picture of progressivism Reese presents is arguably broader since it includes individual teachers and schools that Cremin excluded in his intellectual history that relied heavily on the writings of influential figures like Dewey and others, who were not always teachers themselves but theorists or in some cases administrators.

I think that overall Reese’s expanded, complexifying historiography of progressivism in education is a good step to take.  But I also think that it continues to be important to return to the authors of the central texts of the movement.  At the beginning of his article, Reese admits that a lot of the dissonant interpretations of the meanings of progressivism in education stem from mis-readings (intentional or not) of primary philosophical texts of the movement.  Dewey is one author who is as well known for misinterpretations of his philosophy as he is for his philosophy itself.  And this is a problem that Reese admits would be helped if more historians, teachers and school administrators actually read Dewey’s writing.  Reese’s reading of Cremin recommends a multi-pronged approach to the historiography of progressivism in education: one that includes the voices of public intellectuals like Dewey, Addams, Freire, and Horton, as well as the voices of teachers and others who were responsible for bringing these well known progressive ideas about education into practice.  This is precisely what I aim to do over the course of the next 12 weeks in my guided reading course, EDST 380.  You will be able to find updates on this blog tagged with the course number, EDST 380, as well as other specific topics from the syllabus as appropriate.  And I will include links to electronic versions of each weeks’ readings as I am able to as well.

Check back later this week for some discussion of more of the philosophical origins of progressivism in education.  Specifically, I’m excited to take a look at philosopher Sidney Hook’s stab at The Metaphysics of Pragmatism.  Hook was a student of John Dewey, and according to Westbrook (1991) was Dewey’s intellectual heir apparent except for his more open affinities with Marxism.  Hook was also briefly considered as a candidate to serve with Dewey on the Advisory Council of Black Mountain College, as some of my research into Dewey’s correspondence with the college indicates.

P.S.  I have cited a lot of other people’s writing here in not particularly clear fashion.  This is partially because I think that the dictates of style manuals like the APA get unwieldy VERY quickly when they are used on the Internet.  Details about most authors and writing I refer to can be found in the syllabus for the course.  I will likely include some bibliographic references in future posts.  But while I am not treating these blog entries as “formal” “peer-reviewed” essays in the same sense as my graduating paper, I do anticipate this writing being reviewed and read by my peers.  To that end, please use the comment space below freely, especially if a source I am using is unclear.

Cremin, L. (1954)

Reese, W.J. (2013)