Yesterday, I began writing about some of the ways I’ve seen people justifying progressive education recently. Here are the other two ways.
3) The Argument from Political Correctness. The last year or so has seen a real resurgence of a type of left-wing politics that was common in the 80s and went out of fashion in the mid 90s. We used to call it “political correctness” back then, and it largely consisted of accusing unsuspecting, and often entirely innocent people of racism, sexism and homophobia. Often it was for not using the latest terminology; sometimes it was for not having the right politics, and at other times it seemed entirely arbitrary. If you are not familiar with the 80s version there are some great examples in the video below (“Anti-Racist Maths” being my personal favourite):
The newer version is, so far, more of a presence in universities than in schools, but it is being pushed by some education researchers and EAL “experts”. The basic idea is still that of thought-crime, condemning people for prejudices that they have never openly expressed or obviously acted on, but that they can be assumed to have on the basis of being white, male or straight. In the 80s version, “black” became the general term for all possible victims of racism (even, say, the Irish or Jews). In the more recent version “white” has become the general term for people who aren’t assumed to be victims of racism. But the effect is the same, you are either oppressor or oppressed and if you are in the wrong category then no matter how good your argument is, or how much the evidence supports your case, expressing your opinion or getting your way in any matter that also involves people who aren’t classed as white is an oppressive use of “privilege”. This becomes an argument for progressive education where it is applied to the curriculum. A curriculum can be condemned as “white” if it passes on knowledge and ideas valued in British or European culture. The suggested replacement curriculum can be built around political indoctrination, or teaching obscure, but politically approved, knowledge. However, in the most obviously progressive version, the attack on a “white curriculum” is also an attack on the idea that teachers can be experts in subject knowledge that is to be passed on. In this case, the alternative is the idea that students should set the priorities for learning and that what is taught has to be “relevant”.
4) The Free Market Conspiracy. This is another argument from the left. The idea is that education is actually a fight between neo-liberals who wish to turn education into a business opportunity, and those who will resist these plots. Sometimes this is simply a form of denying the debate and discussion of progressive education is dismissed as irrelevant to the “real” political issue of creeping privatisation. We should be careful here to distinguish between opposing a specific market-oriented policy, say PFI for building schools or having private exam boards, and condemnation of a wider variety of non-progressive positions on education which have no, or only incidental, consequences for private companies. And it should definitely not be confused with wanting teachers to have better pay or working conditions. The argument is not about specific policies. It is a form of “virtue-signalling”, i.e. when people advance an opinion in order to show their own ideological credentials rather than because of the merits of the position. The virtuous left-winger is supporting progressive education out of high-minded, altruistic reasons, while only self-interested, right-wing conspirators (and their dupes) would support more traditional ideas.
Almost any traditionalist ideas in education can be condemned as part of the neo-liberal conspiracy with enough ingenuity. Testing is really just a way of getting schools to compete for market share. Criticism of progressive education is actually a way of bashing teachers, in order to worsen their working conditions. Academic aims in education are a way to prepare students for exploitation in the workplace. Traditional teaching methods are a scam for making money for publishers. Nobody can actually prove they are not part of the conspiracy, or at the very least, that they haven’t been fooled by the propaganda of the conspirators. As with all conspiracy theories, it is usually impossible to persuade the adherents that they are wrong with evidence. It doesn’t matter how far the Tories move away from letting private companies run schools, or how many years they spend in power without introducing it, it can always be claimed that is their ultimate goal. It doesn’t matter that academy chains are charities, they are somehow private interests looking to make money. It doesn’t matter that parents might not want their kids to go to a particular school, the only reason parents may be given a choice between schools is in order to create a market. Sometimes the argument is then expanded to being one about who should have power in education. Apparently the only non “neo-liberal” way of running education is to put power in the hands of local authority bureaucrats and educationalists in universities, who conveniently, just happen to have been the traditional advocates of progressive education.
As I said last time, the four arguments in these two posts are not meant to be an exhaustive list of the arguments for progressive education, nor even the most common, they are simply the ones that seem to have become more common recently. As I also said, by not linking to examples I am opening myself to claims of inventing straw men (although freeing myself from those who want to quibble over interpretation of those examples), so I will just ask you to watch out for them. If you see them, please feel free to provide links in the comments; if you don’t, then I guess it doesn’t matter.