Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 4)

July 1, 2016

Back to one of my perennial themes: those who claim that the debate about progressive and traditional education either doesn’t exist, or is irrelevant to what happens in schools.

In Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 1) I wrote about the various versions of this argument. In Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 3) I argued that people were not always aware that their position was progressive.

However, the post I want to revisit is Denying the debate between progressive and traditional education (Part 2). You may want to read that first.

In that post, I identified the core themes of progressive education:

  • Content: It is progressive to oppose the idea of a tradition, a body of knowledge, to be passed on.
  • Authority: It is progressive to be against obedience or teacher direction, or to give power or authority to student opinion.
  • Methods: Progressives are more likely to value discovery, groupwork and discussion between students, and less likely to value explanations, memorisation or practice.

I observed that one could be a progressive because of one’s views on any one of those themes. It was not a catechism. You do not have to subscribe to all of the ideas. There are many types of progressive, with many different and contradictory beliefs. In this way, traditionalism and progressivism are different. You can define traditionalism by referring to necessary conditions – things that every traditionalist must believe. You can only define progressivism by sufficient conditions, things that are each enough individually to ensure that if you believe them you are a progressive.

It is this idea that I want to return to now. Some responses have complained that this is unfair. It is asymmetrical. They would prefer that traditionalism and progressivism were each a single position at opposite ends of a spectrum, between which they can place themselves (and probably everyone else except for a few straw men caricatures).

In response to the question of whether it is unfair to define traditionalism by necessary conditions and progressivism by sufficient conditions, I would argue that, if anything, this is of advantage to progressives. They can always change tack when one of their beliefs is challenged, and can appeal to the support of a wide range of fellow progressives, even when they have quite different beliefs.

So why do I define the terms this way? Well, I wasn’t attempting to set up new axioms for education. I was trying to reflect on how the words are already used. I could not make it the case that progressivism was a single coherent doctrine even if I wanted to. The word “progressive” has already been used to describe people that have run with fewer than all three of the themes above. A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School was progressive because of the radical views on teacher authority, even though the teaching methods could be conventional. Vygotsky’s ideas (or at least the ideas commonly attributed to him) are progressive because of what they tell us about teaching methods, and I’m not aware of them having anything to do with denying a tradition. I don’t think anyone could come up with a list of necessary conditions for being a progressive which would not rule out some undeniably progressive figure, or at least ignore the reasons they were actually considered progressive. Similarly, I don’t think we could come up with a list of sufficient conditions for being a traditionalist which would not also subsume some famous progressive. I could be wrong, but the onus is on those who dispute my definitions to either find out examples where my definitions don’t fit or to suggest better definitions.

Some of the criticism of this structure (necessary conditions for defining one side of an argument, sufficient for defining the other) have implied that this can never be an appropriate way to describe any beliefs or philosophies; the spectrum is always more natural. I said in one of my earlier posts that I don’t think progressivism is unusual by being based on themes rather than a list of necessary doctrines and gave the example of what it means to be “liberal” or “conservative”. However, if I really wanted to pick another example of two opposing beliefs systems where one is defined by sufficient conditions and the other by necessary conditions I would point to protestantism and catholicism. To believe in catholicism is to endorse the beliefs of the Catholic church. These are laid out in the catechism. There are necessary conditions to be an orthodox catholic. Protestantism, by contrast, is diverse and does not refer to a single coherent belief system. It is identified by certain issues (these are our sufficient conditions) where protestants disagree with catholics, e.g. the authority of scripture, transubstantiation, the authority of the church, the meaning of the sacraments, apostolic authority etc., but protestants do not agree with each other on all of these issues. Some types of protestantism still agree with the catholic church on some of these issues. We might say some types of protestantism are more extreme than others (or disagree more with the catholic church), just as we can say that some types of progressivism are more extreme than others (or disagree more with traditionalism). But we can’t say there is a middle position between catholicism and protestantism that is not protestant (even if some Anglo-Catholics may have wished there was). In the same way, we can’t find any middle positions between traditionalism and progressivism in education that don’t turn out to be forms of progressivism. And this is for the same reason, Protestantism is defined by a selection of disagreements with catholicism and progressivism is defined by a selection of disagreements with traditionalism, and there is no position that fits neatly between agreeing and disagreeing.

NB: I’ve avoided putting the word “educational” in front of every mention of traditionalism and progressivism, but please assume that I am using those two words only in the context of what they mean in education.




  1. Thank you for returning to this post Andrew – it was certainly one which I protested against.

    Two problems remain in my mind from your exposition:

    I think if you’re going to say that any degree of deviation from Traditionalism – in any direction – makes you a progressive, then you actually render the term useless beyond merely indicating whether a person fully endorses all aspects of traditionalism.

    Secondly, I do seethe analogy between Catholicism and Protestantism (I think I even alluded to this myself when commenting previously), but actually that situation is not the whole of the story and can point to other possibilities:

    Greek & Russian Orthodox churches are not generally considered ‘Protestant’, and I would bet that many newly formed Evangelical/Free churches would define themselves with reference to scripture and the principles of the early church, and not see themselves as ‘protesting’ against anything – merely starting again. For them, the Catholic Church is itself just one of many erroneous positions.

    And, OF COURSE the analogy also only works if you see labelled Christian church affiliation as being the totality of human possibilities – which the majority of people in the world would say is not the case anyway.

    I suppose what actually makes your analogy particularly interesting, is that in both the case of Traditionalism and Catholicism you are taking a standpoint and saying that everything else must be defined in terms of how it relates to that position. It’s a strangely pre-Copernican viewpoint to take.

  2. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. […] I answered those who objected to the structure of the debate here; […]

  4. […] the debate between progressive and traditional education (Part 1), (Part 2), (Part 3) and (Part 4) by Andrew […]

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