Why do progressives deny the debate?April 17, 2017
I’ve written a number of times about progressives who reacted to the end of the suppression of traditionalism in our education system by claiming that, one way or another, there was still nothing to debate. It’s worth recalling that in 2013, as the debate really got going again, it was often progressives who wanted to emphasise that there were two camps, and to take sides between them. This is from a post by some very progressive education consultants in July 2013:
One of the fascinating aspects of the recent Festival of Education at Wellington College was the exceptionally wide range of speakers and the breadth and diversity of opinions on offer. Ultimately, however, they divided into two camps.
In the ‘traditionalist’ camp were all those who believe that the main aim of education has always been, still is, and always will be, the attainment of high scores in time-limited, high-stakes tests and exams. These people also believe that through various efforts to ‘drive up’ exam scores we can measure students, teachers and schools…
…The Great Education Wars are now a worldwide phenomenon, and reminiscent of the continuing wars between the two schools of economics which have been raging since the 1960s. In the fields of finance and economics you’re either a Keynesian or a Friedmanite/monetarist. In education you’re either in the camp that says “attainment” is the only thing that really matters, or you’re in the camp that says the holistic development of individual children and young people across all of their aptitudes and intelligences is what’s truly important.
Some of us have known about these wars taking place over several decades, whereas some just echo Leonard Cohen – “I didn’t even know there was a war”.*
Well it’s time to get real. There IS a war, and it’s not going to go away. No amount of words from the likes of Michael Gove are going to change the minds of those who say children have a fundamental right to the kinds of personalised learning that value their individuality and enable them to succeed across all of their intelligences – personal, social, emotional, spiritual, practical, creative, etc. Just as those on the child-centred side are never going to change the minds of those who are adamant that academic success is the be-all and end-all (whilst paying lip service to other areas of learning and personal development).
At the time, my response was to actually challenge that the debate was this stark (although I never denied that there were two camps):
I’m quite happy to accept the existence of a “traditionalist” camp and a “child-centred” camp, although they are probably far less homogeneous than is assumed here. The trouble with this is that I cannot think of anybody in education who fits this particular description of the “traditionalist” viewpoint. While, perhaps, those of us more sympathetic to traditional teaching methods and the academic purposes of education are also more likely to think that testing may, sometimes, be a useful or even indispensable tool in assessing whether students are learning, I cannot imagine anyone saying that the exams are ends, not means.
Even at that time, there were already those seeking to deny the debate, and in the post I quoted above, I acknowledged that this was common, and addressed it:
Do teachers not use a mix of progressive and traditional methods? Do they not combine a variety of values? While I think false dichotomies do often occur in education – the 3D Eye blog mentioned above being a perfect example – they generally tend to obscure genuine debates rather to create debates where none exist. While we might find that some of the questions raised result in differing answers within the same camp, and while sometimes we might put our ultimate aims on hold just to get through the day or to achieve temporary consensus, choices have to be made. While some of choices, like how much freedom kids should have, or whether kids can learn in groups, may depend to a degree on who you happen to have in front of you, it would be impossible to make an intelligent choice on such issues without having first decided on the more fundamental issues of what education is for and of what it consists. We will have to make choices about whether we do what will make kids smarter or what will make them happier. We have to decide whether what they need to know is what society values or what they (or their teachers) happen to like. We have to agree or disagree about the existence and teachability of various generic dispositions and skills which lessons might be given over to developing. There are no simple compromises and middle positions to be adopted over any of these issues. Ultimately, you will put yourself in one camp or another, or simply fail to have made up your mind.
After that it rapidly became the most common strategy for progressives on social media, and I found myself addressing it again and again:
- This was my first big discussion of denying the debate;
- I included denying the debate among the trendiest arguments for progressive education here;
- I discussed the main forms of denial here;
- I defined the terms in detail here;
- I showed the beliefs were often often held implicity here;
- I answered those who objected to the structure of the debate here;
- I wrote an update of the trendiest arguments for progressive education here;
- I answered those who claimed that nobody is against knowledge here;
- I showed my definitions were basically the same as Dewey’s from 1938 here.
It now feels like progressives who admit they are progressives and argue for progressivism are a small minority of the progressives on social media. When an anonymous blogger took the name “Progressive Teacher” and tweeted as @prog_teacher and blogged here they probably got more publicity from traditionalists grateful to see somebody wasn’t denying the debate than they did from their fellow progressives. It’s now become so common to deny the debate that even some of the progressive trolls who accuse traditionalists of being part of the political far right, will also dismiss the idea that there is any real disagreement with them and argue that it is all a false dichotomy (apparently without realising that must mean they too are on the far right). Some trolls now use the term “pseudo-trads” in order to refer to traditionalists without admitting that we are actually traditionalists.
So why has this become so common? Why are progressives so reluctant to say so? I would like to present two clues. Firstly, another one of my twitter polls. This one got (ominously) 666 votes. It is obviously skewed towards my followers, so I make no claim that it accurately represents either teachers on Twitter, or teachers in general. The way I set it up deliberately excludes debate deniers, which presumably counts out a lot of progressives.
However, what it does show is that out of over 450 traditionalist teachers who answered in the 24 hours the poll was open, over three fifths of them had not always been traditionalists. It looks like twitter traditionalists might well be mainly converts. They have encountered debate and taken a side, or even switched sides.
The second clue is in the following debate, which is worth listening to if you have an hour.
It took place at a global education forum where I would normally only expect to hear of progressives and big business having a voice (if you doubt me, please look into it). The progressive dominance of the event was shown by the pre-debate voting:
Perhaps not surprising given the somewhat biased wording of the motion, and the likelihood that many participants would be from outside the UK and might have never have heard educationalists explicitly argue in favour of traditionalism in their own countries. After an hour’s debate of the issues, with Daisy Christodoulou, and Nick Gibb, putting the traditionalist case, the audience voted again.
I think both of these clues point to the extent to which, once traditionalist arguments get out there, many people are converted. I think this is why so many progressives do not want open debate between progressives and traditionalists to happen. I admit I can’t prove this, but we should ask ourselves what is more likely. Is it possible that, for more than a century, educational progressives, such as Charles Dickens, Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, or for pity’s sake, Albert Einstein were mistaken in thinking that anyone disagreed with them? Or is it more likely that, during the end of a period of almost total progressive dominance in England, today’s progressives have lost their nerve and just don’t want teachers to be informed enough to choose between different beliefs about education?