Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Part 2

November 24, 2018

For over one hundred years, the standard words used for the two main camps in educational philosophy have been “progressive” and “traditionalist” (in recent years, these have often been shortened to “prog” and “trad” on Twitter). Descriptions of what they mean can be found here from John Dewey writing in the 30s, or here from Alfie Kohn writing ten years ago. In countries where progressive education is unchallenged, or has gone unchallenged for a long period, progressives often deny this history and resent the fact that language exists to describe a debate that they thought they had won forever. However, a more coherent objection to the terms comes from traditionalists. They argue that “progressive” is a positive word, suggesting progressives look to the future, are influenced by science and are politically on the left. “Traditionalist” by contrast sounds old fashioned, uninfluenced by contemporary science and politically right-wing. I wish to look at these arguments in my next few blogposts.

Previously I have linked to one blogpost and shared another where teachers whose educational ideas might be considered traditionalist, rather than progressive, explained why they didn’t like the word “traditionalist”. I don’t have a problem with this term. Nor do I like the term “progressive” even when it is used outside the educational context. I don’t mind having left of centre politics but not progressive politics. It is this argument I want to look at here.

This time I have another blogpost to share which has been published before but is no longer available. At the risk of going off-topic, this is a blogpost about politics rather than education. It was written by a Labour supporter, who is not a teacher, during the days of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and it makes a case for why left of centre politics do not have to be “progressive”.


Why I am not a progressive

I doubt I’ll shock anyone when I say that I’m not a progressive, or at least that I don’t consider myself to be one – apart from anything else it’s a conversation that often goes in circles round the 140 characters of Twitter, but one I thought probably deserved a slightly longer write-up. It’s also unfortunate (welcome to the Blue Labour debate) that the opposite of progressive is generally seen as conservative, and that this gets confused with Conservative (a party which is certainly not conservative). Clear as mud. Of course I support progressive taxation, but then since our tax system spent most of my life becoming less progressive, that meant I wanted to conserve something.

Anyway. I’m not a progressive because I don’t believe change is automatically, or even usually, for the better. GA Cohen explained this with an extended analogy about a college (long, but worth watching).

Gladys Knight put it more simply –  “as bad as we think they are, these will become the good old days for our children”. Of course science and technology advance, but to read across from that and assume that politics (or, perhaps, even society) move in the same way, seems optimistic at best. It appears that, in this if nothing else, I am normal, and it’s the progressives who are unusual.

Related to this is a problem across much of the left in particular to assume that the grass is greener on the other side. Since I am a million miles away from that mindset, I don’t fully understand it, but it seems to be “Imagine a substantive change you would like; think of an unrelated procedural change; convince yourself that the latter will deliver the former”.

So whether it was the revival of radical socialism that was going to come with AV, the flowering of international solidarity we were going to get by joining the Euro, or the mass democratic renewal that will come by electing 80 senators for 15 years each on the basis of regional STV, energy is diverted from campaigning for substantive change, to campaigning for procedural change. Which is not to say that process doesn’t matter – the institutions which mediate political debate impact massively on the eventual outcomes, of course. A list of things I waste time being against when there are bigger battles to fight, there.

More importantly, ‘progressive’ is a word whose meaning shifts according to who is using it. So, when people wanted to cobble-together an anti-Tory Parliamentary alliance after the last General Election, they dubbed it the “progressive coalition”. When people want to pretend the left has been disadvantaged primarily by the electoral system rather than by often being less popular, they talk of a ‘progressive majority’. When David Cameron wants to sound like a moderate, he talks of Progressive Conservatism. Of course, the “Not left or right, but forward” model of spatial politics was introduced to our discourse by David Icke, but never mind.

I don’t make a habit of linking to Lib Dems, but Andrew Emmerson cites a relevant opinion poll, pointing out that in the public mind, “progressive” is devoid of almost all political content. A majority think it is about being “reforming” or “modernising”. An appreciable number think it is about being “enterprising” or “advanced”. Bringing up the rear are those who believe it means being liberal (16%) or left-wing (7%). On this basis, Cameron’s right – the Coalition is progressive too. Blair was particularly progressive – to the point of neophilia, some of the time it felt as though something merely needed to exist for the government to seek to change it. Organisational restructuring, particularly in health, was done, undone, and redone faster than anyone could realistically hope to evaluate its impact.

Still, there’s a vacancy for a better word, here. Radical conservatism makes a neat sort of intellectual sense, but is even worse marketing than Blue Labour. People calling themselves progressives (hello the London County Council) have done important and valuable things in the history of the left. But I want things to be better, not different for the sake of it, especially not if it puts us at risk of losing that which is already good. If I’m really lucky, by 2015 that’ll be what people think of when they hear the word “Labour”.



  1. This discussion didn’t really touch on one of the most important aspects of politics, which is the extent to which a given system entrenches the priveleges and extends the power of both its own apparatus and dominant economic and political interests. In this respect Gladtonian Liberalism exists at one pole, late Soviet communism at the other. Of course there have been any number of monarchies and theocracies which have been just as stutltifying as the Soviets–but of course, in the end all systems tend to aggregate power until they become so unresponsive to changing circumstances that they collapse.

  2. […] old fashioned, uninfluenced by contemporary science and politically right-wing. In Part 1 and Part 2, I shared blogposts relevant to this topic written by others. Here I will put forward my own […]

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