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Introduction: progressive education

Introduction: progressive educationIn this issue, we mean to address two vague but important questions: what are the constraints on and possibilities for progressive teaching and learning now? And what choices will progressives in our line of work face in the future?

This magazine has of course been addressing those questions throughout its thirty-year history, by printing articles about student-centered courses and pedagogies and about democratic efforts of many kinds in schools and universities. Here, our approach is more historical. We offer snapshots and analyses of progressive education in various settings and at various times over the past century. Maybe these backwards and sideways glances will help clarify what forces tend to bring about progressive educational movements, what opposition they are likely to encounter, what they have achieved and can achieve.

Two cautions: first, we use the term "progressive" education as a handy label, but are cognizant of its historical, political, and pedagogical ambiguities. It was used chiefly by and about the reformers associated with Jane Addams, John Dewey, and other such people, who worked before and after 1900. The later cluster of reformers that receive attention in this issue--those coming out of 1960s political movements--not only declined the label but seem on the whole not to have drawn on models from the Progressive era, or even to have known much about the ideas and practices of earlier reformers.

There are other differences. Progressive Education (capital P and E) was a movement focused on primary and secondary schooling. Educational reforms in the sixties and after lodged as much in colleges and universities--though several prophets had earlier decried alienation and conformity in public schools--"growing up absurd," in the words of Paul Goodman's title. Again, the first wave of progressives organized themselves as a conscious and fairly coherent movement; the second wave was at best a loose affiliation of groups united mainly in opposition to state power, white supremacy; male dominance, and the "elitism" that pervaded most institutions. A related difference: Progressives in education around 1900 saw themselves as heralds of a new, more rational society; and while they fought alongside other progressives to restrain the giant corporations, they also did their bit to organize the social order we now sometimes call Fordism. The second wave challenged Fordist arrangements head on, and probably helped bring that era to an end. Yet in spite of many such differences, it may be useful to think of Jane Addams, John Dewey, Rachel Davis DuBois, Paul Goodman, Herbert Kohl, volunteers from SNCC who joined in the Mississippi freedom summer, Lisa Delpit, and thousands of others as participants in one long movement to humanize and democratize American schooling.

The second caution: let's not take it for granted that these movements achieved such aims, or--to put it bluntly--that progressive education is politically progressive. The student-centered classroom is certainly a kinder place for children than classrooms organized like factories and run by tyrants, and better soil for the cultivation of independent, critical minds. But what about the other main aim of progressive educators: more equality in education and in the whole society? Over time, which students have generally been offered progressive education, along with sunnier buildings, green campuses, good music and sports facilities? Has progressive education chiefly been, as some would charge, a preserve for children of the upper and professional classes--in effect, one more privilege that helps reproduce our grossly unequal society? And is active learning that strongly connects to life outside the classroom not only the right pedagogy to prep for active citizenship, but also the pedagogy that best prepares some people to manage other people?

Each of the five articles that follow addresses some or most of these questions--I hope, with the effect of helping us all figure out which progressive educational practices are worth fighting for, and in what political situations. "Fighting," because our leaders pretty much hate what 1960s progressivism brought to schools and colleges, and because the liberals among our leaders seem almost as eager as the neocons to squeeze out every vestige of progressive education, in the name of accountability. Remember, Senator Kennedy was a key sponsor of No Child Left Behind, and liberal Massachusetts has led in spreading the gospel of tough love administered via high-stakes testing. And if progressive teaching and learning thrive only in the context of progressive movements, conditions now don't look too promising. Still, here we dissidents are, in school and college, working with what we have (a lot, really, if you think how curriculum and pedagogy have changed since the 1950s) to do what we can against class rule and the new empire. I hope this issue helps.

Richard Ohmann, working with Marjorie Feld, Louis Kampf, Frinde Maher, Dan Perlstein, and Kathleen Weiler