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The Problem with Progressive Education

Education makes a difference, and even more fundamentally what one means by “education” makes a difference. A photo of a teacher and her students in a classical school might look similar to a photo of a progressive teacher and his students. Let’s look at what lies under three  surfaces of both classical education and progressive education, such as Millennium Charter Academy, and progressive education, which includes nearly all public (district) schools.

What does it mean to be human and why does it matter?

Let’s start with the most obvious difference between classical education and progressive education: the goal. What is the purpose of education? What do we want to accomplish?

Progressive education tells us right up front. Through the Common Core, this education wants to make children “college and career ready,” which is really just career ready because college is just a pass-through to career. That is the stated sole and ultimate goal—to build students for the workforce. What does that imply? It implies that progressive education sees your child as a mere economic unit.

Classical education, on the other, hand starts with a high view of humanity. Classical education acknowledges that your child is an amazing unity of body mind, and soul with an intellect, free will, desires, and “endowed with worth and value,” as our student pledge says. The classical educator knows that humanity reasons from experiences toward the intelligible essences of things. Furthermore, classical education believes that students are able to choose the moral good. This fundamental understanding of humanity drives education. So, for a classical school the goal is formation of the mind, heart, and body. The goal is to cultivate our students, your children, to become the most noble person he or she can become. Not only does this prepare them for college and the workforce, it prepares them to be the best mom, dad, butcher, baker, lawyer, or doctor they can be.

Classical educators ask, “How do we teach a child not only to describe what is seen, heard, touched, smelled, and felt, but also to see beyond the senses to the essence of a thing? How do we inspire them to ask the important perennial questions, such as What does it mean to be human? and Why are we here? How do we teach a student to wonder in order to be filled with wonder? How do we help them order their affections so they love what is good and hate what is bad?

Progressive education cannot do this because this philosophy of education only deals with what is material, scientific, and observable elements, that is, only what can be detected by the senses, and even then, everything is seen through cold, critical, analytical thinking. Critical thinking deconstructs whatever is being studied, breaking the subject into smaller and smaller parts, always doubting. Critical thinking rarely, if ever, reassembles the parts, and this line of thinking certainly never sees the parts as elements of any larger, cohesive story. However, the consistent, unifying principles on which the natural world operates lead classical educators to understand that all knowledge is connected, that there is a wholeness to learning inherent in the universe, and that the wholeness can be pursued and known.

What about character development?

Behavior modification and positive reinforcement. These are two related terms often used by progressive schools. They refer to the methodology of gradually changing the actions of a student from inappropriate to appropriate (two more adjectives typical of progressive education) using external controls until a child’s behavior becomes acceptable. This is fundamentally the same training that a dog would receive in obedience school. How can that be? How can we train children the same way we train animals? That stems from the progressive view that human beings differ from animals in degree only, not in kind. Therefore, “training” is the correct word.

Furthermore, progressive education commonly uses the terms “appropriate” and “inappropriate” when referring to behavior. From their point of view this is the correct word because they do not hold to any transcendent truth, goodness, or beauty. Nothing is higher than each individual’s take on life. Therefore, there is no good or bad, right or wrong, only what is acceptable by the present culture and for the time being. And, this is established by force, not by reason. Whoever has the most power says what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. Likewise, you can have your truth, and I can have my truth, even if they are diametrically opposed.

As mentioned before, classical education recognizes that individuals are inseparably heart, mind, and body. We are unique. We are endowed with the ability to think about thinking, to think about our individual selves, to ponder what is true, good, and beautiful. Since we appreciate universal, knowable truth, goodness, and beauty, we can actually say to one another, “What you did is good,” or “What you did is wrong.” A classical school, such as Millennium Charter Academy, therefore, disciplines by principle rather than by rules or external means. Our goal is to change the heart, not just the behaviors because if we can change the heart, the behaviors will always follow. (Whether adult or child, we always do what we most want at the time of decision.) If the heart is changed, then we can turn our backs and close our eyes knowing what the student will do. The focus of control is internal, not external. We also consciously use the word “discipline.” Imbedded in that word is the root “disciple,” and discipleship is based on a caring, loving relationship, not the mere application of rules and consequences common to behavior modification.

What about the curriculum?

For the classical educator, the curriculum consists of the best that has been thought and said, especially in the Western World since that is where we live and our heritage. Classical education is not stuck in the past, but rather builds upon the past to refine the understanding of the present; we see farther when we stand on the shoulders of giants. Students who have listened to classic fairy tales may be better able to understand the good and evil present in the world. Students who have read the code of chivalry from the Middle Ages may be better mannered in today’s world. Students who have studied the American Revolution may be better equipped to understand present-day conflicts. Students who understand the principles of the Greek city-state may be better able to comprehend the principles of our constitutional republic. To understand the great ideas of history and literature is to be a person who is prepared to lead in the present day.

Progressive educators believe that everything is progressing; therefore, what is today is better than what was yesterday. This leaves them stuck in the present with little regard, except suspicious regard, for the past and an imagined future based on the prevailing thoughts of today. Since information changes constantly, skills are emphasized without the content.

So, what now?

The stark difference between the progressive school’s worldview and this classical academy’s worldview means the teaching, the curriculum, the treatment of students, and the intended ends are also glaringly different. Although every progressive school is not purely progressive and every classical school is not purely classical, what lies under the surface determines decisions and shapes students and the culture.

So, what now? Choose. Choose which will best lead to human flourishing.

Progressive education sees children as economic units or, at best, a brain for storing and retrieving data, and a body that houses that brain. An individual. Progressive education is prescriptive and narrow, readying students to be ready for the workforce and shaping them by external forces depending upon the strongest cultural power presently at work. In contrast, a classical education understands children to be human beings endowed with worth and value. A classically educated student is independent, yet simultaneously in relation with others; and, is grounded in an honest search for knowable, universal truth, goodness, and beauty. Education is formative and broad. Education has a twofold end: the development of our moral and intellectual virtues, and our happiness. In sum, the true and final goal of classical education is the cultivation and growth of our best nature.

— Kirby R. McCrary