ILYBYGTH in EdWeek: Progressive Education and the Conservatives Who Love It Too Much

Why do so many conservatives and creationists insist that they want more “critical thinking” in public schools?  In a recent commentary in Education Week, I argue that this trend is part of a longer tradition of anti-authoritarian education.

In the pages of EdWeek, I examine some of the new laws that have rightly been called “anti-evolution” efforts.  They usually are that.  They hope to introduce wiggle room in public-school science classes for creationist students and anti-evolution teaching.  A Virginia bill that recently died a lonely death in committee, for instance, would have insisted that students “develop critical-thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes.”

I think, however, that the conservative impulse to encourage critical thinking among students goes even deeper than the evolution issue.  As I argue in the EdWeek commentary, several other legislative efforts in recent years have allowed students to opt out of school assignments that seem ideologically outrageous to students and parents.

Are these opt-out efforts “progressive?”  After all, they embody the anti-authoritarian ethos at the heart of progressive education.  But they do so for demonstrably conservative purposes.  Has the ideology of school dissent come full circle?

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  1. Agellius

     /  March 8, 2014

    “Has the ideology of school dissent come full circle?”

    I would say it has, because the “establishment” is no longer mostly conservative. To be conservative today is to be anti-establishment! At least that’s how it feels to me.

  2. Donna

     /  March 8, 2014

    What kind of rote memorization did they use to do in schools but no longer do?

    • Memorization used to be the coin of the realm in schools nationwide, to a far greater extent than it is today. The mark of achievement in most schools was the recitation, in which students stood and repeated memorized textbook materials. Teachers (often called “masters”) listened and judged the quality of the recitation. Periodically, the entire community would be invited in to hear student recitations. For a hilarious send-up of this type of American education tradition, check out Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. There’s a chapter called “Gilding the Dome” in which this process of community recitation is depicted.

  3. Is critical thinking even allowed anymore? I’m pretty sure they passed a law against it a while back. Gone also is common sense and valuing blue collar work.

  4. I’m sure Phyllis Schlaffly advocates “critical thinking”, but to her it’s apologetics, warning students of the dangers of liberals. It’s precisely what what analytical thinking directs us to avoid.

    • Maybe, but an earlier generation’s Phyllis Schlafly had a very different attitude toward teaching “critical thinking.” As President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1920s, Anne Minor argued that we “want no teachers who say there are two sides to every question.” Minor did not believe that young people should learn critical thinking. Similarly, a later DAR PG, Grace Brosseau, lambasted “the decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions.” In a speech in 1929, Brosseau declared,

      One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.

      So maybe Phyllis Schlafly’s vision of “critical thinking” is not the same as mine. Maybe I wouldn’t even agree that her goal is really critical thinking at all. But it still matters that leading conservative intellectuals seem to have embraced “critical thinking” as a slogan. Why have they?

  5. Agellius

     /  March 10, 2014

    There are many issues in which liberals/progressives would agree that we do not want both sides taught to our kids, and them allowed to “make up their own minds”. Should the pro-racist side be given a fair hearing in the public schools, for example? Or should kids be taught that racism is bad and that’s that?

    The question is not whether any issues merit having only one side taught, but which issues fall in that category and which don’t.

    • Excellent point. Progressives and “critical” educators often fail to heed John Dewey’s 1938 warning that education needs authority. Racism is not right. The Holocaust was not just maybe an outrage. Etc. We (progressives) don’t want students to wonder about these things. But I still think there is a fundamental difference, at least historically, between the mindsets of what sociologist James Davison Hunter called the “orthodox” vs. the “progressive” worldview. In the orthodox worldview, knowledge rests on authoritative sources and scriptures. In the progressive view, knowledge comes from skepticism and inquiry. I think too often these positions are used as caricatures and cartoons–of course smart orthodox thinkers relish skepticism and inquiry, and of course smart progressives rely on authorities–but in essence I think there is a real difference at play here, not just a difference in wording.

      • Agellius

         /  March 10, 2014

        “In the orthodox worldview, knowledge rests on authoritative sources and scriptures. In the progressive view, knowledge comes from skepticism and inquiry.”

        It depends on what kind of knowledge you’re talking about. I would rephrase it to say that orthodox “values” ultimately rest on authoritative sources and scriptures. But the orthodox get their “knowledge” in most areas in the same ways that everyone else does.

        Both sides are skeptical. Of each other.

        If progressives seem more skeptical in general, I would say that’s precisely because they are skeptical of orthodoxy (taken to mean, more or less, “the received wisdom of the ages”). In other words, orthodoxy has positive content, whereas progressivism is little more (as I see it) than skepticism of the received orthodoxy. An ongoing effort, in fact, to deconstruct and dismantle orthodoxy.

        This is not to say that progressive values have no positive content. But the positive content of progressive values is pretty much the same as the positive content of orthodox values: Both come from the common, received, mostly Christian patrimony of Western culture, though progressives seem loathe to acknowledge the fact.

        Thus when progressives look at a problem — say, poverty — they attribute it to a defect in orthodoxy. In other words, there’s a problem with “the system”. Thus the constant deconstructing and need for “change”. Whereas the orthodox think the system is fine, and problems are there because that’s just the way life is. Changing the system won’t eliminate problems but only give you new ones.

        But as already noted, progressivism has been so successful that it’s starting to own “the system”. It continues to blame orthodoxy in whatever way it can, but the orthodox are starting to say, “What, us? What are we in control of anymore?”

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