Whenever an argument for the progressivist transformation of schools comes up, we can be sure the traditionalist rejoinder won’t be far behind: “Why should we transform our schools?  Traditional schools have worked fine for generations, they will work now.”  Behind these traditionalist arguments is a sentiment that America in the past had a certain moral backbone that it lacks today.  The sense—sometimes vague, sometimes explicit—is that today’s schools with their mollycoddling progressivism have created a generation of self-centered, lazy, even criminal youth.  Only traditional schools, in this oft-repeated line of thinking, can help put America back on course.

In fact, just the opposite is true.  It may be true that American society has some troubling fractures.  But those fractures will not be healed with sterner authoritarian classrooms.  Instead, the only way to bring America together—whether or not this returns anyone to any kind of golden age—will be to encourage schools and classrooms in which every student feels himself or herself to be an important member of American society, not merely an inmate in a social and educational processing regime.

Consider the depressing reality.  In America today, whenever there is the slightest crack in the regime of control, people go nuts.  The second there is a power outage in a major city, or a natural disaster, or even a major sporting event, Americans riot.  My hometown of Binghamton, New York, for example, recently experienced a major flood.  Whole neighborhoods were engulfed by the rising Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers.  Police and emergency crews couldn’t keep up with the situation.  To be fair, lots of people—I like to think most people—put aside their selfish interests and tried to help those folks who had been flooded out of their homes.  But there were the predictable number of people who took to looting.  They knew police could not patrol the downtown streets, so they helped themselves to anything left dry in downtown stores.

And sunny Binghamton is much friendlier in its rioting than bigger cities.  I remember back when the Chicago Bulls won their first of three national championships, back in the 1990s, we hurried downtown to see the predictable riots.  Drunk people spilled out of sports bars in the Rush/Division neighborhood to celebrate the victory.  Before you knew it, taxis had been flipped over and lit on fire, and horse-mounted police were doing their damnedest to clear the streets.  The crowd by then had expanded.  Not just the white-collar/loosened tie/after-work sports fans were yelling and pushing back against the cops. The crowd had been bolstered by no-collar/no tie/no-work enthusiasts from the vast public-housing complex just down the street, Cabrini Green.

It was obvious that the police couldn’t handle the situation.  That slight loosening of the regime was all it took.  Soon the riot script played out to its predictable end.  People smashed store windows, threw bottles and rocks at the line of police, and waited for the inevitable tear gas to chase them away from the area.

And why?  Because Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippin, and the rest had defeated another basketball team.  It doesn’t matter the reason.  As soon as people feel the slightest crack in the regime, as soon as it becomes clear that the government cannot enforce its will, people will riot.

What does all this have to do with progressive education?  Everything.  Traditionalist educators may point to riots and social upheaval as evidence that young people today are no longer being taught respect and obedience.  They may insist that schools need to return to traditional disciplinary schemes.  Maybe even get back to some good old-fashioned corporal punishment.  But just the opposite is true.

Riots like this are not the result of new-fangled progressive notions of including every young person as the most important decision-maker in schools and education.  Riots like this have appeared in every society, whenever authorities try and fail to maintain total domination of a population.

Consider an example from the roots of United States history.  In Boston, in 1770, tensions had been building up between the British regime and the young colonists.  (In this case, the youth of both sides played a crucial role.  The soldiers were mostly teenagers, and they were taunted and provoked by a crowd led by teenagers.)  In March, a group of soldiers found themselves surrounded by a crowd of angry colonists, taunted to fire their muskets, pelted with rocks and snowballs.  Finally they fired, killing five of the crowd and pushing the rest of the colonies further on the path to open revolution.

Here’s the question for traditionalists: were those angry colonists the product of touchy-feely, ‘progressive’ schools?  Or had they received whatever education they received in thoroughly traditional ways?

The point is that coercive regimes—as the British were perceived to be in Boston, in March, 1770—are only able to hold on to power by brute force.  And traditional schools in the United States are nothing if not coercive regimes.  When students and their families agree with the regime, the coercion is hidden.  But when they do not, the coercion emerges in its ugliest forms.  This is why schools in poor neighborhoods look and feel so much like prisons, with armed guards, metal detectors, and very limited student freedom.

There are two possible solutions.  First, and most common, we can bolster the effectiveness of traditional regimes by strengthening the coercive arm.  Schools can hire more truant officers to round up absentees.  They can implement stricter rules for student dress and behavior.  They can mandate “zero-tolerance” rules to crack down on student resistance.  These are traditional responses, and they can be effective in the short term.

However, the costs of this kind of stepped-up coercion are obvious.  In order to compel compliance with the school regime, school administrators must alienate each student.  When people—even young people—are forced to act in certain ways, it eliminates the likelihood that those people will embrace those actions.  When they are forced to go to school, forced to be in classrooms, and forced to submit to the authority of teachers and school administrators, they are unlikely to see those schools as places in which they can improve themselves.  They will not embrace the process of education in the ways they must if they are to actually learn something.  Some might.  But those few are the exception, rather than the rule.

And, predictably, whenever there is the smallest crack in the efficiency of the coercion, students will take advantage of it.  They may not flip over taxi cabs and battle with mounted police each time, but they will disrupt the function of the school in any way they can.

The second solution is the only sensible solution.  In order to have schools in which students learn, the primary goal must be to encourage students to embrace the process of schooling as something they want to do.  As argued in other posts, students must see schooling as more like working with a personal trainer, and less like breaking rocks.

The earliest roots of tax-funded public schooling included this notion of schooling as the best defense against anarchy.  Horace Mann, the nineteenth-century leader of the public school movement, warned that mobs were nothing more than “wild beasts, that prove their right to devour by showing their teeth.”  In order to tame those mobs, Mann argued, the public must fund schools to teach young people that they played an important role in American society as empowered citizens, not merely as subjects and ‘wild beasts.’  In 1877 the US Commissioner of Education warned of ‘the enormities possible in our communities if the systematic vagrancy of the ignorant, vicious, and criminal classes should continue to increase.” In his opinion, “Capital, therefore, should weigh the cost of the tomb and the tramp against the cost of universal and sufficient education.”

These days, the only schools that can effectively defeat the tendency of people to riot against their coercive regimes are schools that do not resort to the tactics of such regimes.  Students must see themselves as part of the schooling process.  They must be given authentic power within the school regime.  Otherwise, it will be seen as a coercive imposition and resisted accordingly.  Traditionalists may gripe that this kind of empowerment will lead to a breakdown in social order, as every person acts in his or her immediate self interest.

Not so.  The mentality of the looter does not come from a breakdown in traditional values in schools.  Instead, it comes from a consistent application of traditional schooling.  When schooling is a coercive experience, young people are trained to see school and society as a heavy hand, an imposition of external power.  When the pressure of that hand is relaxed in the slightest, as must happen occasionally, young people who have not embraced their role as a valuable part of that school and society will act aggressively.  They will take what they want.  They will loot, ignite, riot.

In contrast, a progressive educational system, not just in every individual classroom but in the schooling system as a whole, trains young people to be invested in both school and society.  They embrace their role as empowered members of that society.  When the power goes out, or if the Bulls win the playoffs, people—even young people—who are invested in their society will help hand out candles.  Young people who spent their youth incarcerated in traditional authoritarian schools seize upon the temporary weakness of the regime in order to lash out.


FURTHER READING: Horace Mann, Life and Works, IV; Report of the Honorable John Eaton, US Commissioner of Education, for the year 1877, on Crime and Education.