A response to critics #1: cherry picking
One month ago, I published a historical critique of progressive education entitled Progressively Worse. It has two essential arguments. Firstly, from the 1960s onwards progressive education became a powerful orthodoxy within the state education system. Secondly, it has failed to improve the quality of education in our schools.
Since Progressively Worse came out, three lengthy retorts have been published courtesy of bloggers Tim Taylor, Sue Gerrard and Guy Woolnough. Taken together, they accuse me of misrepresenting historical documents; cherry picking facts; establishing false dichotomies; letting my own ‘cognitive biases’ get in the way of ‘data’; and overplaying the success of independent schools. These are very common accusations to be levelled at critics of progressive education, so I am going to answer them in a series of posts. This is the first.
Picking at Plowden
Tim Taylor wrote a lengthy blog post taking issue with my treatment of the 1967 Plowden Report. He accuses me of being unduly selective, and continues ‘he seems to ‘bend’ the facts to suit his narrative’.
That is quite an allegation. However, on finishing Taylor’s critique I was relieved that he had not found a single ‘bent’ fact. Instead, Taylor finds me quoting from bits of the report which he deems unimportant. In particular, I quote an HMI survey commissioned by the Plowden Committee detailing how many primary schools had witnessed the ‘adoption of modern educational trends’. I do so partly because the ‘modern trends’ Plowden and HMI selected, including ‘permissive discipline’, were indicative of the temper of the Report; and partly because the results—21% of schools ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in displaying such ‘modern trends’—give precisely the sort of statistical insight that a historian craves.
Taylor’s challenge is that ‘permissive discipline’ seems an unusual term. His evidence? ‘I’ve never come across it before’. Were he to read the chapter in my book covering the 1960s, or any history of the period for that matter, he would discover that ‘permissiveness’ was a widely used term. In Progressively Worse, I reference Robin Pedley’s use of the term in his 1964 book The Comprehensive School, and start the book with a piece of doggerel written by W. H. Auden in 1972: ‘Dare any call Permissiveness | An educational success? | Saner those class-rooms which I sat in, | Compelled to study Greek and Latin.’ Mike Leigh even wrote a play in 1975 entitled ‘The Permissive Society’.
Taylor goes on to contradict me with a selection of passages he feels better represented the Plowden Report as even-handed. However, his preferred extracts include a call for schools to move from being run along ‘traditional lines’ to being run along ‘free lines’; a challenge to those ‘older teachers brought up on authoritarian precepts’ who are afraid of ‘free discipline’; and a suggestion that there is ‘no place’ for demanding quiet during a school register. Not much of a counter argument there then…
Ironically, Taylor’s attack on my misrepresentation on the Plowden Report in turn misrepresents my book. He criticises me for lack of balance, but does not acknowledge this passage:
The Plowden Report has been caricatured as ‘an anarchist’s charter’ by both its followers and its detractors. In truth, the Report did deliver nods towards the need for whole-class teaching and school rules. However, these parts read more as attempts to forestall criticism than statements of conviction.
I fear that so keen is he to locate the splinter in my eye, Tim Taylor fails to notice the beam lurking in his own.
Both Taylor and Sue Gerrard accuse me of ‘cherry picking’ my evidence. Gerrard writes that ‘Peal’s model of the education system certainly fits his data, but that’s not surprising since he explicitly begins with a model and selects data to fit it.’
This facile criticism has been levelled at every historian who has ever dared to have an argument. A historian is part chronicler, part lawyer. It is their intellectual responsibility to make a good case, and their moral responsibility not to be wilfully misleading. The idea that ‘balance’ is the ultimate virtue to which history should aspire is just one of the many canards GCSE history is responsible for spreading.
A few historians do strive to be entirely objective and impartial, but are always undone due to the fact all history is rendered biased through the information it omits and includes. Take the aforementioned Plowden Report. It is 1,188 pages long, and I cover it in 4 pages. The bias of selection is unavoidable.
Historians invariably cherry pick. However, I warrant that any historian writing a counter-narrative to Progressively Worse would have a difficult time finding any cherries worth picking. No seminal government document of the period exists which was as traditionalist as Plowden was progressive. No progressive schools flourished to the degree that Risinghill, Dartington, Summerhill, William Tyndale and Countesthorpe failed. And no large-scale empirical research has validated child-centred teaching methods to the degree that Project Follow Through validated direct instruction.
Ask not whether the historian cherry picks, but what is the quality of their cherries. In the case of Progressively Worse, I feel they are sufficiently juicy.