A response to critics #5: it is right wing
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.
This is the fifth and final post in a series of blogs responding to the criticism Progressively Worse has received so far. To read the first, second, third and fourth blogs, click here, here, here and here.
Of all the slings and arrows thrown at the book, the accusation that it is ‘right wing’ or ‘ideological’ is the most angering, but perhaps the most predictable. Reviews of Progressively Worse on blogs and amazon have accused the book of being a ‘politically motivated polemic’; ‘part of an ideological campaign’; a veil for the ‘privatisation’ of schools; a precursor to my ‘inevitable move into Tory politics’; and, bizarrely, part of a neo-liberal conspiracy involving Pearson.
In addition, when I sent the book to a former Labour cabinet minister who I naively believed may find it of some interest, he responded that an attack on progressive education was ‘about 20 years out of date’. Such a judgement is obviously wrong, but when he added that the book was typical of ‘those on the very far right’ – that was positively inflammatory.
I am not of the very far right. I am not even a Tory. I would consider myself a centrist swing voter. Though I have much admiration for the current Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, I did not vote for his party in 2010.
I hope that those who have read Progressively Worse appreciate it is very far from being a piece of party political one upmanship. The foreword is written by Andrew Old, a Labour Party member and fellow critic of progressive education who finds no contradiction between those two positions. Quite the opposite, as he writes in the foreword:
Many of us who identify our politics most closely with the aspirational, working-class tradition within the Labour Party are happy to campaign as firmly against the excesses of progressive education as we do against the excesses of free-market capitalism. This is for fundamentally the same reason; it increases the deprivation of the less fortunate for the sake of an ideological experiment conducted at their expense by those with little to lose personally.
Whilst researching the Progressively Worse, I gained a great admiration for two Labour party politicians from the 1970s: the Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and his Policy Director Bernard Donoughue. Both were Old Labour figures from modest working class backgrounds, who lamented the spread of progressive education during the 1970s. They saw that it was stripping many of the virtues of the education they received during the 1920s and 1930s from British schools.
Donoughue later lamented that education was being warped by ‘middle-class Labour people from Islington… Their thinking was based on Guardian style ideologies and prejudices.’ It was in part Callaghan’s frustration with the spread of ‘informal teaching methods’ that spurred him to make his famous Ruskin Speech in 1976.
As for those who claim that Progressively Worse is a alarmist narrative used to justify the privatisation of British schools, please read Chapter 3. This was one of the most fascinating parts of the book to research, as between 1981 and 1986, the most zealous neo-liberal thinker of the Thatcher years – Sir Keith Joseph – reigned as education secretary. Joseph’s attempt to introduce a vouchers system to British education was an ideological drive based upon the mistaken idea that market forces could cure Britain’s educational ills. His time in office was an embarrassing failure, and having become aware of Keith Joseph’s struggles, I would oppose anyone who believes that Britain’s schools can be improved simply through market based reforms such as a vouchers system.
During my research, I realised there is nothing new about deriding opponents to progressive education as right wing. The editors of the Black Papers, C. B. Cox and Tony Dyson, were two liberal English Literature Professors and former Labour Party members. After they published their pamphlet, they were labelled ‘fascists’ and ‘a decrepit bunch of educational Powellites’. Researching the ‘Reading Wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s, it was extraordinary how politicised the language became. One teacher wrote of the charismatic whole-word advocate Frank Smith, ‘He has made (phonics) a political and ideological thing and created a perception of phonics as a right-wing affair.’ Progressive educators tarred their opponents with the toxic brush of right-wingery, effectively closing down any sensible debate: a tactic some still use today.
Partly, the debate over teaching methods and school organisation is cursed by a politicised nomenclature. It is too easy to assume that those who oppose progressive education must be opposed to social progress, when the exact opposite is normally the case.
For this reason, I find the debate over teaching methods analogous to that within twentieth century architecture. Like progressive education, architectural modernism, seen in the tower blocks of the fifties and sixties, was a movement led by middle-class radicals who imposed their idealistic designs upon an unwilling working class. Modernist architects, such as Peter and Alison Smithson and Denys Lasdun, built monstrous tower blocks for London councils whilst housing themselves in West London Victorian townhouses, just like those middle class supporters of progressive education who eventually sent their children to independent schools.
Those who oppose modernist architecture do not oppose modernity, just as those who oppose progressive education do not oppose progress. I will concede, the debate over teaching methods is centred on concepts which, in other realms, are politically charged. Progressive educators do support a greater degree of choice, independence, freedom and collaboration amongst children. All terms to make a liberal swoon. Traditionalists do favour authority, discipline, knowledge and competition – all terms that can, in other contexts, appear right wing.
However, the crucial point to realise is that education should be absolutely removed from the political realm for the simple reason that children are of a pre-political age. This is the vital point made so well by Hannah Arendt in her 1954 essay attacking progressive education, ‘The Crisis of Education’. Arendt was a liberal philosopher, but she realised that the liberalism she championed in public and political life should not be extended to the realm of the child, as greater freedom, choice and independence are not beneficial to those not yet mature enough to enjoy them. As she wrote:
The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition. We must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life, in order to apply to it alone a concept of authority and an attitude toward the past which are appropriate to it but have no general validity and must not claim a general validity in the world of grown-ups.
Truer words on schools have rarely been written. We grown-ups do children a deep disservice by naively assuming independent learning, lenient discipline systems and non-hierarchical classroom relationships must, ipso facto, be a good thing. The education of a child should be a preparation for liberalism, but not liberalism itself.