Power, privilege, hierarchy also exist in progressivism

Published 11:29 am Saturday, August 30, 2014

Progressivism, especially that of John Dewey, is the main philosophy taught in schools of education and used to measure quality instruction. The tenets of progressivism are visible in nearly every educational institution in the country. This article is the first in a series discussing assumptions of progressive education. The assumptions come from a Columbia University publication titled “Progressive Pedagogies.”

Assumption No. 1: The traditional classroom is a site of power, privilege and hierarchy.

There is no argument in this assumption. It is absolutely true. However, it is equally true of the progressive classroom, despite all claims to the contrary.

With roots in critical ideologies, progressivism cannot stand without a foil. Past generations are an easy target for that role. Attacking a previous generation means that, unless they plan on arguing with ghosts, there is no defendant. In education settings, this foil is the “traditional” classroom. This is why progressive educators are critical of and often reject outright the learning, morality, organizations and social practices of the past. This is, for example, how History turned into Social Studies. The progressive ideal, according to Dewey, is for each generation to re-create society rather than build upon the learning of previous generations. Without the need of a social or political heritage or foundation, progressives have a great need of social studies and little need for history.

Power, privilege and hierarchy

If these are attributes of a traditional classroom, and therefore inappropriate in a progressive classroom, consider their ideal — a classroom completely devoid of each. A class without power is a class where each person’s thinking is free from all external influences. A class without privilege is one where all ideas are equally discussed and valued. A class without hierarchy holds all members as equals. These may sound like enlightened ideas, at least until it comes time to apply them.

External influences in a classroom may include textbooks, the teacher, the ideas that students bring with them from home, church and other places of learning, cultural assumptions, among others. Power in these discussions often refers to social power, which is the capacity to influence the actions of another person or organization. If a teacher is not influencing students, then what is she doing? If external influences cannot be used, then what would be the source of information?

The concept of privilege is all about prioritization. Anything included in a class is privileged above that which is omitted. The only way to truly avoid privilege is to avoid activity. There is no such thing a classroom without privilege, there is only the question of what and who are privileged. The argument might be made that the ideal is not the absence, but rather a state of equal privilege. This argument is nearly as ridiculous as the first. Equal privilege would mean that everything that has ever been thought would have to be presented with perfectly balanced order, time and strength of presentation.

As for hierarchy, in a progressive classroom the teacher is not more powerful than the student. They are equals. It is not the place of the teacher to tell a student what to do or to judge the work of a student. Teachers are more like trail guides, able to offer suggestions but powerless to truly influence behavior. A good teacher is one who gets out of the way and lets students discover things for themselves.

Progressives claim to want classrooms devoid of the shackles of past thinking, authoritarian systems, power and privilege. Ironically, they have no problem exerting power and authority to privilege their ideas while suppressing others. The truth is that what they argue against are basic elements of social interaction. To prepare the next generation, we need to teach and model effective and ethical implementation of power and hierarchy instead of pretending to avoid them. Rather than vain and misleading claims at balance, we need to privilege that which is of most value and highest virtue. Hiding from basic principles of social living does not make them go away. Instead, I say we let our children see good examples and practice the relevant principles of civility.

CLAY SCOTT is a former teacher from Southampton Academy and Franklin High School, and he was also an administrator at SA. He is the co-founder of Telios Academy and doctoral candidate at The George Washington University. He can be reached at teliosacademies@gmail.com.