Parents must decide which style of education if best for their children

Published 11:18 am Saturday, September 6, 2014

by Clay Scott

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 second 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.

This week I will continue on the progressive idea of “privilege” in the classroom. For illustrative purposes, it will be contrasted with classical education’s view of the same phenomenon.

I indicated last week that privilege is all about priorities when applied to curricula. This week I intend to expound upon that point using individual and social applications of the concept. Beside prioritization, and perhaps more so, privilege is about equality. I’m not talking about civic or social equality, or any version linked to the virtues of justice or charity. I’m referring to equality without morality — the concept of equality that spurred [Kurt] Vonnegut to write “Harrison Bergeron.” Any society that promotes particular traits and skills qualifies as a society of privilege because it gives the possessor economic, social, political and other advantages. Such a society can certainly be just, charitable, and hold all individuals as equal in the sight of the law, but it cannot be progressive.

The progressive argument is that society is at its best when it has a “level playing field,” free of privilege. The classical view, going all the way back to Aristotle is that the best civilizations are those that prize that which is most virtuous, beautiful and reasonable (i.e. intelligent). Consider the difference in the assumptions of each philosophy. The prior measures man against man, the latter measures man against an ideal. The progressive thought removes the exceptional, both good and bad, and treats them all as ordinary. The discordant is valued as much as the harmonious. They are all music to the progressive thinker. Because good and bad, right and wrong, ugly and beautiful are considered relative terms, they say, we are all really the same and should conduct our social interactions accordingly.

In classical education, what the progressives call privilege is nothing more than naturally occurring social effects moving us individually and collectively toward an ideal. To illustrate, consider our nation’s “obesity epidemic.” The classical view is that there are certain principles that allow us to live rich and happy lives. Nutrition, physical exercise and temperance are some of these. In that light, we privilege those who live these principles by giving them certain advantages beyond those directly linked to healthy living. We uphold the ideal. The progressive view is that “fat” is a social construct, so if we just got rid of all the scales then we would no longer have obese people.

So what does it all have to do with schools? The premier goal of education is to prepare children to enter the world. By extension, all education points to a particular view or understanding of what that world is and who we are as humans. While the progressives vehemently deny it, both the progressive and classical views uphold an ideal. The progressive ideal is equality. Curriculum and instructional techniques are designed to “overcome” differences in students, mainly ability and home environment. The classical ideal is built on conceptions of truth, virtue and beauty that are independent of any observer or social setting. Rather than striving to overcome differences, the classical classroom aims to assist its students in overcoming mistakes, shortcomings, poor habits and life’s problems over which they have little or no control with the ultimate goal of reaching that ideal.

The whole matter could come down to a simple value question. Do you want your child to be the best she can be? If so, then you need a school that shares your view of a fully mature version of your child and is helping you to develop that person. If it is more important to you that your child receive the same education as everyone else, if being fair is the most important thing, then you need a progressive school. You’re the parent. The choice is yours.

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 a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. He can be reached at