Progressive education ultimately limits students

Published 10:01 am Saturday, September 20, 2014

Progressivism is the main philosophy taught in schools of education and used to measure quality instruction. Though widely accepted, it is not good.

Progressives claim that traditional approaches to teaching diminish student agency and limit perspectives. This begs the question — what should the student be allowed and expected to do in the classroom? The classical approach is simple — Teachers teach, Students study. The framework of understanding is the teacher’s. As an expert in his or her subject area, that framework is trusted and relied upon to properly shape the students’ understanding in that class. By learning right thinking the student is empowered.

The progressive approach is more complicated, Teachers motivate, inspire, guide, explain, and many other things, but they do not “teach” in the true sense of the word. That is, their main job is not to clearly present information so that it can be processed by students. Information may be transmitted, but it is not often specific. This is why progressive teachers will tell you things like “I’m more concerned with how a child thinks than what a child thinks” and “there is no right or wrong answer to this question.” Progressive students, likewise, do not study in the true sense either.

A true student would read the words of great thinkers like Frederick Douglass, Aristotle or Marie Curie and try to adjust his or her thinking to incorporate the brilliance of those individuals. This is what it means to study and learn. By identifying goodness, truth, beauty and reality, as understood by great thinkers, a good student learns to think like those great people. The progressive mentality flips this pattern upside down. First off, they are unlikely to teach great thinkers of the past because they over-emphasize anything new and flashy. On the rare occasions that great thinkers do come up in lessons, the students are trained to accept pieces of the thoughts of Douglass, Aristotle or Curie so as to make them fit into their own way of thinking.

Think about this — in the progressive classroom, the most important thought is that of the student. That may sound like forward thinking, but it is completely backward. Are the thoughts of your average teenager really more valuable than those of Frederick Douglass? Sure, there are some astute students out there, but for the most part our teenagers�� thinking is fed a steady diet of crass humor, loud music (or at least that’s what they call it), violence, sex and whatever else our over-indulgent society comes up with. By contrast, Frederick Douglass’ thinking was fed almost exclusively with the classics.

When progressives promote agency they are talking about letting students think what they want to think. They talk about “constructing” truth rather than discovering truth. The problem is that, regardless of how much we want something to be true, we do not really have control over that.

When one believes in absolute truth, rules and limits are empowering. When one does not, they become oppressive. When I come to a stop sign, I could see that as an hindrance designed to limit my agency. I may decide to not subject myself to such arbitrary rules and drive straight through. The problem is that while I may want to create my own world, there are things that I cannot control. If I blow through the stop sign and get plowed by an 18-wheeler going 60 MPH, my agency becomes severely more limited than it was before.

So it is with education. Training students according to principles of nature, politics, morality and beauty may appear to be oppressive on the surface, but it is quite the opposite. The progressive classroom may look and feel like an empowering place, but like the car on the highway, ultimately it limits students far more than any other approach to education.

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