Progressivism as a covert virus

Published 1:37 pm Saturday, September 27, 2014

by Clay Scott

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

The traditional classroom has norms, that is, rules and expectations. The good ones enforce those norms. Enforcing norms, however it is done, involves a degree of marginalization, meaning physical or emotional separation from the group. It is the most basic lesson in human interaction — if you do not behave appropriately for the group; you lose the privilege of being in the group. When you change your behavior, you are readmitted to the group. This sequence plays out every day in every kind of group all over the world. In most cases, especially in traditional schools, marginalization is temporary and of low intensity.

The progressives want you to believe that they have somehow found a way around this basic pattern. The straw-man version of progressivism does not have any rules or expectations at all. That, of course is ridiculous. Actual progressivism might be worse. Displaying the epitome of hypocrisy, they preach open-mindedness and ostracize students who hold to the traditional norms taught at home and church. Either the progressives are classroom-anarchists or they are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

So, which is it? I think that, depending where you go, there are a lot of both, but I have another explanation. I believe that most educators love their students and recognize that there is a better way. Dr. Terrence Moore referred to progressivism in education as an infection. This might sound harsh, but it is really quite appropriate. Progressivism has, over multiple generations, spread through education like a covert virus. I say covert, because many people do not even realize that they are infected.

Consider this common narrative. A well-intentioned rookie teacher starts work with her professors’ voices still ringing in her ears. She does everything exactly as she was taught and ends up with a chaotic classroom where students learn little to nothing. She appears to be a classroom anarchist. In year 2 she gets better because she asserts herself more, holds students accountable and focuses more on content. She continues this pattern until both she and her administrators are satisfied, but something still doesn’t seem right. She feels that she could be better, but can’t figure out how.

What the teacher in this narrative cannot see is that her improvements happened as she became less progressive in her practice. She is not an anarchist; she is infected with an illness of the mind contracted long before she ever thought about being a teacher. It started when she stepped into an infected teacher’s classroom when she was merely a kindergartener.

There is a darker narrative, the one that creates the wolves in sheep’s clothing. The wolves often end up in high positions within district or state offices, or as professors in schools of education. The infection continues because the wolves hold the keys. In Virginia, as in most states, the license laws are such that you cannot work in a school unless you have been infected.

If you have not caught on, neither students, nor teachers, nor parents who do not accept, to some degree, the progressive ideology are welcome in our public schools. Furthermore, the infection has extended its reach and now includes most private schools as well. Proponents of traditional instruction are labeled simpletons, provincial, out-of-touch and worse. It is certainly true that traditional education practices marginalize socially unfit students. That is called being human. Traditional classrooms embrace humanity and expose students to the best humanity has to offer. Students intent on wallowing in that which has little or no value are marginalized, but the hope for their return is ever-present.

The progressive classroom is literally inhuman. It neither appreciates nor celebrates the best of humanity. It includes certain pieces if it must, but mostly it is comprised of content and practices designed to not offend anyone. It is designed for comfort — not for stimulation. True growth is not comfortable; it is stimulating, difficult and sometimes painful. So the progressives think they have found a way to not marginalize anyone—all they had to do was remove learning.

This is our education system. It has been this way for generations. We are all infected. Those of us licensed to operate in the system have been trained to perpetuate and defend it. If this upsets you in the least, then you count among the legions that have been marginalized by their system.

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