As I have posted before, progressivism and whole language have a long history of being blamed for failure when in reality neither has been practiced in any substantial way by teachers. While school policies and classroom practices have remained committed to traditional approaches and behavioral groundings, it is likely more accurate to describe schooling in the U.S. as dominantly bureaucratic—often failing any ideology whether or not, as Harry Webb notes, schools and colleges of education are almost exclusively progressive.
And thus, education remains mired among some in a constant tension between so-called traditional and progressive commitments; as Webb explains, that tension is itself reductive and misleading:
The differences between educational progressives and traditionalists, although often defined in terms of how they go about teaching, are really more fundamental even than that. Progressives and traditionalists actually have different goals. They are trying to achieve different ends. To progressives, traditionalists are trying to fill children’s heads up with rote, disconnected facts. To traditionalists, progressives are trying to ‘facilitate’ the development of nebulous skills; skills that often cannot be defined and certainly not assessed. Of course, there are always those who are quick to cry, ‘False choice! You can have both nebulous skills and rote, disconnected facts.’ Of course there are.
There is a continuum here: on the far right, rote memorization, and on the left, touchy-feely “do your own thing” playtime. While as a critical educator I have serious problems with positivism, behaviorism, and the cultural knowledge concepts promoted by E.D. Hirsch, I agree with Webb, a traditionalist, that both extremes fall well short of what most thoughtful educators are pursuing regardless of their pedagogical commitments or educational philosophies.
So let me enter this debate with a few examples of what critical educators see as the foundational problems with how schools treat the pursuit of knowledge—with the full disclosure here that how the real world of teaching happens is often out of focus when compared to the more complex theories and philosophies identified. In other words, when a school or teacher claims to be implementing essential questions, it is unlikely that is the case. The same can be said of direct instruction, cooperative learning, authentic assessment, and so forth.
If there are educators who say content doesn’t matter, I don’t know any. It is a provocative claim, none the less. Of course content matters, but for critical educators, authoritarian static knowledge is the problem because of the “authoritarian” and “static”—not the knowledge.
Whether directly or indirectly, when a teacher prescribes that all children learn X without consideration for the needs or interests of the students and without any opportunity to examine whether or not that content should be accepted uncritically, education has failed.
Another issue for critical and even progressive educators is the concept of when knowledge is acquired, when (and how) content becomes automatic.
Treating content as value-free, discrete, linear, and sequential is the problem; not the knowledge itself.
Assuming that the human mind is essentially analytic—learning from part to whole—and that most knowledge must be acquired before real thinking, maybe critical thinking, can occur are the problems.
So I want two offer to examples of what I mean.
First, I happen to know a huge amount of content in a fairly wide range of disciplines. Some is very useful on Jeopardy! and a great deal is incredibly useful for my roles as scholar, teacher, and writer.
For example, if I see a panel from a Silver Age Marvel comic book, I am able most of the time to tell you who pencilled and inked the artwork. I also regularly cite research aloud when I am teaching, often identifying the author, year, and even page of the research.
None of this happened by rote memorization that is all too common in traditional schooling. I did not have any of this assigned, I did not study any of this for a multiple choice or true/false exam.
Throughout the 1970s, while wearing a back brace for scoliosis, I retreated into the world of collecting comic books—amassing about 7000 comics that I read, re-read, and carefully catalogued before storing them all in plastic bags.
In the mid- to late 1990s, I wrote a dissertation on Lou LaBrant, meticulously gathering everything she wrote and everything others wrote or said about here before writing a book-length biography of her life and career.
What are notable about these experiences and how I have come to gain and retain so much knowledge?
- Both grew from my choice—one as a teenager and the other as a grown man in my mid-30s. (My point: Let’s not assume that children have no ability to make real and substantial choices, just as, see below, let’s not romanticize childhood as a time when all children’s choices are good for them and that all adult imposition is oppressive.)
- Both were experiences with rich and complex content. Nothing was easy about either experience (despite what people misunderstand about comic books). This is about challenging content (and not the misused and misleading concept of rigor)—in the two sense of the content is complex and thus challenging and that learners should challenge the content in order to learn it.
- Both required that I engaged in a great deal of synthesis, and thus re-creation—resulting in experiencing, re-experiencing, and thus coming to acquire an evolving memorization that has context.
- Both were aided substantially by my having access to authorities on the content I was pursuing.
Yes, knowledge matters, but who decides what knowledge matters is essential to address and how that knowledge is acquired is also central. It fails our goals of acquiring knowledge, then, if we only honor the acquisition of knowledge before any real engagement occurs on a complex level.
Each discipline needs to take a step back from linear, discrete, and analytical assumptions about acquiring knowledge in order to identify when that approach is genuinely essential. (And I suspect it is far less often than is traditionally practiced.)
Next, let me return to the continuum noted about, adding that to the far right we fall into the trap of cynicism (no child knows what is good for her/him) and that to the far left, the trap of romanticism (just leave children alone and allow their natural curiosity to work).
Just as knowledge acquisition may come after deep and rich engagement with experiences (as I detailed above), students may come to “choose” and recognize value in knowledge after being asked to learn it. And so a final example.
Too often traditional approaches to teaching and learning have been (and are) reduced (and more often with students identified as “weak”) to isolated and rote experiences with knowledge. (This can be traced to the failure of the cult of efficiency found in the bureaucracy of schooling .)
For example, what has counted (and counts) for “learning about the presidents” in social studies or history class is memorizing the presidents in order to be recited on a test. This is the sort of real-world traditionalism that progressive and critical educators balk at—and recognize as all too common, again, especially for certain students. And there is a cynicism and deficit view of children embedded in that sort of teaching.
However, a romantic view of children may seek to leave whether or not children learn about the presidents up to the students (again, making the mistake of ignoring context), and traditionalists are rightly concerned that many children would find little initial interest in the presidency—despite that core knowledge being quite important for each child as a member of a democracy and to the wider democracy itself.
Instead, then, asking students—either individually or in groups—to choose one president as a research project and to use that example to identify and examine the powers of presidents in the U.S. is the sort of assignment a critical educator would embrace.
Many students are likely to come to appreciate the need to understand the presidency after this experience, and we are failing students by the fault of romanticism if we allow them only to pursue what they initially believe is important.
For critical educators, our concern is with authoritarian education, but not with authoritative teachers. And our goal is a classroom with a teacher/student among students/teachers . Teaching and learning are collaborative, but the ultimate authority is still the teacher.
From his traditional commitments (ones Webb strives to advocate for in real and complex ways), Webb asserts: “By contrast, progressive education is a mirage.”
I would argue that the ways in which both progressive and traditional practices are found in schools are mirages—in the sense that they fail our goals of knowledge acquisition as a vehicle for human and social agency. In fact, those failures, I think, have little to do with progressivism and traditionalism, but much to do with the romanticism and cynicism I have examined above.
 Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
 Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach. Trans. D. Macedo, D., Koike, & A., Oliveira. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
——— . (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Trans. P. Clarke. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
——— . (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.