Progressive education is failing us

The original impulse of progressive education was to provide an education that would benefit not only the upper classes but equally, and in particular, the working poor. It was supposed to achieve this by focusing on “real life” experience, everyday skills and knowledge, group work and other progressive outcomes, such as critical thought.

Instead of a liberal or classical education in which certain types of knowledge were privileged, a progressive education would focus on the pupil’s needs and his or her self-actualisation within a democratic and egalitarian community.

The progressive movement in education perhaps reached its zenith in outcomes-based education (OBE), which was hastily adopted in South Africa after apartheid, as the country sought to break the shackles of Bantu education, and a subsequent under-class of unemployed blacks.

But nearly two decades after OBE was implemented in this country, the department of basic education changed tack, and is nearly finished implementing the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (Caps).

Caps is purported to be simply an addition to OBE but it does, in fact, alter the underpinning pedagogy of our education significantly by prescribing content, as well as embedding outcomes within that content.

Significant problems
In short, Caps is a tacit admission that OBE – and, by implication, our entire education system – has significant problems. This has been obvious to even a casual observer for quite some time.

It is well known that a massive portion of our national budget goes to education, yet the promised panacea of progressive education has not yet even begun to cure our maladies of skills shortages and a disturbingly widely unemployed youth.

Far from equipping us for an egalitarian future, our progressive education has seemed complicit in the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.

This raises the question: Is there something wrong with progressive education? The simple answer is yes.

A philosophical reimagining
This means that to fix our education requires not only important steps such as Caps, teacher training, school infrastructure and good management, but equally a philosophical reimagining of what education is for, how it works, and what its content should be.

Perhaps the central problem of progressivism is its denunciation of a hierarchy of knowledge. Because of the idea that knowledge is power (which was in itself a progressive idea of the Enlightenment), and because power has been used to oppress, prescribed knowledge from authority must be seen as something equally oppressive.

This line of reasoning leads to a pupil-centred education in which individual experience and research guides the education process towards certain outcomes.

Such an approach is understandable when one recalls the teacher- and authority-centred education of the apartheid system. But the problem is that such an approach entrenches the very inequalities progressive education is meant to fight.

Cultural capital
This is because children from middle-class homes are able to navigate the progressive world as they have already acquired the “cultural capital” necessary to do so. They have had access to books, history, family budgets and the language and habits of a bourgeois culture.

Working-class children, on the other hand, enter the system and find themselves lost in a world in which the rules and purpose of the process are spoken in an implied and hidden language to which they have never had access.

Lessons revolve around research, discussion and conversation – largely empty vessels that must be filled with some kind of capital, the very thing the poor lack.

To put it in another way, the children of the poor are encouraged to become original thinkers, without being given any ideas to think about, outside of those ideas they have already experienced – the ideas embodied by our popular culture.

A bourgeois world
The middle- and upper-class students of OBE, however, move on in life, easily navigating their way through the worlds of education and work because they know the language and the culture within which skills can be put to work. Meanwhile, the poor students of OBE, despite their progressive education (or perhaps because of it), even if they do manage to acquire workplace skills, lack the cultural knowledge to use those skills profitably in the bourgeois world of work and management. And so the division between rich and poor is exacerbated by progressive education, instead of being ameliorated.

Rather than impossibly trying to level the hierarchies of knowledge in a grand philosophical fashion, it would be much easier and simpler to give the poor access to knowledge in the shape of a liberal education that values and indeed orders knowledge in a hierarchical fashion.

What then would a liberal education entail – both philosophically and practically?

Because a liberal or classical education begins with the theory that there are things worth knowing, one could argue that, instead of either the teacher or the student being at the centre of the learning process, the curriculum, or body of knowledge, is at the centre of learning.

Unavoidable and inescapable
Progressives would argue that this would still entail an elite group dictating the curriculum, but unfortunately that is unavoidable – authority and hierarchy are implicit and inescapable features of educating the youth. It is far better to acknowledge this and be able to discuss it openly, instead of pretending there exists an idealistic progressive option in which there are no hierarchies.

Practically, such an education would have a clear curriculum in every subject that would, in turn, inform both teacher training and classroom teaching.

These curricula would be rooted in the history or tradition of each subject. For example, in English, the reading of great books (old books that are still discussed) would be privileged; in history, the knowledge of world history; in mathematics, the ability to speak the language of numbers; in science, the working know-ledge of scientific method.

There is no need to link these subjects to “the real world” as per progressivism; instead, the positive content of each subject would give all students, most importantly those from working-class or impoverished backgrounds, cultural capital with which to face, and navigate, the modern world.

Perhaps the most important thing a liberal education does is to make the whole process of learning clear and easily signposted, with minimal bureaucracy. Great setworks and textbooks that prize knowledge are not difficult to buy or compile, and are far easier to use as guides in teaching than policy documents emanating from the frazzled ideologues of government.

So why not implement these commonsense proposals immediately?

The chief obstacle is ideology. Our government is committed to the ideological principle that there is no hierarchy of knowledge.

Rather than acknowledge a hierarchical and globalised world, and then attempt to prepare the youth to compete and live in this world, it still pretends such a world can be defeated.

Our ruling alliance would do far better to pay more care and attention to the real children of South Africa instead of their precious ideologies.

Abandoning progressive education would be a decent start.

Chris Waldburger is a teacher and freelance journalist

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