Getting it wrong from the beginning:
Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget

Kieran Egan



Imagine it is the year 1887 and you are a forty-five-year-old white middle-class man traveling by train into a medium-sized American town. You would likely see some new buildings going up. Perhaps the biggest is a factory, and nearby are the shells of houses for the workers, and perhaps a new church and school are being built. You are financially comfortable and aware that your personal wealth and that of your neighbors is growing as a direct or indirect result of the products of the new factories and the trade they generate. The town's population is increasing, there are more, and more varied, shops and services, and new inventions are transforming your life.

Let us say you know that the factory under construction, which you are turning to look at as you pass by, will make equipment for the new electric lighting system. Your home is now lighted by gas, with a few older kerosene lamps for use in upstairs rooms. You would know that a decade ago Sir Joseph Wilson Swan had invented a new incandescent lamp by heating carbon filaments in a glass bulb from which air was partially evacuated. In the following year, Thomas Alva Edison came up with the same idea, but unlike the Englishman, Edison developed plans for the power lines and equipment needed to establish a practical lighting system. You can foresee this new electric light replacing the less safe, less clean, and less efficient system you now use.

All this change, these buildings and inventions, the growing town and shifting patterns in people's lives, you recognize, somewhat proudly, as progress. Being a progressive modern man you have learned the ideas propounded by other white middle-class men during the past half-century or so. Unlike all your ancestors, and unlike all people in other than modern Western societies, you confidently believe that the world developed from a mass of molten matter to its present life-supporting form, that life itself evolved from the simplest bugs to that pinnacle of life on the planet—yourself—and that civilizations have similarly evolved from primitive beginnings to the inventive sophistication of your own. This social evolution from primitive to modern societies, you recognize, has not, of course, been uniform; many societies remain in a developmentally "primitive" condition, still living a life reflective of "the childhood of mankind." You understand the now-common phrase "the childhood of mankind" as capturing the sense in which "primitive" people's minds are inferior to your modern mind much as children's minds are inferior to those of adults.

As a progressive modern man you will have read the celebrated and influential essay written thirty years ago by Herbert Spencer called "Progress: Its Law and Cause." Spencer had persuaded you, and many others, that "progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity" (Spencer 1966, 60). He had established that this underlying law was "displayed in the progress of civilization as a whole, as well as in the progress of every nation; and is still going on with increasing rapidity" (19). That factory, those new houses, and the train you are riding in are all confirming evidence of his compelling argument.

As your train carries you on, at a speed and with a comfort unimaginable to any traveler before you in history, you recognize that the physical and social changes you see are reflected in, or are products of, a ferment of new ideas. The number and novelty of these new ideas is disruptive on a scale never before experienced. The result creates anxiety in those who see the foundations of their old intellectual world being threatened but is exhilarating to progressive minds like yours.

Let us say, as you passed that school being built, you turned to look at it with a particular and professional interest because you are a recently appointed senior official of this newly organized school division. The ferment of ideas you are aware of will prominently include those about education. You hold decided ideas about how the new state schools should go about educating all the children in society for the New World. The new world that is tangibly coming into form around you would be the world they will inhabit, and you are keenly aware that it will be quite unlike the world you grew up in. Your educational ideas have also been influenced by the redoubtable Mr. Spencer, an Englishman born in 1820 who has written at length about education, as he has written about nearly every other topic a modern man might turn his mind to. Spencer made a triumphant lecture tour around America in 1882, and, let us say, you attended two of his exciting talks. His ideas about education draw on the same fundamental principles that undergird his progressive arguments about the development of life, of civilization, and of individuals' potential.

Well, let us imagine now that you are you—a tougher call, perhaps—and consider our man on the train from the outside. He was an agent in creating the kind of schools we still have. He, and hundreds like him, shaped the new schools under the influence of a set of powerful educational ideas. During the late nineteenth century, the modern apparatus for schooling everyone was put in place. My topic is the ideas about education that shaped these new state schools into the forms we have lived with ever since, and particularly the ideas about children's minds, and their modes of learning and development, which have determined the curriculum and the organization of schools.

In the 1850s, Herbert Spencer wrote four essays on education. They were published separately in journals, but he had intended from the beginning that they would appear as a single volume. That volume was published in New York under the title Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical in 1860 and in London the following year. By the end of the 1860s the book had appeared in fifteen editions from seven publishers. During the 1870s it was reprinted in New York nine times by D. Appleton alone, and in the 1880s there were fifteen printings, all but two in the United States. (The laxness of copyright laws, especially concerning foreign publications, helps account for this proliferation.) In the 1890s, it seems, a slowdown in popularity occurred, with only thirteen printings during the decade, including editions from seven American publishers. Appleton itself sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

The later nineteenth century was a crucial period for educational thinking. Rapid population growth, industrial development, and the beginnings of universal schooling coincided with reverberations from the stunning theory of evolution. Herbert Spencer stood at this crux. He drew on a range of new ideas and shaped a set of educational principles that became and have remained fundamental in the thinking of those who have had responsibility for our schools, even if their historical source has become invisible to those who hold them.

The historian of education Lawrence Cremin has described the 1890s as revolutionary for American education. He cites the influential books that appeared in that decade, including William James's Principles of Psychology in 1890 and his Talks to Teachers on Psychology in 1899, Francis W. Parker's Talks on Pedagogics in 1894, Edward L. Thorndike's Animal Intelligence in 1898, and John Dewey's School and Society in 1899. Cremin might have extended his time frame a little to include G. Stanley Hall's two-volume Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education in 1904. These "revolutionaries" had in common the fact that they were all profoundly influenced by Spencer's work: "If the revolution had a beginning, it was surely with the work of Herbert Spencer" (Cremin 1961, 91). In the generation after Spencer's death, it was uncontentious to claim for the collection of educational essays he wrote that "more than any other single text-book it is the foundation of all the so-called 'modern' ideas in education" (Samuel and Elliot 1917, 176).

"By the 1950s," Cremin has also claimed, "the more fundamental tenets of the progressives had become the conventional wisdom of American education" (1976, 19). And many people today assert that our schools' ineffectiveness is due precisely to the influence of these progressivist ideas. But those sympathetic to progressivism tend to be irritated by such statements, because from their point of view, schools and teaching are dominated by the same old dull approaches to education that they have been trying to change for more than a century. And they believe that our schools' ineffectiveness is due precisely to the influence of these traditionalist ideas. Progressivism, in their view, has never been implemented. In the 1960s, Paul Goodman, echoing many before him and echoed since by many others, argued that as soon as attempts are made to apply progressivist ideas in schools, the ideas become "entirely perverted" (1964, 43); their radical nature first is watered down and then sinks into the persisting stale routines of the traditional classroom.

In this book I wish will to show incidentally that both of these claims—that progressivist ideas have become central to educational thinking and that they have never been implemented on a significant scale—are largely true.

What ideas make up progressivism? The central belief—the most fundamental tenet—of progressivism is that to educate children effectively it is vital to attend to children's nature, and particularly to their modes of learning and stages of development, and to accommodate educational practice to what we can discover about these. That this belief is shared almost universally among educators today supports Cremin's observation about how widely progressivism's tenets have become the conventional wisdom of American education, and Western education generally. But it is precisely this belief that I shall will show is mistaken.

My argument will be unfamiliar, I think. I shall not be arguing against progressivism on the basis of the usual alternatives of "liberal" or "traditional" theories of education or because it is not adequately attuned to preparing students for jobs. My critique will be unfamiliar also, I suspect, because it will be coming from someone who has considerable sympathy with progressivist ideals.

Progressivism has historically involved a belief in attending to the nature of the child, and consequently its research arm (so to speak) has involved studies to expose that nature more precisely. Because the mind is prominent in education, psychology became the consistent scientific handmaiden of progressivism. The psychologist exposes the nature of students' learning or development and the practitioner then must make teaching methods and curricula accord with what science has exposed. ("Education, therefore, must begin with a psychological insight into the child's capacities. . . . It must be controlled at every point by reference to these same considerations. . . . The law for presenting and treating [educational] material is the law implicit within the child's own nature" [Dewey 1964, 430, 435].)

One or another form of progressivism has been promoted and tried in the schools of North America since the beginning of mass schooling in the late nineteenth century. Progressivist practices have usually been promoted on the grounds that if only teachers will attend to the new knowledge gained by research about learning or development and follow what that research implies for teaching or curricula, an educational revolution will occur. In each new generation, progressivist educators have first to explain what was wrong with their predecessors' attempts to implement the ideas—because the promised revolution consistently fails to occur—and then to explain why their new approach will do the job.

So we may see the attraction the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) has had for progressivists. Piaget claimed to expose in a new and fuller way the nature of children's intellectual development, and from his work progressivist educators sought to learn how to apply those insights to educational practice. Or we may see the attraction of the cognitive science research that Howard Gardner uses to support what he has described as his "sympathy with the vision generally termed 'progressive'" (1991, 189). The problems with past attempts to implement progressivist ideas are, he thinks, reparable by drawing on "recent advances in our understanding of individual learning" (246).

My task, then, is to expose a flaw in what seem to me the most widely held beliefs among educators today. Although the ideas that I think are false are foundational to progressivism, they seem also to be held by many who might even consider themselves critics of progressivism—which is where Cremin's observation about the movement's tenets having become the conventional wisdom of American education comes in.

My subtitle includes some of the main figures whose work has shaped the modern forms of progressivism and modern conceptions of education. Of the three I mention, the least well known today is Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), whose crucial role in the formation of progressivism and whose influence on modern schooling seem to me much underestimated, for reasons I describe in Chapter 1. This may seem an oddly balanced work, in which Spencer receives the lion's share of attention and John Dewey (1859–1952), for example, is represented as drawing significantly on Spencer's work. Perhaps it might seem a little offensive to identify what is usually thought of as a quintessentially American movement as derived significantly from the work of another dead white European male. Causality in ideas is, of course, difficult to trace with any security. Spencer's is certainly just one of many voices promoting not dissimilar ideas during those years on both sides of the Atlantic. Even so, although you may take the centrality of Spencer in my account as merely a kind of rhetorical stand-in for others, those constant reprintings of his book strongly suggest that it was his words that were most read. Spencer allied Jean-Jacques Rousseau's somewhat romantic view of educating with the authority of science, showing how child-centeredness and science together could provide the engine that would modernize and transform education. Also, not entirely coincidentally, this emphasis on Spencer is a kind of backhanded homage on the centenary of his death in 1902.

But this is not a work of history. I do consider some historical figures, but only because it is sometimes easier to disinter the ideas that have been loaded with layers of complexity over the years by looking at their earlier appearance and then seeing how they have gradually transmuted into today's presuppositions. It is a way of trying to make strange what is so familiar that we find it hard to think about. My topic is current education and how the persistence of powerful progressivist ideas continues to undermine our attempts to make schooling more effective.

"The world is largely ruled by ideas, true and false," observed the American historian Charles A. Beard (1932, ix). He went on to quote a "British wit" to the effect that "the power which a concept wields over human life is nicely proportioned to the degree of error in it" (ix). We needn't give in to such cynicism, of course, but the witty point pricks because it sometimes seems true. The power that Spencer's ideas have wielded over educational thinking is a sharp example of just this point.

In Chapter 1, I outline some of the basic ideas of progressivism, showing their early expressions in the work of Herbert Spencer. I also consider the strange case of Spencer's immense influence and almost vanished reputation. In Chapters 2 through 4, I look at progressivist ideas about learning, development, and the curriculum. In each case I begin with Spencer's formulations—which will, I suspect, surprise many readers, as they may have come to take such ideas as obviously true and might even believe them to have been originally Dewey's ideas. I show how such figures as Dewey and Piaget elaborated these ideas, how they have found their way into current practice, and how they have been wrong from their beginning and haven't become any less wrong for a century's reiteration. In Chapter 5, I argue that much modern educational research is flawed by related presuppositions to those I identify in progressivism. Throughout, I indicate the direction we need to move in to get beyond the pervasive flaw.

When I mentioned to a colleague the proposed title of this book--"Getting it wrong from the beginning"--he said cheerfully, "Ah, an autobiographical work!" I have indeed been trying for some years to work out a way of describing an alternative view of how we might better educate children in the modern world.This book may be seen as of companion to two others, the slim center between two larger chunks of text. The first of this trilogy of sorts is The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding (University of Chicago Press, 1997), and the third is skulking under some aggressive, and provisional, title such as "How to Educate People" forthcoming from Yale University Press. All three explore related issues, and there are necessarily small overlaps in each of them. The books form part of a project to provide a fundamental critique of current educational theories and practice and to outline an alternative that might move us toward more effective schooling in modern societies. I want to make the case here that most of the beliefs most of the people hold about education today are wrong in fairly fundamental ways. But as my colleague, with the unfortunately damaged knees, declared, maybe I'm getting it wrong. But that's for you to decide.

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