I just finished a rather long and delightfully enlightening read of Diane Ravitch’s Left Back. A history of the educational debates of the 20th century, it really helped me see the differences between the progressive and the classicist or traditionalist. While those in my league, the traditionalists, lost the debate early on (by 1915 it was over), the debate still carries on. And this reading coalesced with my desire to treat the next comparison Berry gives in his Road and Wheel analogy.
He seeks to show the difference as being exemplified in part through a comparison of motifs: On the side of the Progressive (Road) view, there is “The Promised Land” motif in the great Westward Movement of America. Contrasting that view is his use of the native American Black Elk’s sacred hoop motif.
In the “Promised Land” view, we are moving forward, to that which is better. Ultimately there is a utopia we are seeking. This Utopian view steers much of the philosophical and practical energies of the majority of the educational debates. What is old, what is past is by chronological necessity “bad.” It must be new to be true. The idea that what is best is out there somewhere, and all that has gone before is only a falling short of the real knowledge that if we just seek it we can find someday compels this view forward to the next new idea. The cynicism and snobbish condescension that such a view engenders toward the past is easy to see. As Berry has been seeking to say all along with this extended metaphor, the Road leads from A to B with no backward glance or gratitude for what has come before, nor really any hope past B (i.e. our death).
Black Elk’s view of the hoop or wheel is quite different. We are cast as members of an ongoing community with much gained from those who have come before us and all of our concern being focused on what will be left by us for the future members of this community. It is rooted in place and revels in proven practice. It holds to the ideal that what is best is past on, what is unworthy of keeping is thrown aside. And it believes that much more is worth passing forward than falling on the trash heap. I know I am saying the same thing over and over. I believe deeply that as we learn to revolve around these ideas our appetites will change, and in the end, that is the source of changing something permanently. Our current appetites are not sustainable. The Wheel is a better version of appetite than that of the Road.
The Beatles believed such was so. Progress. That grand idea of recent centuries has had a profound effect upon current educational theory. Man learns from his mistakes so as to not make them again. Man is becoming better at being man. Someday, some would say, there will only be one man left upon the earth, the Last Man, as all others will have evolved beyond man to whatever is above that species. The German Ubermensch has become a fascination for movie goers with yet another Superman movie coming out very soon. As I read and think about this idea, the following seem to be a starting list of ways in which the progressive idea of “Progress” has changed or affected education in our day:
- What was true for the past has little or no bearing on the present. Thus Social Studies (studies of what is true now) is more appropriate than History.
- With constant progress comes constant change. Nothing stays the same; all things are getting better, so our methods, ideas, plans, goals, purposes, etc. should all be constantly updated.
- New is good; old is bad. In everything this holds true: values, definitions, subjects, courses/curriculum, etc. all bow to the newest, the latest.
- Progress is built upon rational thought and scientific process. Science will show us each successive progressive step.
- Much of progress is seen in letting go of the past – superstition, religion, tradition, myth, etc. are all a part of what must be overcome if we are to become better.
- Progression begets temporary notions. Planning for much beyond our own moment is ludicrous because of this dogma of progress – we don’t know where we are going, so simply doing “the best” (ie. the newest idea) is what is important.
- Progress is measured in terms of overcoming nature. The more we can figure ways around nature and how to manipulate nature to our ends, the more progressive we become.
I believe this could go on at length, but the last point is my jumping off point. The first real point of comparison between the Road and the Wheel is this point of how the two relate to the natural. Road educators tend to be nominalists. They deny real nature for anything, and instead believe the nature of something is what we as men say it is. So the world we live is ours to be reformed for our purposes. The Wheel educator seeks rather to teach students how to live responsibly and well within a reality that for the most part man cannot change.
The differences here are huge. For the Christian, this is no less true. I find Christians on both sides of this debate. There are certainly Christian educators who teach purposefully that the earth is ours to be used for the Glory of God, but then define such in a way that belies their belief that man must overcome nature. The other Christian, the one thinking more as a wheel, seeks atonement with nature. God is not in the process of bringing out of this world, but in redeeming this world with us in it. This leads such an educator to seek to show students how to live within the world, as a part of it, and a rather fragile part of it at that. It includes an education in what has come before, what is now, and what shall be after we die. It does not see man as a species getting better or worse, but rather living within the world God has placed him in.
This is the difference between conquest and atonement.
I have been musing a lot about the implications of our current elections upon the state of education in our nation. I am more convinced than ever that some serious battles were lost about 100 years ago that are showing their results to us more and more as we move farther away from those battles.
Diane Ravitch, in her great history of American education, “Left Back” delineates the battles fought at the turn of the 20th century over public education’s future. There were clearly two camps: the Classicists and the Progressivists. Both went into full publishing mode trying to win the argument over whether we should continue to provide a liberal education to our children (the Classicist position) or if we should change to offering various forms of education for the differing types of children in our schools (the Progressivist position). Continue reading “Bringing Them Up Thoughtful”