Struggling to Raise the Norm: Essentialism, Progressivism and the Persistence of Common/Normal Schooling in America

Burton Weltman


             This article is an attempt to clarify present-day debates about educational reform through painting a broad-stroked picture of how these debates came to be.  As the key to the portrait, I have compressed the educational controversies of the past century into three traditions – common/normal schooling, Essentialism, and Progressivism – that I depict as the main positions in the educational debates of the twentieth century.  This is a simplified view of the past that will hopefully help to clarify the complexities of the present.  In describing the three traditions, I have knowingly assigned to each category people who might be uncomfortable with some of their classmates.  Important differences between people and programs have inevitably been blurred, but I hope that important connections between them have also been highlighted.  I believe these categories reflect important realities that affect the possibilities for educational reform today.

I write this article as a self-styled Progressive and long-time partisan for Progressive causes but my main argument is that Progressives should unite with Essentialists against what I contend is the prevailing common/normal schooling tradition in American education.  This argument is based on a premise that I have adapted from one of my mentors, the late historian Warren Susman.  In discussing the nature and effect of political radicalism in American history, Susman maintained that radicals have been most influential and effective when they followed a strategy of persistently pushing political discussion to the left.  This meant, he said, that during times of liberal hegemony, radicals should criticize liberals and emphasize the differences in their respective programs.  But, during times of conservative hegemony, radicals should ally with liberals in criticizing conservatism.  In arguing that Essentialists and Progressives should make common cause against the common/normal schooling tradition, I am not demeaning or dismissing the significant issues that divide Essentialists from Progressives or pit many of those I have described as Progressives against each other.  I am merely trying to apply Susman’s historical analysis and political wisdom to educational reform.

Henry Adams’ Challenge.

The philosopher George Santayana famously warned that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.  Santayana didn’t promise that studying history would in itself prevent unwanted repetitions, but he thought it would help.  Henry Adams, a contemporary of Santayana, was not so sanguine.  Adams, the great grandson and grandson of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and a celebrated historian, litterateur and leading figure in the power elite of late nineteenth-century America, doubted the ability of most people to learn from history.  In The Education of Henry Adams, a stream-of-ideas autobiography that he wrote in 1905, Adams related his life-long effort to understand historical change in an increasingly dynamic world.

Adams claimed that Western history since the Middle Ages has been governed by a “law of acceleration,” such that people attempting to maintain traditional ways of life only warp past practices while improperly adapting to the present, and end up with the worst aspects of both.  He complained that most people study history to worship the past rather than prepare for the future.  Describing what people later characterized as postmodernism, Adams predicted that social and intellectual change will continue to accelerate during the twentieth century and that concepts with which people of one generation understand the universe will be completely inadequate for the next.  Given this situation, Adams asked, how and what is a teacher to teach?  And what, if anything, does it mean to pursue education?  He concluded that the foolish and the frightened will cling futilely to old ways of thinking and teaching, but the wise will teach themselves and their students to react constructively to the constantly changing world.  Adams challenged educators to rise to the latter but expected they would succumb to the former (Adams 1918/1961, 493, 497-498; Adams 1919/1969, 305-306).

Public education at the turn of the twentieth century generally comported with Adams’ dour expectations.   Following patterns that had been established during the 1840’s in the so-called common schools for elementary students and normal schools for prospective teachers, education was geared primarily toward passing on to the next what was considered the wisdom of the previous generation.  Adhering to what was considered the common sense of education, most schools focused on teaching the 4 R’s – reading, writing, arithmetic and religion, a program designed to acculturate students to the prevailing social system.  In a dynamically changing world, schools were expected to impose social and cultural law and order on students, and the common/normal schooling orthodoxy met these expectations (Butts & Cremin 1953, 545).

There were, however, groups of educators at the turn of the century who eschewed common sense and challenged the common/normal schooling orthodoxy with theories that embraced the dynamics of social and cultural change.  Two of these theories have remained particularly influential to the present day.  The first theory, which came to be known as Essentialism, promotes teaching the modern academic disciplines as a way of plugging students into currents of intellectual change.  Focusing on what students learn, Essentialists are subject matter mavens who want students to become scholars immersed in academic knowledge.  The second theory, Progressivism, focuses on teaching interdisciplinary, problem-solving techniques as a way for students to participate actively in their changing society.  Focusing on how students learn, Progressives are proselytizers for critical thinking who want students to learn how to use knowledge for socially constructive purposes.    Both theories were promoted by their founders as liberal, dynamic alternatives to what they condemned as the conservatism of common/normal schooling methods (Cremin 1961, IX, 328).

Essentialism and Progressivism quickly became the prevailing theories among educational reformers and education professors during the early twentieth century, and most of the most prominent educational innovators over the last one hundred years can be identified with one or the other theory.  Essentialists, for example, include William Bagley, the leading curricularist of the early twentieth century (Kandel 1961, 9-11, 108); Arthur Bestor, whose Educational Wastelands has been called the most influential book on education in mid-century (Cremin 1961, 344); Jerome Bruner, whose theory of “the structures of the disciplines” underlay most movements for curriculum reform during the 1960’s and 1970’s (Jenness 1990, 129); and E.D. Hirsch, whose theories of “cultural literacy” have been highly influential since the 1980’s (Feinberg 1999).

Progressives include John Dewey, perhaps the preeminent educator of modern times (Church & Sedlak 1976, 200); William Kilpatrick, whose “project method” has been almost universally adapted by schools since the 1920’s (Tennenbaum 1951, 88, 108; Church & Sedlak 1976, 379); Benjamin Bloom, whose taxonomy of thinking and methods of “mastery learning” have been widely cited since the 1960’s (Pulliam & Van Patten 1999, 174); and John Goodlad, one of the leading practitioners of school reform and the reform of teacher education over the last half century (Wisniewski 1990).

Educational debate since the early 1900’s has consisted largely of arguments between Essentialists and Progressives in which each side blames the other for the problems of American education and extols its own methods as the solution.  It is a debate that has become almost ritualized in its accusations and responses, with each side blaming the other for the same things and neither side responding to the other’s arguments.  This was highlighted for me recently as I happened across articles by E.D. Hirsch and Walter Feinberg.

In the first article, Hirsch contrasts his proposals for “knowledge-based education,” which is another term for Essentialism, with Progressivism.  Progressivism, in his description, is an elitist system that caters to the best and brightest students at the expense of ordinary students, promotes mindless activity and fragmented learning, and focuses on easy and boring subjects.  Hirsch particularly condemns Kilpatrick’s project method as the epitome of anti-intellectualism.  In contrast, Hirsch describes his own educational program as egalitarian in that it promotes the same curriculum for all students and expects the same results from all students.  He also claims that, given its focus on the academic disciplines, his program is intellectually challenging and coherent.  Hirsch complains that Progressivism dominates American public schools, and blames Progressives for what he sees as the decline of American education since the 1960’s (Hirsch 2002; also, Hirsch 1996).

In the second article, Feinberg, a distinguished, long-time advocate of multicultural education, contrasts his proposals for a reflective thinking pedagogy, which is the core of Progressivism, with Hirsch’s ideas.  In Feinberg’s description, Hirsch is an elitist who caters to the best and brightest students at the expense of ordinary students, promotes mindless memorization of fragmented bits of academic knowledge instead of active learning, and focuses on boring academic abstractions instead of issues of interest and importance to students.  In contrast, Feinberg claims his proposals promote intellectual integrity and democratic citizenship.  Complaining that the methods promoted by Hirsch predominate in American schools, Feinberg blames Essentialists for the problems of American education (Feinberg 1999; also, Feinberg 1998).

Taking the two articles together, Hirsch and Feinberg extol their own positions in almost exactly the same terms, condemn the other’s in almost exactly the same terms, and claim the other’s adherents are running and ruining the American educational system.  Most importantly, neither addresses the common/normal schooling tradition or what I contend is the persistence of common/normal schooling methods in public education.

Studies over the last fifty years have repeatedly indicated that while Essentialists and Progressives dominate the public debate, common schooling methods still predominate in American elementary and secondary schools, and normal schooling methods still prevail in schools of education.  Researchers have estimated that up to ninety percent of teachers today teach ninety percent of their classes in the same way as teachers did in the nineteenth century, and conclude that the reform movements of the twentieth century have at best affected only the periphery of education.  Today, as in the common schools of the 1840’s, most public school curricula are standardized around age-graded textbooks and workbooks, and most classrooms are dominated by teacher-talk, textbook reading, recitation and review, seatwork from worksheets, and tests of recall and basic skills.  And while religion is no longer explicitly promoted, the conformist law and order ethics that underlay religious instruction in nineteenth century schools still prevail (Cuban 1991, 198-200; Sizer 1992, 6; Nelson, Polansky & Carlson 2000, 15).

There have been incremental changes around the edges of education, such as more projects and group work that reflect the influence of Progressivism, and more research assignments that reflect the influence of Essentialism, but these innovations are almost always standardized into routine exercises in basic skills.  Likewise, while there have been dramatic changes in educational technology, from the blackboard, first introduced in the 1840’s, to radios, films, televisions and computers successively introduced during the twentieth century, these technologies have almost always been used in the common school mode to drill facts and basic skills.  In sum, while reform movements have come and gone in almost every decade over the last century, they have generally left only superficial residue, while common school methods still predominate.  The trend in most states over the last fifteen years has been toward even more standardized curricula in the guise of curriculum standards, and more standardized testing and teaching to the test in the guise of academic accountability.  This trend has recently culminated in the federal “No Child Left Behind” act, which attempts to make common school methods the law of the land (Sizer 1992, 210-211; Goodlad 1984, 236, 264; Kliebard 1986, 121; Tyack & Cuban 1995, 7, 9, 121; Sarason 1996; Marshak 2003, 229).

Teacher education also remains basically the same today as in the nineteenth century.  Although the rhetoric of most programs is Essentialist and Progressive, the reality of teacher training is overwhelmingly in normal school methods of lecturing, drilling, standardized curricula and standardized testing.  Programs espousing innovative methods are almost invariably warped by social and political pressures and by the weight of tradition into normal schooling forms.  And few education programs are connected with innovative elementary and secondary schools in which student-teachers can practice creative methods.  As a result, most prospective teachers end up in field placements with common schooling supervisory teachers so that no matter what student-teachers have been taught in their education classes, they are almost invariably socialized into common schooling methods before they graduate (Goodlad 1982, 19; Goodlad 1989, A3; Morrison & Marashall 2003, 292-297).

There have been many efforts to reform teacher education but with little effect.  In what is almost a parody of Santayana’s warning, the same reform proposals come and go every few years, with different names for the same things, and with generally the same outcome that whatever is innovative is trimmed and tamed into a common/normal schooling format.  What is today called performance-based education, for example, used to be called outcome-based education and, before that, competency-based education.  What are today called education school-public school partnerships used to be called public school-education school alliances and, before that, school/university cooperatives.  In almost every generation, old reforms are proposed as radically new ideas, but after a hundred years of tumult, there has been little large-scale or long term change in teacher education (Goodlad 1990, 186-189; Lucas 1997, 84, 89-90).

Although most studies point to the persistence of common/normal schooling methods as the main reason educational reforms fail, Essentialists and Progressives still invariably blame each other.  When Essentialist reforms fail, Essentialists blame it on sabotage by Progressive educators.  When Progressive reforms fail, Progressives blame it on sabotage by Essentialists.  In most cases, however, it is either the successful resistance of the common school orthodoxy or the cooptation of the reforms into a common schooling regimen that has foiled the reformers.  The net result is that American schools have entered the twenty-first century still dominated by nineteenth century methods (Tyack & Cuban 1995, 7).

The purpose of this article is to examine the conflict between Essentialists and Progressives.  Although I am a self-styled Progressive, the article is going to suggest that the differences between Essentialists and Progressives are less significant than their mutual differences with the common/normal schooling methods of education that still predominate in public schools and schools of education.  I will also suggest that the differences between liberal educators and conservative educators are more significant than the differences between Progressives and Essentialists.  The conclusion of the article is that in order for educators finally to respond effectively to Henry Adams’ challenge, and get out from under the doom of Santayana’s prophecy, Essentialists and Progressives must work together to overcome the crippling legacy of common/normal schooling in American education.

Norms of the Normal Schools.

The 1840’s were a major turning point in American education.  Prior to the 1840’s, education was almost entirely private and even public schools required tuition from students.  School attendance was voluntary and generally of brief duration.  Most people worked on farms and it was widely felt that farmers did not require much, if any, formal education.  The industrial revolution changed this situation and common schools were an innovative response to the industrialization, urbanization and immigration of the mid-nineteenth century.

Common schools were free, publicly supported and mandatory, and were intended to provide a common or standardized education for common, ordinary working people.  Their curricula generally focused on the 4 R’s: reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion – Protestant religion.  Their goal was to instill in students, many of whom were the children of Catholic immigrants from peasant backgrounds, the basic skills that would enable them to live peacefully in cities and work productively in factories.  Common schools stressed what were considered the Protestant moral virtues of hard work, obedience, patriotism, temperance, cleanliness and thrift, and were intended to Americanize students into an Anglo-centric mono-culture.

Common schools reflected the innovations of the industrial era and were organized on a factory model, using assembly line teaching methods.  Education before the 1840’s was generally based on the premise that children are inherently wicked and need to be suppressed according to the principle of “spare the rod and spoil the child.”  Common schools were based on what was considered the more humane premise that children are inherently neither good nor bad, and should be treated as raw materials to be molded into good citizens as they moved from one grade to another.  Teachers were seen as skilled mechanics, molding children in specified ways as they passed by on the assembly line.  Rote memorization, routine drilling and recall testing were the most common teaching methods (Katz 1971, 28, 33-38; Tyack 1974, 33-35; Church & Sedlak 1976, 98-100).

Normal schools were established in the mid-nineteenth century to train teachers for the growing number of common schools.  Prior to the 1840’s, teaching had been done largely by college-trained tutors for rich children and semi-literate housewives for ordinary children.  The skills and methods of teachers varied widely.  Normal schools were designed to provide standardized training for teachers who would implement the standardized curricula and methods of the common schools, according to what were considered the “scientific rules” of teaching.  The normal school curriculum focused on the 4 R’s taught in the common schools, plus lesson planning and classroom management.  Normal school teaching methods emphasized rote and routine learning.  Breaking with the punitive nature of prior teaching methods, most normal schools advocated systems of reward rather than punishment as the best form of motivation for student achievement.  Most normal schools had their own practice schools in which prospective teachers could practice on students what they learned in class (Mann 1840/1989, 9, 21, 29; Harper 1939, 31-32; Lucas 1997, 4, 25, 30, 62).

Standardization was the watchword of most normal schools and innovative techniques were invariably reshaped into the common mold.  In the 1840’s and 1850’s, for example, many educators became proponents of Johann Pestalozzi’s object method in which teachers attempted to pique students’ natural curiosity by using real-world objects in their teaching (Pestalozzi 1898, 57, 60, 180, 324).  Although Pestalozzi proposed active and creative learning techniques similar to those later proposed by Progressives, Pestalozzi’s method was quickly degraded in most normal schools to a mechanical technique for rote learning.  Similarly, in the late nineteenth century, many normal schools adopted Johann Herbart’s method of teaching through literature.  Herbart wanted teachers to use literature to focus on the “meaning” of things and the “interests” of students in a manner that also presaged Progressivism (Herbart 1911, 16, 31, 72).  But what Herbart proposed as a creative method was soon reduced to a formulaic five steps of teaching – preparation, presentation, association, generalization, and application – that all teachers were expected to mechanically implement for any subject (Harper 1939, 124-136; Church & Sedlak 1976, 104).

Normal schools varied to some extent by region.  Although they developed first in the Northeast, Midwest schools were often the most innovative.  While Northeastern normal schools focused on the mechanics of teaching with the goal that “the teacher be a good technician,” Midwestern schools frequently emphasizedbartHeH

teachers’ subject matter knowledge and, thereby, presaged Essentialism.  Likewise, Northeastern normal schools organized their practice schools on the model of existing common schools, thereby perpetuating the status quo in teaching, but Midwestern normal schools frequently founded laboratory schools in which teachers could experiment with innovative teaching methods as the Progressives later recommended (Harper 1939, 31-32; Levin 1994, 153-154; Lucas 1997, 29-31, 46).  In general, however, creative methods did not fare well or last long in most normal schools, wherein all things were eventually reduced to a lowest common denominator of curriculum and instruction.

College Forms and Academic Norms.

            Normal school standards generally followed common school norms during the nineteenth century.  Since the goal of the common schools was to transmit basic skills and rudimentary knowledge to children, normal schools trained prospective teachers in the rudimentary knowledge and basic skills they were expected to teach their students.  Normal schools generally attempted to educate teachers to one level above the children they would be teaching, that is, lower grade teachers should have an elementary school education, middle grade teachers a high school education, and high school teachers what we today would consider a junior college education.  This practice did not make for a very highly educated teacher corps, and normal schools struggled from their inception for academic respectability in the educational market (Harper 1939, 129; Lucas 1997, 33).

As high schools proliferated in the late nineteenth century and the demand for high school teachers rose, liberal arts colleges began to view teacher education as a potentially lucrative business.  At the same time, as colleges expanded and accepted increasingly more graduates of public high schools, they developed an interest in the quality of the education their prospective students were getting in the public schools.  As a means of both raising money and raising the educational level of high school graduates, colleges began setting up departments of education, sometimes incorporating already existing normal schools into their institutions.  In turn, faced with competition from liberal arts colleges, normal schools began upgrading themselves into teachers colleges.  As a result of these trends, there were very few avowed normal schools left by the 1930’s.  This process of institutional upgrading continued after World War II when teachers colleges began transforming themselves into full-service liberal arts colleges and universities, with the result that there are very few teachers colleges left today (Harper 1939, 113; Church & Sedlak 1976, 227; Lucas 1997, 35-38, 295).

The process of upgrading teacher education programs was neither smooth nor consistent.  There was considerable opposition from academic faculty within liberal arts colleges to the development of teacher education programs.  Academic professors complained that education professors and students of education were inferior and that education courses were sophomoric.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most education professors were themselves graduates of normal schools and did not have even bachelors’ degrees let alone doctorates.  And many prospective elementary school teachers had not graduated high school.  Hiring standards for education professors and entrance standards for education students steadily rose during the twentieth century but objections by academic professors to the quality of the students, professors and instruction in education programs continue to the present day, even in universities that started as normal schools and teachers colleges (Harper 1939, 102; Lucas 1997, 40, 44).

Essentialism and Progressivism began as efforts to reconcile universities’ academic departments and education programs, and thereby upgrade both teacher education and public school teaching.  Both theories derived from the seminar methods that were introduced from Germany into the academic departments of emerging American universities in the late nineteenth century.  American universities developed as institutions devoted to the practical study of modern academic disciplines, especially the physical and social sciences, as opposed to the classical curriculum of ancient languages, ancient history and philosophy that prevailed in most nineteenth century colleges.  Seminar methods encouraged critical thinking and in-depth discussion of academic subjects, as opposed to the lecture method of transmitting information and ideas that prevailed in most traditional colleges.  Essentialism and Progressivism attempted to translate seminar methods into elementary and secondary school teaching (Bestor 1953, 169-170; Westbrook 1991, 107).

Essentialism stems from the National Education Association’s Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies, chaired by Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University.  In a report issued in 1893, the Committee proposed a high school curriculum, and by inference an elementary curriculum and a program of teacher education, that focuses on the modern academic disciplines.  This is generally considered the founding document of Essentialism and the program around which Essentialists have rallied to the present day.  The Committee rejected both the classical curriculum followed by most of the elite private schools of that day and the standardized materials, tests and teaching methods of the common schools and normal schools.  In promoting the social and physical sciences, the report proposed treating teachers and students as scholars who would conduct in-depth analyses of academic problems.  Although almost all public school curricula from the early 1900’s to the present day have followed the basic format recommended in the 1893 report, Essentialists have perennially complained that the content of school curricula has not matched their form, and generally attributed this disparity to the weakness of teacher education programs.  As a remedy, Essentialists have argued that education programs should be controlled by the academic departments of colleges and universities (Sizer 1964, 209, 264-265; Church & Sedlak 1976, 295, 298, 300; Tanner & Tanner 1980, 232-239; Ravitch 1985, 71; Hirsch 1987, 116).

Progressivism is exemplified by the 1918 National Education Association Report entitled “The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education” which called for a social-centered curriculum and a problem-centered methodology for schools.  The report rejected the standardization and mechanization of common/normal school pedagogy in favor of treating teachers as professionals and students as citizens who engage in real-life decision-making activities.  The report proposed that teachers and students be allowed considerable leeway in their curricula and methodologies.  It intended teacher education programs to be jointly developed by academic departments and education schools.  From the 1920’s to the present day, Progressivism has been the professed theory, but not often the practice, of most schools of education (Cremin 1961, 4; Tanner & Tanner 1980, 276-278; Goodlad 1990, 187-189).

Essentialism and Progressivism share many key principles that distinguish them both from common/normal schooling.  Both are based on the premise that basic skills, the primary goal of common/normal schools, are necessary but not sufficient for either teachers or students.  Both contend that teachers can and should teach academic subject matter and higher level thinking skills to children starting in the earliest grades.  Both insist that most students are best taught through creative and critical thinking, rather than through recitation and drill.  And both contend that standardized textbooks, tests, workbooks and other standardized teaching methods should be used only as supplementary tools.  In sum, while common/normal schoolers regard creative activities as at most supplementary to their primary methods of recitation and drill, Essentialists and Progressives promote creative activities and critical thinking as their primary methods, supplemented with recitation and drill when necessary.

Essentialists and Progressives regard teaching as a creative exercise for teachers and students alike, unlike common/normal schoolers who view teaching through the lens of nineteenth century positivism.  In common/normal schooling practice, science is regarded primarily as a set of rules and results rather than an experimental process, and scientific teaching is seen as implementing formulaic methods.  Essentialists and Progressives generally regard teaching as a scientific method itself in which lesson plans are merely hypotheses, tentative proposals to solve pedagogical problems that can be modified as they are implemented.  Teaching is science in the making, not ready-made.

Essentialists and Progressives also insist that it is not enough for teachers to be merely an academic step ahead of their students but that all teachers, and especially lower grade teachers, must be academically well prepared.  The lower the grade level, and the less skilled and knowledgeable the students, the more teachers must know to be able to translate and discuss complex subjects with their fledgling students.  For Essentialists and Progressives, the primary purpose of a college education for teachers is to develop disciplinary and interdisciplinary expertise that will take them and their students beyond basic skills and rudimentary knowledge.  While the two theories differ somewhat in their emphases – Essentialists focusing on knowledge of the separate disciplines and Progressives focusing on interdisciplinary problem-solving – both stress academic learning and promote the integrity and independence of academic departments.  In sum, they would seem to have much in common and a common cause.

Parting of the Ways.

            Part 1: Politics.  Although there were differences between Essentialism and Progressivism from the start, the differences were not so great that a person could not be an adherent of both.  Essentialism was initially the product of college professors from elite universities and was intended for college-bound, middle-class students.  Hence it’s intellectual emphasis on scholarship and the academic disciplines.  Progressivism was largely a product of public school teachers and was initially intended primarily for working class students who would be lucky to graduate high school.  Hence it’s emphasis on problem-solving and practical thinking.  These intellectual differences were not, however, as divisive as they have become.  Charles Eliot, an early founder of what became the Essentialist program, was also the first chairperson of the Progressive Education Association in 1919 (Cremin 1961, 240).  John Dewey, who succeeded Eliot as head of the Progressive Education Association, spoke out forcefully about the importance of teaching the academic disciplines (Dewey 1938, 2, 12-13, 80, 83, 95, 99, 109).  So, what happened?  How can one explain the parting of the ways of these two movements?  I think that in addition to their intellectual differences, a variety of political and institutional factors drove them apart.

Politically, Progressives and Essentialists polarized as they competed for the attention of educators, and both sides succumbed to extremism, exaggeration and alliances based on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.  Extremists in both camps took control of the debate and defined each camp’s view of the other in the most pejorative terms.  This is exemplified in the characterization of Progressivism by E.D. Hirsch as “anti-knowledge” and by Diane Ravitch as “a cult” that appeals to “below-average students” (Hirsch 1996, 3; Ravitch 1983, 79-80).  In turn, Progressives have characterized Essentialism as “an academic utopia” that appeals to professors but denigrates students (Trow 1954, 21).  Each side sets up the other as a straw man and then knocks him down, which may be personally satisfying but resolves little.

Excessive partisanship has sometimes led otherwise reputable scholars to exaggerate and even misrepresent their evidence in order to make political points.  Arthur Bestor, for example, was a meticulous historian whose research methods were considered a model of thoroughness and objectivity (Clark 1950, 282).  In his polemical writings against Progressivism, however, he resorted to personal attacks and unsubstantiated claims which he was forced to admit were erroneous but then justified on the grounds that political debate did not have to meet the same high standards as historical scholarship (Bestor 1955, 438-447).  Similarly, Diane Ravitch, a disciple of Bestor, is a highly regarded historian who is capable in her historical works of objectively appreciating the good intentions of Progressives and the effectiveness of their teaching methods even as she criticizes Progressive curricula (Ravitch 1985, 74, 81).  But in her polemical writings, she too seems to abandon historical objectivity in favor of scoring political points.  For example, in her recent attacks on the “language police” who she claims are censoring textbooks,  Ravitch rails against present-day Progressives based almost entirely on stale examples of a small group of overzealous feminists and civil rights activists during the 1960’s and 1970’s (Ravitch 2003, 14-16).  She seems, thereby, to rule out any reasonable engagement or reconciliation with Progressives.

Although Progressives have been more sinned against than sinners, especially in recent decades, they have, nonetheless, been guilty of similar excesses.  Progressives, for example, tried to have articles by Bestor excluded from educational journals during the 1950’s on the spurious grounds that he was anti-education.  And Harold Hand, a noted Progressive education professor at the University of Illinois, tried to stop the University of Illinois Press from publishing one of Bestor’s books on the misbegotten grounds that Bestor was anti-democratic (Brickman 1953, 154; Hand 1954, 27).

Progressives and Essentialists promote their separate myths of a “golden age” of schooling in which the others play the spoiler role of serpents in the garden.  Successive generations of Essentialists, viewing their childhoods through rosy lenses and their middle age through a glass darkly, have complained about the downfall of public schooling since their youth and blamed Progressivism for the calamity.  Mortimer Adler, for example, bemoaned the degraded condition of public schooling in the 1930’s compared to the education he had received during the early 1900’s (Adler 1939/1988, 78).  But then Arthur Bestor complained in the 1950’s about the decline of public schools since what he claimed was their heyday in the 1930’s (Bestor 1955, 140).  And E.D. Hirsch complained in the 1980’s about the decline of the schools since what he saw as their high point in the 1950’s (Hirsch 1987, 1-4).  United only in blaming the decline of public education on Progressivism, each of these Essentialists identified the other’s low point as his high point, and each pointed to a different decade as the date of the alleged Progressive takeover of the schools – Adler the 1920’s and 1930’s, Bestor the 1940’s and 1950’s, and Hirsch the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Although these claims are inconsistent to the point of absurdity, successive generations of Progressives have similarly blamed Essentialists for the all of the ills of the schools (Rugg 1926, 30, 39, 67-68; Burnett 1954, 74; Engle & Ochoa 1988, 107-108).

Essentialists and Progressives also have made political alliances with political conservatives that exacerbated their differences while weakening the integrity of their respective positions.  Historically, most prominent Essentialists have identified themselves as political liberals, including Charles Eliot, William Bagley, Arthur Bestor, Jerome Bruner, E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch, and promoted Essentialism as part of their liberal agenda.  During the 1930’s, for example, Bagley advocated teaching the liberal academic disciplines in order to promote liberal social goals, including a cooperative economy and a comprehensive system of social welfare, and to combat the rise of fascism in America (Bagley 1934, 33, 120-122; Bagley 1937, 73).  Bestor, a disciple of Bagley, argued during the 1950’s that teaching the liberal disciplines would help foster social democracy and defeat McCarthyism (Bestor 1952, 4; Bestor 1953 25-39; Bestor 1955a, 18).  Hirsch, a disciple of Bagley and Bestor, has argued since the 1980’s that studying the academic disciplines is the “only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children” and the best way to make America a more liberal and just society (Hirsch 1987, XIII; Hirsch 1996, 16).

These same Essentialists have, however, frequently joined with conservatives in their monomania to defeat Progressivism.  During the 1950’s, Bestor joined with Mortimer Smith, an avowed Social Darwinist and political reactionary, to form the Council on Basic Education, hoping to outflank Progressives through such an alliance (Smith 1949, 90-92; Cremin 1961, 546).  During the 1980’s, Ravitch worked in the Reagan administration and is currently a trustee of the arch-conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  Meanwhile, Hirsch has recently proclaimed that “after six decades of anti-knowledge extremism” from Progressives, he is going to become an extremist himself and join with anybody who will oppose Progressivism in the education wars (Hirsch 1997, 7, 126).

Toward this end, both Hirsch and Ravitch have recently supported the onerous testing provisions of the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) act.  Under NCLB, elementary students in grades three through eight will be tested every year in reading, math and, eventually, science, with schools penalized unless test scores rise substantially every year.  Although Hirsch and Ravitch generally concede that standardized tests do not reflect the kind of in-depth knowledge that Essentialists desire, and that Essentialism works best with the sort of low-stakes portfolios promoted by Progressives as an alternative to high-stakes tests, they, like their mentor Bestor, support standardized testing seemingly both as a means of measuring and, thereby, promoting students’ academic subject matter knowledge and as a means of thwarting Progressives who oppose standardized tests.

Political conservatives, such as William Bennett and Allen Bloom, have taken advantage of the Essentialist-Progressive conflict to promote their culture wars against what they claim is “the prevailing liberal orthodoxy” in America by supporting the Essentialist cause.  They hope to use Essentialism as a vehicle for reinstating the system of elite schools for the few and common schools for the many that prevailed in the nineteenth century, and the Anglo-centered mono-culture that was taught in those schools.  Citing Bagley and Bestor as predecessors and claiming Hirsch and Ravitch as allies, Bennett and Bloom advocate an educational system in which ordinary students will be taught the 3 R’s plus moral education (essentially the 4 R’s of the common schools) while only the best and brightest will pursue academic subjects in depth.  Other conservatives cite Essentialism as a rationale for privatizing schools and returning to the pre-common school system of the early nineteenth century, or cite Essentialist arguments in favor of greater academic content in the school curriculum as support for proposals for indoctrinating students with politically conservative ideas.  These are very different goals than those proclaimed by Bagley, Bestor, Ravitch and Hirsch (Bennett 1984, 6; Bennett 1991, 1-3; Bloom 1987, 25-43; Rochester 2003, 19, 21, 27).

Progressives have made similar alliances with conservatives, although not as frequently and rarely in recent decades.  While the most prominent Progressives have been politically liberal, from John Dewey to William Kilpatrick, Harold Rugg, George Counts, Theodore Brameld, Benjamin Bloom and John Goodlad, there have also been self-styled Progressives such as Edward Thorndike, whose support for intelligence testing and standardized achievement testing led him to elitist theories of  society and education that contravene mainstream Progressivism.  Like conservative Essentialists, Thorndike advocated critical thinking for the best and brightest students and social control for ordinary children.  And he developed so-called scientific rules for teaching that were basically a more sophisticated version of the standardized methods promoted in nineteenth century normal schools (Church & Seldak 1976, 334).  Allies such as Thorndike were worse than enemies for Progressives.  In characterizing themselves as Progressives, Thorndike and his followers merely provided ammunition for self-styled liberal Essentialists such as Ravitch and Hirsch. (Ravitch 1983, 56; Ravitch 1985 14).

Progressivism has also often been used by common/normal schoolers as a cover for their anti-intellectual practices, most frequently by citing Progressive “child-centered” methods as an excuse for adopting academically and intellectually empty curricula.  And there has been a tendency among Progressives to defend this sort of incompetence on the grounds that any criticism of schools or school teachers undermines support for public education, a tactic that has left Progressivism open to well-deserved ridicule (Eklund 1954, 350).  Arthur Bestor, for example, liked to tell the story of a junior high school principal who claimed on Progressive grounds that since most people work with their hands, not every child needs to learn how to read and write (Bestor 1953, 54-56).  E.D. Hirsch tells a similar story of a self-styled Progressive elementary school principal who claimed that since most people don’t travel, children don’t need to learn geography (Hirsch 1996, 55).  In recent years, we have heard so-called Progressives who, in the name of holistic learning, won’t teach their students the multiplication tables in math or the structure of words and sentences in reading.  In sum, the tendency of Essentialists to join with political reactionaries and Progressives to defend extremists has significantly exacerbated their differences with each other.

Part 2: Institutions.  The differences between Essentialism and Progressivism have also been exacerbated by institutional factors, especially the pervasiveness of common/normal schooling practices in public schools and schools of education which has warped both Essentialist and Progressive reforms and, thereby, lent support to each side’s criticisms of the other.  Among Progressive reforms, for example, Kilpatrick’s project method, which he intended as a vehicle for creativity among teachers and students, quickly devolved in most public schools into just another standardized routine, codified in textbooks and teaching packages as either a means of drilling students in basic skills or a meaningless activity about which Essentialists such as Hirsch justifiably complain (Church & Sedlak 1976, 381).

Similarly, Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive skills, which he developed during the 1950’s as a means of promoting critical thinking and creative teaching, was soon reduced in most public schools and schools of education to a standardized lesson-planning format for teachers with nary a critical or creative piece.  While Bloom emphasized that critical thinking in students could only be taught through critical thinking by teachers, schools of education regularly misrepresent recitation and recall as critical thinking, and textbook publishers routinely supplement their textbooks and workbooks with so-called analytical and critical thinking questions that are merely recall by another name (Bloom et al. 1956; Brown 1998, 1, 4, 15; Marshall 2003, 195-196).

Bloom’s program of “mastery learning” suffered the same fate.  Developed during the 1960’s to help teachers in low income school districts who teach large classes of educationally disadvantaged children, mastery learning was designed as a whole-class method of teaching basic skills.  Bloom emphasized that mastery learning is not an educational panacea.  He cautioned that it is not applicable to creative subjects or critical thinking and it is not as effective as either tutoring students individually or teaching them in small groups.  Despite his warnings, Bloom’s proposal was quickly reduced to a seven-step formula by Madeline Hunter, who advertises her program as effective for all subjects and skills.  Reminiscent of the five-step formula to which Herbart’s theories of creative learning were reduced in the late nineteenth century, Hunter’s seven steps have been widely adopted as a blueprint by public schools and schools of education and reduced to bullet-points in teaching textbooks and model lesson plans, a blueprint that has little room for creative or critical thinking (Bloom 1976, 5, 21, 41, 105, 200; Hunter 1973, 97; Humter 1977, 100; Hunter 1985, 58; Brandt 1985, 61; Freer & Dawson 1987, 68; Gibbony 1987, 47-48).

In a similar fashion, John Goodlad’s experiments in whole-school reform during the 1970’s, predicated on bottom-up cooperative action by parents, students and teachers, have been misused to justify top-down, state-mandated reforms since the 1990’s, one of the most serious and ominous misuses of an erstwhile Progressive reform (Goodlad 1975, 5, 152, 177, 209; Goodlad, 1997).  In the wake of NCLB, the language of whole-school reform and student/teacher empowerment has been co-opted to promote the whole-sale reorganization of schools to raise standardized test scores.  In a recent book that exemplifies this trend, Eugene Kennedy notes that the most difficult task is to convince skeptical students and teachers that teaching to the test is real learning.  His proposed reforms are common/normal schooling practices in participatory democratic wrappings (Kennedy 2003).

Essentialism has also been deformed by the hegemony of common/normal school practices, and is almost invariably reduced to a list of common facts and basic skills that ostensibly represent the core of the academic disciplines.  This conflict between Essentialist ideals and practices is exemplified by E.D. Hirsch’s writings.  In his best-reasoned theoretical statements, Hirsch rejects what I have described as common/normal schooling and shares many key positions with Progressives.  He opposes drill and recitation as boring and rigid, and explicitly supports Progressive methods of active learning.  He rejects ethnocentric curricula and explicitly supports multicultural education.  He opposes emphasizing basic skills and rudimentary knowledge, and promotes a combination of skills, academic knowledge and problem-solving.  He promotes the idea of the teacher as a “guide” rather than dictator.  Most significant, the curricular guidebooks that Hirsch has prepared for elementary school teachers incorporate multicultural materials and multiple perspectives, and emphasize creative and critical thinking of sorts that are consistent with Progressive theories and practices (Hirsch 1987, 125; Hirsch 1993; Hirsch 1996, 102, 150, 174).

At the same time, in his polemical statements against Progressivism, Hirsch essentially caricatures his own ideas, reducing his proposed curricula to arbitrary lists of facts and ideas that he claims everyone needs to be familiar with, even if they do not understand them, and promoting the rote memorization of these lists on the ostensible grounds that children like to memorize things.  Calling for nationally standardized lists and tests, and promoting the NCLB, he would seemingly make common schooling the law of the land.  Hirsch’s is almost a Doctor Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde performance (Hirsch 1987, 14, 30, 131, 141).

What is to be done?

It has frequently been said that education during the twentieth century was a battle between Dewey and Thorndike, and Thorndike won (Levin 1994, 6).  This is another way of saying that despite all the sound and fury of the Essentialists and Progressives, it was common/normal schooling practices that prevailed.  A variety of political and institutional factors have contributed to this outcome.

Politically, it is very hard to displace a long-time hegemonic theory such as common/normal schooling, especially when that hegemony is supported by powerful groups of educators who are satisfied with the status quo – what Arthur Bestor and other critics have called “the interlocking group” of education professors, school teachers and state education officials who set the standards and requirements for public schools and schools of education.  Trying to organize an opposition to these groups is an uphill struggle (Bestor 1953, 101; Ravitch 1985, 94).

Common/normal schooling also has political appeal to conservatives who are afraid of change and to reactionaries who want to go back to the nineteenth century.  Essentialism expects teachers and students to work on the frontiers of knowledge, with cutting edge ideas that will inherently foster change.  Progressivism expects teachers and students to work on solving social problems and making cultural innovations which may also lead to change.  As such, Essentialism and Progressivism seem dangerous to many people – parents, teachers, administrators, politicians – including many who say they are in favor of innovative methods but do not practice what they preach (Goodlad 1984, 236).

Institutionally, it is difficult to overcome the inertia of a longstanding set of practices such as common/normal schooling, which are to many the common sense of education.  To suggest any change is to risk getting the bewildered response “But we’ve always done it that way” or “But everybody does it that way.”  Trying to convince people to adopt alternative methods can seem a Sisyphean task (Sarason 1971, 4, 19).

Common/normal schooling also has the popular appeal of standardization, which is widely seen as the common sense of an industrial society and bureaucratic system.  Standardized curricula, teaching methods and testing seem the safe way to do things, to impose order on a situation that could otherwise be messy.  Standardization also responds to the imperial urge to impose what you see as the one best system on everyone else (Tyack 1974, 4, 197, 238).

But common schooling methods cripple students and teachers, and normal schooling methods warp schools of education and the universities that house them.  Common schooling cripples students because in a society as dynamic as ours, children cannot merely follow in their parents’ footsteps.  The most important skill they need to learn is how to think critically and reflectively about themselves and their world, so that they can creatively and effectively respond to change.  Although studies indicate that students will do as well on standardized tests if you teach them well – according to Essentialist and/or Progressive methods – as if you teach them to the test, most public school and school of education administrators scurry to the common schooling mode in the face of standardized testing requirements (Kohn 2000).

Common schooling cripples teachers by depriving them of the opportunity to make professional choices and by forcing them to use so-called teacher-proof materials and methods, the sorts of things that anyone can use without having to know very much.  The persistence of common schooling reflects a profound disparagement of teachers and their potential to act as professionals, as people capable of making informed decisions of their own.

Common schooling methods also contribute to the chronic problem of teacher drop-out which has plagued school systems since the nineteenth century.  From the 1840’s to the present day, some fifty percent of teachers regularly leave the profession within five years of entering.  Boredom has consistently been cited by ex-teachers as one of the main reasons they left education.  Using the same textbooks and workbooks, teaching the same basic skills in the same ways over and over, without any impetus and little opportunity for intellectual growth, can become very stale after a very few years.  And when teachers get bored, they generally get boring and then their students get bored, and that leads to trouble.  Although Essentialist and Progressive methods require somewhat more intellectual effort from teachers, creative and critical thinking are generally more interesting to teachers and students alike and, as such, less draining.  Using Essentialist and Progressive methods, teachers can spend more time teaching and less time disciplining their students – and less time ruing the day they decided to become teachers (Bagley 1937, 81; Bagley & Alexander 1937, 6; Notebook 2003, 3).

Normal schooling methods turn schools of education and the universities that house them into glorified trade schools churning out low-level technicians instead of educating scholars and professionals.  While Essentialists and Progressives seek to elevate school teachers closer to the status of college professors, normal school practices tend to reduce college professors to the status of elementary school teachers.  To the extent that standardization is the goal of teacher education programs, professors will be subject to petty-bureaucratic controls of their courses and their teaching, and not merely the education professors.

In most universities today, academic departments are expected to offer lower level versions of their courses and programs for prospective school teachers, or to support so-called general education degrees for teachers, which are usually smorgasbords of introductory courses that are neither in-depth in any discipline nor reflectively interdisciplinary, and in which students study a little bit about everything but all too often learn a lot about nothing.  The normal school rationale offered for degrading academic programs in this way is that teachers do not have to know much about anything.  They only need to know a bit more than their students, just enough to follow the directions in the teachers’ manual and stay a chapter ahead in the teachers’ edition of the textbook, the one with the answers in the back.  This is a demeaning program for academic professors as well as teacher educators (Rhodes 1998, 144).

So, where do we go from here?  As a self-styled Progressive, I have for many years regarded Essentialists as at best wrong and more generally wrong-headed.  At the same time, I have sometimes found myself secretly agreeing with some of their statements – academic knowledge is good, academic disciplines are productive ways of organizing knowledge, and knowledge of the disciplines can be useful.  I have usually kept these thoughts to myself but have finally decided that reconciliation between Essentialism and Progressivism is possible and necessary.

The recently enacted NCLB seeks through its onerous testing provisions to codify common/normal schooling permanently into federal law.  But this act may go too far – the havoc it threatens to reek seems likely to cut across social and economic lines and to stir opposition from many quarters.  As such, while there may be educators such as Hirsch and Ravitch who are too long committed to the education wars to accept reconciliation, I believe that there is good reason and reasonable hope for Essentialists and Progressives to work together to meet Henry Adams’ challenge and finally end the persistence of common/normal schooling in America.





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