Has progressivism lost the path home?

Conor Williams at Front Page Republic offers a critique of progressivism at this historical moment that might be useful to English teachers. He argues that faith in centralized bureaucracy has overwhelmed the progressive ideals of strong, democratic communities. This insight should resonate with teachers buffeted by the frequent dopiness of No Child Left Behind and similar federal attempts to fix schools by nationalizing them.

Progressives since (at the very least) Claude Bowers have struggled to square their egalitarian ideals with their faith in bureaucratic solutions to political problems. Like Thomas Jefferson, many progressives admired the civic republicanism and solidarity of strong, local, democratic communities. In the early twentieth-century, scientific advances helped to fuel rapid economic and industrial changes that undercut the stability and existence of many of these communities. Political institutions struggled to adapt to the new conditions. Many progressives argued that the scientific study of politics would indicate potentially fruitful avenues for democratic reforms. They simultaneously argued that the power dynamics of industrial capitalism were threatening the democratic principle of equality before the law. In a word, they advocated reform by experts in order to reinvigorate the political participation of all citizens. As many have noted, from John Dewey and Herbert Croly to Christopher Lasch and Wilson Carey McWilliams to E.J. Dionne and Patrick Deneen, this tension has been more or less pronounced in progressive politics since the early twentieth century, but it is clear that current progressives prefer technocracy to populism.

. . .More importantly, progressives must re-learn to advocate for community self-determination, and work to link political activity on this level to national politics. As I’ve suggested above, this will necessarily mean much more than rhetorical repositioning. Progressives need to do more than just talk about community strength and solidarity. They need to begin looking for policy-driven ways to materially encourage the development of these local ties, and then they need to build links between local and national politics. While progressives need not wholly abandon their traditional formula of a strong “Hamiltonian” national politics in pursuit of “Jeffersonian” egalitarian ends, they do need a renewed focus on the Jeffersonian side. This won’t mean a complete re-invention of the progressive agenda, but it will require some introspection.

via Mobilizing on the Left: Progressivism, Populism, and the Language of Political Salvation | Front Porch Republic.

For education, there may be a strong federal role in gathering data, through testing and other means. A high-quality national data base has a thousand uses. The key is to leave local districts (or preferably, individual buildings) to make decisions based on that data. Communities that are governed from afar become little more than colonies of the imperial center. Attending school board meetings in the NCLB era is to find local communities reduced to compliance, their ability to innovate or respond intelligently to local opportunities greatly diminished.

The ability to write well, once the prima facie evidence of an educated person, doesn’t count for much in most state and national testing schemes. Scoring essays is time-consuming, which means it is costly. When writing is assessed, as in the Advanced Placement program, students are charged a hefty fee to participate and the writing is kept short and simple by being timed. No testing program assesses lengthy essays, researched and revised over weeks–which is to say that the sort of writing most necessary for college or career success is ignored.

Will Fitzhugh at The Concord Review, which publishes lengthy research papers written by  high school students, laments the inattention to serious writing (and to the serious reading of nonfiction) he sees in the new national standards:

The new national standards are too timid to recommend that high school students read complete history (or other nonfiction) books, or that high school students should write serious research papers, like the Extended Essays required for the International Baccalaureate Diploma.

. . .The nonfiction readings suggested in the new national standards, such as The Declaration of Independence, Letter From Birmingham Jail, and one chapter (column) from The Federalist Papers, would not tax high school students for more than an hour, much less time than they now spend on Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and the like. What would the equivalent be for college preparation in math: long division? decimals?

High school graduates who arrive at college without ever having read a complete nonfiction book or written a serious term paper, even if they are not in remedial courses (and more than one million are each year, according to the Diploma to Nowhere report), start way behind their IB and private school peers academically, when it comes to reading and writing at the college level.

Having national standards which would send our high school graduates off to higher education with no experience of real term papers and no complete nonfiction books doesn’t seem the right way to make it likely that they will ever get through to graduation.

via  Incomplete Standards | The Concord Review

I agree that more should be done with nonfiction, research-based writing. My advice to local schools would be to require a senior project for graduation, the basis of which would be an extended essay. I would encourage many of these to focus on local topics, where high schoolers truly can contribute important new research. This also supports a broader array of research skills, including interviewing and first-hand observation.

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