Commentary Magazine


Retreat from Learning, by Joan Dunn

Progressive Education
by Arthur J. Brodbeck
Retreat from Learning. By Joan Dunn. David McKay. 224 pp. $3.00.

While discussing William Dean Howells, Lionel Trilling remarked, somewhat disapprovingly, that nothing in America is quite as dead as an American future of a few decades back. Progressive education today partakes of some of that “dead” quality American futures acquire when they age. Perhaps we need to extend toward it some of the same generosity Professor Trilling has recently shown Howells and, in similar fashion, resuscitate a “fading and remote” viewpoint in order to conserve the useful and “living” in it. Certainly, it is disheartening to see another good ideal gone wrong—if progressive education has indeed gone wrong—when we feel all about us, in both literature and life, a shrinking away from the adventurous and large-scale humanitarian visions of yesteryear. Still, all the talk about “educating the whole child” does seem a little over-vague and inadequate now, and the textbook jargon of the educators seems more like jargon than ever—and also a little like whistling in the dark. Time and events have forced us to ask for a more operative, more complex, and more stimulating set of ideas about education.

Retreat from Learning might have provided such a set of ideas, and nearly does. Miss Dunn, once a New York City high school teacher and now working in the editorial department of Time, has made out of a legitimate and arresting quarrel with the progressive educators a kind of St. George and the Dragon tale. Her book is formula writing—one suspects someone whispered in her ear that manuscripts which fan people’s guilt and ire, rather than fire their reason, have larger sales. Yet the author knows what she is talking about, even when the formula doesn’t quite manage to force her to be articulate, and her book moves one to do a little dispassionate digging into some of the underpinnings of, not only progressive education, but social science too.

She indicts progressive education primarily for what she implies to be its lax definition of permissiveness: the complete removal of the reins of mature guidance and control, the romantic conception of the child’s best thought as the purest expression of an autonomous “will.” Miss Dunn sees no great advantage in pretending to locate great wisdom in the words of pupils who have never taken time out to discover what they were talking about; in responding to youthful indifference and scorn with a barrage of affection; in giving high reward for what both child and adult know is failure. She feels there are elements of masochism and hypocrisy in all this that children cannot help but sense and take advantage of; and it leads inevitably to habits of mediocrity and contempt that the hard. Against this concept of permissiveness, Miss Dunn argues for a balance of power—although she does not speak in such general terms. Adults need to re-establish their proper standing among the young; they need to share power with the immature, not usurp it, and certainly not abdicate from it. Obviously, the theme extends much beyond educational matters to general theories of democracy in every area of human relations; but the author looks into the home and general community only hurriedly as she dashes wildly for a climax in which she begs for a return to better days and ways.

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Miss Dunn’s ideas about discipline follow directly from her insinuated balance-of-power idea. She relates that as a teacher she maintained discipline only to create order, the order necessary to teach, and not to remove the self-esteem of members of the class. As a matter of fact, she was a determined champion of the individual teen-ager against the incursions of the “group mind.” By ignoring or refusing whatever support the class might wish to give her when she was disciplining one of them, she maintained her independence from the group. Her insistence on being respected in her own terms and language, not theirs, was meant to arouse confidence and trust in each student that she would never run with the herd-pack against them. (“I speak my language, they speak theirs.”) As teacher, then, she was not just another class member—a sentimentalized “buddy”—who enforced group decisions.

Miss Dunn sees great danger in exposing an immature mind to a weak and vacillating adult who, because of irrational guilt and anxiety he may feel towards youngsters, is too ready to make concessions to the group, and too eager to have it voice its democratic vote. A group decision, she insists, has to be informed of all the alternatives that it has not yet discovered, and understand them too, before it can be said to be “democratic.” An adult’s problem is to confront the peer group with the appropriate alternatives despite the resistance and effort involved, to share enlightenment rather than abdicate power. Children turn away from indecisive adults with dissatisfaction at what is missing; and they are thrown upon themselves and each other prematurely without first being given instances of confident, mature people with whom they can identify. Without such an experience, a child’s only strength comes from group identification. Group fashion and style begin to replace the independent soul-searching for principles and meaning in life. Ironically, Miss Dunn quite rightly sees a regime of total permissiveness as serving only further to separate the mature from the immature, the adult from the child. Her mission, she feels, is to try and close the gap.

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All this is to the good. It epitomizes what thoughtful people have been saying quietly (unlike Miss Dunn, who sometimes adopts the clowning style and dramatic license of the agitator) at various points and places in our modern life. Furthermore, there is nothing in it which seems utterly incompatible with most of the principles of progressive education—certainly not with the intent of Deweyism. Indeed, there are many places in the book where the author meekly indicates that she might have been led to her present position through her own intelligent re-interpretation and use of progressive principles. There are always wide spaces between theory and practice, however, and the activities of teachers may have turned progressive theory into meaningless rituals. If so, Miss Dunn’s book, along with those of Arthur Bestor and Rudolph Flesch (whose book on the teaching of reading was reviewed by Spencer Brown in August 1955 commentary), serves a purpose by arousing guilt—if indeed we ever learn anything important by being made to entertain severe guilt feelings. (Much in the contemporary “assault” on educators, however justified, might by its tone of disrespect make for defensiveness and fright on the part of those attacked, and thus for an even greater unwillingness than before to heed well-meaning criticism.)

It is unfortunate that Miss Dunn prejudices her case by completely ignoring all sociological insight because she identifies social science (against which she has a kind of pseudoaesthetic prejudice anyhow) in toto with her version of progressive theory. Thus she does not consider the possibility that her own teaching experience might have been quite different in a superior suburban school; and she forgets conveniently that her all-girl practice-teaching class did not seem to disturb her belief in progressive education—it took a school in a “tough” New York neighborhood to do that. And she just barely breathes a suspicion that some of her worst youngsters may have come from homes where adults did usurp all the power, without extending anything in return.

She turns, in much the same spirit, towards social and educational psychology. Experiments designed, for example, to discover whether children should be taught words before letters, or letters before words, are dismissed with curious contempt; teachers will do what they have always been doing anyway! As a matter of fact, she tells us elsewhere that teaching is an “art” for which people are “born,” a patently false notion about the inheritance of abilities that allows her to justify her contempt for experiments in teaching matters and the knowledge they breed. Another biased notion moves her to declare—if I understand her rightly—that chronic disciplinary cases and lagging learners should be taken out of school, although it is not made clear where else they are to go. Some children are just not educable or, I suppose, are not “born to be educated.” Moreover, Miss Dunn deplores the mental hygiene movement in the schools because it makes the problem child the “man of the hour.”

Yet a large number of the experiments in education are worthwhile because they help clarify and objectify controversial and puzzling questions surrounded with emotional prejudices. Something has to be done about children who have emotional disorders which inhibit intellectual growth. And some knowledge of techniques by which to hold children’s attention and interest as well as promote more effective communication between teacher and pupil is absolutely essential in teaching. Quite clearly, Miss Dunn does not want a return to ruler-slapping and schoolmarm hauteur, but she often grazes such alternatives as she moves away from the reporting of her own experiences toward hastily drawn generalizations. And surely much of what she says borders on the kind of authoritarian muddle-headedness that progressive education arose to combat in the first place. To revive that would hardly be to restore a “balance of power.”

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