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A Word of Protest


by Lou La Brant - 1972

Author suggests a rereading of educational articles written by progressive'' reformers in the 1920's and 30's, to profit from earlier experiences. (Source: ERIC)

Nowhere are the contradictions of our age more evident than in the field of education. We have continued emphasis on use of visual and auditory aids and a lessening of dependence on print, but no lessening in the spate of books and articles advocating changes in education. If no one reads, why write? Experts deal at length with individualizing education, the open school, a school without walls, the English plan, informality in general, better communication, and closer pupil-teacher relations. Titles vary and programs overlap in design, but while the advocates continue to write many pages, they themselves appear hesitant about reading. A little more time spent with other people's pages would surely tell them that many procedures they offer as new and experimental were (under slightly different captions) not only advocated but put into operation, tested, sometimes proved good and sometimes rejected—all of this during the twenties and thirties of the present century. No one would ask them to go as far back as Emile.

Perhaps present-day writers are frightened by the label "progressive" which was attached to much of those twenty years of experimentation. With the advent of World War II, the end of those twenty years, our nation suddenly turned to old-time procedures. We were, of course, dominated by the military, and were too busy with the war to read the careful evaluations which were just being completed. Moreover, the new programs were (and would still be) more expensive than formal instruction attached to sets of texts, with large classes and minimal equipment. A further factor was the drain of young people (essential to a new movement) into the war effort. The McCarthy era gave a final blow. The "progressive" movement became associated with a lack of responsibility, sometimes dubbed "permissive" treatment, and hence the whole movement was either lost or discredited.

Whatever the causes of the return to conformity, serious educators today should go beyond labels, for there is abundant literature dealing with the processes and plans they advocate. It is unfortunate that some of our more prominent writers seem to have assumed that significant literature is restricted to their own period—a natural but not too encouraging attitude.

Today's writers do, of course, refer frequently to John Dewey and his philosophy. They seldom mention—indeed they seem not to have discovered— the scores of classroom teachers who made practical application of these theories. Many elementary schools introduced projects in which children helped to plan, execute, and evaluate undertakings of significance to them and to their society. I recall one junior high school group that studied its own small town, found a serious situation, and persuaded the city fathers to extend the sewage system to an underprivileged area.

Usually the projects were not without some direction or suggestion, but the specific undertaking, its level of interest, and the formulation of questions came directly from the students, and the resulting work offered them not only development of specific skills in reading, writing, numbers, and social responsibility, but gave them the additional highly important experience of thinking critically (on their mental level) about what they had accomplished and how one goes about learning anything. The general movement of involving students in planning their own education concerned all ages, and not the elementary school only. New programs ranged from those at the Bank Street School to curricular approaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

A number of journals and yearbooks of national organizations are informative. On the secondary level, the most elaborate of experiments was known as The Eight Year Study or sometimes The Thirty School Experiment. There were also The Stanford Language Arts Investigation, The Southern Study, and a host of smaller but thoughtful attempts at basic change. Many private schools joined the movement; a few continue to be experimental today. Many universities sponsored experimental summer programs for teacher observation.

Periodicals which might be consulted include the Teachers College Record, Elementary English Review, Educational Method, Educational Review, and Progressive Education. Gray's annual (University of Chicago) reports on research during the period include some significant studies. The Eight Year Study was given elaborate evaluation under the sponsorship of the Progressive Education Association. Results include a record of the students' college success or failure. Reports were published in a series of books, pamphlets, and articles.

Many writers contributed, but search might begin with the following names: Harold Alberty, Elsie Clapp, Orville Brim, Harold Fawcett, Harry Giles, Frieda Heller, Alice Kelleher, Holland Roberts, Harold Rugg, William van Til, Carleton Washburn, Paul Witty, and Laura Zirbes. Boyd Bode wrote extensively on the need to break down subject matter lines (producing, as he said, logic-tight compartments). The Class of 1938, Ohio State University School, wrote its own six-year history and evaluation. Interesting also is a follow-up study of this class by Margaret Willis in 1961.

Books and articles of that period deal with individualizing reading, both in early teaching for all children and in remedial work for those who do not succeed. Washburn's school attempted to discover at what age a child should be taught to read. His findings contradict some present-day emphases. While the selection of particular books has changed with the social scene, the basic methods and the underlying theory were the same as those used in such national programs as Upward Bound.

Obviously, the great body of American schools did not take part in experimentation thirty to fifty years ago, but neither are the majority of schools today undertaking radical change. The schools which did experiment, however, were serious about their efforts, and reported them thoughtfully. Much of their experience might save today's leaders from dead-end roads.

Like many of today's reformers and critics, the earlier leaders saw great concern with freedom of both thought and behavior. Educators questioned the lock-step teaching of conventional subject matter, limitations of the material, and formality instead of natural teacher-pupil relations. In their initial enthusiasm for change, however, they overlooked the fact that as group size increases, so the need for some organization grows. (American cities cannot use the town meeting today.) Thus in their zeal for freedom, teachers sometimes produced only chaos. The literature, therefore, soon came to discuss organization as well as freedom: the balance between a program without plan or control of any kind and one where students could express beliefs freely and work on questions important (relevant?) to them with coherence and order.

Since critical thinking was an important emphasis, a number of writers discussed the difference between opinion and proof. Tests were devised for measuring results. This question merits attention, and since experimentation takes time, the available reports have value.

Underlying the issue of freedom, responsibility, order, organization, and their interrelationship was a need to understand human growth. Obviously, ability to choose from an increasingly broad scene grows only gradually and is determined by the extent of the individual's experience. Faced with choices too wide or too vague, the child or adolescent often preferred an immediate and temporary interest, and become disillusioned when his suggestion proved futile. It was for this reason that a more structured set of offerings was developed, with choices among units. This still unsolved problem might be clarified by earlier experiences.

Perhaps an example from a high school situation will illustrate the above question. An eleventh grade class planned a final unit for the year: to read together (they usually read independently) one book, which they described as "a very great and famous one." They would then test their varied approaches to the questions which such a book should raise. The instructor agreed and asked: "What book?" The student response was "How can we choose a book we have not read? Tell us about some ten or twelve you have read." The reader may not agree with the students' solution, but their demand poses the question.

Obviously, any serious movement involves a host of problems, problems which are common to any revolution. Specific materials change with the times (there was no TV in the period between 1920 and 1940), but the basic relations of child to adult maintain many common factors. The aims of education continue to be important. Current critics might well compare their ideas with those which preceded their own adulthood. William Alien White once wrote, somewhat inelegantly, that the Lord has "put a hog-tight fence around experience." Maybe he was right, but we just might try to break through.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 74 Number 2, 1972, p. 167-170
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1539, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 12:58:11 AM

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