Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Tag: Progressive

Is Rousseau a traditional educator?

As an undergrad student, I was not that impressed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  The phrase, ‘man is born free but everywhere else he is in chains’ seemed too simple a rationalisation for thinking about society. I became less impressed when I learned about his notion of the ‘state of nature’ where humans were uncorrupted and this construction was a  way to think about  how political states should interact in international politics.  I did not enjoy reading his work yet I recognised that he was a complex thinker. Years later (and I completed my teacher training in a university and did not come across his name), Rousseau appears again as a mover in E.D. Hirsch’s thought about what is wrong about education in the USA and as a example of ‘progressive’ educational thought. Rousseau’s work Émile, or On Education, is identified as a key driver in creating a poor intellectual climate for thinking about education, especially in relation to the importance of factual knowledge. Rousseau writes:

No, if nature has given the child this plasticity of brain which fits him to receive every kind of impression, it was not that you should imprint on it the names and dates of kings, the jargon of heraldry, the globe and geography, all those words without present meaning or future use for the child, which flood of words overwhelms his sad and barren childhood.

It seems pretty conclusive that facts (especially the kind I am interested in as a history teacher) are not meaningful to Rousseau. However, accepting this view means ignoring Rousseau’s work that was produced ten years later and published after his death. Considerations on the Government of Poland was Rousseau’s opportunity to put into action his thought as he was asked to provide suggestions as how Poland should be governed. Regarding education, Rousseau had this to say:

I wish that, when he learns to read, he should read about his own land; that at the age of ten he should be familiar with all its products, at twelve with all its provinces, highways, and towns; that at fifteen he should know its whole history, at sixteen all its laws; that in all Poland there should be no great action or famous man of which his heart and memory are not full, and of which he cannot give an account at a moment’s notice. From this you can see that it is not studies of the usual sort, directed by foreigners and priests, that I would like to have children pursue. The law ought to regulate the content, the order and the form of their studies. My emphasis added.

Dates, names, and facts, it seems, are important.

The above highlights the problem with using  Rousseau to represent contemporary ‘progressive’ educational thought because he could also been seen as an advocate of contemporary ‘traditional’ educational thought.

Categorisations that seem clear and coherent in the present are complex and can fall apart when we add history to them.

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Shades of Hirsch

The educational standpoint from which this book is written may be accurately described as neither “traditional” nor “progressive”. It is pragmatic. Both educational traditionalists and progressivists have tended to be far too dogmatic, polemical and theory-ridden to be reliable beacons for public policy. The pragmatist tries to avoid simplification and facile opposition…Premature polarization of viewpoints is the chief device by which the educational community maintains the intellectual status quo. ED Hirsch, The Schools We Need, p.7-8 (my emphasis in bold)

Over the last few years much has been said about the work of ED Hirsch and how his work should be applied to schools in England. Among the BBC reports, numerous articles and books about the man, his work and inspired analysis, one sorry description has characterised the debate; progressive education versus traditional education. I have always been suspicious of such extreme descriptions because the social world is a lot more complicated than these descriptions. Despite the intentions of many to move the debate from an ‘either/or’ to an ‘and’, we seem to have settled into a familiar groove of stereotyping. The use of Hirsch’s ideas have appeared to gain traction in certain (influential) circles and this really interests me. As Stuart Hall said in terms of using Antonio Gramsci’s work in relation to examining social life here, these ideas must be,

…delicately disinterred from their concrete and specific historical embeddedness and transplanted to new soil with considerable care and patience. Stuart Hall, Critical Dialogues p. 413

It is obvious that Hirsch attempts to ground his analysis of what is wrong with US education in the historical and culturally specific circumstances he is in. However, it seems that in the application of Hirsch’s ideas to the context of England, his careful constructions have been removed and transposed clumsily into the present context.

Let me give you an example. Hirsch bemoans the lack of uniformity between schools in the US because it seems that there is no formal, unified school inspection service (this is carried out by the constituent States). His case is striking because in England, we have Ofsted yet this seems to be neglected in discussing a ‘Hirschian’ analysis of education in England.

What is really interesting is how Hirsch treats the traditional/progressive binary pairing. In one sense, Hirsch’s work is clearly a form of dialectic (not that he would trumpet this idea in the US) and he seeks to move beyond the reductionist and dominating ideas of progressive thought by reintroducing a focus on knowledge. He does not suggest that skills are unimportant;  he makes the case that they should not have primacy in education. Ultimately, he is after a sense of balance. He also does not reject ‘progressive’ ideas and teaching methods:

Pragmatists like me reject the polar opposition between naturalistic [progressive] and artificial [traditional] modes of teaching, and prefer a mixture of naturalistic and more direct instructional methods. The Schools We Need, p.51 (my emphasis in bold)


But within the context of focused and guided instruction, almost anything goes, and what works best with one group of students may not work best with another group with similar backgrounds in the very same building…my own general preference, and one followed by good teachers in many lands, is for what might be called “dramatised instruction”. The class period can be formed into a little drama with a beginning, middle and end, well directed but not rigidly scripted by the teacher. The beginning sets up the question to be answered, the knowledge to be mastered, or the skill to be gained; the middle consists of a lot of back-and-forth between student and student, student and teacher; and the end consists of a feeling of closure and accomplishment. The Schools We Need, p.174

I find the last quote fascinating because it describes many activities which have been labelled and dismissed as ‘progressive’. Hirsch’s carefully considered study has been ‘glommed’ onto education in the UK to serve a particular and narrow agenda. The richness of his analysis (and the faults) have been reduced to score political points and frankly, reduce the level of debate to one which means that we cannot move forward. My suggestion is to go and read the book (and his others) for yourself. You will quickly find that despite their claims to be inspired by Hirsch, subsequent representations of his thought are just shades. They flatter to be careful analyses, yet they never capture the richness, subtlety and concrete embeddedness of Hirsch’s thought.

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