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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2004 (2004) 112-125

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[Article by David F. Labaree]

Comment by E. D. Hirsch Jr.

David F. Labaree's historical analysis of progressivism belongs in the tradition of Larry Cuban, Arthur Zilversmit, and, most recently, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. That tradition readily concedes that romantic progressivism has permeated education schools to the point of intellectual monopoly, but, according to these historians of education, romantic progressivism has never taken over the public schools as a method of teaching. As proof of this they [End Page 112] show that a considerable amount of whole class instruction is still going on, that students' seats are still arranged in rows, and that students are still asked to complete exercises in workbooks. I am inclined to concede this point, as I think all education historians probably should, given the believable observational reports, most recently from Jay Matthews. I have always assumed that this claim of progressive apologetics was probably right in a narrow sense.

At the same time, I have long thought that this narrow point is almost completely irrelevant to the most important historical influence of progressivism, which is less its influence on pedagogy than its influence in diluting and fragmenting the elementary curriculum to a truly harmful and indefensible degree.

One of the troublesome features of the discipline of history is that, although it may carry the trappings of punctilious scholarship, its interpretation of the potentially infinite data is not something that can be given by the data themselves. The data supporting one historical interpretation are never the same as the data supporting another. Thus, without declining into facile postmodernism, one can accept the disconcerting, long-conceded point recently made once again by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. when reviewing a new biography of Andrew Jackson: History is an unending conflict of conversations. Regarding the conversation about the influence of progressivism, this history clearly is very different when looked at through one filter than it is when looked at through another.

Cuban's book, which founded the tradition in which Labaree now writes, is entitled How Teachers Taught. Cuban's point, like Labaree's, was that teachers are on the whole still teaching the same way they did in 1890. Hence progressivism, despite all the complaints leveled at it, has had negligible real effects in the schools.

But turn a different filter on the data, and consider a somewhat different topic about the history of American elementary schools, namely, whatteachers taught. This is a curiously understudied historical topic. Some data on the topic in the form of preserved tests from earlier days, and earlier textbooks, suggest that elementary students in the public schools received a demanding and coherent set of learnings. But this is, as I say, a neglected topic, and I believe it is hugely significant that Cuban, and Labaree, and the dominant tradition of ed school-generated history have disregarded the subject of what teachers taught.

The resulting focus on pedagogy and the resulting neglect of content in historical studies themselves may be owing to the progressivist sympathies [End Page 113] of the historians, who seem to assume, in concord with the ideas of progressivism, that the specific content of the elementary curriculum is not of central historical or educational importance.

But I believe most people would think that the subject has high historical significance. Granted that a golden age of American education has never existed, was there nonetheless a time during the pre-progressive era when a typical public school determined specifically what content children should learn in first grade, second grade, third grade, and so on, so that the content of one grade could build on the previous one in a cumulative, nonrepetitive way? To those outside of the progressive dispensation, this would seem to be a significant historical question. And I believe and predict that when historians get around to studying this question in depth the answer will prove to be, "Yes, there was a time when the elementary school curriculum was specific, cumulative, and nonrepetitive."

By contrast, this has certainly not been the case in...


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pp. 112-125
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Archived 2007
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