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HOW PROGRESSIVE ARE THE "PROGRESSIVES"? ALEX S. MOWAT SO-CALLED "progressive" education has been under fire in the United States for a good many years, and has in recent years come under fire also in Canada. In fact one might almost say that it has become the fashion to attack "progressive" schools, as it used to be the fashion to attack "traditionalist" schools. There has been a good deal of abuse on both sides, and in Canada at least a certain flippancy, which has tended to obscure or direct attention away from more fundamental matters of educational theory. It seems to me that Canadian educators as a whole are over-concerned with matters of administrative detail, teaching method or curriculum planning and that they are too ready to pooh-pooh serious consideration of the theories that underlie all educational practice. It is true that Canadian schools, compared with schools in the United States, have so far been little affected by "progressive" methods. But this does not lessen the need for examination and discussion of "progressive" educational theories. There is no doubt that the theoretical foundations of "progressive" education do need examination. It is also the fact that John Dewey's pragmatic philosophy is the stuff from which those foundations are fashioned. Yet people have often speculated upon the origin of Dewey's influence. His own personality was not superficially attractive. He had none of the arts of a popularizer. As a lecturer he was dull; as a writer he was difficult. Yet the influence of his philosophy in the United States has been enormous. Charles Beard, the historian, goes so far as to call it the American philosophy. There can be little doubt that the strength of this influence came first from the fact that his philosophy was congenial to the country and to the age in which he lived. But it also arose from his supreme confidence in his own message, which he compares in one place to "The Copernican Revolution ." He everywhere consistently maintains that all previous philosophies are outmoded, that his own philosophy is something new, and that it and it alone can solve the problems of the contemporary scene. Further it must be stated that he puts his case in a very thorough, moderate and convincing manner. Nonetheless Dewey's claim has too often been admitted without sufficiently careful examination of its basis. It is, I think, significant that while Dewey's philosophy has caused widespread inundations among educators, among philosophers it has never created more than a good-sized ripple. 26 Vol. XXIV, no. 1, Oct., 1954 HOW PROGRESSIVE ARE THE "PROGRESSIVES"? 27 I take it as agreed that all educators need a philosophy and that educational practice in the schools is always based on some philosophical theory even though the connection between theory and practice is imperfectly understood by or unknown to the teacher. Such a theoretical basis Dewey supplies. Indeed he regards the supplying of such a basis as the very essence of philosophy itself. Further, no other modern philosopher in the English-speaking world supplies such a basis except, perhaps, Whitehead; but Whitehead's philosophy is so difficult that it is likely to be some time before he is sufficiently understood to affect the schools. Perhaps he never will. It used to be said at Columbia University "Great is Dewey and Kilpatrick is his prophet." But Whitehead's educational prophet has not yet arrived; and he is needed far more than Kilpatrick ever was. For Dewey himself in the most· careful and thorough manner worked out the implications for education of his philosophical point of view, anticipating many possible objections; he thus forced any discussion of modern educational theory in the English-speaking world to begin with him. It has often justifiably been suggested that his style is obscure. But it must be said that Dewey is sometimes obscure for the same reason that Kant and Plato are sometimes obscure, because they are dealing with problems and conceptions which are in themselves exceedingly difficult to understand and to express in language. Upon occasion Dewey writes very well. I think that any unbiassed reader of his book Reconstruction in Philosophy will find it...


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