With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Secret Life of Teaching: Progressive Faith

Image via Wiki Commons.

I write five words on the whiteboard five times, each time underlining a different word:

All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.

“So, kids, are any of these statements true?” I ask, turning around to face the class. “I mean, what a crock of bull, right? How could Jefferson -- himself a slave owner -- possibly be serious?" 

A few wry smiles. Some of them have apparently asked themselves this question before. 

love that line!" Vanessa Thompson, ever the contrarian in her vintage Sex Pistols t-shirt. But she’s been too busy chatting with Janey Orlov to be much of a presence today. 

“Doesn’t matter whether they believe it," says Eduardo Salinas. "It’s propaganda.” 

I try to mask my surprise. This is the first time I’ve heard from Eduardo all year. I want to kindle the flame without smothering him.

“You think they’re lying?”

“Dunno,” he replies. “Maybe.” 

“You called this ‘propaganda.’ What do you mean by that?” 

“I mean they’re trying to persuade people.” 

“Can propaganda be true?” 

“I guess.”

“Do you think they were trying to persuade themselves?”

 Eduardo shrugs. I can’t tell if he’s expressing skepticism or a desire to be let off the hook. 

“I think they did believe it,” Zoe Leoni says without raising her hand. “I mean, you kind of have to believe it if you’re going to stick your neck out like that."

“You say 'they. Do 'they' all think the same way?” 

“No, probably not. But I don’t think they really have any choice. They’re desperate, right? Didn’t you say yesterday that there’s like this big invasion the British are planning?”

“Right. They’ve already landed on Long Island. They’re headed for Manhattan even as the Declaration of Independence is being written.”

“So of course they’re going to talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So it sounds like they’re the good guys.” 

“But how do they think they can get away with it?”

“It was a bunch of rich white guys who wanted other people to help them,” Derek Simonson, who sits next to Eduardo, blurts out with an edge of impatience in his voice. Wonder of wonders: two silent types in one day. 

“I think you’re absolutely right,” I say, more eager to encourage him than to pursue the angle of ideological difference between the revolutionaries. “A big part of the Declaration was designed to attract foreign support, especially the French. But here’s what I wonder, Derek: Is this really the best language to use in order to do something like this? Let’s assume you’re right: these guys are essentially a bunch of frauds, and that people then could see through them then just like you are now. I'm reminded of the famous writer Samuel Johnson’s response to the colonists: ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps of liberty from the drivers of negroes?’ So how is a lot of talk of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness really going to convince anybody?”

Jiian Cheng raises his hand, and I acknowledge him. "I don’t think they really have any choice. I mean, you gotta start somewhere.”

Laura Lynn wants to weigh in and I nod to her. “Jiian’s right. It’s an important first step.”

“A step towards what?”

“Freedom. Independence. All that stuff.”

“Well, OK.” I point at the whiteboard. “But this says ‘all men are created equal.’”

She hesitates. Then: “Yeah, that too.”

“So freedom and equality go together? How does this work -- first we get the freedom, then we do equality?”

She’s lost. “Yeah, kinda.”

I shift my gaze from Laura and make a puzzled expression to the class generally.  “I don’t get it, kids. What does freedom have to do with equality? Are they the same thing?” 

What I regard as a fruitful line of discussion is disrupted by Wilhelmina (a.k.a. Willie) Sperry, who has already emerged as one of my favorite kids, maybe of all time. I often see Willie walking the hallways, hunched over a backpack that looks like it’s crushing her and bearing a grim expression in marked contrast to the animated child who’s most fully alive in the classroom. In other words, a girl after my own heart. Not pretty, really -- red-haired, flat-chested and a little scrawny, Willie’s warm personality has always made her appealing, at least to adults and what seems to be a small circle of friends. But will the boys see it? (Maybe it won’t matter; maybe she’s gay.) Willie, who has been silently following this conversation with her usual intensity, chooses this moment to raise her hand. But I’m disappointed that she seems to be taking us way off course.   “They’re hypocrites,” she says. “The King simply has to go after them. If they’re allowed to get away with this, it would set a bad example. They have insulted him . . . .” 

I begin to lose track of what Willie is saying. For one thing, it seems tangential: what does the King have to do with what we’ve been talking about? For another, I realize I’m hungry. And yet I marvel at how fully immersed she is in this discourse. Even Janey Orlov has noticed. Not approvingly.

I cut her off. “I’m not sure we need to shed any tears for George III, Willie. If there’s anyone in the world who can brush off some punk critics, surely it’s him. But I tell you who I am worried about,” I say, pausing for effect. “The King of Spain.” I put my hand on my chin, and narrow my eyes. "I mean, here’s a guy who’s going to be losing sleep at night." 

"Who is the King of Spain?" Willie asks, genuinely curious.

I dunno," I reply, not changing my expression. "Carlos the twenty-something. They were all called Carlos back then." The class breaks into laughter.

"See, here’s the problem,” I say when it subsides. There’s nothing old Carlos would like more than to stick it to Britain. He wants it so badly he can almost taste it. The problem is that if he and his Bourbon cousin Louis XVI enter an American war against Britain on the side of a group of rebels who have issued this revolutionary manifesto, then his own subjects in places like Mexico and Peru might actually begin to take some of the nonsense in that manifesto seriously. And that would be a real mess.” 

“So what does he do?" This from Vanessa, who’s back among us. My, my: I am on a roll today. 

“Well, ultimately, he takes the plunge -- he joins France and declares war on Britain. And his fears prove justified, because even though he gets some real estate out the deal, within a generation all hell breaks loose in Central and South America. Eventually, the Mexicos and Perus of the world declare their own independence. The King of France, who tended not to worry as much, ends up literally losing his head in the name of abstract ideals like freedom and equality -- which, I’ll point out in passing, we’re still lumping together as if they’re two sides of the same coin. We can’t blame all of this on the Declaration of Independence, of course. But it certainly didn’t help matters if you’re the King of Spain." 

“Which,” I continue, after a pause, “is another way of saying that you’re right, Eduardo and Derek. The Declaration of Independence was a piece of propaganda by a bunch of rich white guys who were desperate enough to say whatever they thought might help them at that particular moment. The problem is that in so doing they let a genie out of a bottle, because some people, despite much evidence to the contrary, actually began to believe what the Declaration said -- or, maybe more accurately, they acted as if they believed what the Declaration said. ‘Acted,’ in the sense that they pretended, and ‘acted’ also in the sense that they ended up doing things that they otherwise might not have done had there been no Declaration of Independence. That genie ended up doing a whole lot of mischief all over the world.” 

“Still does,” says Willie with a smile.

“You think so?”



“Yes.” Willie is firm. So smart, so innocent. Eduardo is packing up his books: my signal that my time is up. Derek is looking, inscrutably, at Willie. Oh, dear girl.

“You think so too, Zoe? You think Willie is right?”

She nods.

“Well, then, I guess we’ve figured this all out. See you tomorrow.”

* * * * *

People of all temperaments and ideological persuasions become teachers, but the nature of the job as it’s currently constituted makes them instinctive progressives. I should add that I’m using the term in multiple senses, some of which I am avowedly skeptical. But their valences are powerful and should be recognized, even if they’re not dominant in the U.S. education system in particular or American society generally.

In its most specific educational formulation, the word “progressive” refers to a pedagogical philosophy that took root in the late nineteenth century and has in various iterations persisted to this day. Its patron saint is John Dewey. Central to Dewey’s vision was an emphasis on process (discussion) over product (test scores); subjective experience over objective truth; learning by doing rather than having information delivered. As a movement, progressive education in this country probably peaked in the 1930s, and has largely persisted as an alternative educational subculture in the decades since.

That said, important elements of the progressive ethos have long been absorbed as common sense even in schools that consider themselves traditional. Such schools may emphasize traditional values, basic skills, and mastery of content (and relentless testing). But they will hardly disparage -- indeed, they will likely explicitly uphold -- critical thinking, diversity of thought and experience, and pragmatic problem solving, all of which are hallmarks of progressive education. Virtually no educators will assert the primacy or necessity of lecturing as the best or only means of delivering instruction, even when teacher-centered information delivery is the primary approach. Ironically, one of the major problems for the contemporary progressive education movement as a movement is that many of its core ideas are now taken for granted, even when they conflict with others. So it is that parents and educators insist on growth and rigor, or diversity and continuity, whether or not they’re simultaneously achievable.

The second way teachers tend to be progressive is more generally political. In school systems of all sizes, where different constituencies jockey for maximum room to maneuver, teachers are the inheritors of the Progressive tradition -- note the capital “P” to distinguish indicate the movement in electoral politics that spanned roughly from 1900 to 1920. It’s important to note, however, that there was a curious bifurcation in the Progressive movement that it never entirely resolved. On of the one hand, early Progressives were locally based, experimental, and highly empirical in their approach to social reform (not just in schools, but also business regulation, municipal services, and electoral reform, among other initiatives). They were very much bottom-up. On the other hand, Progressives were also -- and this became increasingly apparent as the movement gained momentum in the second decade of the twentieth century, when it dominated that nation’s political life in both major parties -- great centralizers of power, as long as it was concentrated in the hands of independent experts who acted in the name of the common good. If the settlement house worker Jane Addams personified the first strand of Progressivism, Theodore Roosevelt was the epitome of the second. By the time of Roosevelt’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, however, there were growing questions about whether experts really could be trusted to act on the common good -- Wilson, who held a Ph.D. in political science, was notoriously high-handed in his foreign policy, for example -- and whether they really knew as much as they thought they did. Though Progressives and their contemporary heirs have always thought of themselves of champions of The People, their skeptics have always regarded them, not without reason, as elitists insufferably blind to their own arrogance.

Whether or not they identify as latter day inheritors of the old Progressive tradition, most teachers in their day-to-day lives embrace the Progressivism of the localized Jane Addams variety. In contrast to administrators or politicians who want to impose their ideas for reform from the top down, they see themselves working with the facts on the ground: particular children responding to specific circumstances that may or may not correspond to a reform template. To at least some extent, this is a matter of self-interest: workers in many occupations tend to insist on the necessity of discretion in performing their jobs well. But teachers aren’t the only ones who make this case for their roles in the classroom; a long tradition of reformers, some of them in positions of administrative authority, have embraced the principle of teacher autonomy, even if this has always been a minority view in policymaking circles.

The third and most decisive way in which teachers tend to be progressive is what might be termed temperamental. In a literal sense, to be a progressive is to believe in progress, and anyone who’s in the business of educating children that does not believe in progress is probably in the wrong line of work. In this realm, too, the word has multiple meanings.

The most fundamental, of course, is at the level of the individual child. Teachers must act as if -- and at least try to believe that -- every student is capable of improving. This uniform principle gets affirmed in highly variable ways. A good teacher will assess where a student is and identify an attainable goal, and in a good teacher’s assessment of student work, the distance that student has traveled will matter at least as much as the objective quality of the work. The essence of fairness in this context means taking differences into account, of honoring the struggle more than the effortlessly achieved excellence.  This is an admittedly tricky matter, inherently subjective in nature. But it’s a standard worth pursuing. The fact of the matter is that virtually all students do make progress, variously understood, over the course of their academic careers. The school or instructional climate will never entirely account for it, though such factors (among them a child’s teacher) really can matter.

This progressive principle also applies to the craft of teaching itself. As anyone who’s done it for any length of time will agree, you get better at as you go along. Improvement can take the form of formal professional development, acquiring more knowledge from casual reading, or simply mastering a curriculum by repeatedly teaching it. There is certainly something to be said for the vitality of a new teacher, whose receptiveness to experience and willingness to shoulder often onerous demands (like teaching unfamiliar material) should not be underestimated as a source of institutional vitality. And there’s no question that that dead wood -- which is to say teachers who have given up trying to grow -- is a problem at virtually every school. But the seasoned veteran teacher is an asset any successful school will have in abundance.

The most profound way in which teachers are temperamentally progressive is generational: they believe in the future, a faith grounded in their engagement with the children who will take their place as adults. Strictly speaking, a desire and ability to work with young people doesn’t necessarily mean you think the future will be better than the past. (I don’t, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.) But unless you’re animated by some sense of hope about tomorrow, teaching becomes an exercise in grim fatalism, no doubt a contributing factor in dead wood syndrome.

Perhaps more than teachers elsewhere, American teachers have a particular attachment to seeing their work as part of a larger drama in the progress of U.S. society. For much of the nineteenth century, the dominant strain of historical interpretation in Great Britain and the United States was the so-called Whig school, which emphasized the degree to which history was a story of progress -- moral no less than scientific -- embodied in the White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant politicians who emphasized the importance of liberty (notably the liberty of American colonists in their revolutionary struggle for independence, whose supporters in England were known as Whigs).  The Whig interpretation of history fell out of favor around the time of the First World War -- events in the first half of the twentieth century discredited confident assumptions of progress -- and are regarded as racist today. But the notion that American life has been one of gradual improvement remains an article of faith that continues to animate everyday life inside as well as outside of classrooms.

You can see this progressive sensibility in just about any U.S. history textbook. If the Whig school cast its notion of progress in terms of white supremacy, these books instead depict a slow, irregular, but unmistakable march toward pluralistic egalitarianism. Particularly in the early going, these books have a demographic emphasis. We’re introduced to groups of people of African, European, and Native American origin, and the divisions and interplay between them.  However subjugated they are at the hands of imperial Europeans, those shut out of power manage to maintain their dignity and their hope in the face of considerable adversity. Though they experience tragedy, even catastrophe, they manage collectively to live another day. They’ll have their postcolonial moment, just like the United States has. History is destiny -- of a hopeful kind. It’s what we think students need.

But -- and this was the point of that opening anecdote -- this progressive version of U.S. history is not something I tell them. This is something they tell me. It’s a logic they’ve absorbed into their bones long before they reach me. I’ve done this “all men are created equal” exercise a bunch of times, and it always goes pretty much the same way. I’ll usually get a student or two who says it really is nonsense. But inevitably one or two students will come forward and say that such a judgment is too harsh. I press them to explain, they may or may not flail in their attempt to do so, and a classmate or two (or three) will jump in. The gist of their riposte will be, in effect, that the Declaration of Independence was a kind of first draft of progressive history. First the white men were created equal. Then we remembered the ladies. Then the slaves got freed. And so on through gay marriage. That’s our history. It may short on facts. But it’s long on vision -- which, let’s face it, is the most you can really hope for in a history course.

My problem is I’m not sure I really believe it. Yes: it is possible, desirable -- right -- to think of events like the ending of slavery, suffrage for women, the egalitarian achievements of the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement(s) as constituting an upward moral as well as material trajectory in American history. But if we stipulate that -- and we put aside social hydraulics that seem to suggest gains for some people always seems to mean losses for others (e.g. the decline of economic equality that has accompanied racial equality in the last four decades) -- progress is not a permanent state. Republics and empires come and go: that seems to be the iron law of history. The arc of history is long, but it is an arc: what goes up must come down.

Unfortunately, this is not something I’m experiencing as an abstract proposition. Virtually every sentient American in the early 21st century is uncomfortably aware of a discourse of decline in our national life, particularly in the economic and political realm. Though (shockingly for anyone over 30), events like 9/11, the Iraq War and the financial crisis of 2008 are distant events for today’s students, all have grown up in homes where recent history casts long shadows. For some students, they loom large in their overall perception of American history; for others they don’t, either because they haven’t fully absorbed their impact or because they imagine them as developments that are not really part of the historical record. Mostly, I think, reconciling recent events with their progressive vision of history is a matter of living with cognitive dissonance in the form of cultural lag that’s quite common to people in all times and places.

I don’t directly challenge the historical progressivism of my students, other than to note at some point in the school year that visions of history come in many shapes: circles, spirals, straight lines, and inclines (I usually draw them for the visual learners).  I don’t particularly want to evangelize my fatalism, partially because my instinctive skepticism makes me question my own certitude -- events rarely happen in the way or at the pace we predict. But even if I did have certainty, I wouldn’t push it on them, because I can’t see how it would do them any good. I don’t want to puncture their confidence. Instead, I hope to sharpen their understanding -- here’s where the facts and information come in, because they can help a good student get a particular version of the story straight -- and send them on their way. In this regard, I really am a progressive educator in that first pedagogical way I talked about, the heir of a movement that emphasizes the plasticity of knowledge and the need for children to construct their own working models about the way the world works, but to do so in a social context where they are interacting with others.

And yet -- and this is something I struggled with as a form of cognitive dissonance in my own life -- I am not a progressive in the broadest, most historical, sense of the term. There are days when I feel like I’m leading lambs to the slaughter, when I am fostering habits of thoughts and behavior that will be singularly unhelpful in a coming world that will not be like the one in which we are living. Sometimes I imagine that future world as one of chaos; other times it’s one of stifling autocratic order. Either way, I imagine former students bitterly recalling the irrelevance, or worse, of what they learned in school.

So what keeps me going? My salvation is my ignorance: I don’t know, I can’t know, what will happen in the future. Call me an existentialist progressive: I labor in the faith -- in the end, that’s all it is -- that something I do, something I say, something I ask my students to read, will have some utility in their later lives. Some sliver that will be transubstantiated into an act of leadership -- or, more simply, some act of decency -- that will bring good into the lives of that student and the broader community in which that student lives. That’s not much to count on, I know. But sometimes it’s the counting that’s the problem.