Why I'm in love with both a werewolf and a vampire (or: "Beyond the Traditionalist–Progressivist Divide")


Like Twilight’s Bella Swan, I am desperately in love with a werewolf and a vampire. Well, metaphorically. Less metaphorically, I’m desperately in love with two totally opposing visions of schooling.

I’ve found this to be a problem, as:

  1. the people who champion each vision more or less hate each other, and
  2. when people try to combine these visions, everything explodes.

Let me explain.

A word of warning: It’s always hazardous to split a messy reality into two neat categories.

Hazardous: but irresistible!

I won’t make any hard-and-fast claims that the division I’m about to make perfectly describes reality. It does describe, however, how I’ve experienced school reform movements.


‘Nuff said.

There are two basic visions for schooling.

On the one hand, there’s the traditionalist vision. Traditionalist-minded schools strive to get students to re-think the amazing things other people have thought before. These schools tend to focus on the liberal arts: students devour literature, memorize poetry, debate philosophy, and recap scientific discoveries.

On the other hand, there’s the progressive vision. Progressively-minded schools strive for something quite different: to help students have their own thoughts, ideas that no one has ever had before!

Let me illustrate!

On the wall of an traditionalist school, you might see a famous quote by the English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold. In person, Arnold was widely described as a frivolous and foppish, but his writings were full of icy seriousness. Arnold wrote that to mend society, schools must instruct students in:

the best which has been thought and said.

Walking into a progressive school, on the other hand, you might see a famous quote by the Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget. Piaget wrote that to mend society, schools must unchain students from the past, and help them discover new things:

the principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.

(Thanks to Bob Hagin for reminding me of this quote at his blog!)

Examples, you say?

If you’ve seen The Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Club, or the Harry Potter films, you’ve seen Hollywood images of traditionalist schools.

And, come to think of it, if you’ve seen Dead Poet’s Society, you’ve also seen an image of the opposite: a progressively-minded classroom. (I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that the conflict of educational visions fuels the plot.)

Curiously, I couldn’t find any examples of full-on progressive schools in film — if you know of any, point me toward them, and I’ll update this post!

But of course this divide isn’t just a Hollywood phenomenon. In real life, classical schools (especially, I find, of the Christian variety) and great books colleges go to the nth degree to achieve the traditionalist vision. In a less extreme manner, the Common Core Standards and E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum attempt to achieve the traditionalist vision.

On the other hand, the current anti-testing movement is animated by a progressive ideal. And at the extremes of the progressive ideal are free schools (such as Sudbury schools) and the unschooling movement.

These visions don’t play well together.

I’ve found that advocates of both visions tend to react to the other vision with horror and disgust. They’re befuddled that anyone would want to “do that” to children, and they malign each other:

“Traditionalist schools are just drill-and-kill.”

“Those hippie-dippie progressive schools don’t really teach anything.”

Now, there really are problems in each type of schooling. Sometimes traditionalist-minded schools really just amount to drill-and-kill! Sometimes progressively-minded teachers really don’t teach much of anything!

Well, you might be thinking, the solution is obvious: just combine the two. Let each bring its own genius to bear!

Take the best of both worlds!

Easier said than done.

At the end of the day, we’ve got to make choices as to what to put in a school day. Will we allocate time and resources to helping kids master old knowledge, or into helping them make new knowledge?

Kieran Egan has argued (in the second chapter of his thrilling The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up) that these two ideals, in fact, pull against each other: that an attempt to pursue both tends to torpedo both.

His approach to schools — Imaginative Education — is an attempt to reframe the task of teaching so as to make this traditionalist–progressive war obsolete.

Our schools are attempting to do the same thing.

How are we pulling it off?

Stay tuned.