English @ OU

Composition: History & Theory: 1950 - 1959

Criticism of Progressive Education


In The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education 1876-1957 (1961), Lawrence Cremin outlines the building criticism of progressive education that was occurring during this time period. In the 1940s and 1950s, less teachers, higher enrollment, inflations, fewer schools, and budgetary issues prompted critics to take advantage of the growing dissatisfaction with the progressive movement. In 1949, two books, Bernard Iddings Bell’s Crisis in Education and Mortimer Smith’s And Madly Teach, took the stance that the progressive education movement had taken over parental responsibilities, were coddling children instead of teaching them, and removed religion from public education. Bell called for a reform that required strengthening of the teaching profession while Smith called for a rejection of it, inciting parents to demand that education get back to its “historic role of moral and intellectual teacher” (340). David Hulburd’s It Happened in Pasadena (1951) was the first widely publicized demise of a community’s progressive school system. Arthur Bestor, with his publication of Educational Wastelands in 1953 is considered as one of the most influential critics of progressive education. His two main critiques of the movement were: 1) Bestor believed that the purpose of education was to provide equal education to all citizens. He believed that in tailoring education to suit the individual, progressive education was robbing citizens of this equal access to knowledge; and 2) Bestor believed that the scientific management of education had removed it from all scholarship and proper teacher training. Cremin refers to these critiques of progressive education as “a bitter orgy of pedagogical soul searching” (347).

Cremin goes on to outline seven major factors that contributed to the fall of progressive education during this time period: 1) distortion and ideological disagreements amongst proponents of Progressive education; 2) negativism inherent in social reform movements; 3) unrealistic demands on teachers’ time and abilities; 4) the movement becoming a victim of its own success—“intellectual bankruptcy”; 5) increasing conservativism in American political and social thought post-World War II; 6) professionalization of the system and attempts to keep the laymen out of educational administration; and 7) failing to keep pace with the ever-transforming American society (348-351). Cremin claims that all of these factors building upon one another directly led to the end of the Progressive Education Association in 1955 which turned out to be the final nail in the movement’s coffin.

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