What is Progressive Education?

Thoreau as a teacher.

February 19, 2019

I have spent much of my career in higher education, as a law professor and college president, but I am also a trustee of a small independent K-12 school in my hometown of Portland. Our school prides itself on providing “progressive” education, but we struggle at times to define what that means. Dewey, of course, defined progressive education, at least in part, as “learning from experience.” But what does that look like in practice? 

This past week, I have been reading Laura Dassow Walls’ excellent new biography of Henry Thoreau. Walls provides, among other things, an extensive discussion of Thoreau’s teaching career. She covers, of course, Thoreau’s brief and notorious experience as a public school teacher. Chastised by the local school committee because he refused to use corporal punishment to discipline his students, Thoreau famously beat a number of students and then resigned. 

Walls also describes Thoreau’s much less well known, but vastly more significant, time running his own private academy with his brother John. Thoreau, Walls reminds us, was a gifted scholar, at home in six languages, and his private academy required rigorous college preparatory work in Greek, Latin, and math. But Thoreau thought an indoor, book-focused education was too limited, and he supplemented traditional methods with many trips outside the schoolhouse.  He took his students to a newspaper to see the type set and the printing presses at work, and to a gunsmith’s, where the students made their own percussion flints.  He took students on long hikes for field lessons in geography and botany and boating on the Concord River, with instruction on wooden boat maintenance thrown in.  He took his students surveying and on field archeology trips to former Native American sites.  He sought, in short, to pass on constructive and practical wisdom, out in the fields and in local workplaces, and not just book learning at school. 

Thoreau’s methods were very similar to those used by the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein during his stint as a rural schoolmaster. Wittgenstein’s pedagogical methods were the antithesis of Thoreau’s in some ways.  Unlike Thoreau, who was criticized for refusing to use corporal punishment, Wittgenstein was notorious for using it too much.  Still, there are important similarities.  As Spencer Robbins noted in an interesting Paris Review article back in 2015, Wittgenstein and his students designed and built small model steam engines, dissected animals, took field trips from their rural community to Vienna, and studied the constellations outdoors at night, gazing at the stars.

Today, Thoreau and Wittgenstein are widely viewed, outside the academy, as impractical and ethereal idealists, theoreticians, misfits in the “real world,” but in truth, both were men of deep practical talents. Wittgenstein was an engineer, Thoreau a gifted surveyor and pencil manufacturer who designed his family firm’s pathbreaking manufacturing equipment.  Though both thinkers were reserved, bookish, and introverted, they believed profoundly that K-12 education must be broader, more practical, and more experimental than was typical in their day or ours. 

Do we need more progressive education today? I will leave that for experts. I will say, however, that if I were in school, I would want what Thoreau was offering, and as an adult, I would want it for my child as well.  In recent years, educators have noted massive increases in depression and anxiety among college students. At a recent meeting with independent school heads, one of them said to me: “I worry we are doing something wrong, if we are handing our students off to you in that shape.” Maybe part of the solution to this problem lies in more holistic experiential learning and less focus on SAT scores and AP exams.  And maybe some of that experiential learning would serve us well at the college level, too. 




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