Monday, October 22, 2012

Romanticism and Progressive Education

The women in my family were not only romanticists, but progressive thinkers who brought these ideals into their work as educators.  They believed that schools should subscribe to those ideas and practices that aimed to make schools more effective agencies of a democratic society.  They shared the conviction that democracy means active participation by all citizens in social, political and economic decisions that will affect their lives. The education of engaged citizens, according to this perspective, involves two essential elements: (1). Respect for diversity, meaning that each individual should be recognized for his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and cultural identity, and (2). the development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good.

Romantic education is often conflated with Progressive education. John Dewey's progressive education was entirely distinct from Romantic education, but early in the 20th century the two philosophies became thoroughly entangled with one another, so that, for many, the term "progressive education" now calls to mind a set of ideas that is more Romantic than Deweyan.

Romantic educators seek to soften divisions between subject areas and to provide a cohesive, holistic education, whose different topics flow naturally together in the creation of a single, interlinked body of knowledge. If learning is natural, then it needs to take place in holistic form, where multiple domains of skill and knowledge are integrated into thematic units and projects instead of being taught as separate subjects.
Unfortunately, these romantic/progressive principles were not always the predominant philosophy in American education. State systems of public schooling have primarily attempted to achieve cultural uniformity, not diversity, and to educate dutiful, not critical citizens utilizing an assessment system based on standardized testing.  Whereas the former focused on teaching and learning in the classroom, the latter focused on governance and on the structure and purpose of the curriculum.

Contemporary education tends to focus on creativity as a phenomenon that is separate from and independent of such conscious mental processes as memorization and the use of logic. Indeed, it is an almost universally accepted proposition of contemporary pseudoscience that one-half of the human brain is responsible for such conscious processes as the use of logic, while the other half is responsible for “creativity,” as though, when examined, the halves of the brain revealed this information all by themselves, perhaps in the form of bearing little labels respectively marked “Logic Unit, Made in Hong Kong” and “Creativity Unit, Made in Woodstock, New York.” -George Reisman

Today, however, scholars, educators and activists are rediscovering the work of the romantic/progressives and exploring its relevance to a "postmodern" age, an age of global capitalism and cultural change, and an age in which the ecological health of the planet itself is seriously threatened. At the heart of the new wave of contemporary education thinking lies a pedagogy that emphasizes flexibility and critical thinking.

The new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) seek to establish organic relationships with communities through curricula that confronts broad social issues in real-world settings. Success on these standards will require basing instruction on the needs, interests and developmental stage of the child; it will require teaching students the skills they need in order to learn any subject, instead of focusing on transmitting a particular subject; it will require promoting discovery and self-directed learning by the student through active engagement; it will require having students work on projects that express student purposes and that integrate the disciplines around socially relevant themes; and it will require promoting values of community, cooperation, tolerance, justice and democratic equality.

Based on the personal stories of the women I have chronicled in this blog, one can see that their vision for educational reform has been passed down through the generations. Because we were strong enough to challenge traditional beliefs, we were often met with roadblocks to career advancement. Not only were we women, but we were women with strong opinions who were not afraid to make them known. As our story continues, you will see more clearly, the impact of this conflict on both our personal relationships and our careers.

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