Progressive Education (or lack of) and the Rise of Populism

Populism is on the rise as evidenced by the United Kingdom “Brexit,” the election of Donald Trump and the rise of political movements and candidates in other European countries such as Italy, France, and Poland to name a few. In this country, the cause for this is often connected to the white working class—a segment of the electorate that has felt marginalized by traditional politics and campaigning of the past 20 – 30 years. Indeed there is a significant component of the U.S. population that has seen their standard of living slip during the past 40 years. No longer is it feasible to provide for your family a stable, middle-class existence on traditionally blue-collar careers not requiring post-secondary education. And when individuals cannot provide for their children adequate food, shelter, and health-care no matter how hard they work, the result is anger.

This comes down a degradation of the middle class, or in other words, income inequality. During the past 40 years we have seen a continuation of the loss of blue-collar, middle-class supporting jobs in this country and an increase of the concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller proportion of the population. This leads to an increase in the number of individuals slipping from the middle class into the working-poor class. The rate of individuals, and especially children, cannot be explained away as the result of a recession, or economic downturn. As unemployment ebbs and flows, the GDP and stock market rise and fall, the constant appears to be wage stagnation and even reduction for more and more individuals. If this stagnation is occurring at the same time when the economy is still growing (even in fits and starts), then the wealth, if not in the hands of those doing the labor to produce that wealth, must be in the hands of someone else. It appears to be increasingly in the hands of a smaller and smaller segment of the population. I suspect this is the root of the anger of the electorate in this and other countries—frustration over seeing opportunity for financial stability for oneself and one’s children slip further and further away.

The political result seems to be populism which is defined in Wikipedia as political outlook or disposition that appeals to the interests and conceptions (such as hopes and fears) of the general population, especially when contrasting any new collective consciousness push against the prevailing status quo interests of any predominant political sector.” This is where the concept of populism loses me. I understand the anger and a “push against the prevailing status quo” but I don’t understand the results of populism—policy initiatives and societal trends that pit sub-groups of a society against one another. Instead of the populace demanding equity, access, and transparency, there is instead often a rise of anti-intellectualism, denunciation of science such as denial of climate change and evolutionary theory, a rise in racial, gender, and sexual-identity discrimination, and proposals of tax code changes that further increase income inequality.

Is it really as simple as political opportunists stoking fear and resentment among the populace to divide them, thus causing the whole of the populace to vote against their collective best interests? And if so, to what end beyond simple, individual greed and lust for power. And if that is the motive, then even that is ultimately not in those individual’s best interest either. It is ultimately unsustainable to govern a populace that is divided and a community brought together by their shared resentment of “others” in the community. The end result is always revolution and collapse of the ruling class.

Societies governed by a ruling class, be they dictatorships, Soviet-style communism, or fiefdoms, historically progress to some form of democracy. But here we are, in 2016, where the world’s democracies are seeing a trend of populism causing the political and societal climate to regress from democratic principles back to autocratic principles. I’m struggling to make sense of it.

I am an educator and I cannot help but see a great failure on the part of public education in this country, and quite possibly in these other countries as well, as a component of this rise in populism. Except for in small pockets of education in this country (mostly in private institutions) we have failed to embrace progressivism in education. The term is so maligned by some that even institutions that follow progressive principles refuse to label themselves as such. While traditional education is often seen as relatively structured, disciplined, ordered and didactic, progressive education is often seen as unstructured, student-driven and experiential. I think there is a connection between “populism” and traditional education. As a society embraces more autocratic principles, it also embraces more traditional education, and the more a society utilizes this style of education, the more the population is prone to embracing autocratic principles because that is the mode of thinking practiced in the most traditional of school settings.

John Dewey, who might be considered the founder of progressive education felt that education and democracy were interconnected. He was not advocating “patriotic” history lessons that might be common in a traditional education setting, which critics might consider indoctrination into a nations “story” at the expense of critical examination of a nation’s “story.” Dewey advocated education that had societal purpose and purpose for the individual student. The role of education, in the progressive model, is to provide students a holistic understanding of traditional content within the context of an individual’s rights, roles, and responsibilities to the society in which he or she lives. Dewey advocates that students must participate and experience democracy in their education so that they can then effectively participate in democracy to allow the individual to then fulfill their potential as a member of a free and democratic society.

Based on the evidence available, it appears that we have failed in this purpose for education as we seem to be regressing to principles that are not enhancing the opportunity and freedoms of all, but instead is beginning to curtail certain groups of individuals’ access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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