Context: Inside the Story
Context: Inside the Story
John Dewey is considered the “Father of Progressive Education.” Integral to his conception of what school should be was that it must be “a genuine form of active community life, instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons.” Dewey’s belief was that school, done right, would be an incubator of democracy. In his words:
The good society was, like the good self, a diverse yet harmonious,
growing yet unified whole, a fully participatory democracy in which
the powers and capacities of the individuals that comprised it were
harmonized by their cooperative activities into a community that
permitted the full and free expression of individuality.
Living in a post-Covid world, the need for community is more important than ever and schools --- which were particularly devastated by the pandemic --- need to be places that are as focused on community-building as they are on making up for the “learning loss” engendered by the pandemic. Given that, it seems a story about building school culture around a notion of community is more important now than ever. And that’s where a glimpse back at an experiment in Progressive Education may be instructive.
There are moments in history in which the improbable --- indeed the impossible --- happen. The odds seem impossibly stacked in one direction --- the British Empire versus the North American colonists, the 1969 Baltimore Orioles playing the New York Mets in the World Series, the NFL’s Baltimore Colts against the AFL’s New York Jets in the third Super Bowl, George Foreman fighting Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire. Yet, in all these cases the underdog, miraculously, pulled out the victory, stunning the world. On a much smaller and localized scale, for a brief wrinkle in time, a similar “miracle” occurred in a small unincorporated village in Westchester County, New York.
There is no doubt that the 1960’s was a period of upheaval and change in the United States – civil rights, the Vietnam war, women’s liberation, and gay rights were the driving political and social movements of the period. Before examining what specifically happened in Rye Brook, New York, let’s define “the Sixties.” When people refer to the “the Sixties” it may evoke images of Jack Kennedy’s election and inaugural address (November 1960 and January 20, 1961). Or Kennedy’s going toe-to-toe with Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. But I would contend that “the Sixties” don’t really begin until 1963 --- and don’t end until 1974. Why 1963 to 1974? Consider the following:
“The Sixties,” as we know them, were propelled by Baby Boomers. The “Baby Boom” began in 1946 --- and those people were reaching College Age in 1963.
And it’s during this period that a “revolution” was occurring in an unexpected ---and unlikely setting --- an affluent suburb of New York City.
It’s important to note that while there were political and social revolutions transpiring in the world of “liberation” (Blacks, women, gays, indigenous Americans, et al), as well as a vigorous anti-War movement, changes were afoot in the world of education as well. It’s significant that as Baby Boomers ascended to the position of becoming the “best/most educated” generation in U.S. history, there was a new wave of reform/revolution breaking shore in the world of education --- and a host of writers emerged in the late-Sixties/early Seventies popularizing a New Wave of progressive reform.
In a paper presented to the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE)in 1978, Professor Murray Print discussed “The Romantic Critics: Implications for Schooling and Learning in Australia.” Several the “romantic critics” cited in this paper --- Jonathan Kozol, James Herndon, John Holt, A.S. Neill, and Ivan Illich --- were among the most influential progressive writers who directly influenced many of the new teachers entering the field of education in the late-Sixties/early-Seventies --- and certainly many of the new teachers at Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School.
According to Print’s paper, tenets promoted by the “romantic critics” included:
2. They have greeted with skepticism the values and attitudes in schooling. They have described with incredulity, the attitudes of teachers and the methods they have employed.
3. The affective development of children has been a readily demonstrated concern of the critics. They deplore the practices of schools in emphasizing the child’s cognitive development while neglecting his affective growth.
4. An emphatic message of the radical reform movement is that schooling should not be accepted as it existed in the 1960s.
5. Teachers can and do play significantly different roles. Meaningful, helpful, supportive relationships can exist between teacher and student, though the onus for establishing such relationships is on the teacher. . . . These teachers are not dominating, petty, apathetic, coercive, or bombastic, rather they view their role as facilitator, to encourage the child to develop what is best for him.
There is a clear focus on student-centered education and the affective domain in the work of the Sixties/Seventies reformers. In 2000, the prominent education philosopher Maxine Greene reviewed a decade of publications from the University of Illinois Education School’s Educational Theory --- looking back on what was being discussed in school reform. She, too, notes the “romantic criticism of public education” and cites Paul Goodman, Edgar Friedenberg, John Holt, George Dennison, James Herndon, and Jonathan Kozol as well. In reviewing their work, Greene detects:
Echoes of Emersonianism were audible, a pleasant libertarianism, a touch of Rousseau, certain aspects of Deweyan thought. Here and there new schools, “free schools,” were established.
Greene goes on to mention her own encounter, in the late Sixties, with Paolo Friere (his Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a touchstone tome for progressive reformers of that era) and his “new recognition of how persons are trained, by means of assessment and sorting devices, to accommodate a stratified society. The contradictions involved troubled many educators, even those of us who still believed the common school can become a site for democratic modes of thinking and being.” Indeed, Friere’s notion of “banking education,” in which teachers make “deposits” (content) to students that are then “withdrawn” (year-end testing), leaving empty vessels, was a strong metaphor that influenced many a young teacher at the time. Continuing, Greene notes that the literature of the period “wanted to see a reflective examination of . . . ‘roles and rules’ . . . more ‘socially . . . relevant and comprehensively grounded ethical conclusions.” In all, there was a focus on “the importance of educating secondary students in the responsibilities of a free society . . . to nurture . . . the democratic way of life.”
Greene, the pre-eminent education philosopher of the late 20th century, always looked for ways in which philosophy, as a discipline, intersected with praxis --- the actual “doing” of education. That said, it is not surprising that her reflection on the Sixties/Seventies school reform movement was this:
Philosophy is viewed here, not as the governing discipline, but as a way of posing
critical questions of the moment to the school and the society. The view of the
situation, like the view of political education, opened the way to an approach to
education in continuing transaction with salient issues in the culture. The choices
of these issues or of what constituted a situation were to be made reflectively by
teachers in dialogue with one another and with at least minimal familiarity with
the doing of philosophy. Most important, they were to become the questions
of real significance to the community and to the projects teachers might chose
for themselves as they moved ahead in their teaching lives.
For those who think teachers simply “show up” and teach a “subject,” I would point to the Faculty and Administration that inhabited the Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in its first decade to dispel such notions. The awareness and familiarity the administration and staff (and community, for that matter) had with the writers and philosophers who shaped the progressive reform agenda of the Late Sixties/early Seventies was front and center. If you spent more than five minutes in the BBHS Faculty Room, you would have witnessed exactly what Greene is describing when she says “The choices of these issues . . . were to be made reflectively by teachers in dialogue with one another “ --- over and over again.
To understand what made Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School so unique in its first decade, one must understand the deep philosophical foundation the school was built upon. Even if a teacher couldn’t quote chapter and verse or hadn’t read any or many of the authors noted here, the ongoing, incessant conversations that dominated the time the staff spent together built the momentum that carried the school through its first decade and made it, indeed, a unique endeavor.
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