Beware of The Progressive in You


July 9, 2013 by Anders Ingemarson

Here’s a thought that has been forming in my head the last couple of months and that I’d like your feedback on:

The progressive movement has been so successful in shaping our education system that many of today’s critics of progressivism are rendered less effective in their activism by the fact that they have themselves been crippled by a progressive education.

Let me provide some context.

Progressivism has rightfully become a dirty word in freedom and liberty loving circles. Progressive era presidents from Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Herbert Hoover and FDR have come under increased scrutiny. Americans are starting to realize that the source of many of the individual rights violations we experience today can be traced back to the politics of the 1890s to 1940s: anti-trust regulation, the Federal Reserve, the federal income tax, and the entire New Deal, to mention some of the worst offenders.

Yet, the area where progressives have done the most damage is not in politics but in our schools. During the progressive era Americans were drawn to progressive education with its promise to provide children with a practical education for life. What is wrong with that, you ask? Well, it depends on the definition of “practical”.

The progressive version of a practical education came with strings attached. Practicality, they said, requires dispensing with all absolute principles and standards. They rejected permanent truths and claimed that “truth is that which works”. They said that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and that anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb and by trial and error. In the name of practicality, progressive educators shunned principles.

But the truth is quite the opposite. The number one purpose of a proper education is to teach the child to think in principles by integrating facts from many subjects such as history, literature, science, and math. If you learn to think in principles, you have the method to acquire and integrate new knowledge on your own for the rest of your life. This is what constitutes a true practical education for life.

Progressive education officially fell out of fashion in the 1950s. But it has continued to rule American education through several generations of progressive educators that have passed on their legacy to today’s teachers and educational establishment. As a result, our progressive-dominated government (public) education system has shaped the minds of the vast majority of Americans over the past 100 years.

This has had a profound impact on freedom and liberty minded people, the people who generally loathe progressives, which brings me back to my initial thought:

The progressive movement has been so successful in shaping our education system that many of today’s critics of progressivism are rendered less effective in their activism by the fact that they have themselves been crippled by a progressive education.

What I mean is that many men and women who are fighting for freedom and liberty have either problems thinking in principles or dismiss principled thinking as irrelevant. Ask yourself if at some point or another you have rejected a seemingly correct principle as being impractical, pie-in-the-sky, or the stuff that dreams are made of? Or perhaps you have argued that time is too short, that we don’t have the luxury to worry about principles but instead must be pragmatic? If yes, chances are you’re a victim of a progressive-influenced education.

To some extent this is understandable. In the daily grind, when we’re down in the activist trenches, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. And it is obviously not made any easier by the fact that we weren’t taught thinking in principles properly growing up. But forgetting about or dismissing the principles that should guide our activism is a lethal mistake.

The good news for all of us who missed out on it in school is that thinking in principles can be learned. How? In short, beware of the progressive in you that is whispering “shun principles!” The following “therapy” seems to work for me:

  1. I’ve made a habit of always asking myself what a principled solution grounded in reality looks like for a particular issue. Using education as an example, the principle is, you guessed it, total separation of state and education.
  2. The principle may appear impractical (in progressive lingo) at first glance, so I proceed to finding a few how-to-get-from-here-to-there scenarios that illustrate how to implement the principle in practice. To continue with the education example, here are some ideas about what my president would do.
  3. Finally, I try to address the potential objections, and adjust the scenarios as needed.

If you train yourself to look for a principled solution grounded in reality to every issue, and subsequently outline a practical path for getting from here to there while addressing the potential objections along the way, you will have found a good method for fighting collectivists in general, and the progressive kind in particular. They will continue to obstruct your path towards a brighter future, but now you’re properly armed to win not only the next battle, but the war.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Do you agree with my assessment of the impact of progressive education? Do you have any hints and tips of your own on how to train yourself in thinking in principles?

9 thoughts on “Beware of The Progressive in You

  1. Ilene Skeen says:

    Anders, I think you are “right on” for this one. Progressive education is so pervasive that by the time many people get old enough to read Atlas Shrugged their education has rendered them incapable of understanding it in any meaningful depth. Even people who agree with Objectivism sometimes struggle to state its principles except by parroting Rand. This is an important problem. Young people are taught today that they are “hardwired,” that they have no control over their belief systems and that all principles are suspect and akin to mythology. The confusion of language, definition and metaphor is widespread. The first step you emphasized, thinking about a problem in principle is good if you know where to start, most young people do not have a clue on that score, nor do they think ideas important enough to start getting a clue.

    What is necessary is an analytical methodology applied to practical learning (like learning to read) which would teach the child a skill he wants and a methodology of understanding his understanding of that skill. By teaching a child to analyze and verbalize the learning process, he can take a step toward thinking in principles later on. Very important.


  2. Mike says:

    Anders, it’s time to collect all this wisdom you’ve been producing and put out a book. A collection of your articles would sell to the many folks who understand that the current beliefs and actions aren’t working.


  3. pro·gres·sive


  4. Elisabeth says:

    You are wrong. There, you have an absolute from a strong progressive.
    I guess you would prefer the Texas version of math, science and history. Ignore science esp. Biology. Leave Jefferson out of “History” books, math is ok as long as you don’ use it to provide evidence of evolution, promote a church-controlled state with the main focus on the blasphemy of Jesus as a perverted capitalist.


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