A Father Looks at Progressive Education

A long and energetic newspaper career in this country and overseas afforded GLADWIN HILL opportunities to scrutinize many varied systems of public education as they affected his own family and the communities where the Hills lived. As an undergraduate, Mr. Hill was Harvard correspondent for the Boston Evening Transcript, and continued as a reporter for that paper before joining the Associated Press in New York. He covered World War II in Europe, and for the past eight years has been chief of the New York Times Bureau in Los Angeles.



FOR a number of years, I enjoyed a reputation among my friends as a stalwart conservative. But of late, on repeated occasions, I find myself abruptly the target of the pitying glances accorded supposedly solid citizens who have just been revealed as former Communist Party cardholders. What precipitates this change in the social climate is my disclosure that my children go to a “progressive” school.

My friends are usually polite in their implied censure of this circumstance. They charitably take it for granted that I had no choice, and cast their comments in the form of sympathy. Isn’t it difficult, they ask, having one’s children daily exposed to an atmosphere of anarchy? And what about their learning? When are they going to have a chance to assimilate the fundamentals which they are missing in attending a progressive school?

These, I have found, are the two most prevalent notions about progressive education — that it is devoid of discipline, and also devoid of learning.

When, on occasion, our two children, a twelveyear-old boy and a nine-year-old girl, subsequently walk into the room and turn out to be neither fiends nor cretins but reasonably polite, intelligent youngsters, the sympathy continues unabated. Obviously my wife and I have performed a Herculean task in compensating at home for the depravities and intellectual deprivations to which the children have daily been exposed at school. And the suspicion begins to crystallize that if I am not subversive, I must be something of an eccentric in thus complicating the family’s life, when the children could just as well go to a conventional school where, theoretically, discipline and the “three R’s” prevail.

My friends’ sympathy is compounded with dismay and bewilderment when I inform them that the school my children attend not only is being supported by their taxes, but is by way of being a fountainhead of the teaching which their own children receive in the “conservative” public schools.

For the school in question is the University Elementary School, a division of the department of education of the University of California at Los Angeles — the demonstration school in which student teachers receive practical training in handling classes. As an official arm of the State of California, which most educators will concede is hardly backward in the realm of education, the school simply reflects the educational philosophy espoused by the State Department of Public Instruction, which is supposedly the criterion of public schools throughout the state. This philosophy stresses development of “the whole child” and of social adjustment along with book learning.

The Los Angeles public schools, like those of many cities, are terribly overcrowded — as many as forty pupils to a teacher, double-shift education, little chance for individual attention, and all the attendant shortcomings. The University Elementary School in contrast, being styled as an ideal laboratory in educational methods, is scaled to twentyfive-pupil classes, with one instructor teacher and two student teachers to a class.

Having been subconsciously indoctrinated in the anarchy-und-ignorance notions about progressive education, I was prepared for the worst.

My first jolt came on the matter of discipline. I happened to be on the school playground when it was time for a class to cease its fun and games. Unlike the ordinary school, no bells were rung, whistles blown, or shrieks shrieked. The teacher simply stood on the steps with her arm upraised; one child after another saw her, passed the word to the others, and they stopped their play. In classes, I found, the disciplinary standards were just as high as in any school. When a pupil disturbs a class or gets fresh, he or she is sent out of the room. Repetitions bring a trip to the principal, a stern lecture, possible parental conferences, and ultimately possible expulsion.

This conventional sequence of sanctions has, at U.E.S., far more than the customary impact. I discovered this one morning when David languished late abed and complained of feeling sick. I routinely suggested that he might be malingering.

“I’m not saying that to get out of going to school,” he retorted. “I like to go to school.”

That certainly called for some investigation. In what respects, precisely, did the curriculum at U.E.S. differ from that of other schools, at which attendance is so widely and cordially disliked? This question of course opened up the whole subject of the theory of progressive education, on which volumes have been written which it is impossible to summarize here. Suffice it to list what to a layman are salient features.

Basically, there is the concept that a school’s function is not to turn out walking encyclopedias, but to produce individuals better qualified to cope with the world. A corollary of this is that the function of the elementary school is not merely to inject the rudiments of knowledge into juvenile brains, but to commence as early as possible the process of shaping citizens who not only can spell, but who will be well enough oriented to their environment to enjoy it, and well enough adjusted to their fellow men to stay out of prisons and mental institutions, which are crowded with good spellers.

This school of thought, accordingly, discounts as inadequate the compartmentalized hour-of-arithmetic-then-an-hour-of-spelling technique of instruction, and substitutes for it the pattern by which we learn throughout life: the assimilation of many subjects, including the basic ones, as they impinge on our individual orbits.

At U.E.S., each class has a semester theme topic. It may be the postal system, the Hopi Indians, shipping, Mexico, the newspaper business, or the Chinese. In the process of exploring these subjects by, as nearly as possible, living them during school hours, pupils assimilate everything from handcrafts to interpretive dancing — including, let it be said, reading, writing, and arithmetic.

I was duly skeptical of the latter aspect, especially when, in the second grade, David, although an expert on the postal system, was still hazy about the alphabet since he was learning reading by the flash card words-and-phrases method. I suffered over this ignorance for about six months. Then one night he walked in with the evening paper, remarking: “I see where the Chinese Communists attacked us again. . . .”

The widespread impression that under this system children are expected to assimilate the fundamentals of learning passively has no validity at U.E.S. Osmosis is supplemented by many of the same textbooks used in schools throughout the country, by study periods, and by homework. I am bombarded with just as many arithmetic problems as the fathers in Saturday Evening Post cartoons.

The integrated-instruction system has turned out in my observation to be not a device for giving children something different from basic elementary school learning, or something less, but for giving them something more.

The “more” covers many things. It includes the encouragement of manual dexterity, with activities like carpentry started in the first grade. It includes self-expression, in improvised dramatics and interpretive dancing keyed to the study topics — activities which some people scoff at in elementary schools, while hailing them as a great scientific advance when used as therapy (perhaps belatedly) for repressed adults. It includes the earliest possible realization that geography, economics, history, and arithmetic are not compartmentalized abstractions, but are the interwoven warp and woof of real life. The topic system gives a coherence and impetus and enjoyment to learning and school experience which is lacking in starkly compartmentalized education.

In observing their pupils in a broad gamut of activities and situations — including even a weeklong camping expedition in the sixth grade — rather than simply in a series of textbook sessions, U.E.S. teachers have the maximum opportunity to appraise the children’s individual strengths, weaknesses, and problems, and help them accordingly.

What about marks? A widespread impression is that progressive education rejects any precise measurement of pupils’advancement in favor of a vague periodical satisfactory-unsatisfactory rating.

On the contrary, the school our children go to maintains detailed records of the pupils’ progress in all their activities. To be sure, these are not set down on a card once a month for the child to bring home and merely get praise or Hail Columbia for. This isn’t necessary, because it is assumed that parents have enough interest in their children’s progress to keep close tabs. In contrast to many public schools, where parental visits are welcome one day a year, at U.E.S. parents are urged to visit their children’s classes often. When a child shows pronounced retardation in any respect, it is a matter for special consultation between the parents and the teacher. In addition, there are regular semester conferences on the children’s general progress. This involves a lot more participation and effort on the parents’ part than simply glancing at and signing a report card.


How does the system actually work out in educating children? I don’t pretend to be a pedagogical expert who can put a pair of calipers on one group of youngsters and say they are better or worse educated than another group; and I am a bit skeptical of those who do. If a child at the age of twelve can’t read, there’s obviously a deficiency somewhere; but that’s the exceptional case. The real test of education generally is the kind of adults it produces. U.E.S. has not been functioning long enough to have produced a representative group of adults.

In general, however, U.E.S. children, after completing the sixth and final grade, go on to other schools more than qualified to start seventh-grade work. At a recent annual open house at a large local junior high school, three of five compositions chosen for an English class display were by U.E.S. graduates.

In addition, to judge by my own children and their classmates, they already have a far wider knowledge and understanding of what the world is about than their contemporaries; they seem to have more initiative and self-reliance, and in general more maturity. This was brought home to me one day when David’s teacher showed me a note he had written her. He had vouchsafed a flippant answer in class, and the teacher had sent him to the sidelines to think the matter over and write her an explanation of his behavior.

“I guess,” he wrote (yes, he can write), “I was just trying to attract attention.”

Well, the system may work all right, my skeptical friends sometimes suggest, with a hand-picked group of children. Unfortunately for this argument, the 300 children at U.E.S. are hand-picked only in the sense of being selected to provide a complete cross-section of the population. There are rich people’s children, middle-class children, and poor people’s children, white children and Negro children, children of Mexican-American, JapaneseAmerican, and Chinese-American extraction — most of the kinds that the student teachers may have to handle after graduation. There are even a few children admitted whose home environments are so unsatisfactory as initially to affect their school adjustment. One of our little girl’s classmates wanted to do nothing her first two years except sit by the teacher and clutch her doll. She was allowed to, and after two years’ collaboration between the school and her parents, and the school and the little girl, she is now a well-integrated member of the class.

The reaction to all this is, not infrequently, the blunt feeler: “How do you get a child into that school?” Then I have to pass along the discouraging information that U.E.S. has a waiting list of more than one thousand. But I console such inquirers with this thought: there is not the cosmic difference between this school and the ones their children are going to now — except for the widespread shortages in facilities — which they might imagine. As heretical as it may seem at first blush, the approaches that are being used at U.E.S. and other progressive schools are ideas which, day by day, are finding their place in all education.

The most vehement advocate of “three R’s” education would not seriously suggest that schooling be confined literally to those subjects and such adjuncts as geography. And fewer extremists are jabbering that while the teaching of history and geography is proper, any correlation of them into social studies is somehow subversive.

On the other hand, no intelligent disciple of John Dewey would countenance a vacuum in discipline or willful failure to equip children with the basic tools of knowledge. I have no doubt there are some schools where tangential exponents of the “new” child psychology have allowed children to run amok and learn little. But, on the basis of current reports, such deviations are as frequent among conventional schools as any others — and seem often attributable, incidentally, to the parental detachment and apathy which representative progressive schools deplore.

The fact is that now almost universal recognition of the necessity for turning out well-rounded children, rather than academic robots of specified wattage, has led educators generally to embrace features once identified with progressivism — to the extent that the term “progressive” has become meaningless. Exponents of integrated curriculums like that at U.E.S. are coming more and more to use the term “practical education” as more informative.

Within recent weeks I encountered two striking illustrations of the mingling of methods that exists even in the most unlikely places. Both occurred in Los Angeles, which, despite California’s official state educational outlook, is a center of great hostility to anything in education that can be labeled “progressive.” The first incident occurred at a school board meeting, where a mathematics teacher was explaining how, in learning weights and measures, students often even built their own scales in the classroom. The board unanimously nodded approvingly, quite unconscious of the fact that they were endorsing a fundamental feature of progressive education.

A few days later I noticed a full-page illustrated newspaper feature about a class of school children who were operating a miniature post office in a school in Westwood — a unit of the Los Angeles city school system. In running the miniature post office, the article patiently explained, the pupils were — mirabile dictu! — at one and the same time acquiring learning not only in reading and writing, but also in arithmetic.

Who’s “progressive” now?

The next article in this series will be “Textbooks Under Fireby Virgil M. Rogers, Dean of the School of Education at Syracuse University.