The Left’s long march through our classrooms: can it ever be reversed?
When I started teaching in the late 1960s there were still unresolved issues between “traditional teachers” and “progressive educators”. Traditional teachers usually held academic degrees in particular disciplines; like history, literature, math or chemistry. Progressives typically held degrees in “education”.
With regard to the curriculum, the two camps differed over the relative importance of “what to teach” and “how to teach.” The traditionalists focused on the content of the lesson. Progressives professed to be interested in how students learn. Traditionalists commonly used direct instruction and Socratic discourse. Progressives sought to organize “cooperative learning experiences” that were to produce “critical thinking” skills.
Over the years, serious academics on both sides of the political spectrum, claimed that progressive teaching practices dumbed down the curriculum and emptied the content of the humanities. For whatever reason, academic standards over the last half century tumbled faster than a Soviet gymnast on steroids and the spirit of open-ended, rational inquiry sunk to an all time low. Over the same period political consciousness among students rose to 18th century revolutionary levels. Teachers’ unions became more radical and more partisan. We aligned with left-wing political parties from which we won higher salaries. We sought graduate degrees from progressive education faculties; which qualified us for even higher salaries and influential positions in the educational establishment. By the end of the 1970s we had transformed teaching from a low-paying, rather prestigious, “vocation” to a relatively well-paid, adversarial “mission”.
The 20th century progressive education movement was inspired by the thinking of American philosopher, John Dewey. Dewey was, in large measure, a disciple of Marx, and his own disciples co-opted our schools throughout the radical decades of the last century. His so-called “pragmatism” and “activity methods” captured the imagination of educational theorists at Columbia University; and throughout my own teaching career “progressivism” became the conventional wisdom in North American elementary, high school and college education.
Young, tenured, progressive teachers and professors of education became unassailable leaders in their fields. We removed a weakened traditional establishment and ultimately formed a new one. And, over the years, we produced millions of adolescent “critical thinkers” who ironically became fundamentalist, uncritical opponents of democratic capitalism, western civilization and all of the alleged methods of oppression European imperialists have been accused of since the days of Samuel de Champlain and the Company of New France. Consequently, among well-educated young people, western history and culture has become little more than a long record of moral inferiority.
So, who’s been teaching what to whom? In the early 1970s I was a young progressive freshly out of McGill’s Faculty of Education. Me and my late good friend, Gerry Kelebay, were employed by a large public school board on Montreal’s West Island. We were ambitious teachers of history and loyal union activists. As such, we both served terms as President of the Quebec Association of Teachers of History (QATH), a subject association that often acted as a sounding board for government curriculum developers and school board authorities. In the mid-1970s we both left the public school system. Kelebay was recruited to teach perspective teachers at McGill’s Faculty of Education and I to teach history at Lower Canada College.
In 1979 Quebec’s Partie Quebecois Government was introducing a new “Regime Pedagogique” which included a high school history program soon to be known as “Histoire Nationale”. As former presidents of QATH, Kelebay and I were were asked to prepare a review of the new syllabus. In those days, as now, most teachers and government “experts” in education were assumed to be on the same ideological page; so everyone expected us to deliver high praise for the new program; especially since it made “Histoire Nationale” compulsory and would employ hundreds of Quebec history teachers for years to come.
As fate would have it, accepting to review the new course turned out to be one of those apple-cart-upsetting decisions one is seldom able to walk back. The problem was that our thinking had evolved considerably since we had been union activists in the early 70s. For reasons too complex to explain here we had begun to doubt the veracity of several formative sources from the progressive canon that influenced our thinking as students and young teachers; sources like John Dewey, Antonio Gramsci, Paulo Freire, Frantz Fanon and Quebec’s Pierre Vallieres.
As I recall, our intellectual transformation accelerated with subscriptions to Encounter and Commentary Magazines along with a developing affection for writers like Arthur Koestler, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jean Francois Revel and Nobel Prize winning economists, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Consequently, after examining the syllabus we were unable to honestly report that the new Histoires Nationale would lead to a well-balanced understanding of Quebec’s history. We felt obligated to conclude that the authors of the syllabus had adopted a Marxist historical analysis to the exclusion of all other perspectives. We saw little or no attention to the contribution of European culture, religion, customs, laws or ideas on the development of Quebec. In fact, the emergence of the social democratic Partie Quebecois between 1968 and 1979 was given more attention in the course than the entire 350 year history of the Roman Catholic Church in North America. We maintained that students were being forced to concentrate on dark, dialectical, historical relationships between “oppressors” and “oppressed”. Canada’s French – English discord was linked to class conflict. It was no longer to be a history of “Colony to Nation”. It had become a history of our evolution from “Capitalism to Socialism”, a smokescreen for a neo-Marxist, liberationist, political agenda.
We didn’t expect a bravo for our report from the PQ Ministry of Education but we also didn’t anticipate the push back we got from our own colleagues. The QATH Board of Directors voted not to circulate the report to our membership. So, we resigned from the Association and sent the report to the press. At first, there was little mainstream media interest; but a longstanding Anglo West Island weekly, The News and Chronicle, published the report in full. After that, CBC News wanted to do a story on the issue. However, we were informed that they wouldn’t cover the story unless someone could come up with a spokesperson who would oppose our report. Most of our critics took the view that the report didn’t deserve public attention but no one wanted to step up to make a case in favour of the new course. Finally, the CBC found a young McGill history professor who was to serve as a “neutral” authority. Predictably, the professor was given prominence on the evening news. He obviously felt no obligation to deal with and refute the content of the report. He simply said our analysis was “absurd” and we were “galloping off in all directions” – in other words, either stupid or insane.
At this point we were faced with a choice between a quiet retreat or doubling down. We had grown to feel strongly about the issue; so with support from the late British businessman and Atlas Network founder, Sir Antony Fisher, we founded the St. Lawrence Institute for the Advancement of Education and rededicated ourselves to examining progressive bias in our humanities programs. Following up on the history report, we conducted an analysis of Quebec’s new high school economics course. This time we pointed out that the course was full of demand-side, Keynesian assumptions and paid no real attention to the supply-side revolution that was taking place in contemporary economic thought. We said the course was already outdated and unresponsive to new ideas. We were invited to present our case to a national meeting of Canadian School Trustees. A lot of them were small business people and agreed with the analysis. But, most of the School Board superintendents who attended didn’t think it was an issue that elected school trustees should be discussing.
By the late 80s I succumbed to the old maxim: “change begins from the inside” or “if you can’t beat em, join em”. By this time Kelebay was a full professor at McGill’s Faculty of Education and he encouraged me to pursue entry to an ad hoc PhD program. We talked about a thesis proposal and agreed that it was high time someone took a thorough look at the ideological impact of John Dewey. My contention was that the movement spawned by Dewey had deep roots in the socialist revolutionary thought of 19th century Europe. In fact, I suspected that Dewey owed an unacknowledged debt to Marxism which had a heavy influence on his educational theories. I wanted to ask the questions: “Was Dewey a Marxist?” And if so, did it matter? But, when Kelebay shared my proposal with a senior gatekeeper for the ad hoc Doctoral Program, the reaction wasn’t promising. The professor said he suspected I had already come to a conclusion which I was setting out to justify. I had an initial bias and was “reading into Dewey”. For these reasons he said he had great difficulty reading my proposal objectively. To say the least, the hostility toward my candidacy was palpable. So, I gave up on the idea of more graduate work and later settled for publishing “Was Dewey a Marxist?” on our SLI website.
So, is resistance to the conventional wisdom worth your trouble? Well, several months after our public shaming by the CBC, The Case Against the New Histoire Nationale, appeared as a cover story in Teaching History, a national journal published by The Historical Association of Great Britain. Our paper entitled Deconstructing High School Economics, was eventually published in the McGill Journal of Education; and despite the resistance to my thesis proposal; the online publication of Was Dewey a Marxist? attracted several citations from US scholars, most recently from American historian, Paul Kengor in his book: Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century. As Kelebay used to say, “at least we left a few tracks in the snow”.
In the late 70s and early 80s we were often told that our analysis had merit but we were being too “strident” or “provocative”. One colleague explained that we were coming across as “young fogies”. More recently, at a Montreal symposium for conservatives, classical liberals and libertarians it was suggested that outspoken conservatives in education may be “part of the problem”. Shortly after that event, Cardus Executive Vice President, Ray Pennings, writing in that association’s online journal, Convivium, said: “No one is saying that concerns conservatives have raised about education don’t have validity. What I am saying is that simply piling on and playing the victim card, using “woe is us” language and assuming the left has completed its long march through the education system, is really not a true or complete picture. Even to the extent that it is true, its not helpful”.
Leaving for another day Mr. Pennings’ remarks about the helpfulness, or lack thereof, of certain reform strategies, I can only point out that the image of aggressive neo-con teachers “piling on” against thoughtful, open-minded progressives over the last half century is a somewhat fanciful inversion of reality. Participating in hundreds of workshops, conferences and teachers conventions throughout my own career, I can honestly say that I often found myself to be the only dissenting opinion in the room. Piling on just wasn’t an option.
To conclude, I regret to say that the conservative movement remains thinly represented in both public schools and private academies. During the 80s political victories by Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney created the illusion of a deeper, more permanent drift back to the classical liberal values, traditional morality and free market economies that were largely responsible for western peace, order and prosperity. The Soviet Empire fell and we enjoyed a quarter century of economic progress. But all of this made us complacent about a deeply embedded educational counter culture that has rolled on into the 21st century. Silence on the issue has not made things better. In 20th century faculty rooms conservative opinion used to be “objectionable.” Today it’s “unacceptable.” Today, allegations of greed, bigotry, stupidity, privilege, sexual harassment and micro-aggression all function to silence opposition in the way that show trials or political assassinations did in the 1930s. This is not to contend that we have had a full blown Marxist conspiracy in our schools. “What we have had instead”, according to George Walden, a former British Minister for Higher Education, “is a vulgarized, bastardized version of the creed: not Marxist but Marxoidal”. What ever we choose to call it; if schools continue to focus exclusively on class struggle, identity politics, radical environmentalism and other post-modern preoccupations this will be the only lens through which coming generations will measure the legitimacy of free societies.
So, can the left’s long march through our classrooms ever be reversed? As the late Father Richard Neuhaus used to say, “I am hopeful, but not optimistic.” But, in hope we discover a refusal to despair, and we can choose to act on our best hopes for a better future. A change in the status-quo will depend on the will and persistence of the next generation of conservative thinkers and activists, many of whom are already speaking out, writing, founding organizations and making a difference in the public square. Some say that young people are only out for a good time; but no one should say that about those who are seeking to think, speak, write and teach freely in this new millennium.