Progressive Education and Democracy

I appreciated reading the title of the summer edition of Catlin Gabel’s school magazine The Caller. “Educating for Democracy” was splashed across the front cover. Although John Dewey identified participation in civic society as a goal of progressive education in 1916, progressive schools have tended to focus more on experiential learning and school community and rarely enshrined democracy as a core value.

In four articles, Catlin Gabel staff explore the history of Dewey and educating for democracy, the requisite skills, knowledge, experiences, and dispositions, and examples of the work in action. This issue stands as a clear and detailed expression that teaching young people to participate in society is an essential component of primary and secondary education.

The school is also reacting to contemporary events, another principle of progressive education. Students experience school within the context of their daily lives. Leaning into the political upheaval taking place at all levels better equips students to navigate and ultimately shape the future of American democracy. Head of School Tim Bazemore write, “Our goal is not to educate students to be Republicans, Democrats, or Libertarians; it is to prepare them to be informed political citizens, capable of forming reasoned opinions and acting on their beliefs.”

College prep schools in particular struggle to break the hold of content and skills within their programs. College preparation remains synonymous with college admission preparation, although the two are quite different. When I interviewed a handful of college instructors and program directors, they reported that incoming students largely lacked necessary skills in critical thinking, independence, collaboration, and creativity. Content preparation, they said, was less important for success in college. Yet, college admission is still largely determined by course requirements in traditional subject areas, SAT and ACT scores, and achievement as measured by letter grades.

Educating for democracy is one way to teach critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and empathy within the context of urgent contemporary issues. There are other ways to apply such thinking skills, for example UPrep’s growing focus on research, advocacy, and entrepreneurship. It is vital that school’s consider their purpose in educating students to survive and thrive in today’s world. College preparation is no longer enough.

 

 

One comment

  1. Marianne Picha says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful follow up to the Catlin Gabel magazine. I would add that to do the vital work that you describe, we must be constantly checking our own biases as educators. We have to be aware of our own gestalt and stereotypes (in this case, around politics) that limit a student’s ability to practice their own brand of critical thinking about citizenship.

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