Education that patronizes the poor isn’t ‘progressive”
January 31, 2016

The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.

– James Baldwin

Poor children deserve an education built upon rich intellectual resources drawn from history’s world fund of information. Yet, sadly, these very children will encounter educators and school systems too lost in progressive ideology to see the poor as capable of such an education.

The ironic malfunction of that thinking is that it sees itself as humane while it furthers a cruel inequity, the gap between the knowing and unknowing classes. Lowering expectations for children because their life circumstances seem unbeatable has the nasty effect of assigning them permanently to low stations, and into the service of better educated people.

That is the message in a post by Tarjinder Gill who taught in inner-city British primary schools and came to believe the progressive education movement jeopardizes the freedom of poor and working-class children.

“Deprivation is, it seems, destiny for children in British schools,” she says.

She is irked by a high level education official who criticized school reformers because they “have the temerity to ‘refuse to accept that teachers alone cannot compensate for the lost life chances of poor children’.”

American education reformers know that criticism well.

The worst crime of all is that these reformers are “great adherents of ED Hirsch and his powerful knowledge curriculum’ who refuse to accept that children living in poverty ‘find a narrow academic curriculum, topped off by timed exams, alien to their lives and their interests’.”

Even as humans have learned a great deal during their time on Earth, the poor just aren’t interested in learning about it.

According to Gill, that dangerous prejudice grew legs in last century and still hurts the under-classes today.

Back in the 1960s, prime minister Harold Wilson backed a comprehensive education system on the promise that it would effectively provide grammar schools for all. Alas, this was not to be. Instead, the knowledge-rich grammar school curriculum was attacked as ‘middle class’ and ‘elitist’. Teachers, trained by progressive educationalists in universities, started to enshrine prejudice against working-class children into the core of the education system, at the same time as flying the banner of equality.

A commitment to teaching the ‘best that has been thought and said’ has been replaced by an array of educational fads. Teachers are encouraged to focus on ‘relevance’, only teaching topics of ‘interest’ to less well-off children. However, such a focus merely reinforces existing inequalities. The obsession with ‘relevance’ means that, by virtue of their differing experiences and backgrounds, middle-class children benefit from a richer curriculum than their working-class peers.

While children from advantaged families access the intellectual capital of all preceding generations, poor children are given discovery HRquoteand inquiry that, Gill says, leaves them on the “sandy pit of their own ignorance” rather than “standing on the shoulders of giants.” This “reinforces inequalities as it promotes the view that children should discover knowledge for themselves rather than being directly taught.”

Many “progressive” educators, especially the millions who have been steeped in Paulo Freire’s tea, will revolt at the thought of “directly” teaching or canonized knowledge.

Freire proposed a form of discovery and inquiry that views the student, especially the oppressed student, as a co-creator of knowledge and learning rather than a vessel where facts can be deposited.

He said:

One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding.

Unlike the Hirsch-ites, Freire said a real education radical will not “consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

5E0A6727-683x1024That is almost educational poetry. It’s tempting and beautiful, and somewhat like the work of painter Henri Rousseau in its precious impracticability.

We can wait for the poor to discover for themselves the alphabet, letters, calculus, astronomy, and the base knowledge that is passed generation-by-generation to the offspring of the rich so they can rule the world, but that conceit positions poor children to be self-confident dunces in a world of learned opportunists. That ideology, which is meant to free the poor, becomes the key that locks their cell.

There will be no revolution of illiterates. If there were such a revolution it would be quelled by the knowing class. Liberation has never been formed on a rejection of knowledge, and there will be no jubilee based upon jingoistic, self-pleasing ignorance. It is unlikely that the poor will experience all that Freire and Franz Fannon and James Baldwin would have them experience if they have not learned to read, write, and compute well enough to decode the world that has them bound.

Direct teaching speeds acquisition of the very skills to enable their fight for freedom. Lowering expectations for the acquisition of these skills lowers the probability of their emancipation.

For those “educators” who will ask us to be realistic about the limits of children in poverty, to see how their circumstances are immutable barriers to their humanity and cognitive ability, to be so compassionate as to see how feeble and deficient they are, Gill says:

The failure of so-called progressive teaching methods has not led to a culture of excuse-making. ‘Sort out poverty, deprivation, home circumstances, racism and sexism’, the progressives cry, ‘and our methods will eradicate bad behaviour and enable these children to succeed’. In the meantime, poor children are treated as collateral damage. Badly behaved pupils are allowed to disrupt the learning of other pupils and are lavished with special attention. This neither supports the child with behaviour problems nor their classmates. This common occurrence stems from the idea that educating poor children is secondary to meeting their pastoral needs. But even if this were true for a small number of children, it should not be the basis of all teaching.

She is dancing somewhere between the paternalism of core knowledge and the maternalism of a leftist misreading of Freire. Neither position will do everything for poor people, but the former is more pragmatic and useful than the latter.

She speaks from lived experience as someone who “lived in poverty” and saw how education “transformed” her life. Now she reminds others who are similarly situated to “[c]hallenge government policy by all means, but remember this: it is the duty of those for whom education offered a brighter future to make sure that ladder is not pulled up.”


Tarjinder Gill blogs at teachwell.me.  

h/t to Eric Kalenze @erickalenze for posting her work.



  1. It’s a seductive narrative, but it simply isn’t true.

    E.g. 1. The vast majority of comprehensive schools in England retained streaming (tracking) i.e. these schools continued the systems of the grammar schools they replaced. There was typically no formal selection, but still selection by location and family income. Grammar schools in all but name, therefore.

    E.g. 2. The UK has had a National Curriculum, full of cultural knowledge, since the 1980s.

    E.g. 3. Anyone who thinks progressivism has monopolised school teaching in the US and UK needs to consider the work of education academics such as Larry Cuban and David Labaree, both of whom show us how traditional teaching methods have long dominated.

    As in the US, moreover, UK child poverty rates have grown dramatically in these same decades, wages have stagnated and the gap between the richest and poorest grows wider and wider. What this means in other words is that it is not progressive ideology that should be blamed for the type of deprivation that the blogger cited in this post highlights. Rather, it is the cultural literacy position and other related, traditional approaches that should. They have persisted down the ages, while mainstream education in the US and UK has never been progressive.

  2. Thank you for writing this analysis – it has made me think more deeply again about the arguments I made in it.

    John you know that it has not worked like that at all in the UK.
    1) Setting and streaming are not the same – Comprehensives have set it’s true but others have decided on mixed ability classes throughout Secondary education to the detriment of brighter students and with no gains for lower ability ones. Comprehensives themselves have led to greater segregation. Whereas in the past grammar schools enabled some social mobility, comprehensives, few of which are a mixture of social classes have simply led to widening gap in achievement. You also omit the rise in the number of private schools as a direct result of the progressive excesses in the late 1970s.

    2) The UK National Curriculum, has been influenced by progressive educationalists, they forced the continued use of mixed methods for teaching reading when it was known that Phonics had greater and more reliable evidence to support it. The Schools History Project which argued for a move from knowledge to skills during the 1988 curriculum, has publicly acknowledged the damage this has done to the subject and how it is largely responsible for the decline of history as a subject.

    3) I suggest reading Progressively Worse by Robert Peal who documents not only how progressivism has embedded itself in the UK system but also how it drove out traditionalists from the system. It still does. It is the reason why I am currently working in a different capacity. If it were true that traditional methods have been there all along then my experience should be an exception rather than the norm that it is.



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