Category Archives: Traditionalism

Freedom and the Politics of Canceling Teachers and Curriculum

By mid-December of 2021, Matthew Hawn, a former teacher in Tennessee, will once again have his appeal heard after being fired for violating the state’s restrictions on curriculum:

The Tennessee General Assembly has banned the teaching of critical race theory, passing a law at the very end of the legislative session to withhold funding from public schools that teach about white privilege.

Republicans in the House made the legislation a last-minute priority, introducing provisions that ban schools from instructing students that one race bears responsibility for the past actions against another, that the United States is fundamentally racist or that a person is inherently privileged or oppressive due to their race.

Tennessee bans public schools from teaching critical race theory amid national debate, Natalie Allison

As Allison reported in May, several states across the U.S. have filed or passed copy-cat legislation aimed at banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

By October and November, the consequences of Tennessee’s law have moved from silencing and canceling teachers to attempts to cancel curriculum [1]:

The Tennessee Department of Education recently declined to investigate a complaint filed under a new state law prohibiting the teaching of certain topics regarding race and bias.

The complaint, the first directed to the state under the new law passed this spring, was filed by Robin Steenman, chair of the Moms for Liberty Williamson County chapter, a conservative parent group sweeping the nation. 

The 11-page complaint alleged that the literacy curriculum, Wit and Wisdom, used by Williamson County Schools and at least 30 other districts, has a “heavily biased agenda” that makes children “hate their country, each other and/or themselves.”

Tennessee Department of Education rejects complaint filed under anti-critical race theory law, Meghan Mangrum

Although the complaint was rejected, Mangrum noted, “The group detailed concerns with four specific books on subjects like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, the integration of California schools by advocate Sylvia Mendez and her family, and the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, adapted for younger learners.”

A teacher fired for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates, parents calling for bans on MLK and teaching about Ruby Bridges—these events are not unique to Tennessee, but they reflect a pattern of efforts to control not only teachers, but what students are allowed to learn and read.

Notable in these examples is that many of the consequences of legislation are canceling Black writers and key aspects of Black history; additionally, legislation and calls for book banning are targeting LGBTQ+ writers and topics.

Teaching and curriculum in the U.S. are being systematically and politically whitewashed.

One aspect not being addressed often is that political dynamic. Parents, political activists, and politicians are impacting who teaches and what is being taught in the context of a historical and current demand that teachers themselves remain apolitical, both in their classrooms and their lives beyond school.

As I have discussed often, teaching is necessarily political, and teaching as well as writing are necessarily types of activism.

For teachers, then, we must recognize that calls for teachers to be objective, neutral, and apolitical are themselves political acts. Currently, laws being passed and parents/activists confronting school boards are exercising their political power at the expense of teachers and schools—both of which are required to remain somehow politically neutral.

From historian/activist Howard Zinn to critical scholars such as Joe Kincheloe and to poet Adrienne Rich, we have ample evidence that taking a neutral stance is a political act that passively endorses the status quo and that silencing words is an act of canceling thought, eradicating ideas.

Zinn’s commitment to transparency as a teacher and activist is hauntingly relevant to the current political attack on teachers and curriculum:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order [emphasis added]….

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn

And Kincheloe confronted not only who is actually indoctrinating students but the imperative that teachers recognize teaching as inherently political:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive [emphasis added].

Critical Pedagogy Primer, Joe L. Kincheloe

The great irony is that critical educators (often smeared as “Marxists”) are committed, as Kincheloe asserts, to a foundational concern: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom.”

The Orwellian named “Moms for LIberty,” then, by calling for canceling curriculum are in fact being “totalitarian and oppressive,” calling for not education, but indoctrination. To ban words and ideas is to ban the possibility of thinking, of learning:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there [emphasis in original] to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido [emphasis in original], rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Arts of the Possible, Adrienne Rich

A final powerful point is that many of these political acts to silence teachers and cancel curriculum are occurring in right-to-work states controlled by Republicans. Teachers not only are expected to be neutral, objective, and apolitical, but also work with a distinct awareness they have almost no job security.

Hawn fired in Tennessee simply taught a text and now is fighting for his career; the text in most ways just a year ago was considered non-controversial and even celebrated as Coates had attained recognition as one of the country’s leading Black voices.

During this holiday season at the end of 2021, teachers honestly have no decision about whether or not to be political. We are faced with only two political choices: conform to the demand that we take a neutral pose, resulting in endorsing whatever status quo legislators and parents/activist impose on schools; or recognize and embrace the essential political nature of being a teacher by actively opposing efforts to cancel teachers and curriculum.

[1] Twitter thread:


Dear Parents, Your Children’s K-12 Education Is Already Very Conservative

I entered public education in the fall of 1984, a naive and idealistic first-year English teacher vividly aware of the literary significance of that year.

Of course, I was not yet aware that I was completely wrong about the essential purposes of public education because I had been gifted parents who trusted not only my intellect but the foundational good of knowledge and academic freedom.

My parents were wrong about quite a lot, it turns out, but they were magnificent in the freedom they allowed my mind and the support they gave to my often wonderful teachers.

The first few years of my teaching career included a series of visits to the principal’s office to discuss complaints from parents. It was something akin to the hazing period people experience when joining fraternities.

One of the earliest clashes I had with parents—and I should note that my students were often deeply appreciative of my classes, supportive of the work I was doing—centered on complaints about my assigning John Gardner’s Grendel to my advanced tenth graders (students on track to take Advanced Placement their senior year).

Grendel is a retelling of the Beowulf epic poem in novel form, and it does include a few graphic scenes and some so-called adult language. But these were 15 and 16 year olds planning to go to college, and unbeknownst to their parents, many of these students were sexually active and used language that was far more profane that the few “offensive” words in the novel. (Treating young adults as intellectual children when they are asserting adult behavior in their lives outside of school is inexcusable, I think.)

Yet, a few (maybe only two) parents launched a campaign to teach this new teacher a lesson about what parents expected from their children’s teachers.

Of course, the short version of this is that the novel was removed from my required list (although I left copies on my shelf and many students continued to choose the novel along with many other commonly banned works).

This pattern continued for several years: I was challenging my students intellectually, often seeking ways to prepare them for college, and parents here and there asserted disproportionate influence on whether or not I was allowed to do my work as an educator.

A key moment in those first years was me sitting once again in the principal’s office listening to Mr. Simpkins (also the man who was principal when I attended this school and father of two of my childhood friends) chastise me about crossing lines parents created; these sessions were also punctuated with not-so-subtle threat that my teaching career could be ended at any moment (South Carolina is a right-to-work state, by the way).

One time, exasperated, I responded with, “Mr. Simpkins, I am simply trying to teach these students to think.”

With a half-smile and without hesitation, Mr. Simpkins replied, “Paul, some parents don’t want their children to think.”

It is important to emphasize here that his comment carried the implication “and thus, we have no right to make those students think.”

Fast forward almost 40 years, over which I have been in education in SC the entire time, and consider that those experiences I encountered in the mid-1980s are now how the entire nation is dealing with K-12 education in the U.S.

Republicans are creating a false narrative about public schools indoctrinating students in leftwing ideologies (often mislabeled as Critical Race Theory or Marxism) and whipping up parental anger at their local schools.

And the paradox, of course, is that Republicans are passing and signing legislation that is designed to indoctrinate:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced new state programs for students Tuesday that will require civics and patriotism education as well as CPR training.

“Once students graduate high school, some will go to college, some of them will do other things…whatever you do, this civics is gonna be relevant because you are going to be a citizen,” DeSantis said at an afternoon news briefing in Fort Myers.

It will also require high school students to learn about “the evils of communism and totalitarian ideologies.”

Florida will require schools to teach civics and ‘evils of communism’

Currently, about 25 states are doing something similar to Florida—mandating what and how schools teach about race, racism, and history.

Two points need to be made about these efforts.

First, K-12 public education in the U.S. has always been and remains very conservative.

Let me emphasize that my experience noted above is common for new teachers, who quickly learn to self-censor and avoid parental complaints and administrative reprimands.

As I have written about before, I taught with a wonderful young teacher, himself a well-known and well-loved active Christian in the church just across the street from the high school, who taught geography. He found himself “in trouble” because he taught Middle East geography, including how the countries were aligned with different religions.

One parent was outraged, and asked that his son be moved to another teacher because the parent didn’t want his son to know there were religions other than Christianity.

What did the principal do? Moved the student to a geography class taught by a coach (a very conservative man who taught in ways that would likely thrill Republicans).

This leads to a second point: Conservatives are deeply confused about indoctrination and education.

And a great example of that misconception comes from an unlikely place, a brilliant response from chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, about charges by Republicans that the military is “woke” (another misuse of a term designed by conservatives to be a criticism):

“I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So what is wrong with understanding — having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?” Milley said.

He continued brusquely: “And I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military, our general officers, our commissioned, noncommissioned officers of being, quote, ‘woke’ or something else, because we’re studying some theories that are out there.”…

“I want to understand white rage, and I’m white, and I want to understand it,” he said. “So what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out.”

Top General Defends Studying Critical Race Theory In The Military

Gen. Milley understands—like my parents—that knowledge, reading, and awareness are powerful, but that simply being exposed to an idea doesn’t mean anyone is immediately indoctrinated by those ideas.

Most of us have studied the Holocaust, and we know the ideology of Hitler and the Nazis. Yet, most people decide to reject those ideas and beliefs.

I also want to emphasize that Gen. Milley is defending academic freedom, the essential nature of an academic institution and the sacredness of the human mind.

These are concepts entirely lost on Republicans who seek ways to use schools to decide for students what they learn and what they believe.

I want to end by returning to the central point everyone should understand, especially parents: U.S. K-12 public education is extremely conservative.

A vivid example of that is the enduring ways that children are taught about Hellen Keller, through the play The Miracle Worker.

Keller has been and remains a tool of educational indoctrination aimed at inculcating into children a belief in rugged individualism; if a person such as Keller can overcome her many sensory challenges, the message goes, then anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

But just like the mis-teaching of Martin Luther King Jr. in public schools (the overemphasis on his “I Have a Dream” speech and the de-contextualizing of his “content of their character” assertion), Keller of The Miracle Worker is not the full and complicated (or even accurate) story of this woman.

Keller was a socialist and political activist—something I am certain most students never hear in a K-12 classroom.

The Miracle Worker is the sort of “safe” text that most teachers default to, like King’s “I Have a Dream,” in order to avoid the relentless interference of parents and administrators.

K-12 public education is mostly conservative because teachers learn to self-censor, to tip-toe around anything that the most extreme parents may complain about.

Critical Race Theory and liberal indoctrination simply do not exist in K-12 public schools in the U.S.

But there is a problem parents should be concerned about; your children are often being cheated out of knowledge and awareness because academic freedom died a long time ago when the first administrator defaulted to parental complaints at the expense of any student’s right to read and think widely and openly.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left exists in some substantial and influential way in the country.

The Truth about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left does not exist in some substantial and influential way in the country. Period.

The little lies that feed into the Big Lie include that universities and professors, K-12 public schools, the mainstream media, and Hollywood are all powerful instruments of liberal propaganda.

These little lies have cousins in the annual shouting about the “war on Christmas” and hand wringing by Christians that they are somehow the oppressed peoples of the U.S.

These lies little and Big are a scale problem in that the U.S. is now and has always been a country whose center is well to the right, grounded as we are in capitalism more so than democracy.

The U.S. is a rightwing country that pays lip service to progressivism and democracy; we have a vibrant and powerful Right and an anemic, fawning Middle.

Wealth, corporatism, consumerism, and power are inseparable in the U.S.—pervading the entire culture including every aspect of government and popular culture.

The Left in the U.S. is a fabricated boogeyman, designed and perpetuated by the Right to keep the general public distracted. Written as dark satire, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle now serves as a manual for understanding how power uses false enemies to maintain power and control.

Notably during the past 30-plus decades, conservative politics have dominated the country, creating for Republicans a huge problem in terms of bashing “big government.”

But dog-whistle politics grounded in race and racism benefitting the Right and Republicans have a long history.

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. confronted Barry Goldwater’s tactics foreshadowing Trump’s strategies and rise:

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism…On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

Malcolm X held forth in more pointed fashion, but with the same focus:

Well if Goldwater ever becomes president one thing his presence in the White House will do, it will make black people in America have to face up the facts probably for the first time in many many years,” Malcolm X said. 

“This in itself is good in that Goldwater is a man who’s not capable of hiding his racist tendencies,” he added. “And at the same time he’s not even capable of pretending to Negroes that he’s their friend.” 

The Civil Rights icon concluded that should Goldwater be elected, he would inspire black people to fully reckon with “whites who pose as liberals only for the purpose of getting the support of the Negro.”

“So in one sense Goldwater’s coming in will awaken the Negro and will probably awaken the entire world more so than the world has been awakened since Hitler,” he said.

Mentioned above, the annual panic over the “war on Christmas” is a distraction from the fact that Christmas serves consumerism, the Right, and not religion—keeping in mind that Jesus and his ideology rejected materialism and espoused moral and ethical codes in line with socialism and communism/Marxism.

What remains mostly unexamined is that all structures are essentially conservative—seeking to continue to exist. Power, then, is always resistant to change, what should be at the core of progressivism and leftwing ideology.

Marxism is about power and revolution (drastic change, and thus a grand threat to power), but suffers in the U.S. from the cartoonish mischaracterization from the Right that it is totalitarianism.

So as we drift toward the crowning of the greatest buffoon ever to sit at the throne of the U.S. as a consumerocracy posing as a democracy, Education Week has decided to launch into the hackneyed “academics are too liberal and higher education is unfair to conservatives” ploy.

At the center of this much-ado-about-nothing is Rick Hess playing his Bokonon and McCabe role:

I know, I know. To university-based education researchers, all this can seem innocuous, unobjectionable, and even inevitable. But this manner of thinking and talking reflects one shared worldview, to the exclusion of others. While education school scholars may almost uniformly regard a race-conscious focus on practice and policy as essential for addressing structural racism, a huge swath of the country sees instead a recipe for fostering grievance, animus, and division. What those in ed. schools see as laudable efforts to promote “equitable” school discipline or locker-room access strike millions of others as an ideological crusade to remake communities, excuse irresponsible behavior, and subject children to goofy social engineering. Many on the right experience university initiatives intended to promote “tolerance” and “diversity” as attempts to silence or delegitimize their views on immigration, criminal justice, morality, and social policy. For readers who find it hard to believe that a substantial chunk of the country sees things thusly, well, that’s kind of the issue.

Conversational and posing as a compassionate conservative, Hess sprinkles in scare quotes while completely misrepresenting everything about which he knows nothing.

This is all cartoon and theater.

The grand failure of claiming that the academy is all leftwing loonies is that is based almost entirely—see the EdWeek analysis—on noting that academics overwhelmingly identify as Democrats.

However, the Democratic Party is not in any way a substantial reflection of leftist ideology. At most, we can admit that Democrats tend to use progressive rhetoric (and this is a real characteristics of professors, scholars, and academics), but that Democratic policy remains centrist and right of center.

A powerful example of this fact is the Department of Education (DOE) and Secretary of Education (SOE) throughout George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.

For the past 16 years, education policy has been highly bureaucratic and grounded almost entirely in rightwing ideology—choice, competition, accountability, and high-stakes testing.

The only real difference between Bush’s SOE and Obama’s SOE has been rhetoric; yes, Duncan, for example, loved to chime in with civil rights lingo, but policy under Obama moved farther right than under Bush.

Now, let me end here by addressing the charge that college professors are a bunch of leftwing loonies.

I can do so because I am the sort of dangerous professor Hess wants everyone to believe runs our colleges and universities—poisoning the minds of young people across the U.S.

I can also add that I spent 18 years as a public school teacher before the past 15 years in higher education.

In both so-called liberal institutions—public education and higher education—as a real card-carrying Lefty, I have been in the minority, at best tolerated, but mostly ignored and even marginalized.

Public schools are extremely conservative, reflecting and perpetuating the communities they serve. In the South, my colleagues were almost all conservative in their world-views and religious practices.

My higher education experience has been somewhat different because the atmosphere has the veneer of progressivism (everyone know how to talk, what to say), but ultimately, we on the Left are powerless, unheard and often seen as a nuisance.

Colleges and universities are institutions built on and dependent on privilege and elitism. As I noted above, colleges and universities are not immune to the conservative nature of institutions; they seek ways to maintain, to conserve, to survive.

Colleges and universities are also not immune to business pressures, seeing students and their families as consumers.

Do professors push back on these tendencies and pressures? Sure.

But that dynamic remains mostly rhetorical.

The Truth is that colleges and universities are centrist organizations—not unlike the Democratic Party and their candidates, such as Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Some progressives in the U.S. play both sides to sniff at the power on the Right, and then the Right uses that rhetoric and those veneers to prove how the Left has taken over our colleges/universities, public schools, media, and Hollywood.

But that is a Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Left does not exist in any substantial way, except as a boogeyman controlled by the Right in order to serve the interests of those in power.

“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true,” Bayard Rustin warned.

Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle dramatizes this warning, and 50 years ago King and Malcolm X challenged us to see beyond the corrosive power of dog-whistle politics.

When the Right paints educational research as the product of corrupted leftwing scholars, you must look past the harmful foma and examine in whose interest it is that market-based education reform survives despite the evidence against it.

To paraphrase Gertrude from Hamlet, “The Right protests too much, methinks,” and we have much to fear from all these histrionics.

A Critical Truce in the War between Traditionalists and Progressives

Harry Webb has launched A War of Words: “The war is between traditionalists and progressives and it is an old war.”

Yes, this is an old war, and what is most frustrating about this battle for me is that, once again, critical perspectives are left out entirely. So let me offer here a brief critical truce to this war between traditionalists and progressives.

First, Webb’s post highlights some of the essential problems with the war itself.

Since the mid-1900s, progressive educators and progressive pedagogy have been demonized (and usually misrepresented) as key sources of educational failures, but traditional practices have historically dominated and currently dominate what happens in real classrooms daily.

We have ample anecdotal (I have been in education for 31 years) and research-based evidence that even though, as Webb notes, colleges of education and education professors disproportionately claim to be progressive, that once teachers enter the classroom, they tend to shut the door and practice relatively traditional pedagogy—often teaching as they have been taught or defaulting to traditional practices since they are more efficient and more easily managed in the challenging environments of mixed-ability and overcrowded classrooms.

I invite everyone to read Alfie Kohn’s examination of this in Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find. Kohn offers not only a solid discussion of how rare progressive practices are, but also details how progressive practices are misrepresented along with what he considers to be genuine progressive pedagogy.

Another problem I have with this war, however, is that I am not a progressive and am not offering here an apology for progressivism.

I am noting that when I wear my history of education hat (I am the Council Historian for NCTE and wrote a biography for my doctoral work), I recognize a demonizing and marginalizing of progressives that is misleading. As a critical educator, I must add, I believe that progressives have failed and do fail in many ways similar to the failures I associate with traditional practices.

I will confess that it is likely we have failed progressivism, but that point is pretty academic.

Along with Kohn’s discussion of progressivism, I also invite you to examine what I believe is an accurate model of what progressivism is by exploring the work of Lou LaBrant, the focus of my educational biography. Her work disproves the stereotypes of progressives as “touchy-feely” educators who have no grounding in empirical evidence. LaBrant practiced classroom-based research and considered herself a scientific teacher throughout her career from 1906 to 1971. She also fiercely defended the progressivism of John Dewey (something, again, that almost no one represents accurately and then almost no one practices—even those education professors who claim to be progressives).

Another problem with the war is that once traditionalists have mischaracterized progressives in order to attack those mischaracterizations and progressives have mischaracterized the traditionalists in order to attack those mischaracterizations, little value comes from the war, and as is typical of wars, we have only collateral damage.

So let me pause on one comment from Webb: “Yet, their argument is weak and not supported by evidence,” he claims about progressives.

I must call a foul here. Education has a century of research, a research base that has been ignored by policymakers and often discredited by those with narrow definitions of what counts a research (action research by teachers doesn’t count, they say, effectively silencing teachers and indirectly the voices of women in their own profession). Thus when Webb proclaims, “There is an imbalance of power here,” there is an unintended irony since that imbalance is exactly what I am highlighting.

Just as one example, Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde have offered for many years an examination of just what the body of evidence shows regarding effective pedagogy. This work calls into question two claims by Webb: first, it shows there is a robust research base, and second, the practices that are likely most effective are fairly characterized as progressive (the sorts of practices that reflect an accurate use of the term).

However, what is most important to note about Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde’s work is that what we know about best practice includes that no pedagogy is rejected and no pedagogy is demanded; in other words, best practice is implementing the instructional practices that best meet the needs of the students and match the learning goals.

For example, the evidence on teaching writing since at least the 1930s and 1940s has shown that isolated grammar instruction does not transfer to original student compositions; in the mid-1990s, George Hillocks showed that isolated grammar instruction actually inhibits writing quality. So the most effective way to teach students to write, including the most effective way for students to learn standard grammar, is through actual writing—something most people would call a progressive perspective.

However, that same research base shows that evidence-based (the evidence being found in actual writing samples from students) direct instruction (what many would call a traditional practice) is vital, and that some students (although a minority) can benefit from targeted isolated grammar instruction.

In other words, the research base emphasizes both the effectiveness of pedagogy most would call progressive, but it certainly doesn’t discount that ultimately what works best is what each student needs. As Webb noted, lecturing can be highly effective, and it can be abysmal—but that has more to do with its delivery and appropriateness than to some default judgment on the practice itself.

When traditionalists say that all students must learn standard English, they likely have a point, but their goal often falls apart when they insist on instructional practices that the evidence has shown are ineffective. “I shall prove my pedagogy is king!” is a shallow thing against seeking ways to teach each student effectively and with  compassion and patience.

When progressives say that student must be engaged in authentic activities, they also have a point (although as Webb notes, and I agree, the jargon of education offers no proof that what is claimed is what is taking place), but that goal often falls apart when they fail to recognize that having students participating in a workshop demands a teacher who also provides a great deal of structure and manages purposeful direct instruction as student work reveals the need.

In my experience, traditionalists and progressives tend to become trapped in their pedagogy and fail to see their students or the evidence of their own ineffectiveness.

If you demand all children read The Scarlet Letter, lecture on it brilliantly for two weeks, prepare a detailed study guide, and then have a class score wonderfully on the test at the end of the unit, what have you gained if most of those students never actually read the book and the entire experience taught them to hate reading?

If you invite your students to participate in writing workshop, offer no structure, fail to provide expert feedback, have no process for students to revise and improve their essays, and then bundle a portfolio of all that work with a nice decorated folder cover, what have you gained if that workshop involved more time meandering and decorating, resulting in students writing no better at the end than the beginning? (See LaBrant’s brilliant critique of failed efforts at the project method in ELA classes, a sharp unmasking of failed progressive claims.)

So, where’s the truce? Because a reasonable person could read this so far and say that I have embedded in the discussion a sneaky endorsement of progressivism (do I associate more with progressives than traditionalists? Sure. But I find they fail just as often as traditionalists, and thus, my disappointment with progressives is much more intense).

Here’s my truce.

I bet that someone as thoughtful and purposeful as Harry Webb appears in his blogs is a stellar and effective teacher, despite our differences about pedagogy.

I have seen brilliant traditionalists teachers and lousy self-proclaimed progressives. More than anything, I have seen too many teachers bound to their practices, ignoring their students and the evidence of their ineffectiveness.

Thus, my truce is that the key (the olive branch?) to this war is whether or not a teacher has a critical lens.

Let me end with a couple invitations:

I have posted before a chart that I use to introduce students to the traditionalist v. progressive divide juxtaposed with the often ignored critical alternative; please see it here.

Also consider a longer post in which I explore this dynamic in detail, Education Done To, For, or With Students?

Maybe, as Webb suggests, there is no hope for ending this war, but I would prefer a different approach, one that requires that we all step away from our commitments (as Webb critiques well, our words, labels, and jargon), take an honest assessment of the impact our commitments have on students (because the only real things that matters are if students learn and that we never sacrifice their dignity and humanity in the process), and then begin again, determined to do better the next time.