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Posts Tagged ‘Education Progressivism’

The title of the late Denis John Cassivi‘s 1981 book, Education and the Cult of Modernism, caught my eye.  I spotted it referenced  in my well-worn copy of  Andrew Nikiforuk’s  School’s Out and that’s what first piqued my interest. After obtaining one of the few remaining copies from a local rare bookstore, Dustjacket Books and Treasures, it quickly became apparent that this was not a quick read, but rather a deep, philosophical and probing exploration of the nature and purpose of education itself. Brilliant, incisive, idiosyncratic and sadly forgotten.

“What difference  do elaborate buildings, nifty class schedules and computerized timetables make if the children are not learning?”  That’s a pretty fundamental question and typical of the multitude of insights to be gleaned, even today,  from this little book, published by Cassivi’s research institute and modestly sub-titled, “A Personal Observation.”  We learn, through the book, that such things, the products of “modernism,” are impoverishing education. He sees them as mere ‘bobbles’ or surface preoccupations that exemplify the “destructive impact” of an “educational experiment” he labels “modernism.” No wonder Andrew Nikiforuk (above) was drawn to his ideas.

His extended essay attempts to identify and explain “modernism” as a new ideology and to alert us to its excesses and warn us of its destructive capabilities. Cassivi sees it as “a cult” because in the 1980s, in his view, it was the “dominant force” which had gained “widespread acceptance in the face of countless rational limitations.” It was a form of ideological “theism” which he described as “secular-narcissistic.” Much like radical cults in the Ancient world or the Jonesvile Cult in Guyana, the predominant thinkers were possessed of their vision and viewed everyone else with suspicion (pp, 1-2).  While “modernism” claimed to be a further evolution of Enlightenment ‘liberalism,’ it was not at all — but rather an irrational mutation borne of the present age.

“Modernism” was, in Cassivi’s reading, a false god which had “become an end in itself.”  The purpose and aims of today’s education were being subsumed by it and we were losing our way.  “What we are doing in schools, and why?” was no longer being asked because modernization was an end in itself. One can only imagine what Cassivi would have thought of “globalization” or “21st century skills.”

The “Cult of Modernism” was far from benign because it was corrosive in the world of education.  According to Cassivi, it was destructive of western educational tradition because it exhibited eight rather destructive characteristics: the perversion of democracy, intolerance, relativity of knowledge, realivity of values, rejection of personal responsibility, narcissism, process orientation, and rejection of the old (pp. 7-24).

The aims and purposes of contemporary education were now, in his view, subordinated to modernism.  Leading “education progressives” were completely enraptured with modernism. Instead of steering a steady path and respecting past legacies, they “foster a relativity of knowledge and belief often manifested in the justification of bizarre programs and activities” (p. 39).

Cassivi’s analysis of modernist excesses extended to nearly every corner of education: administration, teaching, teacher education, curriculum priorities, special education and career education (pp. 57-129. Every section of the book contains searing insights and observations.

Educational research did not escape his attention. As a leading education researcher at the time, his critique carried quite a sting. ” Education researchers, ” he observed, ” are that breed of mankind who have made a career out of pursuing senseless questions with a vigor and technical precision that makes the exercise both bizarre and extravagant.”  He thought they only asked questions that had self-evident answers: “How many people in _____ like universities and to what extent?” “Do teachers in _____ use overhead projectors in their classrooms and how often and under what circumstances?”

Today’s researchers can still fall into that trap with rather predictable research questions.  A few possible examples of the mindset: “Does IT assist teachers in ‘personalizing learning?” and “What are schools doing to adversely affect “student well-being”?  Perhaps you can spot real examples.

The author himself could not quite bring himself to conducting such research. His Saint Mary’s University M.A. Thesis on teacher training in Nova Scotia stands out, even today. “What do teachers think about the quality of teachers’ college training?”  The short version of his  answer: “bloody awful.”  It was a worthwhile project, but it depressed him because it was “the stuff of which careers are made.”

Cassivi’s book was simply one small chapter in an incredibly diverse and active professional career in secondary schools, adult education and community development. Ten years ago, on November 11, 2008, Cassivi of Howie Centre, passed away in Sydney, Cape Breton, following a long battle with cancer.  He was a true life-long learner. His early teaching career included various high schools throughout the province, as well as St. Mary’s University, Mount St. Vincent University and McGill University in Montreal. His studies landed him a post as visiting scholar at Cambridge University in England, where he was associated with Clair College and the Cambridge Institute of Education.

Cassivi was a true innovator in adult and career education. In 1979, he was appointed program director of continuing education at the University College of Cape Breton in Sydney, N.S., and completed a 20-year career with the university. During this period he was appointed research assistant for the Royal Commission on Post Secondary Education in Nova Scotia. He became registrar at UCCB in 1994 and founded many lighthouse programs of teacher and leadership development across the Maritimes. In his sixties, he was awarded a doctoral fellowship for study at the University of London, England.

His official obituary is very extensive, but makes no specific reference to his classic work, Education and the Cult of Modernism.  It ends with these lines: “His special interest was in promoting critical thinking for active, mature participation in the community by confronting superstition, bigotry, prejudice and greed. Denis will be sorely missed by the educational and academic community.” Now you know why.

What was Cape Breton educator Denis Cassivi’s sadly forgotten jeremiad getting at?  Why did former Globe and Mail education columnist Andrew Nikiforuk take note of the book? What has changed in Canadian education since the early 1980s?  Is it too late to absorb some of his lessons and apply them to today’s challenges? Or is it all better, left forgotten? 

 

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Fifty years ago, in June of 1968, an Ontario government report, entitled, Living and Learning, captured the experimental flavour of the late 1960s and rocked the Ontario educational world.  While that report created a major creative disruption, it disappeared like a meteorite and, a decade later, was widely dismissed as a passing phase. Its influence in reaffirming progressive education’ ideals cannot be over-estimated and, in many ways, the ghost of Hall-Dennis haunts K-12 education still.  It remains the one report that sparked progressive thinking in provincial school systems right across Canada.

Looking back at the Hall-Dennis Report, is rewarding and opportune because it demonstrates the enduring value of historical-mindedness and provides a few lessons for present day education policy-makers. We can learn much from the excitement of its arrival, the fierce debate it provoked, and  its long-term impact on “progressive education.” Many ideas labeled ‘innovative’ in teaching and learning can be traced back to the pages of Living and Learning and the influence of those ideas can be seen in most elementary school classrooms to this day.

 When it first appeared, the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report, named after its co-chairs, Emmett Hall and Lloyd Dennis, was greeted with lavish praise, mostly generated by the Toronto popular media. Unlike previous dry and formalistic government reports, it conveyed a powerful message with catchy slogans such as “the truth shall make us free” and images of smiling children at play in the schools.

The attractive and well-packaged report was so impressive that even Ontario Education Minister William G. Davis was initially swayed by its charms.  Even though it was not formally endorsed by the Ontario government, it was essentially the brainchild of Deputy Education Minister J.R. (Jack) McCarthy and his freshly-recruited band of “progressive education” acolytes within the Department.

When the Report was released on June 12, 1968, the Toronto media were effusive in their praise for the three-year study with its 258 sweeping recommendations.  It was “a revolutionary blueprint for education,” The Toronto Daily Star proclaimed, and nothing short of “a radical program to liberate our school system.”Even the normally dour Toronto Globe and Mail jumped on the bandwagon.  With a big splash, The Globe’s news team of Barrie Zwicker and Douglas Sagi welcomed the Report as one that recommended “Ontario’s educational system be turned upside down and all the old ways of doing things be shaken from it.” Education Minister Davis’s mere presence at the official announcement was interpreted as an endorsement, even though he cautioned that it was only  “a step in the right direction for planning.”

 The initial editorials were equally rapturous and reflected the irreverent spirit of the times. In its lead editorial, The Globe and Mail heralded the Hall-Dennis Report as truly revolutionary in the sense that, unlike other commission or inquiry reports, it would not be “retired to gather dust.”  Its ringing endorsement of the report was total and unqualified:

The school system it envisions would abolish all the multiplicity of rigidities that now dominate the child, and set him free to search, with assistance, for the truth….What the report does is to set a goal –creative, conscienceful (sic), human –away out ahead of the solemn strivers in the present educational prisons. It may frighten and infuriate, but by degrees, it will also force, by its sheer rightness, the changes that we all know must be made.

Not to be outdone, The Toronto Daily Star appropriated “the language of the hippies” and noted that the Report “advises us to let every schoolchild ‘do his own thing.’” Conscious of how it sounded, the editorialists hastened to add that the “carefully reasoned recommendations of this excellent report” would never “stoop to such ‘pop’ language.” But it was too late for such qualifiers. Most of the popular commentaries latched onto the line that the Report was an open invitation for students to “do their own thing” in Ontario’s public schools.

The Globe and Mail’s influential and widely-read columnist Richard J. Needham quickly emerged as one of the Report’s champions. He was, in the mid-to- late 1960s, a popular but quixotic Toronto cultural figure, a balding, pipe-smoking and a ‘pied piper’ for the rising youth culture. Viewed by most parents as an aged “hippie,” he paid close attention to, and gave voice to, the young and restless.  Needham’s daily newspaper ramblings were wildly popular with school teachers and even read by more studious teens, like me.

Needham’s pronouncements on the Report carried some weight at the time. “It’s a good report,” he told his readers, because it reflected “what he had observed visiting hundreds of public schools over the previous three years.” In Needham’s familiar overblown rhetoric, it promised an end to “fear, threats, humiliations, beatings…”  He went even further. The “Ontario Establishment,” he wrote, “lives by fear, threats, humiliations, beatings; being anti-people, It doesn’t know any other way to run things…” He then offered this memorable prediction:

…the schools will keep right on being at worst operated like grim penitentiaries and at best like cloistered monasteries – cut off from the real world of life, strife, adventure, change, triumph, disaster, action, beauty, glory, and poetry. Stop thinking about the Taj Mahal and get your nose into that algebra book! Don’t you want a good job in the glue factory?

Inciting rabid debate and stirring a reaction was his stock-and-trade and the Hall-Dennis Report provided him with plenty of fodder.

Socially aware Ontario teens and ‘hip’ high school English teachers simply ate up Needham’s regular comments, especially on the subject “doing your own thing” over the objections of stuffy, old-fashioned parents. One of those receptive teens was Fred Freeman, a politically-active Grade 11 student at Toronto’s Bathurst Heights Collegiate.  He wholeheartedly agreed with Needham. There was “something wrong with the way high schools are run,” he told  The Toronto Daily Star. “Who else can decide what a student is to learn except the student himself,?” he asked, before complaining that being forced to study Latin from Grade 10 onward squelched his enjoyment of learning. Such viewpoints only echoed those of Needham and fixed, in the public mind, the distinct but rather misleading impression that the Report was a colourful recipe book for an “anything goes” brand of  education.

 The Report did not spring out of nowhere.  It was actually an outgrowth of the progressive educational philosophy inspired by American educator John Dewey then being espoused by Deputy Minister McCarthy.  A student-centred, team-teaching, open concept school model had been seeded in 1962 with a few pilot schools, including Pleasant Avenue Public School in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale, Ontario.  What had begun in 1965 as a modestly conceived elementary curriculum review had gradually morphed into a full-blown committee of inquiry into the aims of education with an ever-expanding mandate.

The Committee, as education researcher Eric W. Ricker demonstrated, was a classic example of a bureaucratically-driven consensus-building exercise. It was structured in a fashion recommended by McCarthy and the Department; its agendas and working papers were drafted by Department staff; almost all of the initial expert testimony was provided by the ‘educrats’; and , finally, a number of its key members were “insiders’– close associates, or former teachers and professors, of members of the Department’s curriculum branch.  Although the Committee of 22 appointed members was described by Lloyd Dennis as a group of “all sorts” chosen from a “grab bag,” it was, in Ricker’s words, “clearly biased before its work even commenced.”

In the three-year-long study, McCarthy and his officials skilfully steered the Committee in the direction of “progressivism.” While the Committee had its share of traditionalists, as well as a number of Catholic members, both French and English, the progressives gained the upper hand in its internal workings. The predominantly child-centred philosophy conveyed in the briefs was reinforced by the” professionals” relatively unencumbered by the usual teacher federation pressures and constraints. The addition of Charles E. Phillips, the reputed dean of Canadian educational history,  to the Committee strengthened the hand of progressives.

Most significantly, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), which favoured a reformed traditionalist approach, was effectively marginalized on the Committee.  The OSSTF’s one lone representative was, in fact, no longer a high school teacher by the time the Committee got down to serious work. Under such favourable conditions, the progressive educators were able to seize the initiative in not only planning the Committee’s work, but also in drafting its recommendations. That decision would turn out to be a critical mistake when, within weeks, a furious and determined opposition began to take shape among high school teachers, university academics, local chambers of commerce, and captains of industry.

 What caused the Great Disruption associated with the arrival of the Hall-Dennis Report?  Where did the progressive ideas espoused in the Report actually originate? What can be learned about the shaping of a “broad consensus” in education politics? To what extent was the over-hyping of the Report responsible for the fierce debate that ensued in education circles? 

First in a Series on the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report, Fifty Years On

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