‘ISMS’ exist – even if the ‘ISTS’ don’t…

I followed (and briefly participated in) a prolonged Twitter ‘dialogue’ yesterday afternoon revolving around whether there were any card carrying ‘progressivists’, and therefore whether arguments against progressivism were actually valid.

Now, I agree that it is rarely the most fruitful way forward in a debate to jab the finger and label our opponents, and I can sympathise with those rejecting the label ‘Progressivist’. Firstly – in debates, nobody EVER likes being labelled unless they have openly adopted that label themselves.

Secondly – in complete truth, rarely do many of us purely identify ourselves with one identity or another… and even less would we say that in our actions do we purely adhere to a particular philosophy. I believe that the vast majority of us live in some or other state of ‘cognitive dissonance’ – holding quite contrary beliefs which seem to act separately on different levels within us. This can result in varying degrees of discomfort and confusion, but we normally believe that there is coherence at some level or other.

Thirdly – what does it take to really be a progressivist? To act in certain ways…? To proclaim certain things…? Just to privately  believe certain things…?

“Do unto others as others would do…” – How many of us would say that this should be identified with what we actually do…? Most Christians would say that they don’t actually do this very well in practice. Many might even say that sometimes they think it perhaps isn’t the best thing to do. And yet pretty much all of them would suggest that it nevertheless informs how they think about things.

This is why it is perfectly acceptable to debate and critique the ideas of progressivism (as I have done on this blog), even if we can’t point to a single person who would admit to embodying it. It is because it provides a template – a guiding set of ‘shoulds’ – at the back of many people’s minds influencing, energising or undermining how and where they focus their energies.

I know this to be true because I’ve been one of those people who cradled progressive ideals and assumptions at the back of my own mind…even though the practicalities of my situation and competing thoughts within me never made them particularly well realised, and I never would have described myself as a ‘progressivist’. I nevertheless aspired to them and kept trying to ‘square the circle’.

I still cradle some now..

9 thoughts on “‘ISMS’ exist – even if the ‘ISTS’ don’t…

  1. I read the debate afterwards and it was certainly interesting.

    I think that progressivism is much like astrology is to astronomy. There is some common ground in that their subject matter involves stars, planets and space. However, the astrologer is a pseudoscientist, ignoring the knowledge and experience of humanity to ascribe personality types on human beings while the astronomers understands the more complex links between the universe and humans.

    Of course this analogy has its limits as blatantly traditionalists are an older school of thought the followers of progressivism. However, it is possible to go backwards as much as it is possible to go forwards.

    The emotional vs rational was very much at play in that discussion. Are we even talking with or at each other.

    I would still argue that progressivism is astrology to my astronomy though.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you very much Tarjinder – I can see the parallels in your analogy quite strongly. I suppose the key thing in the analogy is that progressivism is a triumph of hope over experience – it represents a romantic wishful thinking as opposed to traditionalism’s common-sense realism.

    I guess the one doubt for me in trying to eradicate – or even fully denounce – progressivism entirely however, is that I think human beings – both at a personal and societal level, need a dose of something like that – otherwise what’s really the point of grinding on through? Hence my lingering regard for the role that progressivism plays, and my hope to find something concretely important in it that I can doff my cap towards.


    • I suppose what I mean is – like astronomy and astrology, traditionalism and progressivism play different roles in society – which unfortunately has tended to get confused in education.


  3. I think that people who believe in an ideology but try not mention this should be “called out”. Particularly if they try claiming that nobody believes in the ideology and therefore we can ignore critics of it or say that they are insulting people by mentioning it. Personal affiliations are not to the fore in ideological debate, but honesty should be, and it is dishonest to disavow what you are actually arguing for. It’s the Glen Beck tactic: http://www.digitalchum.com/2014/09/01/the-glenn-beck-tactic/


    • There’s nothing that you say there which I disagree with Andrew – it is essential if we are to have a genuine dialectic which moves the understanding of all of us forward.

      I suppose the difficulty which we have is both the power and limitations of labels. Without naming concepts and ideas, it becomes much more difficult to communicate. However, an entire ideology is a big label to lay at the door of most people. Many of us identify with one aspect of things more strongly then another – a situation which you must be facing with Labour Teachers – the assumption that if you’re ‘Labour’ you must be ‘Progressive’ etc.

      Ideally we would have more finely grained labels, or failing that, but the clarity of naming is important to let dialogue flow, we might say “I’m a traditionalist regarding the relative roles of the teacher and the child” or “I’m progressive regarding the ultimate goals of education” etc. i.e. accept that the umbrella concepts are handy orientations in themselves, but too cumbersome or slippery to put entirely around someone’s neck.

      Liked by 1 person

      • People are free to clarify, or to subdivide ideologies. They can even reject the term, if they provide others that allow for debate. But what we saw on Twitter yesterday was an attempt to close the debate. If people won’t acknowledge that the (broad) body of ideas usually known as “progressive education” exists, then debate about it becomes impossible. Worse, it is used to dismiss any lengthy criticism of those ideas.

        Liked by 1 person

      • This is a point which I’m with you keenly on Andrew – hence the main thrust of this post.


  4. Pingback: Remodelling the ideal teacher: Sage 2.0 | Stepping Back a Little

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