Few groups in the history of education have been as influential as the American progressives, who were part of the broader wave of Progressivism that swept the developed world in the late-19th century. It is often seen as an American movement, but its roots lay in the Prussian welfare state. American intellectuals educated in Germany in the 1800s were inspired by the Prussian model of an efficiently organized society under the leadership of experts backed by the power of the state bureaucracy. They returned home imbued with ideas about a paternalistic state, and began to advocate similar changes in the US. Since Japan’s yutori kyoiku (education free from pressure) owes more than a passing debt to Progressivism, Japanese teachers should familiarize themselves with the origins of this philosophy. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in Progressivism, but Progressivism is interested in you. This paper will introduce key elements of American progressive education and four men considered its early architects: Stanley Hall, John Dewey, Edward Thorndike, and David Snedden. Their work set the stage for the child-centered movement, educational psychology, and educational sociology. They ushered in “The Age of the Experts,” the years just before and after World War I during which the movement’s influence grew within academia and the teaching establishment. They used science to justify the differentiated curriculum, empower pedagogical experts, and redefine democracy. From 1910-1950, progressives oversaw a 60% reduction in academic content while “life-adjustment” courses rose ten-fold. They de-emphasized reading, put pupils’ self-esteem over learning facts or developing good habits, and established an ongoing hegemony over teacher education. Similarly, yutori kyoiku reforms reduced the school week from six days to five, and cut “the educational requirements by a third.” In both the US and Japan, academic performance declined significantly.
Craig Sower, Shujitsu University, Japan
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