The death of progress;Books

8th October 1999 at 01:00
The Failed Promise of the American High School: 1890-1995 By David L Angus and Jeffrey E Mirel Teachers College Columbia University (distributed by Eurospan 0171 240 0856) pound;21.50 Professors David Angus and Jeffrey Mirel's condemnation of progressive education in the United States is of interest beyond North America. The Failed Promise of the American High School: 1890-1995 shows that the kind of citizenship education favoured by David Blunkett is neither new nor informed by democratic assumptions.

As Americans found out in the 1950s, citizenship and values education ends up teaching poor students (who are disproportionately from poor families) to accept their "modest place in society". Process, outcomes and the flight from history have been all the rage in the US since the Cardinal Principles of Education were written in 1919.

The authors' analysis of voting and school records in Grand Rapids and Detroit, Michigan demolishes the official history of progressive education. Every time the poor and working classes were given a chance, they voted against "differentiated education" (the practice of streaming poor students away from college preparatory courses). Despite the exhortations of guidance counsellors throughout the Twenties and Thirties, the majority of poor students enrolled in the academic stream.

Unfortunately for America's most historically disadvantaged group, ghetto-born blacks, by the 1970s the norms of academic education (not to mention reading and writing) had fallen to progressivist attacks as calls for a curriculum relevant to students' lives meshed with Afrocentric demands. Black students were shunted off into non-academic streams, which all but guaranteed that they would not receive the education required to enter the middle class.

Angus and Mirel's conclusion, that the American-style "comprehensive" high school system purchased its greatest triumph - a low drop-out rate - at the cost of assuming that most children were not up to serious intellectual work (especially if their families had slim bank accounts), should give pause to those who think American models always represent progress.

Nathan M Greenfield

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