Classical Education vs. Progressive Education


Unlike my other blog posts, this one isn’t focused on music. Instead, it’s focused on the topic of education. And, specifically, it’s focused on the philosophy of education.

To begin, as far as I can tell, there appears to be two modes of thinking when it comes to the art and craft of teaching: the progressive education model and the classical education model. My purpose in this blog post is to sketch out the details of each and to illustrate why progressive education is bad and classical education is good.

To defend my position here, I need to define these two models of education and explain why I favor old-school methods to new-school ones. So, that’s what I’ll be doing for the rest of this post.

I’ll begin with the progressive model.

Progressive Education

Progressive education is marked by student-centered classrooms, group learning techniques, the disdain for rote memorization, and an allergy to objective assessment. In America, the progressive education movement stems from the work of four influential education academics operating at the beginning of the twentieth century:

  1. John Dewey (1859-1952)
  2. William Heard Kilpatrick (1871-1965)
  3. Helen Parkhurst (1886–1973)
  4. Harold Rugg (1886-1960)

There were others, of course, but these four were the primary figures of the early progressive movement. Instead of teaching facts and figures in the style of classical education, these educators suggested that we teach children about critical thinking. They asserted that if students could learn how to learn instead of being force-fed facts and figures, then they could carry that wisdom and know-how into other areas of their lives. This model contends that students learn best when they are actively pursuing knowledge, moving around, talking to one another, shoving desks together, etc.

Progressive education saw a shift away from teacher-centered classrooms (ones that featured students sitting in orderly rows while listening to a teacher teach) and a shift towards a student-centered classrooms (ones that featured students pursuing their own knowledge in a frenetic, hive-like classroom).

Progressive education techniques are heavily influenced by social constructivism, which is a theory of learning that declares human understanding and knowledge to be born of social interaction.

In a classroom setting, social constructivism takes the form of group learning, which entails dividing the class into small units that are charged with accomplishing some task, achieving some goal, or learning about some topic. The idea is that students will construct their own knowledge through self-actualization while the teachers serve as facilitators. Adherents to social constructivism assert that group learning allows students to practice communicating what they have learned in the classroom.

An example of a social constructivist theory in action is summarized by Carl Sagan in his 1996 book called Demon Haunted World. Sagan explains how his friend, social science teacher, Daniel Kunitz, teaches the U.S. Constitution as follows:

Want the students to understand the Constitution of the United States? You could have them read it, article by article, and then discuss it in class – but, sadly, this will put most of them to sleep. Or you could try the Kunitz method: you forbid the students to read the Constitution. Instead, you assign them, two for each state, to attend a constitutional convention. You brief each of the 13 teams in detail on the particular interests of their state and region…. The 13 delegations assemble, and with a little faculty guidance, but mainly on their own, over some weeks write a constitution.1

Now, that sounds great, but this idyllic account of social learning ignores the chaos that reliably unfurls when these tactics are deployed in a classroom setting. In my experiences with group learning, I have witnessed the perfect annihilation of time and energy. Almost without exception, a few people do all the work, and the rest do nothing. Group learning is a setup made to favor extroverts. Often, the person who talks and socializes the most exerts his or her control over the whole group. The students with the best ideas are often overlooked. To pretend that group projects unfurl any other way is equivalent to believing the Earth is flat.

It’s true that social constructivist practices force students to deal with, and speak to, people they wouldn’t have talked to otherwise. But this doesn’t necessarily justify constructivist practices in the classroom. Collaboration, as a concept, is good, but not every occasion in human experience calls for it.

In any case, studies performed by social scientists suggest that social constructivism helps people clarify their thinking by combining it with the thinking of others,2 and that group projects help students learn how to control their behavior, collaborate, solve problems, and disagree without being disagreeable.3

Okay, this might be true—and, likely some aspects of it are true—but not everything can be learned this way. Group learning might work well for committee projects, like Kunitz’s classroom Constitutional convention, but foisting this technique on, say, trigonometry, is a recipe for time-destroying chaos. Indeed, for most learning situations, I doubt the efficacy of group projects. Getting information and knowledge into one’s brain so it can be recalled, and put to use, later—what we call learning—is not a collaborative activity. They don’t give group drivers licenses. When it matters, group learning is not used.

No group project on Earth is going to teach anyone how to drive. What are we going to do, have one person push the gas pedal while the other steers the wheel? Not everything in this world works like a playground.

To actually learn, people need to develop the ability to sit still, to listen, and to construct coherent thoughts. If you can’t sit still, or listen, or think clearly without having to bother everyone around you by moving around and foisting social interactions on your neighbors, then you should strive to develop these abilities because most academic matters require you to learn things the hard way—that is, as an individual.

Here’s what I’m not saying: that only one type of intelligence exists, and you must be able to sit still to exude this intelligence. I admit that people may be smart—even brilliant—and not be able to sit still in a classroom. According to social scientist, Howard Gardner, there appears to be six types of intelligences: (1) kinesthetic, (2) interpersonal, (3) spatial, (4) logical/mathematical, (5) linguistic, and (6) musical.4

  1. Kinesthetic intelligence is body and movement acuity like that encountered in an athlete.
  2. Interpersonal intelligence is an awareness of people’s emotions and a grasp of communication like that encountered in a counselor or a salesperson.
  3. Spatial intelligence requires the ability to manipulate shapes in the mind’s eye like that of a mechanic or a Rubik’s-Cube solver.
  4. Logical/mathematical intelligence requires an aptitude for numbers and following things through to their logical conclusions like an engineer or mathematician.
  5. Linguistic intelligence requires a grasp of spoken and written language and is the domain of the writer and the speaker.
  6. Musical intelligence requires an understanding of tones, timing, and other musical constructs and is encountered in concert pianist, folk singer, and many other types of players and singers.

Notice that only three of these intelligence-types could possibly benefit from a group project: interpersonal, kinesthetic, and musical. But, within the purview of the typical math, English, science, or history classroom, the important types of intelligences are linguistic, logical-mathematical, and spatial.5 Group learning techniques are not suited for communicating anything useful about these areas of study. How precisely is anyone going to learn how to manipulate geometric shapes in their mind or understand the rise and fall of the Roman Empire when the person to their left won’t stop talking?

So, forcing a manner of teaching upon students that not only favors extroverts over introverts, but also benefits just three of the six types of intelligences, is a less than perfect way to maximize educational effectiveness. Perhaps group learning can be employed effectively sometimes, but to use group learning techniques all the time ignores the reality of how people actually learn—that is, as individuals.

Social constructivism and group learning represent only one facet of the progressive education model, which is also marked by the following dumb ideas: the disdain for objective knowledge, the self-esteem movement, grade inflation, disapproval of experts, and postmodernist philosophy.

The first of these dumb ideas, the disdain for objective knowledge, has resulted in widespread acceptance of notions like “there is no truth, just individual truth that is relative to culture.” People of this worldview assert that knowledge does not extend beyond the mind or the experience of knowing and that what is true for one society is not necessarily true for another. For example, some relativists suggest that science and its products are Western constructs and that Western culture has no monopoly on the truth. The idea is often expressed under the rubric of “tolerance.”

But the fact that water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen is true whether a human observes it or not, no matter that person’s culture of origin. Objective truth does exists and relativism is demonstrably false—both scientifically and morally.

In any case, relativism in schools has resulted in widespread acceptance of cheating and plagiarism among students. After all, if truth and morality are culturally contingent, then any behavior, not matter how dishonest, can be legitimized. It’s amazing how often I must confront students about plagiarism.

Another cog in the progressive machine is the self-esteem movement, which has resulted in things like participation trophies and the celebration of failure. In today’s educational environments, no longer are there winners and losers—instead, everybody gets to bring home a prize.

To see how this stupid idea plays out in a way that hurts kids, google “School Apologizes After Winning Basketball Playoff Game By 93-7 Score.” This search will bring up an article on a Boston-area news website that features a story about a high-school girls basketball game that became grotesquely lopsided.6 For some reason, the superintendent of the winning team’s school felt compelled to offer an apology. Apparently, according to the comments on this article, the winning team should have relented and shown mercy.

But, why, exactly?

Where else in life are you ever shown mercy for incompetence? Incompetence, in my view, is a problem, and, off the basketball court, incompetence gets people fired, hurt, or even killed. And, on the court, incompetence gets you defeated 93-7. One wonders just how many participation trophies it takes to foster such a debacle. Telling students that they are great when they are not is a bad way to maximize academic potential. The progressive education movement is largely responsible for this misguided approach to scholastic and athletic achievement.

Grade inflation is another problem of the progressive education movement. The C’s of the 1950s are now today’s A’s. College professors are sometimes cowed by students—who are backed up by an ever-increasing administrative bureaucracy—into acquiescing to student demands about grades. After all, the customer is always right, and colleges and universities are now huge, corporate-like businesses compelled by profit motives more than educational ones.

Grade inflation is exacerbated when students withdraw from a class to avoid a failing grade or a when professors simply fail to record their student’s failing grades. Cheating is also a culprit.7  Today, it seems that many students feel no compunction about cheating, and I routinely need to have the uncomfortable plagiarism conversation.

Many progressives disapprove of experts. They believe they don’t need experts because everything there is to know is available on the internet. US Naval War College professor, Tom Nichols, describes the problem in his 2017 book called The Death of Expertise:

Not only do increasing numbers of people lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulate knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.8

I fully agree with Nichols here. When a large number of people lack knowledge, reject evidence, and make illogical arguments it’s a problem.

An obsessive focus on creativity is partly to blame for this problem. For example, instead of studying the compositions of Beethoven, progressive educators prefer to have students compose their own music—even before they’ve garnered the technical or intellectual know-how.

Our canon of knowledge is among the most important accomplishment of the human species. Dispensing with this canon so students can navel gaze is a failure recipe.

Many of the ideas endorsed by progressive educators are artifacts of postmodernism, which is a philosophy based on the repudiation of everything Western—including objective truth, capitalism, and the freedom of speech.

Postmodernism asserts that identity, history, and culture are arbitrary conventions learned through language and society. And, that these ideas are in need of revision. Furthermore, Western notions of reason, science, and objectivity are dismissed by postmodernist as mere language constructions that do not prove anything beyond their own versions of reality.

Postmodernism has birthed extreme doctrines like neo-Marxism, anarcho-primitivism, and many other anti-Western worldviews. Progressive educators sometimes use their classrooms as postmodernist indoctrination chambers.

This misalignment of purpose and duty has failed American students, who have been falling behind on standardized tests for decades. America is now routinely demolished by other industrialized countries in reading, math, and science. Various international achievement studies have illustrated this sad truth.9 Assuredly, other factors besides progressivism contribute to America’s academic woes—like inclination to work, behavior, family systems, et cetera—but progressive techniques are not helping matters.

Japan and Singapore do not employ anything resembling a progressive education model, and these two countries methodically dismember America on academic achievement tests. They are the Jeffrey Dahmers of international education standards. Plus, they spend much less money than America performing this massacre. Japan and Singapore—and every other country that has not lost its academic mind—employ the classical education model, or something like it, in their primary, secondary, and postsecondary schools.

So, now I need to define the classical education model and explain why it’s better at getting results.

Classical Education

The classical education model is based on a three-part process that begins with memorizing facts, moves on to analyzing those facts logically and objectively, and culminates in communicating the analysis of those facts with proper grammar, clarity, and power. This educational intersection of grammar, logic, and rhetoric is called the trivium, which represents three of the seven liberal arts constituting a medieval university education. The other four, which are known as the quadrivium, are arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

The seven liberal arts were imported from Greek and Roman antiquity to the Middle Ages by Martianus Capella, who lived during the fifth century and was a writer of Latin prose and an inhabitant of the North African city of Carthage. His book, The Marriage of Mercury and Philology, personified the liberal arts as seven female wedding guests who introduced themselves by summarizing the subject they represented. The story is an allegory that defined the central tenets of academic learning. The book was enormously influential, and education based on the trivium and quadrivium held sway in Europe from the fifth century AD until the Renaissance.

The trivium is especially important to classical education because it provides the basic skills necessary for studying other subjects—including the subjects of the quadrivium. Indeed, the trivium helps students learn how to memorize facts, organize things logically, and express things clearly in writing and in speech. These skills represent the basic components of academic and intellectual ability. Can you tell me some interesting facts? Can you tell me the logic behind a simple machine? Can you explain to me something clearly in writing or in speech? If so, you’ve likely been trained by the methods of the trivium.

Proponents of classical education and homeschooling gurus, Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, describes the classical education method in their book, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, as follows:

Classical education is, above all, systematic—in direct contrast to the scattered, unorganized nature of so much secondary education. Rigorous, systematic study has two purposes. Rigorous study develops virtue in the student…  [And,] systematic study allows students to join… …the ongoing conversion of great minds through the ages.10

Bauer’s and Wise’s system is set up as follows: grades 1 through 4 are for teaching language skills, grades 5 through 8 for teaching logic skills, and grades 9 through 12 for teaching rhetoric skills. The entire system is organized by three repetitions of human history: ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and modern. So, each of these segments of human history is learned three times—one time for each stage of the trivium.

The educational approach laid out by The Well-Trained Mind, is wholly superior to anything on offer in America’s public schools. Bauer’s and Wise’s method is popular among homeschoolers, and the numbers are clear: the educational outcomes and levels of success for homeschooled children are superior to that of publicly educated children. Indeed, homeschooled-children score 15 to 30 percentile points higher than public-schooled children on standardized tests.11 No doubt, some of this discrepancy is due to the culture-of-success that surrounds homeschooled children. But, the classical education model is at least partly responsible for these superior results.

Unfortunately, much of modern progressive education is too fixated on the repudiation of Western culture to take any notice of how useful the classical education model is. This means that classical education has largely been abandoned by the American public-school system.

The efficacy of the classical education model is plain and simple. If students can memorize facts, write with proper grammar, and construct coherent analysis, then they will perform better academically and professionally.

In my nine years as a college music professor, I have seen what works and what doesn’t in a classroom setting. What works is holding students’ feet to the fire. For example, if I am teaching students how to read music, then I will drill the students on the facts by asking them to identify and articulate individual notes, make them interpret musical relationship by having them count out loud, and require of them a coherent demonstration of a piece of music—that is, require them to play a musical piece all the way through without breakdown, hesitation, or error. My approach here is wholly classical.

The students find this demanding. Only the ones who can sustain their concentration can manage the rigor. Many cannot handle it, and many are desperate for shortcuts and hacks—probably because, before they entered my classroom, they were taught subjects through constructivist, playground-like techniques where everyone was a champion and no one had to work hard.

I see the evidence of this failure daily. Much of the student work I encounter is badly executed, riddled with error, poorly constructed, and almost completely devoid of logical cohesion.

Of course, poor academic ability is a problem larger than the scope of my classroom. Indeed, the country at large performs embarrassingly bad in science and mathematics when compared with other developed countries. According to Pearson’s Global Education Index, the U.S. is 14th in learning and skills attainment. Given our wealth and material resources, it’s a shame that we’re not first.

America’s poor academic showing can be partly blamed on the progressive education movement. The rest of the blame falls on student behavior and anti-intellectual attitudes. The solution to these problems is not to hurl money at schools. In my view, the solution is a wholesale shift towards classical education and the widespread adoption of personal responsibility.

If such changes were to take place, then America could begin to climb out of the intellectual cellar.


  1.  Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1996, 326-27. 
  2.  Reznitskaya, Alina, Richard C. Anderson, and Li‐Jen Kuo. “Teaching and Learning Argumentation.” The Elementary School Journal 107, no. 5 (05 2007): 449-72. 
  3.  Corden, Roy. “Group Discussion and the Importance of a Shared Perspective: Learning from Collaborative Research.” Qualitative Research 1, no. 3 (12 2001): 347-67. 
  4.  “Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences and Education.” April 25, 2013. 
  5.  Murray, Charles A. Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. (Three Rivers Press, 2009), 17. 
  6.  “School Apologizes After Winning Basketball Playoff Game By 93-7 Score.” CBS Boston. March 03, 2018. 
  7.  Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education, p. 2. 
  8.  Nichols, Thomas M. The Death of Expertise, p. 2-3. 
  9.  The two tests are (1) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and (2) the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Assessment (TIMSS). I got some of my figures from this website:  DeSilver, Drew. “U.S. Students’ Academic Achievement Still Lags That of Their Peers in Many Other Countries.” Pew Research Center. February 15, 2017. 
  10.  Bauer, Susan Wise, and Jessie Wise. The Well-trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, p. 17 
  11. Research Facts on Homeschooling.” National Home Education Research Institute, para 3. 

5 thoughts on “Classical Education vs. Progressive Education

  1. As a member of a writing team subcommittee for the 2014 national music standards, and enjoying follower of your posts, I was stunned at your claim that creativity was placed “above all else,” as it never was a priority at all in the process. Search how you could ever make this claim, I was further stunned at how you had merely gone to the NAfME standards webpage and simplistically translated the fact that create was visually listed first–“above” perform and response–as a top priority that somehow diminishes the other two. In your false logic, placing perform at the top would suggest a suppressive conservative stance (literally, it is a music conservatory top priority) that it is “above all else” throughout the entire set of music standards. FYI, perform, analyze (now reworded as respond), and create have been three equally important objectives dating back 50 years to a movement meant to include music listening (analyze/describe) and creating in the mix with the age-old priority toward performance. I further winced at your citation of nine years of experience as a way to prove your point of view better. On this yard stick, would my 30 years in higher education place my point of view “above all else”? I don’t and wouldn’t. In the bigger scheme, you present a nice set of historical facts as perhaps one set of polar opposites on a continuum. The 2014 National Core Music Standards are meant to be inclusive in bridging across your choice and others’ choices. There is room for all, and I will continue to enjoy your posts, no setback.

    1. Dr. Gumm, I appreciate your thoughtful criticisms here. And, thanks for being a reader of my blog. I am working hard to be a rigorous writer and scholar, and it’s nice to know that someone with your credentials enjoys my output.

      This post was very difficult to write and took me months of research and revision to produce. I did my best to make as much sense as possible out of a bewildering subject, but I admit that I could have made my point about the NAMfE standards with more rigor.

      I know that it seems that I only took a cursory glance at the website, but, in fact, I spent hours taking careful notes from the downloadable PDFs—especially the one for guitar/keyboard/harmonizing instruments. I thought about copying and pasting my notes here, but that seems overly defensive. Nevertheless, it sucks when someone charges you with lazy scholarship when you’ve been reading and studying nonstop.

      In any case, your point is taken. I didn’t need to include the example from the NAMfE standards. Indeed, my argument was too simplistic there. You’re right, and I’ve since edited my post to reflect your criticism.

      Despite this concession, I do have some criticism about the NAMfE standards—specifically, the heavy use of education-ese like “generate,” “select,” “interpret,” “present,” etc. What’s wrong with “read, “count,” and “play”? I know that “perform” is on the list, but it’s surrounded by a tsunami of “evaluates,” “identifies,” and “generates.” In my view, Bloom’s Taxonomy artificially inflates curriculum when simpler language could work better.

      Notwithstanding my criticisms, the 2014 NAMfE standards seem well thought out, organized, and potentially useful. And, it looks like it was a hard job to organize curriculum in this way—especially considering the richness and depth of music education.

      As for your criticism about my experience, I feel compelled to stamp my feet and fold my arms. I taught my first guitar lesson in 1997, and I’ve been a professor since 2010. I’d say this qualifies me to make some pronouncements about music education, as I’m sure your thirty years qualifies you. I’m not discounting the experts of the past or present, but those people are not inside my brain uttering sentences to another human being. That’s me in there. Experience has been my main teacher. That’s all I was saying.

      In any case, thanks again for providing me with some real criticism.

      1. Full disclosure, I have plenty to add in critique of the standards, and agree how complex of a subject you’ve tackled here, and did a nice job overall. It really caught my eye, and please know that it was because I was so into it that the flaws or shortcuts of logic stopped me and triggered me to reply. And talk about taking time on difficult topics, I make it a practice to sit on a writing for months to forget it and come back to read it with new critical eyes. Good for you!

  2. Oh, and my only mention of citing years of experience was that it does not serve as factual evidence to prove the rightness of a point of view over anybody else. Self-reference to years of experience is not a scholarly measuring stick, that’s all.

    1. Yes, I agree. But, I consider the art and craft of persuasion to be a combination of the anecdotal and the empirical. Once again, thanks for your thoughts here.

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