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Politics and Pedagogy
Written by George Hein
Our work in the 1960s at ESS and at The Children's Museum, was about educating children in the broad sense of providing for them what Dewey would call "educative" experiences. It didn't take too long for me to realize that despite my own ignorance when I began, the activities we were proposing and the rationale for their existence came from a long tradition and were backed by thinking and practice that went back at least to the days of Comenius in the seventeenth century. Johann Amos Comenius, 1592—1670, was a Moravian clergyman who was critical of traditional harsh educational methods and developed a gentler, kinder pedagogy remarkable for his time. He is credited with writing the first texts that used illustrations to help children learn. Piaget wrote a laudatory introduction to a collection of his writings published by UNESCO.
We also did our work under relatively free and collaborative conditions. There was a minimum sense of hierarchy at ESS (and I suspect at The Children's Museum). We collaborated, were free to experiment and had few formal reporting responsibilities. The culture was liberal and trusting. It is only in recent years that I have come to realize the organic relationship between the nature of the working environments where we developed these progressive practices and the political agenda of progressive education. I owe this understanding to continuing to read Dewey, especially in the most recent decade. Dewey wrote that he considered Democracy and Education, his major pedagogic treatise, "for many years, the book in which my philosophy . . .was most fully expounded." He meant that his philosophy as a whole, including his political views on the importance of democracy (note the title of the pedagogic treatise) and social justice, were covered in that book. And they certainly are, as he constantly links his views on education with his critique of anti-democratic practices. Dewey also argued that democracy should be dominant, as much as possible, in the administration of educational institutions themselves.
The origins of progressive education are inseparable from the larger social and political climate that spawned it. The very name, "progressive education" makes the connection to Progressivism. The reference is to a progressive society, one that, in Dewey's words, progresses towards more democratic practice and greater social justice. Especially today, as I look back on Dewey's time it becomes clearer that the application of progressive ideas in museums and schools was part of a more comprehensive response to social conditions. In the early 1900s many of the conditions we still face today were prevalent: huge gaps between the rich and the poor, fierce debate about immigrants and their impact on our society, attacks on civil liberties and an expression of American imperialism in foreign policy. The Progressive agenda addressed all of these. The connection between various approaches to social reform weren't always clear to me as I joined in the educational and political activities in the 1960s. I was not alone. Many were surprised when Martin Luther King, Jr., linked his campaign for civil rights and for overcoming poverty with anti-war sentiments. But his later speeches made clear that social problems don't exist in isolation but are connected to the structure of the society in which they arise. Work to democratize education, to improve the opportunities for all children and to provide rich learning experiences cannot succeed without simultaneously addressing other impediments to achieving a just society. Consciously or not, our work in the 1960s was carried out in an atmosphere that was supportive, despite the continuing problems that faced us. I don't know how much the staff at The Children's Museum, anymore than I, was aware of the legacy they were continuing or how much their work had a political influence as well as shaping the future of museums. The combination of novelty, confidence and financial support made bold initiatives relatively normal.
The problems that call for progressive efforts are, obviously, still present and in many ways reflect the social conditions of the early twentieth century more than they do those of the '60s. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening after narrowing earlier; we are more engaged in foreign wars than just the one conflict in Vietnam, and the political climate is less supportive of civil rights than in the 1960s. But these danger signs only serve to emphasize the importance of continuing the struggle for progressive museums and progressive education today. They serve to remind us of the significance of Boston Stories today.
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