September 12, 2023
The Progressive Education movement started in the 1920s and went into a roar during the Depression led by advocates like John Dewey. It soon joined forces in the 1930s with George Counts’ Social Reconstruction movement. But the momentum was not to last and the association between the two movements collapsed by the 1950s. After the collapse, both curriculum ideologies became less important drivers of education reform for two reasons: first, the learner-centered ideology of progressives like Dewey had struggled to find common ground with the social reconstructionists who saw schools as an opportunity to change society through the education of the individual; and second, the United States had been driven into a Cold War panic when Russia launched Sputnik into space. This panic meant that the next decades were led by an emphasis on the STEM fields.
It looks like we are very much at the same moment again. So what are the new Sputniks that might challenge the humanities and movements like social justice, and lead to a renewed doubling down on the STEM fields? The first is what the Financial Times called “the American chip moonshot,” which is the $40 billion being invested by the US for maintaining leadership in semiconductor technology and bringing sophisticated manufacturing back into Western hands. A stimulus that has all the same echoes of the space race of the Cold War, but this time in the increasing stand-off between China and the US. Colleges are gearing up for a huge push into the STEM fields and its employment benefits for the economy here at large. The second is artificial intelligence with the further challenges it brings to areas like education. We are already seeing its effects on curriculum providers: the International Baccalaureate recently indicated that as a result of ChatGPT, analytical skills may be more important than essay-writing skills.
With echoes of previous disagreements, a bitter fight has broken out in the humanities over social justice curriculum content. The battle today has focused on content rather than skills. This reflects on both sides a traditionalist approach to curriculum that is very much information—and content—driven rather than inquiry- or skills-driven, with schools telling students what to think rather than teaching them how to think. Part of the reason for this is that schools have not been able to define what skills they are associating with activism and anti-racism,…