The “progressive” in progressive education derives its name from the Progressive movement (ca. 1890-1920 or thereabouts). It fought social ills and did much good (child labor laws, anti-trust laws, food and drug laws, muckraking...). The term should not be confused with “progressive” as it is used now in the political sense (a euphemism for the far left).
Progressive education was propelled by a laudable desire to humanize the often harsh and unimaginative educational practices of yore but was marred by a profound anti-intellectualism. See, for example, the influential Cardinal Principles.
Ironically, a fellow despised by the left, the social darwinist Herbert Spencer, practically wrote the blueprint for progressive education. Of course, progressive education has many fathers (Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, etc.) Dewey picked up Spencer’s blueprint without ackowledging his debt to Spencer. Since Dewey is largely incomprehensible, a fellow called William Heard Kilpatrick took it upon himself to become his chief disciple, the only one who was capable of understanding Dewey, and presented his thoughts (or an interpretation and largely distortion thereof) to edland. Although virtually unknown outside ed circles, Kilpatrick was the single most damaging influence on education in this country. His prescriptions live on in recycled form.
See Cults of Ignorance. - "Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget"
What follows is a brief excerpt from a review of a book by Kieran Egan, an ed professor who seems to be working in splendid isolation. It's worthwhile to read the entire review:
This book is a historical study, analysis, and critique of the educational "Progressivism" and naturalism that Spencer took over from Rousseau and his German-speaking disciples. Spencer developed it into a glamorous "science," which was then further developed by John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick in the U.S., and Jean Piaget in Rousseau's hometown of Geneva. This line of descent, affiliation, and influence now forms the fundamental thought-world of American teachers' colleges and schools of education, perhaps most prominently Teachers College, Columbia University, whose initial patron was the conservative humanist Nicholas Murray Butler but whose guiding spirit soon became -- and has remained -- John Dewey.Inexplicably, Kieran Egan ignores well-known critics of Progressive education.
Himself a professor of education and author of several books in the field, Kieran Egan contends that the Spencer-Dewey-Piaget legacy is fundamentally flawed intellectually, and that it has been a "catastrophe" for our teachers, their students, and the culture at large. He quotes what is perhaps Spencer's most notoriously fatuous assertion about human nature and history: He flattered and seduced his mid-19th-century audience by assuring it that "progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity." Two world wars, global Depression, Russian Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism, the other instantiations of Communism, megadeath weaponry, a sexual plague, and the various other problems we now confront, including an increasingly toxic pop culture, have proved the falsehood of this antireligious ideology. Yet one of its effects -- the replacement, in the 20th century, of history teaching with courses in simplistic and soft-utopian "social studies" -- has, ironically, succeeded in preventing the widespread realization of just how wrong the "Progressives" were.
The effects of the breakdown in the teaching and knowledge of history may be inadvertently evident even in Egan's otherwise fine book. Himself an (Irish-born) Canadian, Egan seems unaware of the long and dogged line of American critics of Dewey and the Progressives, including Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, William C. Bagley and Isaac Kandel (colleagues of Dewey and Kilpatrick), Reinhold Niebuhr, Hofstadter, Russell Kirk, and the conservative Protestant R. J. Rushdoony, whose The Messianic Character of American Education (1963) is a neglected classic with a useful title. More regrettably and culpably, Egan makes no mention of three recent, widely read books that document much of his argument in greater detail and with even greater force than he himself does: E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them, the late Jeanne Chall's The Academic Achievement Challenge, and Diane Ravitch's superbly illuminating if depressing survey Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. Ravitch's book gives valuable portraits of noble dissenters from Progressivism -- such as Bagley, Kandel, and Hirsch -- whose specific objections and alternatives need to be known and carefully weighed.