City Journal

Janet Daley
Progressive Ed’s War on Boys
In Britain, progressive ed banished competition and testing as harmful and elitist. Result: underachieving young males.
Winter 1999

Just when you thought nothing new could be added to progressive education's long catalog of failures, yet one more has come to light—and it is a particularly grave and far-reaching failure. For progressive ed, I would argue, is responsible for the epidemic of underachievement among boys in British state schools, now so deep and widespread that it is taking on the proportions of a national crisis. Where boys had once lagged behind girls only in the earlier years of primary education—and then only in English and history rather than in math or science—they now keep falling behind in both English and mathematics through the entire course of their schooling, as national test results clearly show. Where once boys could have been expected to catch up with girls academically by the age of 12, and to exceed their performance at public examinations by the age of 18, their performance now falls further and further behind with every passing year.

Experts and pundits have blamed this poor performance on everything from the influence of street culture and the media, to the lack of employment prospects for working-class boys, who once would have been absorbed into manufacturing, to the declining number of male schoolteachers who could provide role models. But the real culprit is the radical shift in teaching methods and in the content of the school curriculum that progressive education has wrought. To understand why this should be so, consider just exactly what progressive educators hoped to accomplish—and how, in the process, they explicitly rejected male virtues and values.

Progressive ed's "liberation" of the British classroom and curriculum had an unashamedly and overridingly political agenda. To the extent that British progressive theorists spoke in terms familiar to American progressivists—of raising the child's "self-esteem" and sense of self-worth—they understood these words in the context of class. Rather than encouraging working-class children to see the inadequacies of their own deprived social backgrounds and to aspire to go beyond them, schools would embrace and idealize "anti-elitism," in the name of delivering children from their feelings of class inferiority. It seemed to occur to no one that this inverted snobbery would lock deprived children into the limitations into which they had been born, opening no wider perspective or experience as an escape route out of the notorious passivity of working-class attitudes. What this meant was that state schooling was giving up on social mobility in favor of the virtue of class solidarity.

This rebellion against "cultural elitism" and "middle-class values" contained a wholesale rejection of virtually the entire corpus of historical and literary knowledge that had traditionally been passed down from one generation to the next by formal schooling. Progressive educationalist ideology dismissed both the content and the skills that made up this heritage as irrelevant to the needs of most working-class children and even sinister in its association with the public school tradition of classical learning and its concentration on bourgeois concerns. Why, they demanded, should a child from an inner-city housing project learn the history of the ruling class—a succession of "kings and battles," as I heard one teacher describe it at a conference on the teaching of history? Far better to let him explore history through his own eyes, as a series of emotional encounters with people with whom he might be able to identify—who, for some reason, always turn out to be oppressed people who are truly imprisoned in their circumstances, like medieval serfs or American slaves.

By dismantling the traditional study of literature and grammar, the schools lost the unifying thread of cultural initiation: the basic knowledge of linguistic and literary heritage that had once equipped every properly educated person, whatever his background, with the ability to move freely and confidently in British society. Predictably, the effect was to reinforce class differences. Henceforward, any child who did not learn to speak and write correct English at home, or who did not become familiar at home with his own literary heritage, was effectively cut off from participation in his own historical culture. While militant egalitarians defended this perverse new orthodoxy in the sincere belief that the literary classics were inherently elitist and irrelevant to the needs of most children, you will notice the irony: how closely this view resembles the kind of ruthless utilitarianism that sees traditional education as wasted on "common people" fit only for factory fodder. Bizarrely, those on the left-liberal axis in British education continually espoused views consistent with good old-fashioned aristocratic paternalism. The whole of British progressive educational orthodoxy is riddled with what, to American ears, sounds like the most complacent and patronizing reverse snobbery.


Lost utterly, too, was any kind of rigor in instruction. Testing, for example—particularly at the elementary school level, where experts rejected it as divisive, discouraging, and subversive of the correct approach to learning at this stage—fell into disuse. The schools dropped formal training in literacy and numeracy in favor of "project teaching"—play-like, unstructured, open-ended work, done in groups and aimed supposedly at weaving the specific skills of language and number painlessly and imperceptibly into a larger topic (such as transport, or insect life) that engaged the child's own interests. Had project work remained an enjoyable sideline of primary teaching, it could well have enriched children's learning. In the event, though, it became the easiest possible way for a child to avoid the things he found most difficult and for which he needed help most urgently—which explains why so many British children arrive at secondary school unable to read, write, or do simple arithmetic, weaknesses that traditional schooling methods would have caught much earlier.

A generation passed before what had been lost became apparent. Children who had been given an open-ended brief to pursue their interest in a given topic had little sense of goals or objectives. By contrast, though the old-fashioned teaching of skills in isolation might have seemed dull, it offered clearly defined paths for achievement. The absence of any coherent and comprehensible framework of goals and attainments left children in a miasma of confusion, which produced insecurity and a permanent sense of bewildered, frustrated dissatisfaction. The lack of any clear-cut system of assessment meant that they never gained an unambiguous sense of accomplishment and the confidence of knowing that they had successfully completed one stage and could go on to the next. Nothing makes children more anxious than a vacuum: to refuse to present them with specific measures of mastery and definable objectives is to set them hopelessly adrift. Of course, testing involves a risk of failure and disappointment, but in the long run these are less damaging than being without any idea of what counts as achievement.

Children are not fooled by this deceit. They know that if there is no failure, there can be no success. Ironically, it was just the sense of the child's self-worth that this approach undermined, for all its protestations of strengthening self-esteem. However much the primary schoolteacher might insist that specific targets and abilities were unnecessary, the pupil eventually discovered that the real world values real skills and will reward only those who can display them. The sense of pointlessness in the classroom and the ultimate sense of betrayal on leaving it turned out to be more damaging to children's self-esteem than were specific failings that might have been remedied had they been diagnosed at an early age.

Again, more than methodology was at stake here. The progressive ideology was ultimately about middle-class guilt and a breakdown in the idea of adult authority itself. Progressivists no longer wanted to see education as an older generation passing on a body of cultural and historical learning to a younger one—and then judging how well that learning had been assimilated. Education was now a much more personal exercise, one that aimed to enlist and gratify the child's emotions at every stage.

So it was not just a matter of feeling sorry for the child who failed to produce the right answers: progressive ideology rejected the very idea that getting answers right was important—or even that there could be any such thing as a right answer. In English and history, the result was an almost total vanquishing of any notion of objective truth or authoritative analysis. Far from learning the value of intellectual detachment and freedom from bias, children learned only to see their own personalities as the measure of everything. Subjectivity and emotional involvement—the supposed exercise of imagination rather than the accumulation of information—became the central values of education. But in reality, what could be more stunting to the imagination than frustrating a child's craving for real knowledge?

The brunt of all this fell most disastrously on boys—who, it turned out, temperamentally depended much more than girls on the principles of traditional education: discipline, structure, and competition. How disastrously? According to the 1996 National Curriculum tests (which the last Conservative government imposed on state schools only after years of teachers' union resistance), 7-year-old boys were on average 10 percent behind girls in English, 11-year-old boys were 15 percent behind girls, and 14-year-old boys were 18 percent behind girls. Instead of overcoming their early disadvantage in literacy, boys are compounding it.

Even middle-class boys within the state school system are achieving significantly less well in public examinations than their female counterparts. But in areas of high social deprivation, the disparity between the performance of girls and boys is staggering. White working-class male youths are now performing more poorly in school than almost any other social or ethnic group—the sole exception being Afro-Caribbean boys, who do marginally worse. Boys are not only failing to achieve academically, but they are dropping out in alarming numbers into a nihilistic, outlaw street culture. Unemployable and uneducated, these youths make their chief preoccupations hooliganism, petty crime, and sexual predation.

One key reason why girls are doing strikingly better than boys is that teachers, in accordance with progressivist ideology, now judge schoolwork in a way that rewards enthusiasm and personal involvement more than objective knowledge and accuracy. I don't mean to suggest that girls are not good at the more objective forms of learning—only that they are particularly good, much better than boys, at identifying with imaginative others and seeking to please. Girls of all classes become tractable and cooperative at a younger age than boys, partly because they are able to empathize with others at an earlier age. By the age of four or five, little girls can play together with minimal supervision. They make rules and follow them, adopt compatible roles, and reach mutually accepted agreements by using verbal skills and adult impersonation. Perfectly normal boys of the same age will rampage into anarchy without adult intervention. Having had only daughters myself, I can remember how the most civilized girls' party could be reduced to chaos by the presence of a single boy—who invariably seemed to possess none of the girls' moral inhibitions or rational self-control.

As a parent, what shocks me most is the self-imposed ideological blindness: the failure of basic psychological perception. Even for a non-professional, observing a room full of young children of both sexes at play is an instant education in the differences between them—and the inevitable educational consequences of those differences. While most girls are likely to be motivated by a desire for approval and their own standards of social responsibility, competitiveness seems to come as naturally to most boys as cooperation and conscientiousness do to girls, and boys seem to need a reliable ladder of progress and explicit rewards to channel their competitiveness and keep them going. What used to provide such a framework was classroom competition and traditional structured academic tasks, with their ever-increasing, ever-challenging levels of mastery.

By deriding competition and working hard to strengthen individual self-confidence (which girls often lack), schools have loaded the system very heavily in favor of female achievement and male failure. What has been systematically dismantled is just the kind of externally imposed structure and clear discipline, both behavioral and intellectual, that boys require. This was, of course, part of an explicitly feminist program: the reordering of educational priorities and methodology so that they were not "biased" against female values has been a deliberate objective of progressive educational philosophy. School is now designed to be most helpful to the self-disciplined and self-motivating—which, during childhood and adolescence, largely means girls.


Educational ideology for the past 30 years has been devoted to the encouragement of self-esteem: if you feel good about yourself, then what you can do or accomplish in an "artificial" academic setting is of little importance. The aim was to make all children feel valued and confident rather than giving "disproportionate" approval to the able few. School was a form of therapy, intended to equip the "whole child" for life, not just for academic achievement.

What was lost in this well-intentioned psycho- babble was the understanding that nothing increases children's confidence more than the acquisition of knowledge and mastery of usable skills. Children are not fooled by patronizing attempts to hide real differences in ability, and boys especially are frustrated to the point of frenzy by a perverse refusal to give them clear goals and intelligible markers of success. While most children were shortchanged to some extent by this philosophy, boys—and particularly working-class boys—were more likely to be devastated. By failing to criticize, teachers deprived them of the criteria for self-criticism. By abdicating their responsibility to exercise firm control on behavior, schools allowed the worst-behaved to dominate the culture of the classroom and to set the tribal standards for adolescent male society.

By rejecting the old-fashioned ladder of tests, measurable achievement, and competition, progressive ed subverted incentives that had once given school a comprehensible point for many pupils—particularly the male ones. It may dismay the liberal intelligentsia, but a world in which no one can be called a winner and nothing counts as losing will have little call on the young male imagination.

To be understood in its full enormity, what has happened in British education because of progressivist ideology has to be seen against a background of what has been lost. The old tradition separated pupils into academic or technical tracks based on a selective examination at the age of 11. According to historical myth, this division after elementary school reinforced class divisions. In fact, grammar schools (as the academic schools were called) were responsible for delivering more working-class children from deprivation than the "comprehensive" school system that swept grammar schools away. In the 1960s, before it abolished its two-tier system of state secondary schools, Britain had more university students from working-class homes than any other European country. Indeed, a whole generation of ex-working-class intellectuals and authors, including the "angry young men" Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, came out of the much-maligned grammar schools. But now, thanks to the replacement of grammar schools by comprehensive schools, the proportion of working-class students at traditional universities has plummeted. The ultimate irony of the progressive revolution in British schools is that it has harmed most disastrously the deprived children it was intended to rescue.

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