The politics of classroom power

Published 9:13 pm Wednesday, September 3, 2014

By Clay Scott

Progressivism, especially that of John Dewey, is the main philosophy taught in schools and used to measure quality instruction.

Under progressivism, the traditional classroom is a site of power, privilege and hierarchy, but so is the progressive classroom.

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Progressivism cannot stand without a foil. In educational settings, this foil is the “traditional” classroom. Progressive educators are critical of and often reject outright the learning, morality, organizations and social practices of the past.

This is, for example, how history turned into social studies. The progressive ideal, according to Dewey, is for each generation to re-create society, rather than build upon the learning of previous generations. Without the need of a social or political heritage or foundation, progressives have a great need of social studies and little need for history.

If power, privilege and hierarchy are attributes of a traditional classroom, and therefore inappropriate in a progressive classroom, the ideal would be a classroom devoid of each. A class without power is a class where each person’s thinking is free from all external influences. A class without privilege is one where all ideas are equally discussed and valued. A class without hierarchy holds all members as equals.

These sound like enlightened ideas, at least until it comes time to apply them.

External influences in a classroom may include textbooks, the teacher, the ideas that students bring with them from home, church and other places of learning, cultural assumptions and others. Power in these discussions often refers to social power, which is the capacity to influence the actions of another person or organization. If a teacher is not influencing students, then what is she doing? If external influences cannot be used, then what would be the source of information?

The concept of privilege is all about prioritization. Anything included in a class is privileged above that which is omitted. There is no such thing as a classroom without privilege, there is only the question of what and who are privileged.

As for hierarchy, in a progressive classroom the teacher is not more powerful than the student. They are equals. It is not the place of the teacher to tell a student what to do or to judge the work of a student. Teachers are more like trail guides, able to offer suggestions but powerless to truly influence behavior.

Progressives claim to want classrooms devoid of the shackles of past thinking, authoritarian systems, power and privilege. Ironically, they have no problem exerting power and authority to privilege their ideas while suppressing others. What they really argue against are basic elements of social interaction. To prepare the next generation, we need to teach and model effective and ethical implementation of power and hierarchy, instead of avoiding them.

Rather than vain and misleading claims at balance, we need to privilege that which is of most value and highest virtue. Hiding from basic principles of social living does not make them go away.

Instead, I say we let our children see good examples and practice the relevant principles of civility.

Clay Scott, a resident of Franklin, teaches Spanish at King’s Fork High School. He holds a degree in Spanish from Brigham Young University, an MBA from Ashford University and is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. Email him at