08/07/2013 03:02 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Drugs, Sex, Rock 'n Roll and Kindergarten

Conventional wisdom, or what passes for wisdom, among conservative folks is that the "progressive era" of the late '60s and early '70s ruined virtually everything. Moral values disappeared in a haze of marijuana smoke. Highly sexualized music and an epidemic of free love led to a decline in marriage and erosion of family values. Progressive political values created a spineless, dependent populace, which accounts for the tens of millions of feckless "takers" who look to the nanny state for care and feeding. And permissive progressive education created a generation of self-indulgent brats who were told everything they did was right when, in fact, they didn't learn anything at all.

There are many problems with this conservative narrative, primarily that none of it happened.

As a veteran of the '60s, I testify from experience. The vast majority of young folks who "joined" the counter-culture, wore bell bottoms, smoked weed, went to Woodstock and protested the war, were not much more genuine than Justin Bieber wearing low slung pants, lots of bling and a big brimmed cap on sideways. Most hippies were no more Che Guevara than Bieber is 50 Cent. It was almost all costume and fad. Or to evoke memories of George W, all hat and no cattle.

I attended more than one anti-war demonstration and most protestors couldn't find Vietnam on a map. In my middle/upper middle class community, the bra-less girls and bell-bottomed boys had been Brownies and Cub Scouts a few years earlier and would be aspiring bankers and real estate agents a few years later. At the core there were, as now, small numbers of deeply committed activists, but the majority were along for the ride.

But the bigger lie is that the progressive educational practices of the '60s and '70s eviscerated standards and accounts for the miserable state of education today. So-called reformers want rigid accountability, more structure, longer school days, longer school years, more tests and more discipline. Undoing the damage of those loosey-goosey progressive practices is arduous work!

Of course this didn't happen either. The real progressive "movement" in education was in the early 20th Century, where progressive and radical schools in North America and Europe were waging war with the factory model of education promulgated by Elwood Cubberly, Franklin Bobbitt and others. The truth is that progressive lost and factory won. Progressives have been fighting a losing battle against a factory/business model ever since.

There was a brief flurry of progressive activity in the '60s and '70s, when some schools adopted open floor plans and a few humanistic and humane programs poked through the dull homogeneity of public education. But most schools were built in spirit-numbing form and curriculum and pedagogy in most schools trudged along in the same rote, uninspiring way.

Here too, I'm a veteran and testify as both participant and witness. I graduated high school in 1964. My younger brother went to the same school in the late '60s and early '70s. I had children early and my daughter began school in the same community in 1975 -- my son three years later. That's pretty good coverage of alleged "progressive era." And all of this happened in one of America's most "progressive" suburban communities (Cleveland Heights, Ohio). Progressive education never happened there or in many, if any, communities around the country.

The factory model of education never intended that children be truly educated. It aspired then, and now, to train children in a set of skills that will allow them to be productive workers. That's a pretty barren way to look at children, but if you listen between the lines of the rhetoric of so-called educational reformers, it is precisely what they seek.

Progressive education has deep roots, planted in the most profound philosophical and scientific advances of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Eminent scholars like Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori, Piaget, Dewey and many others redefined the primitive views the world had theretofore embraced about children, child development, human psychology and human learning. In recent years, dazzling advances in neuroscience have confirmed nearly all of what these prescient scholars had observed, hypothesized or deduced about learning and education.

History offers only one significant study of the efficacy of progressive education. In the 1930's, the Carnegie Corporation and the General Education Board funded an eight-year study comparing outcomes between a cohort of progressive schools and a similar group of traditional schools. The progressive schools demonstrated equal or superior outcomes in nearly every dimension. The most non-traditional progressive schools had the most impressive long-term results. This study, and other smaller bits of similar empirical evidence are not known to (or ignored by) most so-called educational reformers.

On the other side, powerful financial interests and the politicians in their thrall now espouse an even more vicious and wrongheaded version of the factory model.

Which side might you choose?

A common argument against progressive education is an aggressive claim that it didn't work. Of course it didn't. It never really happened.