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If education breaks, progress stops

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File

(Read caption) Desks at an elementary school in Roxbury, Mass.

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There are few things as satisfying as a turnaround tale.

From “This Old House” to “The Biggest Loser” to chef Gordon Ramsay grabbing a lazy restaurateur by the lapels and telling him to shape up, Pygmalion projects pervade pop culture.

Turnarounds can be superficial, artificial, and short-lived. The best, however, don’t change the underlying essence. They bring out qualities that were always there behind the fake paneling, self-doubt, and undercooked seafood.

Most of what we do during our waking hours involves renovation. We build on what came before, working with the materials at hand, tweaking and refining along the way. Today’s success stories are plowed under to create tomorrow’s innovations. So it’s natural that humans are keen to reform, improve, and renew.

But renovation is also crucial to society itself. Education is one big process of trying to make the next generation better than the current one. To do that requires the systematic and effective transfer of knowledge to young people. This is progressivism at its best.

(I’d like to propose, by the way, that we recapture the word “progressive” as meaning we want tomorrow to be better than today, not that we favor a particular ideology. To be progressive should mean that we support and celebrate humanity’s improvements, which include both liberal and conservative notions.)

In a progressive society, every generation builds on what has gone before it. That is why there is so much concern about the schools. Something has gone badly wrong when chaotic classrooms, the threat of physical harm, and failure to learn are prevalent. Teachers, administrators, parents, educational specialists, and political leaders have spent huge amounts of time trying to fix the problem over the years.

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