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Progressive : WORDS

WHEN Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, reported last week that schools were being too soft on their pupils - letting them work at their own pace, leaving them to enjoy finding things out for themselves and so on - the press knew just what he was talking about. He was attacking "progressive methods" (I don't think he actually used the phrase in his report). But the odd thing about progressive is that although it clearly suggests the new, the breakaway, the avant-garde - it is, after all, only an adaptation of the Latin verb meaning "to advance" - it has at the same time a pleasingly old-fashioned ring, inducing nostalgia and the backward look. The great days of the progressive school movement were just before and after the First World War, when a whole crop of experimental establishments flourished, often enraging the readers of the Morning Post. Chesterton mocked the vegetarian Shaw for his "bad progressive education"; he wrote that in 1910. The Punch cartoonist Pont drew a miserable, weedy, wild-haired schoolboy with the caption "My parents have a theory about education". And there was an American journal called Progressive Education.

Not so many radical thinkers, in and out of school, would call themselves "progressive" today. For the Victorians it was an earnest word, as it had nearly always been since its coinage in the 17th century. ("Forward, forward let us range," cried Tennyson.) J S Mill wrote of "the progress of human affairs" as a Good Thing, which had brought nations out of tyranny. Later the United States was to spawn a succession of political parties labelling themselves "progressive", an obvious hurrah-word; and it has served well for a number of reforming movements in South Africa.

But progress can be bad as well as good. Now that many of us are getting more cynical by the week, people who declare that they believe in progress begin to sound naive. Ask someone to think of the noun they first associate with progressive and they might well answer "disease".