The high priest of American progressivism was John Dewey. Dewey remains revered in education theory, as well as (increasingly) in Departments of Philosophy, Religion, and Political Science. He is admired for his rejection of doctrines or belief in unchanging Truths, of arguments based upon objective and unchangeable criteria. Rather, as a proponent of "pragmatism," Dewey sought to show that human interaction with the world and one another constantly altered each, leaving us constantly in the position of having to adjust our own approach to circumstances with the willingness of scientific experimentation.
Deep in the backdrop of his progressivism - necessarily - is a theory of progress. A theory of progress posits that some vanguard of civilization is necessarily more advanced than others - normally those who are open to the pragmatic approach and have overcome their antiquated adherence to a belief in unchanging truths. In this regard, Dewey shares fundamental progressive commitments and beliefs with the likes of Marx, Mill, and many contemporary liberal thinkers (e.g., Rawls). In its baldest moments, the basic presuppositions of this progressivism are revealed in all their boldness, and no amount of hedging and excuse-giving can circumvent this fact. In particular, such progressivism is based on two basic and abhorrent presuppositions: 1. the backwardness of "savages" (or, if you like, substitute "savage" with the term "people from small towns" or even "Wasilla" for a contemporary shorthand); and 2. a belief in the malleability (or, one of Dewey's favorite words, "plasticity") of the world, and hence justification of human mastery of nature and circumstance. To wit:
"Why does a savage group perpetuate savagery, and a civilized group civilization...? In a sense the mind of savage peoples is an effect, rather than a cause, of their backward institutions. Their social activities are such as to restrict their objects of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development. Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development. Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention, primitive social customs tend to arrest observation and imagination upon qualities which do not fructify in the mind. Lack of control of natural forces means that a scant number of natural objects enter into associated behavior. Only a small number of natural resources are utilized and they are not worked for what they are worth. The advance of civilization means that a larger number of natural forces and objects have been transformed into instrumentalities of action, into means for securing ends....
"A savage tribe manages to live on a desert plain. It adapts itself. But its adaptation involves a maximum of accepting, tolerating, putting up with things as they are [e.g., babies conceived with Down's syndrome?], a maximum of passive acquiescence, and a minimum of active control, of subjection to use. A civilized people enters upon the scene. It adapts itself. It introduces irrigation; it searches the world for plants and animals that will flourish under such conditions; it improves, by careful selection, those which are growing there. As a consequence, th wilderness blossoms as a rose. The savage is merely habituated; the civilized man has habits which transform the environment."
These passages are drawn from Dewey's book Democracy and Education. They form, at heart, the basic presuppositions of much of modern education, especially modern higher education. For all the claims to embrace "environmentalism" that one hears today on college campuses, the basic presupposition is that we can exercise our technology to be green - that we can invent devices and methods that will allow us to be "green" on autopilot. Behind these fantasies is still the dream of control and mastery - the very opposite of an attitude of "accepting, tolerating, putting up with things as they are ... and a minimum of active control, of subjection to use."
And, one sees a continuity between Dewey's time and our own of the view of a world divided between the "civilized" and the "savage." Belief in this division underlies the visceral dismissiveness and condescension exhibited towards the likes of Sarah Palin. Nothing is more horrifying than the prospect of the backward and uneducated - the "savage" - disrupting the dreams of progress. If McCain is disliked, Palin is abhorred, for precisely this reason. We should see this hatred for what it is - not simply the prospects of electoral defeat, but a clash of worldviews that pits the self-styled agents of civilization against the recidivism of the savage.