About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On Reading the “Great Books” at Eighteen

            Today’s blog is an extension of my post from July 29, 2015 “Reading a Difficult Book.” It’s a reflection on learning to read difficult literature; the way we slowly, gradually develop our ability to comprehend it; and the way our reading of literature, any literature, changes over time.

            The long prefatory note to my earlier post is relevant here to set the context for this blog. I’ll reprint part of it, but if you read “Reading a Difficult Book” and remember the preface, then you can skip it and go right to the new material.

Prefatory Note

With the exception of a few classes, I was a mediocre student in high school, unengaged, drifting along, spending huge amounts of energy trying to find my balance on the runaway train ride that is adolescence.  In my senior year, I had the sheer, dumb luck of landing in the English class of a new teacher, Jack McFarland, a Columbia University graduate student who had come back home to Los Angeles and found a job in our small all-boys Catholic high school.  He taught us what he knew: the Mid-Twentieth Century Columbia Western Civilization course, starting with The Iliad and The Aeneid and, after nine months, concluding with Graham Greene and the Existentialists.  The year before, our Junior English teacher had us half-heartedly reading Animal Farm and another short novel and writing a few brief papers.  Mr. McFarland hurled me and my classmates into the very deep end of the academic pool, and we flailed and sputtered and learned way more than we thought possible.

            I tell this story in Lives on the Boundary.  For a complex set of reasons, Mr. McFarland caught my attention in a way no other teacher had, and I worked like crazy for him.  He was the person who recommended I go to college and, despite my sorry grades up to the point of his class, got me into one.  He changed my life.

            Even though I’ve written about this experience, I have recently been thinking about it again…a lot…feel driven to understand it as deeply as I can.  Over my many years in education, I’ve encountered a number of other students who have had experiences similar in form to mine: they were drifting along and then had a teacher, or entered a program, or had life smack them in a way that flipped a switch for them.  School began to matter.

            One thing I’ve been doing to further examine that year in Mr. McFarland’s class is to reread all the books he assigned—and, believe it or not, I still have some of the original paperbacks.  When I don’t, I try to find the edition we read through used booksellers or eBay; I want to hold it in my hand and see the typeface and illustrations I saw then.  I also have the many papers I wrote for Mr. McFarland and my class notes as well.  Finally, I am still in touch with Jack McFarland, and we are rereading some of the books together.  I’m doing everything I can do to achieve the impossible: to put myself back in time to better understand that life-changing year.


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Those classics we read for Mr. McFarland became the grist for the mill of our understanding.  We hacked away at them, half-read and mis-read them, cursed them, trivialized their meaning, the many dimensions of human experience they rendered, for, after all, we were boys turbocharging our way through late adolescence.  We were certainly familiar with the pull of ambition, or the sting of jealousy, or with sadness and loss, but nothing close to the depth of years and expression that unfolds in Oedipus the King or Othello or Checkhov’s Three Sisters.  That understanding would perhaps come as our own years, then decades, passed.

            Sometime shortly after Mr. McFarland’s class, maybe during the summer when I was feverishly reading on my own, trying to extend the education he had set in motion, I found Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  The well-lighted place is a small Spanish café, late at night, with one elderly patron and two waiters, and it is through the dialogue between the waiters that the story unfolds.  The old man comes every night to drink one brandy, then another, then another in the quiet, orderly restaurant.  The week before, one waiter tells another, he tried to kill himself at home.

            One waiter is young with a wife waiting in bed for him, and he is eager to hurry the patron along and close up shop.  The other waiter is older, alone, and understands why the old man needs the café, for he, too, does “not want to go to bed” and needs “a light for the night.”

            The young waiter sends the patron on his way and leaves for his wife.  The last few paragraphs—this story is brief and moves quickly—have the older waiter continuing the narration in his head.  “It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant.”  For beyond the clean well-lighted café there “was a nothing he knew too well.”  Then in a subversion of the Lord’s Prayer that grabs a Catholic kid’s attention, the waiter intones “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name…”  There is no God.  Only nothingness.

            The last scene finds our waiter in a bar himself, ordering a drink, but leaving for home soon after.  Though the bar is bright, it is not clean.  “He would lie in bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep.  After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia.  Many must have it.”

            By the time I read the story that summer, I had developed, thanks to Jack McFarland and on the backs of his Great Books, the tools to analyze it.  I pinpointed the light and dark imagery.  I got Hemingway’s use of the café as a symbol for something larger, for the need for some kind of order and routine in the face of chaos.  It is not enough that the café be well-lit; it also has to be kept up.  The human protective response to a world without God.

            I understood the story, could explain how it works.  This is hugely important, otherwise it’s a seemingly pointless and puzzling account of an old drunk and two waiters, one eager to get home to his wife, the other more than a little strange.  I would read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” again at other points in my life and teach it as well.  That first reading brought with it the pleasure of interpretation, an appreciation of Hemingway’s skill and the welcome feeling of my own growing competence.  I can do this.

            When I read the story in my thirties or forties, I remember the chill of emptiness, of the café as a fragile defense against the fear of dying.  This was an emotional—really an existential—response that I didn’t have that summer after high school.  And when I read it now, I choke up as the waiters debate cutting the old man off and when the older waiter begins to ruminate about his own isolation and fear.  More than dread, the story now evokes sorrow for our mortality.

            “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" represents one of the many long arcs of reading that began with me clomping my way through Mr. McFarland's book list and continues as an old man and two waiters live out their lives again and once again in the protective light of a bright Spanish cafe.

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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Coming Back to School: What Returning Students Can Teach Us About Learning and Development

This article was originally published in the March/April, 2014 issue of Change, a magazine dealing with contemporary issues in higher education.  In it, I draw from and build on my book Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.  This week, Back to School comes out in paperback.
            Also this week, in synch with Labor Day, the radio show On Being is rebroadcasting an interview I did on The Mind at Work.  You can access the show here.  If you’ve never listened to On Being (formerly called Speaking of Faith), you might want to check it out.  The host, Krista Tippett, is a thoughtful interviewer, and the range of topics and guests is terrific—last week’s guest was the incomparable political and social activist Grace Lee Boggs.
            Here is the article from Change. 

            “You might discover somebody you never knew you were,” Henry says with a big voice as he turns his wheelchair sideways to look at me. “That’s basically what happened to me when I started taking classes here.”
            Henry is finishing up his general education requirements for his associate of arts degree and is preparing to transfer to a university. His goal is to work in mediation and conflict resolution, particularly with teenagers, kids like he once was, who are “searching for an identity.”
            Henry is in his mid-twenties—a vibrant, self-reflective guy who was an honor-roll student and athlete in high school. Then, as he put it, he started doing “young, foolish, dumb stuff,” got caught with marijuana on campus, was expelled, returned to graduate, and then was drawn further into gang life, resulting in prison time and, soon after release, the shooting that paralyzed him.
            The year after the shooting was filled with hospitals and rehab centers and attempts to put his life back together. He returned to his parents’ house and spent long days thinking, watching television, surfing the web. Then one day, and he’s not sure exactly how, he stumbled across the website for the community college he now attends.
When Henry was on the streets, “college was the last thing on my mind,” but now the images on the screen stirred him. All kinds of thoughts went through his mind about his purpose and goals and how to turn his life around. “I don’t have the use of my legs,” he said, “but I have the use of my mind.”
            The community college Henry found that day is geared toward occupational training, and he began by studying a trade. As part of his financial-aid package, he got a work-study job as a receptionist at the campus tutoring center—and that job led to further revelations.
Being around “so many great and positive people who were in the process of transferring” to the university led Henry to discover “that I didn’t want to just get an occupational certificate and call it quits. I decided ‘I wanna take English courses. I wanna take general education courses.’ And that’s where it all started for me.”
            Henry is one of about fifty students I observed and interviewed during the two years I spent at a community college serving one of the poorest populations in Los Angeles County, in order to write Back to School. Though most of the students I got to know were not physically disabled to the degree Henry was, many lived in hardship and were going through or had gone through a period of self-discovery. They were trying to get their lives together, make something of themselves, find out why God put them on this earth—the expressions varied, but the general goal of trying to start a new phase of life was pretty much the same.
            I sat in on classes in remedial mathematics and English and in five occupational programs: welding, diesel technology, electrical construction and maintenance, nursing, and fashion design. I also interviewed students who, like Henry, were preparing to transfer. I spent hours in the tutorial center, where I got a sense of the subjects and assignments that were most challenging to students and the kinds of assistance they most needed.
During observations in the occupational programs, there was ample opportunity to talk with students while they worked on an engine or were in the middle of constructing a garment. Such talk provided a more direct entry than formal interviews did to their attitudes, motivators, habits, struggles, and successes, as well as how they were developing a sense of competence and of their identities as nurses or diesel mechanics.
            I also conducted formal and informal interviews with the teachers, tutors, and mid- and high-level administrators who were responsible for these courses and programs. The interviews with teachers provided a wealth of information about subject matter and students, confirming or qualifying those students’ own sense of how they were doing. The interviews with administrators provided the broader institutional context in which students and faculty do their work.
            Finally, I simply spent a lot of time walking around the campus, sitting in various open spaces, waiting outside of classrooms. You see and hear so much: students passing by in the middle of a conversation about problems at home (a nursing student fretting about her husband’s displeasure at the demands on her time), or a delay in financial aid that’s making it impossible to buy books, or the elements of popular culture that circulate through this student body.
This multi-layered approach enabled me to get a sense of the lives of students like Henry as they are lived out in classes and workshops, in student services and other institutional settings, and in the campus as a social world. I saw the actual process of education unfolding in real time.
            The students I got to know were certainly enrolled to improve their economic prospects, but they were there for many other reasons as well. They wanted to do something good for themselves and their families. They wanted to be better able to help their kids with school. They wanted to have another go at education and change what it meant to them. They wanted to learn new things and to gain a sense—and the certification—of competence. They wanted to redefine who they were.

I saw the intricate interconnection of the three planes of students’ existence: personal, academic, and social. I observed students who were learning all kinds of things about themselves as they confronted the tasks and problems in their curriculum—what they liked or didn’t like, how they responded to a challenge, and so forth. I saw students who thought they were stupid because of their earlier school records—particularly in subjects like math or science—begin to rethink that assessment as they found they could do math or science either in basic courses or in the context of an occupational program.
In the occupational programs I visited, students were continually interacting with each other: learning by watching a peer prepare an IV tube, or lending a hand as another student was sewing a garment, or jointly working on an electrical assembly. Students were developing trade skills but also learning how to work with others and discovering what collaboration could yield.
Because of the demographics of this campus, those working together sometimes came from racial or ethnic groups that would have made them hostile to each other on the street. But the cooperative interaction around challenging tasks frequently overrode that hostility, at times even leading to insight about the racial and ethnic dynamics in this part of the city.
A number of students I met who were preparing to transfer to a four-year college or university told stories of self-discovery similar to Henry’s. They began by taking a course or two, and as they began to experience achievement and become engaged by particular topics and readings, they also began to imagine a different, more successful future for themselves.
The cognitive momentum they’d developed through their curriculum was beginning to have a significant effect on their sense of self, which, in turn, played back into the courses they took, the effort they gave to them, and the shaping of a goal to transfer. All of this led them to new acquaintances who shared their interests and reinforced their commitment. I was reminded of Marcia Baxter Magolda’s studies of self-authorship, a notion less commonly invoked with students like these than with traditional-aged students.
To be sure, this campus had students in their late teens and early twenties, but it also had a lot of students from their mid-to-late twenties into their fifties. We tend to assume that older students are more goal-oriented and practical than traditional-aged students. The implication is that the kinds of discovery and growth experienced by traditional students is not likely happen for the older folks, who are coming back to school more fully formed, with specific employment and career goals in mind.
There is some truth to this characterization, but I also found that remarkable things can happen to older students as they make their way through college. I talked with students like Henry who—through the classes they were taking and their interactions with faculty, staff, and other students—were reassessing their abilities, discovering new interests, and gaining insight into the personal beliefs or social norms that restricted them. That nursing student whose husband was giving her trouble was typical of those returning women who were beginning to confront gender roles, and not only because of something they read in a course but also because they began to experience themselves in a new way—in classes, with peers, on campus.
Even though all the students on this campus were commuters and had obligations that kept many of them from participating in extracurricular activities, they did find important participatory spaces in tutoring centers, computer labs, workshops, and the like. These academic resources provide a hugely important service in assisting students develop academic and occupational skills, but they also serve as social spaces, with the academic work providing the occasion for social contact.
While some students came by the tutoring center only in times of crisis, others came more regularly, forging relations with tutors and experiencing the center as a hospitable place. Learning was humanized for them.
In the tutoring center, I was struck by how many students were being helped with so many different tasks and problems, from narrowing a topic for a psychology paper, to navigating the Internet, to selecting classes, to letting off steam about problems with work schedules or transportation. Some of these fell squarely within the center’s mandate, some less so, but all contributed to students’ making their way through the college.
Henry’s growing awareness that he wanted to expand his education into the liberal arts was helped along by the fact that in the center, he was surrounded by people—students and tutors alike—who looked like him and were studying, talking, and puzzling things through. Henry saw there other students with street and prison tattoos, with disabilities, with various indicators that their lives had not been easy. And they were all in the midst of this vibrant educational environment, experiencing themselves as legitimate citizens of it.

The distinction between the academic and the occupational curriculum is status laden. The assumption—sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit—is that the academic course of study is the domain of intellectual growth, of insight and imagination, and of big ideas, whereas occupational programs, though perhaps challenging, are baldly functional.
But what I saw day to day in the occupational programs I visited complicated this easy distinction. There was the continual demand to solve problems, to apply knowledge, to slow down and think something through. Students needed to not only learn to use a tool or a process but know why it worked and how.
And there was excitement about new knowledge. After a field trip to a state-of-the-art welding shop, one student said he found all the new advances “overwhelming. … There is so much more to know.” But he added quickly that the trip “motivated” him, for he “loves this stuff.”
In the technical classes I saw an ample display and refining of aesthetic sensibilities. As students got more proficient and socialized into various craft traditions, they would talk about the beauty of an assembly, how the graceful bend of conduit is “pretty.” Students would re-do perfectly functional wiring that no one would see because it was “ugly.” Aesthetic judgment motivated action, became a reason in itself to master a technique.
An ethics of practice also emerged with growing competence. There was a right and a wrong way to do things. “A bridge is only as strong as its weakest weld,” I heard an instructor tell her students. “You’re like a surgeon, but you’re working on metal. You’re taking two separate entities and making them one. So take it to heart.”
For a number of students, progress through a program brought a sense of agency and fulfillment, especially important to those who had poor school records and were casting about. Students talked about the pleasure of being about to build or repair something, of finally being able to create a beautiful garment or care for the sick.
And for some, like Henry, success in an occupational program became a kind of scholastic launching pad, showing them, sometimes to their great surprise, that they could thrive in school and wanted more of it. “You will grow in a way,” one young woman mused, “that you never in your mind would imagine.”

Not just freshmen at Yale but also returning students at the central-city or semi-rural community college can experience the intellectual surprise of discovering a new field, realize that the way they have thought about themselves is a barrier to growth, form new relationships that open up both cognitive and social worlds. These experiences might happen in quite different ways and have quite different consequences, but they happen.
We need to listen to these students and be their advocates. If policymakers are blind to them because we haven’t done an adequate job of making them visible, then the institutional conditions to foster their growth won’t be created and funded. And that would have a direct effect on the students we saw in the tutoring center, the welding shop, and the nursing program—on a future Henry trying to discover who he is and could be.

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