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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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Reading Dante in the Age of Trump

            Soon after the election of Donald J. Trump, the sales of novels depicting life in a totalitarian state—Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—shot upward, with George Orwell’s 1984 going to #1 on Amazon. (It’s still at #3 as I write this.) People are trying to make sense of the mess we’re in and turning to fiction as one source of understanding. Me, I’m looking back through my battered copy of the 14th Century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, a three part epic poem depicting Dante’s allegorical journey through hell, then purgatory, and finally into paradise. During his spiritual quest, Dante also comments on the politics and political figures of his native Florence, so with apologies to my distant countryman, I’m going to join him in The Inferno and indulge in a great guilty pleasure by imagining the punishment awaiting some of the key players in contemporary American politics. Donald Trump, his cabinet, and his advisors present so many threats to all that’s holy that in addition to political action we need to draw on every artistic and cultural resource at our disposal to give us clarity and hope. If we’re forced to gambol on the edge of the abyss, let’s use every dance move we got.

            Hell consists of nine concentric circles located deep within the earth: Abandon all hope ye who enter here. Each circle is the realm of a particular sin—lust, greed, violence, treachery—with each descending circle representing more and more grievous evil until, finally, there is the center of hell where in the lowest depth, Satan is frozen eternally in ice, futilely beating his massive wings.

            Part of Dante’s poetic genius is that the punishment he creates for each of the sins is a physical analogue of the sin itself, and he renders the sights, sounds, and smells of the physical with grisly vividness. Gluttons, for example, wallow for eternity in a freezing slush of the rotted garbage their earthly indulgence produced. Fortune tellers and diviners (part of the circle of fraud) sought in life the unnatural power of foretelling the future, so in hell their heads are twisted forever backward, their eyes blinded by tears “that [run] down the cleft of their buttocks.” You get the idea.

            In my Trumpian Inferno, there will be a special circle for the president’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and his counselor, Kellyanne Conway. These three long-time Republican operatives were each critical of Donald Trump during the GOP primary—Conway called him “a man who seems to be offending his way to the nomination”—but made their peace with the devil in exchange for power and limelight. Through an endless flow of double-talk, re-direction, avoidance, and flat-out lying, this unholy trio has thrown into fast-forward the degradation of our political language. For eternity, then, let them each be bound to podiums jammed close together in the blinding light of a press conference, repeating face-to-face ad nauseam and ad infinitum the blather that has become their stock-in-trade.

            Chief strategist Steve Bannon who revels in provocation and shock-and-awe strategy would be buried forever in the middle of a vast desert, just enough below the surface that his endless flailing and blustering produces the tiniest puff of sand, seen by no one, not ever, affecting nothing at all.

            And down in that icy pit of hell where Satan intensifies the frigid winds of his damnation through the endless flapping of his wings, down in that cold darkness will be Mr. Trump himself. For well beyond the end of time, every gilded object that surrounds him in life will fade to dull gray. The buildings that bear his name will crumble. A giant screen will broadcast his personal wealth, repeatedly diminishing to zero for all eternity. There will be three people at his rallies, the strapped-to-their-podiums trio of Spicer, Conway, and Priebus, a number too low to make the news. Dante’s hell is full of monstrous creatures who bite and claw at the damned. Whenever our president utters words like “huge,” “beautiful,” “fantastic,” a giant winged demon will rip them from the air, for he has rendered these words meaningless.

            We could go on. The former nominee for Secretary of Labor, Andy Puzder, couldn't take the heat, but his sins might still condemn him to forever and ever flip burgers or clean toilets for less than minimum wage. I invite you to join me. Pick your least-favorite member of the Trump playbook and escort him or her to the vestibule of Dante’s hell.

            One thing, however. As we stand at the threshold of the underworld indulging in our fantasized retributive justice, I wouldn’t want us to lose sight of a sobering, all-too-real fact. There are people close to President Trump, chief strategist Bannon foremost among them, whose view of this actual world we inhabit right here and now exhibits troubling parallels to Dante’s medieval allegory. Mr. Bannon, a thrice-divorced ultra-conservative Catholic, sees the world in Dantesque extremes, apocalyptic, the monumental clash of good and evil. In Bannon’s eyes, we live in a time of dark chaos that through a purgative catastrophe—one he desires—will lead to a new world order. Donald Trump has moved this kind of thinking from the fringes of our society to the center of the White House: Steve Bannon sits on the president’s National Security Council, the smell of brimstone in the hallway outside his office.

            Over the year, I’ll be writing further and less figuratively about the terrible damage being done to our civic language and democratic institutions. But for now… Ms. DeVos? May I escort you through this gateway, please?

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Remembering Two Historians: David Tyack and Michael Katz

            If we’ve ever needed clarity of thought, and a respect for knowledge, and an ethical commitment to understanding history and its consequences—if we’ve ever needed these virtues, we need them now. Two historians of education whose work embodies intellectual rigor and moral sensibility died before the 2016 presidential election, David Tyack in October, 2016 and Michael Katz several years earlier in August, 2014. David would be appalled at the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, and Michael, who wrote brilliantly on urban history and on poverty as well as on education, would have observed with horror the prospect of rolling back protections for the vulnerable to pre-FDR levels. And both would have much to say about a looming Second Gilded Age. As we prepare for the next few years, it could help us to keep these historians’ books close at hand.

            In my blog of August 25, 2014, I posted a eulogy for Michael Katz as well as an earlier commentary I wrote when he updated his fine book, The Undeserving Poor. You can access that post here http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com/2014/08/a-tribute-to-historian-michael-b-katz.html, and I also quote some of it now to give you a feel for what makes The Undeserving Poor so terribly fitting for our time:

The Undeserving Poor [I wrote] is not so much a history of poverty in the United States as a history of ideas about poverty, and the ideas are complex and, for the most part, troubling. I began to understand how it is that poor people are so often categorized and characterized in such one-dimensional and insidious ways: as shirkers, or passive, or morally defective, or stupid—as people responsible for their poverty because of some damning personal or cultural quality. I also began to understand the reasons behind various interventions aimed at poverty—or refusals to intervene. I had never read a book quite like this, one that demonstrated just how much the ideas and language in the air matter in the construction of public policy.

            I read the first edition of The Undeserving Poor in the early 1990s and wrote Michael Katz a long fan letter that sparked a lasting friendship. My introduction to David Tyack began in an even more personal way.


            Though my first year of college was pretty bumpy, I eventually found my way with the help of some exceptional teachers, and was fortunate to be in the running for a fellowship awarded by a national foundation. The process involved an interview, which was scheduled in a hotel in downtown Los Angeles, several bus transfers from my home. I was green as chlorophyll, and this world of high-powered academics and high-stakes interviews in hotels I had never seen from the inside was new territory for me. To make matters worse, the buses were running late, so I showed up at my interviewer’s door in a sweat and nervous. Thank God the interviewer was David Tyack, then a young professor from Reed College. I didn’t know anything about him, let alone about Reed College, but the guy couldn’t have been nicer. He put me at ease immediately, and we talked for over an hour. (Anybody reading this who knew David wouldn’t be at all surprised.) Years later when I was trying to educate myself about the history of American education, I kept running across this David Tyack fellow. The little educational history I had read up to that point was mostly in textbooks, and, to be honest, was dry and antiseptic. Tyack’s rendering was vivid, human, full of memorable characters and events, richly interpreted.  I wrote David Tyack a letter reintroducing myself and the result was another long-lasting friendship.

            David wrote or co-authored so many fine articles and books, it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ll limit myself to four: The One Best System: A History of Urban Education; Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820-1980 and Learning Together: A History of Coeducation in American Public Schools (these last two are co-authored with the political scientist Elisabeth Hansot, David’s wife); and, with Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. David took on big topics and always looked at the societal and systems level of things in his analysis of schooling—though his analysis is also laden with specific detail, with classroom scenes, with quotations from administrators and teachers and parents, and with snapshots of communities. A reader comes to understand both the particulars of time and place and the many forces that influence those particulars. One of the many things I appreciate about David’s work is his refusal to simplify. You come away from his books with a rich and complex understanding of schooling. He avoids simplification in the lessons we can take from history, though he very much wants us to benefit from what history can teach us. “The way we understand [the] past,” he writes in the Prologue to The One Best System, “profoundly shapes how we make choices today.” He also deeply believed in the civic purpose of the public school, its central place in a democracy. Yet, and here’s the nuance again, he was clear-eyed as well about the ways our schools have historically contributed to inequality.


            Reading David Tyack and Michael Katz provides models for interpreting complicated, even baffling, phenomena, models as to how to systematically sort through a flurry of information, how to shape a careful argument, how to weigh and honor evidence that contradicts that argument, and, finally, how to do all this in the service of telling a story about the world we live or have lived in, a story that is as intellectually and morally legitimate as we can make it.

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