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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Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Purpose of Public Schools Is Lost in a Language of Failure and Money

We can all agree," wrote a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard not long ago, "that American public schools are a joke." This way of thinking and talking about our public schools has been with us for some time: cynical and despairing. It was what led me, in the early and mid-1990s, on a cross-country journey to observe a wide variety of public schools that had been judged by their teachers, students, and parents to be good and decent places of learning.

I took side roads, stayed overnight with families, consulted local historical societies, and spent hundreds of hours in remarkable classrooms. The journey was both geographical—recording actual classrooms and communities across the United States—and philosophical, trying to gain a lived, felt sense of what public education means in a democracy. It was a powerful journey, and it seems that the same kind of reflective journey is more needed now than ever.

In the midst of the culture wars that swirl around schools; the fractious, intractable school politics; the conservative assault on public institutions; and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school.

Now, God knows, there is a lot wrong with our schools – from the tangles of school politics to the terrible things often assumed about the abilities of kids from poor communities. I don't dispute that, have taught in the middle of it, have tried to write about it. And I surely don't dispute the legitimate anger of people who have been betrayed by their schools. But the scope and sweep of the negative public talk is what concerns me, for it excludes the powerful, challenging work done in schools day by day across the country, and it limits profoundly the vocabulary and imagery available to us, constrains the way we frame problems, blinkers our imagination. This kind of talk fosters neither critique nor analysis but rather a grand dismissiveness. It plays into equally general and troubling – and equally unexamined – casual claims about the schools' responsibility for our economic woes and social problems. And this blend of crisis rhetoric and reductive models of causality yields equally one-dimensional proposals for single-shot magic bullets: Standards will save us, or charter schools, or computer technology, or the free market or, big-time in the last six years, broad-scale testing programs like No Child Left Behind.

And what will the magic bullets do? Reaffirm our economic preeminence and assure our children's competitiveness in the labor market.

The economic motive has always been a significant factor in the spread of mass education in the United States, and as someone from the working class who has achieved financial mobility from schooling, the importance of the link between education and economic well-being is not lost on me.

But this economic focus can restrict our vision of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development, for both individuals and for a democratic society. This narrowing of discourse, this pinching of what we talk about when we talk about school is evident in the public sphere, the national and regional discussions of education, its goals and purpose.

We need public talk that links education to a more decent, thoughtful, open society. Talk that raises in us as a people the appreciation for deliberation and reflection, or for taking intellectual risks and thinking widely — for the sheer power and pleasure of using our minds, alone or in concert with others. We need a discourse that inspires young people to think gracefully and moves young adults to become teachers and foster such development.

I'm not simply longing for rhetorical flourish here, although a little scholastic uplift would be a welcome thing. Public discourse, heard frequently enough and over time, affects the way we think, vote, and lead our lives. I worry that the dominant vocabulary about schooling limits our shared respect for the extraordinary nature of thinking and learning and lessens our sense of social obligation. So it becomes possible for us to affirm that the most meaningful evidence of learning is a score on a standardized test, or to reframe the public good in favor of fierce and unequal competition for a particular kind of academic honors. Education is reduced to a cognitive horse race.

When was the last time you heard extensive, deliberative public talk that places school failure in the context of joblessness, urban politics, a diminished tax base, unequal funding, race and class bias? Or heard a story of achievement that includes discussion of curiosity, reflectiveness, uncertainty, a willingness to take a chance? How about accounts of reform that present change as alternatively difficult, exhilarating, ambiguous, promising – and that find reform not in a device, technique, or structure but in the way we think about teaching and learning? And that point out how we need a language of schooling that, in addition to economics, offers a vocabulary of respect, decency, aesthetics, joy, courage, intellect, civility, heart and mind, skill and understanding? For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of a commitment to public education as the center of a free society. We need a richer public discussion than the one we have now.

An important project over the next few years – and though I focus on schools, this applies to a range of social issues – will be to craft a language that is critical without being reductive, that frames this critique in nuance and possibility, that honors the work that good teachers do daily and draws from it broader lessons about ability, learning, and opportunity, that scrutinizes public institutions while affirming them.