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.
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.
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
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
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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