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, April 22, 2008

Further Reflections on “Why Go to School?”

Several friends of mine who have been reading the blog commented on how comprehensive and thoughtful readers’ posts have been. It’s true. So, then, imagine a conversation about education on a broader level – regional, national – a conversation that takes its time, that involves a range of topics, that collectively gets us to think about the many purposes school can and should have in a complex society like ours.

Consider the topics raised by those who have posted comments in the last ten days.

For Karin, School is a place to form relationships and connect with others in ways that lead to a public self, “how to connect as a citizen.”

Kerri, Mira, and others also mention relationships – these with teachers who mattered in a deeply personal way: “the human face of the educational experience” and being with adults who “see the best” in young people.

For Patty, school provided a place to belong (a miniature society, perhaps?), a sense of being in something “bigger than myself.” And for one anonymous writer, school provided “escape from the reality of my life” – a point I can understand.

For Bronwyn, once it kicked in, education provided “an invitation for me to see my life and its meaning, and the lives of others and their meanings.”

For Meño “we go to encounter and deal with things/people/ideas that we would not, in the course of our humdrum everyday lives, normally or naturally encounter.”

Christopher cites intellectual engagement and pleasure, and celebrates the environment of exploration, of searching that school can provide – and this business of seeking, exploring is mentioned in other posts as well.

As do others, Rachel mentions making connections with teachers, but also discusses the joy of making connections across domains of knowledge, seeing the interrelatedness of things. And through the extracurriculum – in her case, musical theater – school become a site of creativity.

Josh values the potential for self awareness and the sharpened ability make informed decisions.

Artineh also values critical thinking and intellectual engagement, but underscores the way her education provided the prospect of economic self-sufficiency. This drive for economic stability was tied to gender inequality, financial hardship, and immigration, thus bringing to the fore in our discussion (as Meño and the anonymous writer also did) the issue of inequality.

People posed these goals of schooling in rich accounts of their own education, and teaching, and parenting. The accounts have the heft and texture of life to them: yearning, rebellion, joy, comfort, the spark of intellect, the shaping of identity. There is so little of any of this in our talk about school, so little heart and soul, but, as well, so little of the cognitive tug of intellectual engagement.

There is, of course, another dimension to our discussion, mentioned by some of those who posted comments – most recently by K-8 – and that is the fact that school often doesn’t serve young people well.

In Possible Lives, I write that a comprehensive assessment of public education (and private education, for that matter), needs to contain both criticism and images of goodness, of possibility. Otherwise judgment can devolve into dismissiveness and despair or into blithe optimism blind to incompetence and inequality. We need a vision that simultaneously sees both harsh reality and potential.

So let us return to the compelling list generated by the readers – relationship, intellectual engagement, self-reliance, encountering the new, etc. – and ask what it is about formal schooling in the U.S., public or private, that impedes these goals. Some things come quickly to mind: the way schools are structured, school politics, race and class bias, economic inequality.

Let’s think about this question. And let’s push on it. Take the issue of school structure, for example. Fine things happen in traditionally organized classrooms, and awful things in non-traditional ones. What is it exactly about school structure, or bias, or education politics, or whatever that disrupts the kinds of goals readers have listed?

I’ll get the ball rolling by suggesting that one of the awful things about race, class, or gender bias is that it usually brings with it assumptions about limited intellectual ability. Another point: A barrier to more and better interpersonal connection between teachers and students – along, of course, with work load – are professional and subject matter traditions that don’t emphasize the deep connection between cognition and human relation. I know in my case the relationship I developed with my senior high school English teacher was fundamental to my emerging interest in literature and writing. It was a kind of connection that, for me anyway, was rare in my high school.

Please feel free to post your thoughts (from your personal experience as well as from your observations as citizen, parent, or teacher) about the things that limit the realization of the kinds of goals listed above.

This rich blend of the possible and the constraints on the possible would be at the center of a reinvigorated discussion of the purpose of schooling.


Several recent contributors to this blog have fine blogs of their own, and I want to recommend them here: Deborah Meier (with Diane Ravitch) “Bridging Differences” (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences), Karin Chenoweth (http://www.britannica.com/blogs/author/kchenoweth), and Mike Klonksy (http://360.yahoo.com/michaelklonsky). If I’ve missed anyone, let me know.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Why Go to School?

I want to continue and broaden the discussion of what school is for. We have been focusing on public education, but let’s open the lens and ask the basic question: Why do we educate – through public or private institutions? Why do we yearly go through the hugely expensive and culturally monumental ritual of sending young people to school?

This is the question we need to "address on a national scale because, as many of us have been saying, for close to thirty years our national discourse about schooling has been so narrow. Teachers and parents younger than thirty or thirty-five have heard little else, at least at the level of public policy.

This week I suggest we try to answer the question about why we educate by going to our own experience of schooling.

All of us certainly have bad memories from school. And those of us who educate can add to the list horror stories of bad teaching, bad curriculum, bad policy. From these negative examples, we can generate counter-examples of how schools can be and why we send children to them.

But let’s also consider the positive things we have received from our educations. And let’s use these examples as well to create a richer list of what schools are for. This tactic can provide us with another way – a concrete and personal way – to start a conversation from the ground up.

What follows is taken from an opinion piece I wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last fall. See if it sparks your own memories about your education and/or your beliefs about the purpose of schooling. Please feel free to post your thoughts.

During most of my time in school, my father was seriously ill and my mother worked two shifts to keep us afloat. I was a disconnected and dreamy child, vaguely fearful of our circumstances, full of longing but without much direction. There's a lot of kids out there like me. And they need all that school can provide.

We should talk more about school as a place where young people form connections beyond the family with adults who can guide and mentor them. This was hugely important for me. These relationships often develop around a shared interest, around biology or mechanics, basketball or theater, thus putting a human face on knowledge and discipline.

We need to talk about school not only as a place where young people acquire knowledge, but where they learn how to use it, how to make an argument employing historical events, how to think with numbers. We need to talk about self-reflection, becoming systematic and methodical, examining one's own work. And we need to talk about motives and the consequences of choosing one path over another -- whether in a science experiment or in the schoolyard.

School is a place where young people learn how to think with each other, how to jointly puzzle over a problem, how to make sense of discordant views, how to arrive at consensus. School is a place where the world can open up -- mine certainly did -- through learning history, geography, and literature, but also through the people you meet and a growing sense of where you fit in the scheme of things.

All of the above help young people develop a sense of themselves as knowledgeable and capable of acting in and on the world. This, finally, was what education gave me, a pathway from hazy disaffection to competence, to a dawning awareness that I could figure things out and do something with what I learned. This was the best training I could have gotten for a vocation and citizenship."