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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Monday, November 30, 2009

Why I Wrote Why School?

A few weeks ago, the book review editor for the Huffington Post invited me to write something on the origins of Why School? Why did I write the book? Some people told me they couldn’t readily find it, so I reprint it below.


We hear so much about education these days – test scores, reform battles – but little that we hear gets to the heart of why education matters. That’s why I wrote Why School?, to get us to think about why we send kids to school and often return to school ourselves. Along the way, I hope readers reflect on what made a difference in their own education.

Education turned my life around – saved it, really – and I’ve taught for close to forty years, so this issue of the purpose of education is close to me, both professionally and personally. It gets me to the writing desk in the middle of the night and throughout the day colors the way I view the world.

I’ve had the good fortune teach in a wide range of settings: kindergarten, graduate seminars, job-training programs, a program for Vietnam veterans, tutoring centers, an after school literacy club for failing students. I’ve visited good schools and bad, have seen teaching that is mediocre and teaching so skillful and fluid that it makes your jaw drop.

In Why School? I wanted to draw on all that experience to take the reader in close to education when it goes well, and I wanted to provide illustrations from the whole broad sweep of education in the United States: from first-graders caught up in a science lesson, to teenagers solving problems in a woodworking class, to college students becoming more astute writers, to adults coming back to school to jump-start a second chance.

I wanted the reader to sit close by as other human beings struggle with a problem, get that flash of insight, and push toward articulation, alone or with others. I wanted to capture the experience of discovery, of learning to do something you couldn’t do before, and, for some, to begin to think of yourself in a new way.

Sadly, little of this vital detail of teaching and learning has made its way into recent education policy or the political speech we hear about our schools. As a result, our sense of what education is has shrunk. What we hear from across the political spectrum is that the reason we send our children to school is to be ready for the 21st Century economy. And the way we measure our success is through a standardized test that is typically far removed from the cognitive give and take of the classroom.

I come from a working-class family, so I am certainly aware of the link between education and economic mobility. And as a citizen – and someone who has spent a lifetime in schools – I absolutely want to hold our institutions accountable. But I wrote Why School? to get us to consider how this economic focus, blended with the technology of large-scale assessment, can restrict our sense of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development for both individuals and for a pluralistic democracy. In such a policy environment – one that has been with us for over a generation – school can devolve to procedures, to measures and outputs that constrain what gets taught, how it’s taught, and how we define what it means to be an educated person.

Think of what we don’t read and hear.

There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, imagination, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding. For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of commitment to public education as the center of a free society.

If we abstract out of education policy a profile of the American student in our time it would be this: a young person being prepared for the world of work, measured regularly, trained to demonstrate on a particular kind of test a particular kind of knowledge. This is not Jefferson’s citizen-in-the-making. And in my experience most parents of a wide range of backgrounds, though they want their children to develop basic skills and be prepared for work, want much more.

My hope is that Why School? contributes to a more humane and imaginative discussion of schooling in America.

Monday, November 9, 2009

An Excerpt from Why School? for Veteran’s Day: “Soldiers in the Classroom”

Veteran’s Day is approaching, so I thought I would reprint a selection from my new book Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us that addresses education for returning veterans.

Soldiers in the Classroom

What the classroom full of veterans wanted most was, as one of them put it, “to help our families understand what we went through.” The course was in communication, and it was part of an educational program for veterans of the Vietnam war. The teacher – my colleague in the federally funded program – had asked them what they most wanted to learn, and that was their primary answer: to explain to those closest to them the hell they endured.

Our newest generation of veterans will be returning to a warmer welcome than those who served in Vietnam, but the kind of war they fought is similar, and their needs will be as great. By one count, over 30,000 are injured, some severely. Others are or will be torn apart by psychological trauma. And many others will experience terrible distress as they try to find their way with family and community, the economy and education.

What kind of support will our society provide for them? As a young man, I taught English in that program for Vietnam vets, so I got a sense of life after service is over, after physical wounds are healed, after the ceremonies – if there were any – and handshakes have receded into memory. Then soldiers have their lives to pick up or to create anew.

Advocates for veterans brought to public attention the inadequate funding and delivery of health care for newer generations of veterans; less public until the deliberations preceding the new GI Bill were the limited resources for education and the many problems young veterans face as they try to reenter school. The rising cost of living combined with rising costs of tuition, textbooks, and supplies dash many hopes, but even those who can make it financially typically face significant academic and social problems.

The program that contained the communications class could serve as a model for how to help the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It was focused on education, but its philosophy and structure could be adopted to other domains, such as for occupational training, marriage and family readjustment, or drug and alcohol rehabilitation. The key point is that it treated a complex problem in a comprehensive and integrated way. To respond adequately to educational needs, the program had to address psychological, social, and economic needs as well.

The Veterans Special Education program was a twelve-week crash course in college preparation. The veterans called it academic boot camp. The curriculum included representative freshman year courses in English, psychology, communications, and mathematics, so students got a sense of what lay before them—a reality check—and were able to begin college with some credits, a leg up. The courses also addressed fundamental cognitive and social skills: critical writing and reading, mathematics, human relations, and communication.

The courses were supported with tutoring. A number of the veterans had poor academic backgrounds, so some needed a good deal of assistance with their writing, with reading academic material, or with all the strategies for doing well in school: managing time, note taking, studying for exams. But the tutoring also made the academic work more humane, no small thing, for many of the students carried with them a history of insecurity and anger about matters academic.

They were being asked to write essays analyzing poetry or comparing sociological or psychological theories and to read more carefully and critically than they had before. The challenge stirred strong feeling. Some of the students shut down and withdrew and others erupted. One marine scout I was working with got so frustrated that, in a blur of rage and laughter, he bit off the corner of his paper before handing it to me.

It wasn’t enough for us to do our work within the confines of the classroom. The staff would follow up when a student missed a few days, making phone calls, driving over to an apartment or hotel room, finding someone in awful shape. We had a rich network of referrals for psychological counseling—the nearby V.A. hospitals but also local agencies and civic organizations. And for those who needed it, we had referrals for financial counseling as well. Finally, the program included advising to assist the students in selecting and applying to appropriate colleges and universities. With help from our counselor, the fellow who sank his teeth into that essay got into UCLA, majoring in Sociology and Asian Studies.

All this created a sense of community, something the veterans often noted. For all their social and political differences, they shared the war, and now they were preparing for reentry into the world they left behind. The staff put on social events, but the real community, I believe, was formed through a course of study that was intensive, generous with assistance, and geared toward the next phase of the veterans’ lives.

We have been awash with “support our troops” rhetoric, and politicians use it as a patriotic trump card. One grand irony in all this is the shameful level of health care some veterans have been getting and the resistance a number of conservatives and the Pentagon itself displayed in the face of legislation for a new G.I. Bill.

Rather than patriotic talk, I’d like to hear about programs that are comprehensive and address the multiple needs our troops have when they return home. Programs that provide knowledge and build skill. Programs that are thick with human contact. Programs that meet veterans where they are and provide structure and guidance that assist them toward a clear goal. Programs that build a community while leading these young men and women back to their own communities.

Educational programs for special populations tend toward single-shot solutions: a few basic skills courses, or tutoring, or counseling. But the best programs work on multiple levels, integrate a number of interventions. Such programs emerge from an understanding of the multiple barriers faced by their participants, but also from an affirmation of the potential of those participants. The richness of the program matches the perception of the capacity of the people who populate it.

This is how really to support our troops. And it is how we should think about an education that, of necessity, has to go beyond the classroom.