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.


  1. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

  2. I, too, have often asked the question. Most recently when I was finishing my dissertation. But I am asking it again now for different reasons. As someone who is expecting her first child, this question and how to go about preparing my baby boy for school and helping him excel and learn and grow has been the topic of many discussions with others. I agree that I want my son to excel and get good grades, to better his opportunities for college acceptance and a secure economic future. But I also want him to learn and get lots and lots of satisfaction out of this new learning, to feel good about himself, to be able to share his new knowledge with others. I can't wait to read your book, Mike!

  3. You say education is or should be about "...the full sweep of growth and development for both individuals and for a pluralistic democracy."

    Yes Mike, it is this direct experience of expansion, both internally as a learner, and more slowly and broadly as a society that excites me about education. I appreciate your articulation of the essence of education.
    Andy Bayliss

  4. Hello Mike, My name is Patrick, I am a student at Mars Hill College. My class has just finished reading "Why School?" in chapter 1 you discuss education budgets, programs, and expenditures. We had a discussion about why this is occuring. In some states there is a lottery that is supposed to be providing revenue to schools to stop this problem, my question to you is why is there not a significant increase in programs, and expenditures for the students? It seems that when I have observed classrooms there is more cuts occuring than ever. Do you think the lottery is just a gimmick to pay for other things? If so, where do you think the money is going?

  5. Hello Mike, I am a student at Mars Hill College and we just read your book Why School? Throughout the book I noticed the topic of schooling not being beneficial to students and having to catch them up when they get to college. I wanted to know why that is. Some situations I agree that teachers do not do a good job of preparing students, but a lot of times I believe it is the student who is responsible for this. Many students now are lazy and do not want to put in the time to do the work they are assigned. If they were to do their work and take it more seriously and work harder and they would be better prepared for college. I did see all the situations where it was the teacher, but I bet there are many students who if they worked hard they could be prepared for higher education. This is just my opinion and I wanted to know what you thought about it.

  6. Hello Mike, I am a student at Mars Hill College. My class has finished your book "Why School?", throughout the book you discuss the pros and cons of the NCLB act. I was hoping you could shed some light on that topic in relation to standardized testing in the school system. I really do not understand why standardized testing is and will become the "end all" for students in the school system. After reading your book I have come to the conclusion that it is simply spitting useless information back out and then forgotten. What do you feel is the real solution to this problem? And when do you think it will be "corrected"? If ever?

  7. Hello Mike, I just got done reading your "Why School" for my class here at Mars Hill College. I can honestly say that this book was the best book I've read sice my time in college. It ht on alot of point that have not been disccused until now, entering my final year of college. I thnk this book as very insightful on the inner workings on school, especaially since you came from alot of points of view, from being the student, to teacher, and to adminstrator of certain programs. This truley was the only book I've actually enjoyed reading thoughout college.

  8. Dear Mike Rose,
    Coming from a person that does not put reading on their list of things to do, I must say I really enjoyed your book. I will say at times it was hard for me to grasp the central point you were trying to get across at times, but there were also times I found myself unable to put the book down. I enjoyed the chapter about Soldiers in the classroom and also how students learn better when dealing with hands-on activities. Also the hermit crab example was wonderful. Needless to say there were also some issues you raised in which I as a student was able to relate to. Things like entering college unprepared. I too was a student that struggled with writing when enter college so when reading the part in your book about remediation at the university I was able to see where kids could struggle if they had not be taught right. Needless to say I think that you raise great issues in which we as teacher not only need to be a wear of, but need to find ways we can make them better. Also I feel you have good examples of learning and ways in which teachers can help students learn to their best abilities. Moreover I would just personally like to say I enjoyed this book and would like to end by asking you this. Do you think it is fair for teacher to have to follow these certain standards as far as how they can teach their classrooms? Thank you for your time look forward to your response.
    Chad Fekany

  9. Hi Mike,

    Your book is full of wonderful insight and ideas. However, we’re still very concerned about the future of education. Most of the teachers we know are all on-board with this kind of thinking… but how do we convince the people in charge of our education system to see things like we do? Reading this book was both a refreshing and frustrating experience. We, as educators, know what works. We have good ideas to make lasting positive change. However, how far will these ideas reach if we’re the only voices promoting them, and without the support of policy makers?

    It helps to know what teachers can do at the classroom level to create a positive change. We plan on implementing many of your ideas in our daily teaching—for example, valuing different intelligences, proving kids with numerous opportunities, and creating a classroom culture of safety and respect. But doing these things in our classroom won’t change the national conversation about standards, testing, and finances. We’re stuck wondering how we force our own conversation into the mouths of those in charge.

    Rachel and Nicole, secondary English education pre-service teachers

  10. “Standards, expectations are a crucial part of the dynamic, though that dynamic can become distorted if we hold to a rigid conceptualization of standards or get consumed in the technical development of them. It is finally our philosophy of education, our fundamental justification for schooling, that gives standards—any definition of standards—their meaning” (Rose 115).

    We hear so much talk of standards in various contexts—where do these standards begin and end, or is it an ambiguous cycle lacking continuity and innovation? How do we bridge the divide between presumption and actuality? How do we teach to a set of standards controlled by more standards, given out by a separate set of bigoted beliefs that define the extraordinary and ridicule the socially constructed ordinary? And when we finally allow ourselves to hold true to the idealized conceptualization of student progress, what do we do with this ideal? It’s there. It’s balancing on a teetering continuum, in which the weighted side belongs not to the learner’s possibility, but to the social elite. It’s there. It’s in our philosophy, just as you state, our fundamental justification for schooling—whatever that may be in whichever classroom we choose to unmask the ever ambivalent, looming set of standards.
    -Allie, MSU Senior