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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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Race to the Top of What?: School is about more than getting a job

This week’s blog is a reprint of a commentary that I published last week in Truthdig. Again, let me give a shout out to that online magazine. It tends to print opinions and points of view that are hard to find in regular media.


The race is on. Forty-one states have just finished the mad dash to submit proposals for the Obama education initiative, Race to the Top. Now that the first round of competition is over we should be asking the basic questions that got lost in the flurry: What is the true purpose of all this reform? What should it be? Why do we send our kids to school?

The answer given for decades – from the national to the local level, from Democrats or Republicans – is that education prepares the young for the world of work and enables the nation to maintain global economic preeminence. There is an occasional nod to the civic purpose of schooling in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, but that goal pales next to the economic justification.

To be sure, economic prosperity has long provided a potent incentive to fund and improve schools in the United States, but it is only one of multiple goals of education in a democracy. The architects of public education knew this. In a landmark report to the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1848, Secretary of Education Horace Mann did make the economic argument – original at the time – that education is the great equalizer, fostering social mobility and national prosperity. But this economic goal was embedded in a celebration of the physical, intellectual, civic, and moral goals of schooling.

We need to reclaim that broader vision, for we have terribly narrowed our thinking about school. Our tunnel vision is dangerous because the reasons we give for education affect what we teach and how we teach it. Vocational Education provides a cautionary tale of what a strictly economic focus can yield.

When Vocational Education was being formulated in the first decades of the last century, some proponents had an egalitarian conception of a curriculum that integrated the manual and mental to foster intellectual, social, and civic development. But as VocEd materialized, much of that ideal was lost to a strictly functional job-training curriculum that, ironically, wasn’t very successful at preparing students for the new work of the day. A major effort of recent reforms of Vocational Education (now called Career and Technical Education) has been to recapture some of those earlier goals. The best education for work is one that is broader than job preparation, that emphasizes literacy, quantitative reasoning, problem solving, creativity – and that gets at all of this through a range of human expression, from mathematics to the arts.

Economic preparation is a primary goal of every nation in the world today, repressive societies included. Shouldn’t education in a democracy have a richer set of goals? Even if our policy makers seem to lose track of this broader purpose, students and their parents on the whole do not.

I’ve taught for forty years – kindergarten to graduate school to adult literacy programs – and one thing that has become very clear to me is the multiple purposes and meanings education can have for all involved. To be sure, even young people are aware that school will affect their chance of getting ahead. “Math will take you a long way in life,” a middle-school student tells me. But there are many other reasons that people take to education. It provides intellectual stimulation (“She’s teaching us new things that we couldn’t do before,” another middle-schooler observes). Students enjoy the protected social setting and the connections they establish with adults. Many people, young and not so young, discover a passion. Our worlds get bigger. School is one of the primary institutions where we define who we are.

What is telling is that even in programs explicitly targeted to economic advancement – community college certification programs, for example – there is typically much more going on than job preparation. Students report that they are coming back to school to be better able to raise their kids, or to feel better about themselves, or to open up new options – economic options, but intellectual and social ones as well. In fact, one of the things that strikes me about working with adults returning to school is how often the experience leads them to reevaluate themselves, to see themselves in a new light.

The way we express the purpose of schooling shapes our collective definition of the educated person. If we want our youth to thrive and stay in school – the goal of all current school reforms – then we need an education policy that embodies the full range of reasons people go to school in a free society.

Friday, February 5, 2010

“A Study of Writer’s Block, Part Two”

Last time we got a glimpse of the composing processes of students who had a hard time writing. This time, we’ll pick up with some discussion of fluent writers.


What about the students who weren’t stymied, who wrote with relative fluency? They too talked of rules and assumptions and displayed planning strategies. The interesting thing, though, is that their rules were more flexible; that is, a rule seemed to include conditions under which it ought and ought not to be used. The rules weren't absolutes, but rather statements about what one might do in certain writing situations. Their assumptions, as well, were not absolute, and they tended to enhance composing, opening up rather than restricting possibilities. And their planning strategies tended to be flexible and appropriate to the task. Fluent writers had their rules, strategies, and assumptions, but they were of a different kind from those of the blocked writers.

What to do? One is tempted to urge the blocked writers to clear their minds of troubling rules, plans, and assumptions. In a few cases, that might not be such a bad idea. But what about Liz's preoccupation with passive constructions? Some degree of concern about casting one's language in the active voice is a good thing. And Gary's precise strategies? It would be hard to imagine good academic writing that isn't preceded by careful analysis of one's materials. Writers need the order and the guidance that rules, strategies, and assumptions provide. The answer to Liz's, Tyrrell’s, and Gary's problems, then, lies in altering their approaches to make them more conditional, adaptive, and flexible. Let me explain further. For the sake of convenience, I’ll focus on rules, though what I’ll say has application to the assumptions we develop and the planning strategies we learn.

Writing is a phenomenally complex learned activity. To write in a way that others can understand we must employ a large and complicated body of conventions. We learn from our parents or earliest teachers that script, in English, goes left to right straight across the page. We learn about letter formation, spelling, sentence structure, and so on. Some of this information we absorb more or less unconsciously through reading, and some of it we learn formally as guidelines, as directives ... as rules.

And there are all kinds of rules. Some tell us how to format our writing (for example, when to capitalize, how to paragraph, how to footnote). There are grammar rules (for example, "Make a pronoun agree in number with its antecedent”). There are preferences concerning style that are often stated as rules (“Avoid passive voice”). There are usage rules (“That always introduces restrictive clauses; which can introduce both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses”). There are rules that tell us how to compose (“Before you begin writing, decide on your thesis and write it down in a single, declarative sentence”). The list goes on and on. Some of these rules make sense; others are confusing, questionable, or contradictory. Fortunately we assimilate a good deal of the information they contain gradually by reading other writers, by writing ourselves, or by simply being around print. Therefore, we can confirm or alter or reject them from experience.

But all too often the rules are turned into absolutes. And that's where the trouble begins. Most rules about writing should not be expressed (in textbooks), stored (in our minds), or enacted (on the page) as absolutes, as mathematical, unvarying directives. True, a few rules apply in virtually all situations (for example, certain formatting rules or capitalization rules). But most rules do not. Writing rules, like any rules about language, have a history and have a time and place. They are highly context-bound.

Should you always, as some textbooks suggest, place your thesis sentence at the beginning of your first paragraph or, as others suggest, work up to it and place it at the end of the paragraph? Well, the answer is that both injunctions are right ... and wrong. Students writing essay exams would be well-advised to demonstrate their knowledge and direct the reader’s attention as soon as possible. But the writer who wants to give a sense of intellectual discovery might offer a series of facts and events that gradually lead up to a thesis sentence. The writing situation, the rhetorical purpose, and the nature of the material one is working with will provide the answer. A single-edged rule cannot.

How about our use of language, usage rules? Certainly there’s a right and wrong here. Again, not quite. First of all, there’s a time in one's writing to worry about such things. Concern yourself with questions of usage too early in your composing and you’ll end up like Liz, worrying about the minutiae of language while your thought fades to a wisp. Second, the social consequences of following or ignoring such rules vary widely depending on whether you're writing formal or informal prose. Third, usage rules themselves have an evolutionary history: we aren’t obliged to follow some of the rules that early twentieth century writers had to deal with, and our rules will alter and even disappear as the English language moves on in time. No, there are no absolutes here either.

Well, how about some of the general, commonsense rules about the very act of writing itself? Certainly rules like "Think before you write” ought to be followed? Again, a qualification is in order. While it certainly is good advice to think through ideas before we record them for others to see, many people, in fact, use writing as a way of thinking. They make major decisions as they write. There are times when it's best to put a piece of writing aside and ponder, but there are also times when one ought to keep pen in hand or finger on keyboard and attempt to resolve a conceptual tangle by sketching out what comes to mind. Both approaches are legitimate.

I'll stop here. I hope I've shown that it's difficult to make hard and fast statements about the structure, the language, or the composing of an essay. Let me be clear: I’m not calling for an abandonment of rules, strategies, etc., but for a more context-sensitive and fluid use of them. Unfortunately, there’s a strong push in our culture to make absolute statements about writing, especially when issues of style and usage are concerned. But I hope by now the reader of this essay believes that most roles about writing – about how to do it, about how it should be structured, about what words to use – are not absolute, and should be taught and enacted in a flexible, context-dependent way. Given certain conditions, you follow them; given other conditions you modify or suspend them. A teacher may insist that a young writer follow a particular dictum in order to learn a pattern. That’s fine. But there also comes a time when the teacher extends the lesson and explains when the dictum is and isn't appropriate.

Our writing and how we do it can be such a personal thing. Certainly, most of us are at least a little sensitive about the writing we do. I hope this discussion has been helpful, if for no other reason then it gets us to reflect on how we write and make some adjustments to make that writing go a little easier.