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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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reclaiming the Idea of the Public

Like a lot of people, I have been watching with a mix of amazement and despair the spectacle of American politics over the last year. One of the many issues that has been shredded in the rhetorical meat grinder of our political discourse is the belief in the public and the public good. Anything identified with “the government” is reviled. Public institutions (like schools and libraries) are either ridiculed or abandoned. The old American boogy man of “socialism” is invoked with powerful effect, and communitarian concerns are trumped by declaration of individual liberty.

When I travelled across the country to write Possible Lives – a travelogue of good public school classrooms – I was led by what I saw to think a great deal about the idea of the public and the central role of the public school (and other public institutions) in a free society. About four years ago, I wrote a new preface for the book, and I returned to this concern with public institutions. Things were bad then, but they’ve certainly gotten worse as a potent reactionary force has emerged in our politics.

I’d like to reprint a section of that recent preface from Possible Lives. It predates the fury of the Tea Party, the further rightward lurch of the Republican Party, and the rise of the newest generation of political and media opportunists, from Glenn Beck to Rep Michele Bachman. Reading the four-year old preface in the midst of this political movement, I’m certainly aware of its tone, no match for the firebreathing rhetoric of the Right. I just hope that the version of the public it offers reasserts itself in our political life.

* * *

One of the fundamental issues that frames the events of Possible Lives is the commitment to public institutions and the public sector as an arena of social responsibility. There have been times in our history when the notion of the public has been invested with great agency and imagination. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amidst disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency but more so from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.

Clearly, there are domains of public life that benefit from market forces, and individual enterprise is a powerful force for both personal advancement and public benefit. Furthermore, the very notion of “public” is a fluid one, changes historically, exists in varied relation to the private sector, and, on occasion, fuses with it in creative ways. Finally, we must not simply accept our public institutions as they are, but be vigilantly engaged with them. One way to read Possible Lives is as a critique—though one built on hope—of a central American public institution, the public school.

Our reigning orthodoxy on the public sphere is much less nuanced. We have, instead, a celebration of the market and private initiative as a cure-all to our social and civic obligations. This orthodoxy downplays, often dismisses, the many ways that markets need to be modified to protect common people and the common good against market excesses—for markets are relentlessly opportunistic and dollar-driven. “The market is governed by a pricing system,” writes economic activist Edgar S. Cahn, “that devalues precisely those activities most critically needed in communities: caring, learning, worshipping, associating, socializing, and helping.”

The orthodoxy operates with a good dose of social amnesia, erasing the history of horrible market failure and of private greed that led to curbs on markets and the creation of robust public institutions and protections. The free market believers’ infatuation slides quickly to blithe arrogance about all things public. A guy is being interviewed on National Public Radio. “The post office,” he says, “ is the worst-run business in America.” This was within the same week as the opening of the trial of Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, with the recent memory of Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and New York’s then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s indicted rogue’s gallery.

This easy dismissiveness of the public also has its ugly side, characterizing anything public as inferior—or worse. I think of a talk-show host who labeled children in the Los Angeles School District as “garbage,” and tellingly, sadly, the kids I met during my travels on several occasions said they knew that people thought of them as “debris.”

We have to do better than this, have to develop a revitalized language of public life.

One tangible resource for me evolved from the journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of events of classroom life that I witnessed—out of the details of the work done there— a language began to develop about what’s possible in America’s public sphere. This sense of the possible, the specific words for it, came when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through together, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of numbers or acquired skill at rendering an idea in written language. It came when a group of students jammed around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled. When a local affair or regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word. When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward. When a student said that his teacher “coaxes our thinking along.” When a teacher thinking back on it all muses on the power of “watching your students at such an important time in their lives encounter the world.” It is in all such moments—moments in public school classrooms—that something of immense promise for the nation is being confirmed.

There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities. They occur daily in private schools, in church organizations, in backyards. But there is something compelling, I think, about raising one’s gaze outward, beyond the immediate window or fence to the science lesson at the forest’s edge or the novel crammed into the hip pocket on the city bus.

The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what a post-Revolutionary War writer called the “general diffusion of knowledge” across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but loses its civic heart.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reform: To What End?, Part II

This is a continuation of the post from June 28.

Learning-Friendly Environments

For me, the bottom-line question is whether a particular reform will enable or restrict the kind of thing we see happening in Stephanie Terry's classroom. The hermit crab episode is, of course, drawn from a few days spent in just one classroom, but it represents some qualities I've seen again and again in good schools—K–12, urban or rural, affluent or poor. Let me delineate these qualities, and as you read them, ask yourself to what degree the reforms currently being proposed—from national standards to increased data collection to plans to turn around failing schools—would advance or impede their realization. Just as the representation of teaching is diminished in current education policy, so is the representation of learning. I have yet to see in policy initiatives a depiction of classroom life anywhere close to the one I just shared.

  • Safety. The classrooms I visited created a sense of safety. There was physical safety, which for children in some locations is a serious consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment. And there was safety to take risks, to push beyond what you can comfortably do at present—"coaxing our thinking along," as one student put it.
  • Respect. Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels. It means many things and operates on many levels: fair treatment, decency, an absence of intimidation, and beyond the realm of individual civility, a respect for the history, language, and culture of the people represented in the classroom. Respect also has an intellectual dimension. As one principal put it, "It's not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to convey respect. [It] has to be challenging enough that it's respectful."
  • Student responsibility for learning. Even in classrooms that were run in a relatively traditional manner, students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, and became authorities on their own experience and on the work they were doing. Think of Stephanie's students observing closely, recording what they saw, forming hypotheses, and reporting publically on their thinking. These classrooms were places of expectation and responsibility.
  • Intellectual rigor. Teachers took students seriously as intellectual and social beings. Young people had to work hard, think things through, come to terms with one another—and there were times when such effort took students to their limits. "They looked at us in disbelief," said one New York principal, "when we told them they were intellectuals."
  • Ongoing support. It is important to note that teachers realized such assumptions through a range of supports, guides, and structures: from the way they organized curriculum and invited and answered questions, to the means of assistance they and their aides provided (tutoring, conferences, written and oral feedback), to the various ways they encouraged peer support and assistance, to the atmosphere they created in the classroom—which takes us back to considerations of safety and respect.
  • Concern for students' welfare. The students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that these classrooms were salutary places—places that felt good to be in and that honored their best interests. They experienced this concern in various ways—as nurturance, social cohesion, the fostering of competence, recognition of growth, and a feeling of opportunity.

The foregoing characteristics made the rooms I visited feel alive. People were learning things, both cognitive and social; they were doing things, individually and collectively—making contributions, connecting ideas, and generating knowledge. To be sure, not everyone was engaged. And everyone, students and teachers, had bad days. But overall, these classrooms were exciting places to be—places of reflection and challenge, of deliberation and expression, of quiet work and public presentation. People were encouraged to be smart.

How directly do current reforms contribute to promoting such qualities?

The Most Important Question

In an important 18th-century essay on education, journalist Samuel Harrison Smith wrote that the free play of intelligence was central to a democracy and that individual intellectual growth was intimately connected to broad-scale intellectual development, to the "general diffusion of knowledge" across the republic.

As we consider what an altered school structure, increased technology, national standards, or other new reform initiatives might achieve, we should also ask the old, defining question, What is the purpose of education in a democracy? The formation of intellectually safe and respectful spaces, the distribution of authority and responsibility, the maintenance of high expectations and the means to attain them—all this is fundamentally democratic and prepares one for civic life. Teachers should regard students as capable and participatory beings, rich in both individual and social potential. The realization of that vision of the student is what finally should drive school reform in the United States.