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, December 27, 2011

Newt Gingrich, Public Figures, and the Intellectual Mystique

This post appeared in The Answer Sheet column in The Washington Post on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011. You can share this blog post on Facebook, Twitter, or Google reader through the "Share" function located at the top left-hand corner of the blog.

In my last blog post, I examined Newt Gingrich’s now widely circulated comments about abolishing child labor laws. In the last few weeks as he’s surged ahead in the polls, we’ve heard more and more in the media about his intelligence, about him being a large thinker, the big idea guy in the GOP. This standard description of him has gotten me to think about intelligence, particularly about the ways we commonly ascribe intelligence to others.

I remember as a young man watching William F. Buckley on television and being fascinated by the way his eyes would flash and his tongue flick across his lips when he made a point – and the words! The big words. And that accent, that intonation. I didn’t know anyone who sounded like that. Clearly, this guy was smart.

Since those days, I’ve taught a lot of people – which enables you to observe thinking in detail – and have studied intelligence, and I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life in a university, the epicenter of smarts. And one thing I’ve learned is how strongly our perception of intelligence in others is shaped by their verbal performance, how they talk, the cadence and tempo, the dialect or accent, the flash of what they say and how they say it. As a result, I’ve learned to be skeptical of that flash, for while it certainly is evidence of linguistic and rhetorical ability, it can also mask the weakness of someone’s thinking and the poverty of substance in ideas. We have more than our fair share of verbal dazzle at the university – what I call the smartest-kid-in-the-class display – but it doesn’t always reveal anything substantial. (My UCLA colleague Alexander Astin wrote an insightful opinion piece a while back in which he suggested that, in fact, the obsession with appearing smart contributes to a lot of bad behavior and bad decisions in the academy. “Our Obsession With Being ‘Smart’ Is Distorting Intellectual Life,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/26/97.)

In one of the many commentaries on Gingrich that have aired in the last few weeks, a former staffer of the speaker joked, not without affection, that the filing cabinets in Gingrich’s office were labeled “ideas” and “bad ideas.” Abolishing child labor laws – or Gingrich’s latest bold idea to impeach and even have federal marshals remove “activist” judges – would fall under the category of a bad idea. A lot of the flashy ideas that catch our attention – from high brow to popular culture – are bad ideas, they’re shallow in analysis and bereft of thoughtfulness and wisdom. Anyone can generate a bad idea.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about our tendency to identify verbal dazzle with intelligence is the converse tendency to assume that its absence signals a lack of intelligence. I’ve seen this play out so often: people who are quiet, shy, don’t feel comfortable holding forth, or who don’t easily find the right word are sometimes thought to be not very bright. This equating of intelligence with verbal fluency can have awful consequences in school, in the workplace, and in the public sphere.

Let me copy here a passage from The Mind At Work on intelligence.

“Intelligence is a much-debated concept. To get us started, I’ll use a composite of the most familiar Western definitions of intelligence: it is the ability to learn and act on the environment, to apply knowledge to new situations, to reason, plan, and solve problems. We need to keep in mind, though, that there are aspects of human mental activity that are not captured in the standard definitions of intelligence.

The way we think about intelligence in the United States has been shaped over the last century by the psychometric tradition, mental measurement, known to most of us through an intelligence test taken in school or in the military. This tradition has contributed – sometimes through misinterpretation – to a number of interconnected popular beliefs about intelligence: that it is a single and unitary quality (so if you’re smart, you’re smart across the board); that it’s fixed, constant (and this plays into further beliefs about the degree to which intelligence is inherited); that it can be accurately measured with an instrument like an intelligence test and represented numerically, typically through an I.Q. score; and that people’s success in life, or more broadly, their place in the social order, is a reflection of their intelligence.

But within the West there are powerful research traditions that yield other conceptions of intelligence and other means to assess it. These traditions posit that there are multiple components to intelligence, or even multiple intelligences; that intelligence is variable and dynamic; that social context is crucial to its emergence and display; that creativity, emotion, aesthetic response, and the use of the body – removed from traditional psychometric definitions and tests of intelligence – must be considered as aspects of intelligent behavior. And, finally, it is very important to note that any discussion of intelligence is culture-bound. Some aspects of what we consider intelligence might well overlap with definitions from other cultures, but many cultures posit a range of further or different attributes to intelligence, for example, the ability to live in harmony with others. ”

There is a lot more to intelligence than our typical definition allows. We misjudge people who don’t easily fit the mold, and we attribute intelligence readily to others because they’re assured or bold or sound a certain way. There’s no doubt that Newt Gingrich is a smart and calculating guy and a savvy politician. But it distorts our collective sense of intelligence, of keen analysis, and certainly of wisdom when the media casually and automatically defines him – and public figures like him – as a grand thinker, a person of big ideas.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gingrich on School and Work: More than a Bad Idea

This post appeared in The Answer Sheet column in The Washington Post on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011.

During Q and A after a recent speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, former speaker of the House and current Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich offered “a very simple model” that he has held “for years” to address income inequality. The first step is to do away with child labor laws, “which are truly stupid.” Then in high-poverty schools – schools that, in his words, are failing with teachers who are failing – fire unionized janitors (but retain one master janitor), and hire the kids as custodians. “The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

As could be predicted, his comment has been generating both incredulity and some support on the Internet. Mr. Gingrich is notorious for making off-the-cuff incendiary remarks, and even his supporters acknowledge his lack of discipline and recklessness. But he said he has held the model outlined in his comment for years, and his doctoral dissertation (in history from Tulane) was on the Belgian education system in the Congo during the last period of colonization, so it’s fair to assume that his ideas about education and work have been developing for some time. As unusual as his proposal is, it has woven through it several widely accepted ideas: The importance of so-called “soft” job skills (punctuality, cooperation, and the like), the value of involving students in their school, the benefits for young people of work and earning a wage. Every defender of Mr. Gingrich that I’ve read mentions the value of their first job. It could be that Mr. Gingrich is expressing these ideas in a provocative fashion to catch our attention, to stir things up – something he famously likes to do.

Given Newt Gingrich’s identity as a big thinker – “a pyrotechnician of ideas,” as The Economist recently put it – and given his rising status in the GOP presidential primary, we need to take his proposal seriously as reflecting the way he thinks about poverty, school, and work. We need to consider his proposal as well for it reflects assumptions about poor people and economic mobility that are in the air.

Let’s begin with the proposal’s core idea – repealing child labor laws and hiring students as custodians – for if it is meant to shock us into fresh thinking, then we need to see where that thinking leads us. Mr. Gingrich doesn’t limit his proposal to one level of schooling, so it seems to apply to elementary, middle, and high school. This means that children would be handling disinfectants and cleaning agents and other toxic chemicals, be regularly exposed to unsanitary conditions, and be doing some tasks that are physically demanding. We are not simply talking here about tidying up classrooms, for, except for a supervising janitor, there will be no one else but children to clean bathrooms, and the nurse’s office, and vomit in the hallway. Child labor laws were enacted to protect children from such work.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that society did decide to sanction custodial labor for children, which would allow us to consider the goal of the proposal: the development of soft job skills leading to a rise up the ladder of economic mobility. Soft job skills are important, to be sure, but most analysts across the ideological spectrum studying the future of work also emphasize the need for literacy and numeracy, computer skill, and some sort of specialized training. The punctual nurse or mechanic who can’t calculate ratios won’t be on the job for long. Mr. Gingrich doesn’t say anything about improving the academic programs of schools in poor communities. Remember, his proposal was in response to a question about solving economic inequality, and he seems to put all his eggs in the soft skills basket.

The job-specific knowledge the children would develop would equip them for entry-level custodial work – work not known for its mobility – and Mr. Gingrich’s proposal would decimate one category of that work, the school custodian. So rather than mobility, we would most likely see more rather than fewer young people stuck in low-skilled, low wage jobs.

There’s one more counter-productive element to this proposal. Many of the school custodians Mr. Gingrich targets live in the communities in which they work, or in similar communities. The loss of their jobs would increase unemployment in working-class communities, and thus increase the threats of poverty Mr. Gingrich is trying to alleviate. Janitors’ kids would make a few bucks, while their parents would have the economic rug pulled out from under them.

Essential to the discipline of history is understanding events in their historical context (like the passing of child labor laws) and understanding the way a single action (like the elimination of a category of workers) can have multiple social and economic effects. Mr. Gingrich touts his bona fides as an historian, but his proposal – even if meant to provoke – reveals a terribly limited historical sensibility.

There is a further problem with Mr. Gingrich’s thinking, the logical error of overgeneralization, in this case assuming that all members of a particular group like poor children share the same characteristics. Sadly, this assumption is not at all specific to Mr. Gingrich’s proposal, but is widespread, one of those troubling ideas in the air.

The fact is that people at the lower end of the income distribution hold a wide variety of attitudes toward work and education and about the work ethic and economic mobility. And there is a long line of social science research that demonstrates that working-class and poor people tend to espouse so-called middle class values about education and work. Of course poverty is destructive; some poor families are torn apart. Some kids grow up in chaos, lost and angry, and turn to the streets. But these are segments of a varied population. And it needs to be said that such variability exists across class lines; I’ve taught a fair number of students from middle-class and affluent backgrounds who could benefit from an infusion of the work ethic Mr. Gingrich champions.

We have a shameful history in the United States – a country that prides itself on its spirit of egalitarianism – of painting poor people with a single brush stroke and then offering an equally one dimensional solution to their problems. This tendency has led to some damaging social and educational policies, like channeling the children of poor families into low-tier vocational education. It is worth pondering that the job category Mr. Gingrich targets is custodial work. Of course, he gets to undercut a union in the process – a plus in this campaign season – but why custodial labor rather than having the children help out in the office, or using older kids to tutor or coach younger ones, or creating the conditions for students to develop their burgeoning computer skills in service of the school? Custodial work is honorable labor and requires knowledge and skill, but it is physical work low on the Department of Labor’s Standard Occupational Classification System. What category of work in the school would middle- and upper-class parents who are in agreement with Mr. Gingrich choose for their children?

Mr. Gingrich sparked outrage over his dismissal of child labor laws, and he also got some support for the common sense notion that work is beneficial for young people. Without dismissing the significance of this back-and-forth, I think it misses the wider sweep of issues worth considering in Mr. Gingrich’s proposal. There is the revelation of Mr. Gingrich’s simplistic, not just reckless, thinking – at least on topics like this one. There is the issue of the way the poor get represented in contemporary political discourse. There are the twin issues of education and work and who receives what kind of education for what kind of work. If Mr. Gingrich gets us to think carefully about these issues, then maybe he succeeded after all – though not in the way he intended.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Full Cognitive Throttle: When Education for Work Ignites the Mind, Part II

Here is part two, a continuation from Full Cognitive Throttle: When Education for Work Ignites the Mind, Part I, which I posted on my blog on Friday, Oct. 21.

Many of the occupational programs at the college have been in operation since the mid-20th century, if not earlier. One such program, welding, which sits farther into the heart of the campus, has provided generations of students with a powerful trade, enabling them to make a decent living. It’s one of the programs where I have been spending a lot of my time.

The welding lab is a huge room, rows of work benches down the middle and sheltered stalls along the walls. Welding equipment—gas tanks, the consoles for different electric welding processes, cutting machines, vises and grips—is spread throughout the room; rows of pipes and conduits and vents are crisscrossed along the walls and overhead. Walk in the lab during class, and you’ll think you’ve entered Vulcan’s workshop. Thirty or more students are practicing their techniques. Sparks fly up from the work stations, and from inside the stalls fiercely bright light pulses and dies. You’ll need a mask to get close to the students. Everything is loud: the discordant symphony of welding’s pops and crackles; the continuous hammering as the novice welders knock slag off their welds or peen a weld to improve its ductility. Voices rise above the din: the instructor tells one guy, and three others watching, to “look at your angle, man, look at your angle” and “don’t push the electrode, glide it.” Even with the vents, the strong acrid smell of electrical heat fills the air. This is where knowledge and skill are forged.

Over two years, students will develop physical adroitness with welding’s tools and attune their senses to welding’s demands. They will become proficient in the use of various gas and electric welding processes, each having advantages for different metals, structures, and conditions. They will learn about metallurgy and electricity. They will learn the vocabulary of welding and its many symbols and will develop a level of literacy and numeracy that enables them to read the welding code, pass certification exams, and function on the job. They will learn problem solving, troubleshooting, decision making—thinking in a careful and systematic way about what they’re doing and why.

Not all vocational programs provide such solid preparation for a career, but, before the recession, most of the welding program’s students were able to find jobs. What strikes me about good occupational programs, though, are the other things they make possible, the things that people rarely talk about. These programs provide a meaningful context for learning and a home base, a small community with a common goal. For many participants, school has not offered this kind of significance, and the results can extend beyond economic benefits, the kind typically associated with a more liberal course of study, the kind of education that first group of students I mentioned said they entered the college’s basic-skills program to achieve.

Elias, Cynthia, and Bobby are pursuing both a certificate in welding and an associate of science degree. I’ve observed them in class, read their writing, and had a number of conversations with them, some focused on their education, and some just casual chitchat walking from one part of the campus to another. Not everyone in the program is as engaged by school as these three, but what is happening to them happens frequently enough to catch your attention.

Elias is in his first semester. In his mid-20s, medium height and build, clean-cut, he readily talks trash with the other men, but just as easily becomes well-spoken and reflective. I first noticed him in the basic-math class the welding instructor conducts before taking his students into the shop. The students work on the mathematics of converting fractions and calculating area, but also on solving word problems that involve welding. Elias was an eager participant, watching intently as his instructor laid out a problem, volunteering answers—some right, some wrong—then taking the instructor’s feedback and looking down at the page, calculating again.

Elias’s mathematical knowledge upon entering the program was at about the level of adding and subtracting simple fractions. The stuff he’s doing now feels new to him, since he “checked out” of high school early on and eventually dropped out. During his late teens and early 20s he “ran the streets and was into drugs.” But, and here his eyes widen as if waking up, one day he had this realization that he was going nowhere and wanted to turn his life around. He works as an entry-level car mechanic but, since he’s single with no kids, wants to adjust his schedule to accommodate more schooling. “This is the first time,” he says, “school means anything to me.”

When she ran for an office in student government, Cynthia, one of the few women in the program, printed a flyer showing her in full welding garb—leather apron, gloves, mask flipped up to reveal her round face, almond eyes, and hint of a smile. Vote 4 updating curriculum and equipment and for improving campus communication. Her welding classmates distributed the flyers for her. She’d never done anything like this before, she told me. She’d never run for office in high school and had avoided any kind of public speaking. But as she was beginning her second year, her welding instructor—for reasons not entirely clear—pushed and prodded her to go on this political journey. His instincts were true. During the campaign, I was observing a class in another department when Cynthia visited to give her two-minute stump speech. She said she was running to fight for more resources and to get a student voice into a current conflict between the academic and trade departments. Standing still in front of the room, her hands folded in front of her, she lacked the polish of some of the other candidates, but she was articulate and quietly passionate, the fluency that comes from authentic belief. She wanted to make a difference.

Bobby is about five foot eight, barrel chested, buzz cut, looks to be in his mid-to-late 40s. He’s completed the welding certification but is still in school pursuing his academic degree and assisting in the welding program. You’ll meet more than a few people like Bobby on this campus, in trouble with the law since he was 13: pills, meth, multiple incarcerations. About seven years ago during one of his times in jail, it came to him: “What am I doing? What’s my life going to be?” He found religion and began the journey to various halfway houses and occupational centers. Then he found the welding program. Bobby has a jittery energy about him—his arms flap out from the sides of his body when he walks—but when he shakes your hand, it’s with a full grip, and he looks you straight in the eye and holds the gaze. I remember thinking of those corneal scans in futuristic movies; he’s taking your full measure in a blink.

Bobby asked me to read one of his English compositions; it was on leadership, using his elected position in the campus chapter of the American Welding Society as the main example. He insisted I give him my opinion and any suggestions as to how to make it better. I’ve also talked to him about an art history course he’s taking, a general education requirement. He liked it, found it interesting. We talked about a field trip he had taken to a museum. He was amazed that he could identify different styles and periods of art. Bobby’s got what musicians call “big ears”; he’s wide open, curious about everything. “Not a day goes by,” he said to me when we were talking about the art course, “where you don’t learn something—otherwise, something’s wrong with you.”

Regardless of whether Elias has ever seen the kinds of math problems he’s now doing—and given his chaotic school record, it’s hard to know if he has—he is engaged with them as if for the first time. Mathematics now means something to him. It is not only central to what he wants to do for a living, it has also become part of his attempt to redefine who he is. Cynthia, by running for office, is hurling herself into a political and rhetorical world that is new to her, an act of courage and experimentation. She is finding her way into institutional life and the public sphere, and in so doing she is acquiring an on-the-ground civic education. Bobby is in full cognitive throttle. After so many years of kicking around, chasing dope, bouncing in and out of jail, he’s found solidity at the college, a grounding that frees him up in a way that he never knew on the streets. Yes, he’s eager to finish up here and transfer to a four-year school, but he’s taking it all in along the way—essays, museums.

Fostering this kind of learning and growth is in a society’s best interest. What is remarkable is how rarely we see it depicted in our media, how absent it is in both highbrow and popular culture. Even more remarkable is how rarely our thinking and talking about education makes room for this vocationally oriented explosion of mind. As I noted earlier, it certainly isn’t reflected in current education policy and politics. My worry is that if we don’t see this kind of development, and if it’s not present in our political discourse, then we won’t create the conditions to foster and advance it.

Why are the experiences of the participants in that basic-skills program at the community college or those of Elias, Cynthia, and Bobby not present in the public sphere? One reason, as I’ve said, is an education policy that for several decades has been so directed toward the economic benefits of education. Of the other goals of education that have formed the American tradition from Jefferson to John Dewey—intellectual, civic, social, and moral development—only the civic gets an occasional nod these days. The economic rationale is a reasonable political pitch, commonsensical and pragmatic, but students’ lives and aspirations get reduced in the process.

A further piece of the puzzle has to do with social class. Few policymakers have spent much time at colleges that serve a mostly working-class population. And the journalists who write the stories we do get about such students tend to focus on their hardships and determination (which are worthy of depiction) or on their failures. What we rarely get, and maybe some journalists do not see, are the many positive educational dimensions of these students’ time in school.

Another element connected to social class and deeply rooted in American educational history is the sharp distinction made between academic and vocational study, a distinction institutionalized in the early-20th-century high school. The vocational curriculum prepared students for the world of work, usually blue-collar, service, or basic-technology work, while the academic curriculum emphasized the arts and sciences and the cultivation of mental life. From the beginning, Dewey predicted the problems that this divide would create, and over the past three decades, school reformers have been trying to undo them: the artificial compartmentalizing of knowledge, the suppressing of the rich cognitive content of work, and the limiting of intellectual development of students in a vocational course of study. But Dewey’s wisdom and reformers’ efforts notwithstanding, the designation “academic” still calls up intelligence, smarts, big ideas, while the tag “vocational” conjures quite the opposite.

Related to the academic/vocational divide is the power of the liberal ideal, the study of the liberal arts for their own sake, separate from any connection to the world of work, crafts and trades, and commerce. The ideal has been with us since Plato and Aristotle: it has found full expression in Cardinal Newman’s Victorian-era The Idea of a University; and it figures in discussions of higher education today as colleges and universities have grown and transformed, adding many majors outside of the liberal arts. One current example of this discussion is found in the widely reviewed book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. Hacker and Dreifus rightly criticize higher education for a host of sins: cost, production of endless esoteric research, exploitation of adjunct teachers. What is telling is that the model they offer to get college back on track is pretty much Cardinal Newman’s.

Their assumption is that anything vocational cannot lead to, in their words, a liberation of imagination and the stretching of intellect. How interesting that in this bold evaluation of the state of higher education, their solution fits into the well-worn groove of the academic/vocational divide, denying the intellectual and imaginative possibilities of any course of study related to work.

Elias, Cynthia, and Bobby have the ability to pursue a liberal studies curriculum, and I suspect they’d find much there to engage them. But in their present circumstances, they couldn’t follow such a course exclusively. It is precisely its grounding in work and its pathway to decent employment that makes their educational journey possible. Their vocational commitment doesn’t negate the liberal impulse but gives rise to it.

When Cynthia was delivering her stump speech in that class I observed, she spoke about the political discord on campus between the academic and vocational faculty and pledged to try to do something about it. “I’m in welding,” she said, “but I’m pursuing an associate’s degree, too. These don’t have to be in conflict. I want to unite that gap.” Cynthia was talking about conflict over turf and resources, but that conflict arises from a troubling history of philosophical claims about knowledge and intellectual virtue. Speaking from her experience, she was onto something that eluded her elders. Her life and the lives of the other students we’ve met demonstrate that habits of mind, reflection and thoughtfulness, exploration and experimentation can be sparked both in classrooms and in the workshop, reading a book and learning a trade. We ourselves have to disrupt our biases and binaries and be more creative in fusing book and workshop for those who go to school to fashion a better life.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Full Cognitive Throttle: When Education for Work Ignites the Mind, Part I

This is part one of an essay I'll print in two parts. The essay appeared in The American Scholar Spring 2011 under the title "Making Sparks Fly."

As I exit the freeway into the center of the overcast city, it is close to seven in the morning. A homeless man with a handwritten sign—“Vietnam vet”—stands at the bottom of the off-ramp. Behind him is a three-story building, the top floor burned out; big, fat-lettered graffiti covers the blackened name of the company. I turn left toward the parking lot of my destination, a community college serving one of the poorest parts of this large, West Coast city. I pass a small used-car lot, another boarded-up building, and several machine shops still in operation. The streets are gray and nearly empty. Then, on the right, the college and heightened activity. Cars and buses are pulling over to the curb to drop people off; students, wearing backpacks, weave their bicycles in and out of traffic; the light turns green, and a crowd that just got off a commuter train streams onto the campus.

After years of neglect, students like these—and the colleges that serve them—are the focus of national attention. Though many states are slashing education budgets, federal and private philanthropic initiatives are helping people who are economically, and often educationally, disadvantaged pursue further education and job training. I play a tiny role in this effort as part of a research team that is trying to get a better handle on what enables or impedes educational success for this group. What makes it possible for these students to walk onto this campus an hour after sunrise, heading toward a nursing, or electrical construction, or English class? What jobs—if they have them—are flexible enough to allow time for school? Or are these people going from here to work or coming in after the night shift? What child-care arrangements do they have? How about transportation? Though many of the college’s students are local, a number come from fairly far away by bus or train to attend its well-respected occupational programs. One young woman I interviewed gets up at 3:30 in the morning to begin the trek to her 7:00 a.m. class. Hardships of that order are obviously threats to achievement. But I’m just as interested—more so, really—in what it is that pulls these students forward, the desire that gets them through the door. I understand it just a little better every time I visit a place like this.


Come along with me for the first day of one of the college’s programs for people who have low academic skills (many of them didn’t finish high school) but who want to prepare for a skilled trade. Because of confidentiality agreements I’ve signed in order to do my research, I’m deliberately keeping the college anonymous, and I’ve changed students’ names. Otherwise, I’m giving you the day-to-day events as I saw them.

The director of the program is standing at a lectern at the front of a large classroom; before her are 25 or so students sitting quietly in plastic chairs at eight long tables. The director has a serious demeanor, but her voice is inviting. Behind her hang an expansive white board and a screen for PowerPoint or video. I lean back and look around the windowless room: the walls are bare, institutional cream, clean and spare. The students are black and Latino, a few more women than men. Most appear to be in their early 20s to early 30s, with one man, who looks like he’s had a hard time of it, in his mid-40s. “Welcome to college,” the director says. “I congratulate you.” She then asks each of them to talk a little about what motivates them and why they’re here.

The economic motive looms large. One guy laughs. “I don’t want to work a crappy job all my life,” he says. A woman in the back says she wants to get her high school diploma “to get some money to take care of myself.” But people give a lot of other reasons for being here, too: to “learn more,” to be a “role model for my kids,” to get “a career to support my daughter,” to “have a better life.” The director turns to the older man. “I’m illiterate,” he says in a halting voice, “and I want to learn to read and write.”

The semester before, when students wrote out their reasons for attending the program, their range of responses was even wider. Again, the economic motive was central, but there were also these comments, some written in neat cursive, some in scratchy uneven print: “learning new things I never thought about before”; “I want my kids too know that I can write and read”; “Hope Fully with this program I could turn my life around”; “to develope better social skills and better speech”; “I want to be somebody in this world”; “I like to do test and essay like it is part of my life.”

Combined, these testimonies offer a rich vision of the goals of education. What is curious, though, is that nearly every speech and policy document and op-ed piece on educational initiatives aimed at poor people is focused wholly on schooling’s economic benefits. Speaking in September 2009 at a community college in Troy, New York, President Obama said “the power of these institutions [is] to prepare students for 21st century jobs.” Given the complex nature of the economy in our time—not only the recession but the changing nature and distribution of work—one hopes the president’s statement is accurate. The people in this program would certainly want it to be true. But they are also here for so much more. They want to do something good for themselves and their families. They want to be better able to help their kids with school. They want to have another go at education and change what it means to them. They want to learn new things and to gain a sense—and the certification—of competence. They want to redefine who they are. A lot is riding on this attempt to reenter school; no wonder, as I sit in this classroom, the hope and desire are almost palpable.

At the table right in front of me, a slight young woman with Love woven on the back of her black sweatshirt is leaning in toward the director as she talks. Whenever the director gives out a piece of information—about textbooks, about the tutoring center—she takes notes. I know from talking to so many other students over the years the sense of excitement they feel at a time like this, a sense of life opening up, but also the foreignness of it all, the uncertainty.

The director announces that it’s time for a quick tour of the campus, and off we go to the bookstore, the administration building, the office for students with disabilities. The students walk in groups of two or three, talking, looking at this new campus landscape. A few walk alone. The young woman in the black sweatshirt stays close to the director. Toward the end of the tour, we pause before the child-care center. The director asks, “Who has kids?” A number of people say they do, raising their hands. The young woman slips her pen into the pocket of her Love sweatshirt and brings her hand slowly to her shoulder.

What my team is finding so far about the possible barriers to success for students like her supports the research that’s already been done. Students tend to drop out of school for reasons other than academics. Poor basic skills, especially significant problems with reading, make college very difficult. And students do flunk out. But the main reasons people quit have to do with their circumstances beyond the campus: child care, finances, housing, and family disruption, ranging from injury or serious illness to divorce to immigration problems. As I was writing this, I got a phone call from a student I’ve come to know—a young man doing well in one of the occupational programs—asking me if I had any leads on where he might go for housing or shelter. He was suddenly homeless and on the verge of dropping out of college. He wasn’t alone. Three of his classmates were living in shelters near the campus. A fourth had been sleeping for several weeks behind the dumpster by the library.

No wonder that, along with the hope and sense of possibility they express, these students also voice, sometimes within the same sentence, the worry that this rug too will be pulled out from under them. I remember an older woman in an adult literacy program talking about failure in terms of falling: “Not falling down on my legs or knees, but falling down within me.” Most of these students do not have a history of success, especially in school, and they want this time to be different, but if one thing goes wrong—an accident, a job lost—there’s little reserve to draw on.

To be continued

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What College Can Mean to the Other America

This week's blog was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on 9/11/2011. Given all the loose talk these days about "class warfare," it seems especially relevant.

It has been nearly 50 years since Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, pulling the curtain back on invisible poverty within the United States. If he were writing today, Harrington would find the same populations he described then: young, marginally educated people who drift in and out of low-pay, dead-end jobs, and older displaced workers, unable to find work as industries transform and shops close. But he would find more of them, especially the young, their situation worsened by further economic restructuring and globalization. And while the poor he wrote about were invisible in a time of abundance, ours are visible in a terrible recession, although invisible in most public policy. In fact, the poor are drifting further into the dark underbelly of American capitalism.

One of the Obama administration's mantras is that we need to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build" our competition in order to achieve fuller prosperity. The solution to our social and economic woes lies in new technologies, in the cutting edge. This is our "Sputnik moment," a very American way to frame our problems. However, the editors of The Economist wrote a few months back that this explanation of our economic situation is "mostly nonsense.

Instead, the business-friendly, neoliberal magazine offered a sobering—at times almost neo-Marxist—assessment of what it considers the real danger in our economy, something at the core of Harrington's analysis: chronic, ingrained joblessness that is related to our social and economic structure. We are looking toward the horizon of innovation when we should be looking straight in front of us at the tens of millions of chronically unemployed Americans and providing comprehensive occupational, educational, and social services. Otherwise, to cite an earlier issue ofThe Economist that also dealt with American inequality, we risk "calcifying into a European-style class-based society." For people without school or work, we already have.

There are a few current policy initiatives that are aimed at helping the disadvantaged gain economic mobility, mostly through some form of postsecondary education. Sadly, the most ambitious of these—the federal American Graduation Initiative—was sacrificed during the health-care negotiations, although some smaller projects remained in the stimulus package and the Department of Education. Private foundations, notably Gates and Lumina, have been sponsoring such efforts as well. These efforts reach a small percentage of poor and low-income Americans and, on average, are aimed at the more academically skilled among them—although many still require remedial English and mathematics. A certificate or degree alone will not automatically lift them out of hard times—there is a bit of magic-bullet thinking in these college initiatives—but getting a decent basic education could make a significant difference in their lives. At the least, these efforts are among the few antipoverty measures that have some degree of bipartisan support.

For the last year and a half, I have been spending time at an inner-city community college that serves this population, and I have seen firsthand the effects of poverty and long-term joblessness. Although some students attend the college with the goal of transfer, the majority come for its well-regarded occupational programs. More than 90 percent must take one or more basic-skills courses; 60 percent are on financial aid. A fair number have been through the criminal-justice system.

As I have gotten to know these students, the numbers have come alive. Many had chaotic childhoods, went to underperforming schools, and never finished high school. With low-level skills, they have had an awful time in the labor market. Short-term jobs, long stretches of unemployment, no health care. Many, the young ones included, have health problems that are inadequately treated if treated at all. I remember during my first few days on the campus noticing the number of people who walked with a limp or irregular gait.

What really strikes me, though, is students' level of engagement, particularly in the occupational programs. There are a few people who seem to be marking time, but most listen intently as an instructor explains the air-supply system in a diesel engine or the way to sew supports into an evening dress. And they do and redo an assignment until they get it right. Hope and desire are brimming. Many of the students say this is the first time school has meant anything to them. More than a few talk about turning their lives around. It doesn't take long to imagine the kind of society we would have if more people had this opportunity.

But right at the point when opportunity is offered, it is being threatened by severe budget cuts in education and social services. For several years, the college—like so many in the United States—has been able to offer only a small number of summer classes, and classes are being cut during the year. Enrollment in existing classes is growing. Student-support services are scaled back. And all the while, more people are trying to enroll at the college; some will have to be turned away, and those who are admitted will tax an already burdened system.

Given the toll the recession has taken on state and local governments, policy makers face "unprecedented challenges" and say they "have no other choice" but to make cuts in education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, borrowing a now-ubiquitous phrase, has called the necessity to do more with less "the new normal."

I don't dispute the difficulty of budgeting in the recession, nor the fact that education spending includes waste that should be cut. But we need to resist the framing of our situation as inevitable and normal. This framing makes the recession a catastrophe without culpability, neutralizing the civic and moral dimensions of both the causes of the recession and the way policy makers respond to it.

The civic and moral dimensions also are diminished by the powerful market-based orientation to economic and social problems. Antigovernment, anti-welfare-state, antitax—this ideology undercuts broad-scale public responses to inequality.

If the editors of The Economist are right, the deep cuts in education—especially to programs and institutions that help poor people connect to school or work—will have disastrous long-term economic consequences that far outweigh immediate budgetary gains. And rereading The Other America reminds us that the stakes go beyond the economic to the basic civic question: What kind of society do we want to become? Will there be another Michael Harrington 50 years from now writing about an America that has a higher rate of poverty and even wider social divides?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hope Against Hope: A Look Back at Possible Lives

Our country’s politics are getting even more reactionary and mean-spirited than many of us would have thought possible a decade ago. There are strong voices demanding not only that we cut away the safety net for the vulnerable, but also that on all fronts – from health and social services to environmental regulation – we roll back governmental protections to what they were a century ago.

I find myself looking back with nostalgia to things I wrote just a few years ago; as bad as things were then, they seem full of promise in comparison to today.

In my last post, I reprinted some material from 2008. If you’ll indulge me again, I’d like to reprint a longer section from a new preface I wrote in 2006 for Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America. Our times are darker, but I still think – hope – that there’s something resonant here, something that still calls forth what we can become. Even now.


High-stakes accountability and its accompanying programs of testing has a dramatic effect on schooling, but there is something else that also deeply affects public school life, felt everyday, particularly in less affluent areas: the growing economic inequality in our country.

“Income inequality [in the United States] is growing,” notes a special report in The Economist, “to levels not seen since the Guilded Age, around the 1880s.” On a number of measures—from wages, to benefits, to wealth accumulation, to economic mobility—many Americans have stagnated, and those in the working class have suffered significant declines. This state of affairs is tightly linked to the systematic erosion of the social safety net since the Reagan presidency, directly threatening the ability of tens of millions of Americans to live with any sense of security and stability.

Considering the number of children in public schools, urban and rural, who come from poor backgrounds, such inequality can have an impact on their housing, healthcare, dynamics of family life, safety of neighborhoods—all of which, in turn, can affect engagement with school and academic achievement. Schools are distinctly sensitive to their surroundings, as is evident throughout the communities we’ll visit; what goes on outside the classroom pulses quickly within.

This economic inequality has another damaging effect on public education, and we currently have no social policy to remedy it. There are wide gaps in school funding in poor versus affluent neighborhoods—sometimes by a factor of 2 or 3 to 1—so we get schools, a number of them, that are both underfunded and populated by poor children. Poverty becomes concentrated not only in neighborhoods but in schools as well. And because skin color and social class are intertwined in our country, this often means racial as well as economic segregation.

Though there are attempts to create schools that house or are affiliated with health and social services, none of the current major programs of school reform—from charter schools and small schools to high-stakes accountability systems—addresses this harsh economic reality in any comprehensive way.

Some school critics and reformers downplay, even dismiss, the potential negative effects of poverty on achievement, insisting that there be “no excuses” on the part of school people for less-than-standard performance. I appreciate that stance. As many teachers in this book demonstrate … children’s cognitive potential is influenced by much more than their income level. But it is likewise na├»ve or duplicitous to dismiss the devastating effects of poverty on a child’s life in school. We will witness teachers repeatedly in Possible Lives responding to the effects of poverty: through their own resources of time and money, through their social networks, and through their involvement in local activism and community development. Their efforts do matter. And, yes, there are a number of cases of poor children who achieve mightily. But their stories are never simple, are fraught with pain and complication. And their individual excellence does not dispel the net effect of poverty. Consider how untreated problems with vision or with hearing—just these two maladies alone—can derail early academic mastery. The rhetoric of “no excuses”—though it has a legitimate point to make—can deflect our attention from the plain, brutal reality of so many young people’s lives.

It seems hard for us as a culture to perceive simultaneously the physical and psychological devastation wrought by poverty and the cognitive potential that continues to burn within. We tend to either lighten the effects of economic disruption with self-help platitudes or we see only blight and generalize it to intellectual capacity. In an earlier book, I appealed for a binocular vision when regarding poor kids in school, a vision that affords both damage and promise and—we return to the power of hope here—that enables one to nurture the possible against odds. One of the young Calexico teachers says it crisply. “The problems are not going to stop me from teaching.”

It is mind-boggling to think of all that we Americans demand from our public schools, an astounding range of expectations. There is, of course, the expectation that the schools will foster intellectual, social, and civic development. And, over the last century, as historian David Tyack demonstrates, the public as well as school administrators and reformers have turned to the public school, especially the high school, to address the many needs of young people that may once have been met by families, churches, employers, and volunteer groups: from hygiene to job preparation. We also resort to the public schools to solve the broad social and economic problems that we cannot or will not adequately address by other means. One of the purposes of school desegregation, for example, was to disrupt residential patterns resulting from racism, demographic shifts, and housing policy. And we continue to look to our schools to address the effects of deindustrialization, immigration, and chronic poverty.

Finally, public education holds a central role in the American ideology of success. The public school, write policy analysts Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick, “is essential both to create the democratic structure of which Americans are so proud and to provide the tools for the success that Americans seek so desperately.” Public education, they argue, is an ideological substitute for the European-style welfare state in providing the means for social stability and economic well-being. The school becomes the primary enabling mechanism of capitalism and the primary buffer against its excesses. This is quite a different purpose from our grander vision of public education as the core civic institution that, along with economic capability, fosters intelligence, character, and citizenship—America in the making.

The colossal and contradictory expectations we currently have for the public school combined with widening economic inequality leads quickly to an untenable situation. We are in desperate need of a broad national conversation about the purpose of public education combined with a probing assessment of our economic and political priorities.

This is a far cry from the typical discussions about schooling that we do have: discussions of test scores and the rhetoric of economic competitiveness that surrounds them. The testing orientation—and other bureaucratically-based school reforms—tries to address inequality technically, structurally, when it is, finally, a social and economic problem—and, as a recent report from the United Church of Christ concludes, a deeply moral problem as well. We hear much talk about equity, about the achievement gap, about increasing effort and expectations, but it is primarily technical and organizational talk, thin on ethical reflection and public meaning.


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 moreso 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, as I’ve been suggesting, 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 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, within recent memory of Tyco, Worldcom, Arthur Andersen, and New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer’s indicted rogue’s gallery. [Note: This was written before the financial crisis of 2008, a much more devastating example.]

This easy dismissiveness of the public also has its ugly side, characterizing anything public as inferior… or worse. I quote a talk-show host in the upcoming introduction who labels 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 number 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 back yards. But there is something compelling, I think, about raising one’s gaze outward, beyond the immediate window or fence to the science lesson out 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, August 9, 2011

Where Is Barack Obama the Teacher?

This post was published this morning (8/9/11) in Valerie Strauss's Washington Post column, The Answer Sheet.

I’ve been a teacher for 40 years, so I tend to look at the world with teaching in mind. I’m interested in the way so many activities – from parenting to police work to physical therapy – involve teaching. There is an instructional dimension to them. I look at politics through this lens. Though it may be hard to imagine right now, politics can provide the occasion to teach, to inform, to frame an issue, to present an argument, to provide illustration, to move to action.

In an entry on this blog right after the 2008 election, I expressed the wish that President Obama would bring back and technologically update the FDR Fireside Chat – a seemingly obvious suggestion given his oratorical skill and his campaign’s use of new media. Here are a few passages to give you a sense of my appeal:

Between 1933 and 1944, during another period of economic crisis and war, FDR gave a series of thirty memorable radio speeches to the American people. The speeches covered topics of pressing importance: from the banking crisis, unemployment, and federal works programs to national security, the progress of the war, and plans for peace. The speeches were both political and educational; they inspired and instructed during difficult times.

We already have, of course, the weekly presidential radio address, but the revived Fireside Chats would be of a different order. In this regard, it is enlightening to read the originals. They are rich in information that is carefully presented and explained, and they blend reassurance with hard truths. The first one on the banking crisis, delivered one week after FDR’s inauguration, is uncannily relevant today.

During the campaign, Obama was mocked for being a professor, and the media tag “professorial” was deadly – implying aloofness and abstraction, a man out of touch. But there’s a flip side to this professorial business: someone who knows a lot, is thoughtful, sees value in teaching.

The best political speech is both inspirational and pedagogical. It moves us and informs us. … As a nation, we have a lot of learning to do, a lot of self-examining and reorienting of our economic and civic lives. Presidential addresses of the gravity of FDR’s Fireside Chats would help guide us. Barack Obama could become the education president in a unique and powerful sense of the word.

I read this post now with disappointment and sadness. There is deep dissatisfaction among many of us in education with the direction taken by the Department of Education under President Obama. Some of the Department's policies reveal a narrow understanding of learning and threaten to undermine teaching itself – so the appellation “Education President” grates. But what really sinks my heart is the lost opportunity for Barack Obama to be the education president in the way I meant it in the earlier post: the Political Teacher-in-Chief.

We rarely see or hear the man who delivered the captivating keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention or the powerful speech on race in 2008. He can still rise to the occasion, as he did earlier this year at the service for those slain in Arizona during the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But he has yet to deliver a speech of this power and magnitude on the pressing issues of the day: the hardship of working America, job creation, health care, fair taxation and the deficit. To be sure, he has important things to say, but they come piecemeal, parts of speeches around the country, or during press conferences, where his trademark eloquence abandons him.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So does politics. In the rhetorical and pedagogical void, the Right has strategically rushed in to define the issues and frame the debates. And the conservative noise machine has produced sound bites that seem to go pretty much unchallenged: “job-killing taxes,” “class warfare,” “socialism,” the demonizing of economic stimulus, etc.

The frustrating thing is that on many of the big economic issues, the President has the facts and expert opinion on his side. A wide range of economists agree that significant short-term spending combined with long-term reductions are necessary. A similar range of economists advocate tax increases. No less a conservative figure than David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, pointed out in a recent interview that President Reagan along with budget cuts raised taxes three times to counter recession. “We are raising 14% of GDP in taxes, the lowest since 1948. The Republican position that taxes aren’t part of this solution is nonsensical and can’t be defended.” Despite all the talk about job-killing tax increases, the Bush era tax cuts did not produce more jobs. Wages for most Americans have been stagnant for at least a decade, while the wealthiest among us have seen their incomes rise dramatically – the top 1% now hold between 35 to 40% of the nation's wealth. The income gap is widening – to levels not seen since the 1890s according to The Economist – and America’s cherished economic and social mobility has flattened. “There's class warfare,” quipped Warren Buffett, “but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning.”

One aspect of good teaching is presenting material in a clear and engaging way. Another is asking thought-provoking questions. And a third is to weave material and questions into a compelling story. There is a remarkable story to be told from the facts about America’s current economic and social structure, and what puzzles me is why one of the gifted political speakers of our time hasn’t told it with force and consistency.

I suppose the answer lies in his much-discussed desire to stake out the center, to be seen as the pragmatist, the negotiator and compromiser – and somehow that positioning works against the kind of forceful political pedagogy I’m advocating. If this is the case, it is proving to be a terrible political miscalculation. For a moderating centrism (a la The Audacity of Hope) to work, you can’t have a massive and uncompromising force pulling from one side of the table. Your imagined center moves inexorably in that direction; you lose your bearings. Journalist Robert Draper, currently writing a book on the House of Representatives, reports that the GOP sees Obama’s compromising posture as a sign of weakness.

Undoubtedly there's heavy analyzing and strategizing going on now in the White House. Whatever he and his advisors decide, we know that Barack Obama does not have the temperament to respond to GOP strategy with bone-crushing tactics or with red-meat rhetoric. But he is by temperament a teacher. He's done the work.

He needs to reclaim that part of his past as the next debate on economic policy looms…particularly on the Bush era tax cuts, not lying back as he's done, but speaking directly to the nation with facts, with stories of working America, with judgments like Mr. Stockman's, with common sense appeals to fairness. He needs to present and present again the numbers that show we are becoming an increasingly unjust and stratified society – and it is not waging class warfare to say so.