Friday, January 04, 2008

It's Time for a Progressive Vision of Education!

A few good points made here, especially in terms of how some schools create divisions among students through competition. I personally believe that it's through sharing of knowledge that people and communities become stronger. -Patricia

By Svi Shapiro | Tikkun Magazine
Janurary - February 2008 Issue

The primary debates are an exceptional vehicle to make, as the educational philosopher Maxine Greene put it, “the familiar strange and the strange familiar.” They are, in other words, an opportunity to pose serious questions about the conventional wisdom that guides our public policies and practices, as well as a time to suggest radically different visions for how we might do things in our society and in our world. At least as far as education goes, the candidates have failed miserably in both regards. They have neglected to ask the deep questions about what is really happening in our schools. Nor have they even begun to offer imaginative possibilities for what education might be about in these early but difficult years of the 21st century. This is both sad and troubling, not merely because of the limitations of what these individuals have had to say about this one sector of our culture, but, more importantly, because education in many ways instantiates the root metaphors that guide and structure how we think about the purposes of human life and social relationships. What we have to say about education is intimately bound up with what we say to the young about the meaning of our lives, the aspirations we value for them, and how they should understand their relationships and responsibilities towards other human beings. In this sense education is always about the qualities we favor in human beings as reasoning, moral, and spiritual beings, and about our capacity to teach these to young people. Sadly, the candidates ’ shallow banalities and overwhelmingly predictable discourse about schools has done little to point the public in new and more meaningful directions in thinking about what it means to educate the young in these turbulent times.

The No Child Left Behind Debacle

Picking up on the increasing sense of frustration among parents and teachers with No Child Left Behind, candidates are now comfortable with deriding or even dismissing this legislation. Yet their reasons are left vague or unclear. Perhaps it is time spell out what it is that makes this law such a ghastly mistake. They might, for example, make clear how it has resulted in making schools little more than testing mills. They might point out that it has led to an extraordinary distortion and disfiguring of the classroom experience for children in the way that learning has been reduced to its most shallow and reductionist form—rote memorization and canned answers devoid of creative or critical input. Far from learning that enhances curiosity, imaginative exploration, and joyful wonder, the classroom has become an increasingly anxiety-fraught experience where everything takes a backseat to preparation for the next test. Teachers as well as students burn-out in these test-factories with their daily grind of deadening, yet stress-filled, demands. No test-prep rallies or post-test ‘victory’ assemblies can overcome the increasing boredom and alienation that No Child Left Behind has produced among young people. Nor does it allay the desire among so many new teachers to leave the profession as quickly as they can. We are aware, for example, of how much our current schooling has reduced or even eliminated those non-tested areas of the curriculum: the arts, social studies, foreign language instruction, P.E., even recess. We are aware, too, of the increasing propensity to cheat among students, as well as among teachers and administrators, as the pressure to produce the right scores mounts. In this brave new world of education, (to paraphrase Albert Einstein) nothing that cannot be counted counts. Unless it can be measured on a test and plotted on a bell curve it has no merit. Only things that enable us to create those league tables of success and failure have worth. In this perverse version of democratic accountability, public education has become little more than public evaluation.

Most cruelly, it really does nothing to ensure that many children are not left behind. The gap between the achievements of children of poverty and affluence has been little affected by the law. The evidence on this is now quite clear. The recent report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed minimal progress on narrowing the gap between the achievement of white and minority students between 2003 and 2007. Despite their democratic promise of a common education for all, schools are sorting machines whose primary mission is to construct hierarchies of worth and opportunity. They are our way to give some legitimacy to those glaring inequalities of race and social class that scar our society and contradict our cherished ideas about being a land of opportunity. To believe that no child can be left behind in a society in which so many adults and parents are left behind, is to believe that what happens in schools is not somehow related to the blighted neighborhoods, poor health, inferior nutrition, low incomes, and lack of economic security that surround the lives of kids in what Jonathan Kozol has referred to as our apartheid system of public education. We might be cajoled by Republicans into absenting ‘class warfare’ from our political discourse, but we know that school success has everything to do with kids ’ social and economic circumstances, and the expectations that are consequent upon them.

We delude ourselves into thinking that educational change will cure the ills of our deeply and increasingly inequitable society. Indeed public schools with their so very different facilities and resources, levels of safety, curricular offerings, and extent of teacher turnover are the very embodiment of our nation ’s social and racial injustice. Democrats cannot run away from this critical reality of American life. We must stop offering school reform as if it is a primary lever for moving towards a more socially just society. This is quite simply the ideology of mass distraction. An honest discussion of current educational policies —their harm to kids and their diversion from our real societal challenges—would be a valuable contribution by Democratic candidates to the larger public discourse on growing inequality in America.

Democracy and Education

While the damage and obfuscations of current educational policies must be made clear, candidates still have to do more than critique. They must offer a language of possibility too. In this sense, education ’s vision must speak to the wider concerns of our nation and our world. I will suggest here three such concerns and how they might help shape a revitalized purpose and meaning for the education of our children. First, I suggest that the candidates remind Americans that we once talked about the connection between public education and our vision of a democratic society. Whatever the hypocrisies of such talk (going all the way back to Jefferson ’s assertion that a democracy required an educated citizenry while he simultaneously affirmed slavery and deep class privilege) we nonetheless possess an enduring legacy that argues that citizenship in a democracy demands citizens who are trained in the knowledge and skills of democratic life and culture. While our country is prepared to go to war for somebody else ’s democracy, even the rhetoric of democratic purpose seems to have disappeared from the mission statements of schools and school systems. Yet can we really be in doubt as to the crucial importance today of our educational institutions seeing the preparation of democratic citizens as their core responsibility? With our nation and our planet facing such extraordinary challenges can there be much doubt about how important it is to cultivate among young people the capacity for critical, creative, and courageous thinking, and the interest and commitment to engage in public life?

Sadly, we are told that there is a deep sense of political impotence and a profound cynicism among young people about the possibility of significant social agency. Of course, they are not alone in this sense. Political power is now so far removed from average people ’s lives that meaning can only be found in our private worlds (perhaps this explains the special attraction of the cell phone and the chat room in the lives of young people). The public world seems to offer little sense of purpose or connection, or the possibility to influence or shape it. Schools themselves typically provide little real opportunity for the practice of democratic governance. They are increasingly authoritarian spaces, often prison –like, obsessed with monitoring and regulating the lives of young people. The spaces they offer for meaningful deliberation and decision-making about what goes on in their institution are meager at best.

Within the classroom we continue to teach in ways that overwhelmingly squelch the life –blood out of democratic life. There is little encouragement of genuine dialogue or the sharing of ideas and opinions. With the exception of those students in the top academic tiers of high school, there is little chance to approach texts and knowledge as propositions to be challenged and interrogated rather than passively accepted and memorized. Little time, if any, is used to teach the characteristics of civil discourse; respect for the views of another, and empathy for the experiences and perspectives of those who lives may be different to ours. For few students is the classroom a place where one ’s voice and the capacity to articulate ideas or argue one’s beliefs is nurtured and strengthened. Our culture also reinforces the assumption that democracy is not about expression but about the capacity to consume. Choosing what to buy next, not the ability to think and question, define for the young the meaning of freedom and autonomy. It is an astounding fact that for all the well-documented influence of the media and popular culture, very little time is spent in school equipping young people with the capacity to critically interrogate our culture of advertising and persuasion. Notwithstanding the way that young people are the subject of powerful influences that encourage them to shape their aspirations around the acquisition of material objects, and their identities around the desire for glamour, fame, and celebrity, we offer little to the young that might empower them to challenge and resist these extraordinary influences in their lives.

Believing in democracy means believing in the right of young people to be offered more in their education than memorization, ‘well-behaved’ passivity, and subject matter that speaks little to the real problems and issues that confront us today. It means, for example, creating the space where students may ask why we so often turn to war or violence as the way to resolve our differences; or why such huge disparities exist in the lives and well-being of people both in this country and around the world; or what it mean for our political system when so much influence is exercised by corporate interests. Democracy can mean nothing if it is not the vehicle through which we think and question self and social values in the context of our national and global priorities. It will require courage to remind our fellow citizens that the struggle for our democracy starts not in Iraq but in the institutions of our own country. Our concern for a vibrant and meaningful democracy surely requires a younger generation educated in the skills, knowledge and dispositions that ensure democratic ideas are much more than the abstract words on the pages of a civics text book. They will need to infuse the classrooms, hallways, and assemblies of our schools.

The Priority of Community

While democracy is about the advance of individuals, it is not about individual advantage. It is about the quality and well-being of our shared community. It is a sad consequence of our educational priorities that our classrooms are places that are so shaped by the emphasis on competition and individualism. It has been well-described by many observers and researchers just how much of the real curriculum of schooling is concerned with learning about the process of ‘getting ahead’ of one’s peers. From their first day in school, students learn that human worth is linked to success or achievement, and that the latter is designed to be a limited resource. One of the most profound lessons of the classroom is that we are engaged in a constant contest for affirmation, not just of our intelligence and ability, but, more importantly, of our worth and value as human beings. Schooling is a constant reinforcement of these competitive relations between individuals. We learn from our earliest time in the classroom that this is a culture of ‘separated desks’ in which knowledge is the prized possession that divides winners from losers.

This is a world that values self-sufficiency and autonomy over interdependence and connection. For the young the rewards are teacher ’s praise and admission into more valued ability groups. For older students it is a passport into higher classes or tracks, which promise admission to the more prestigious colleges or universities. Sharing what we know violates the rules, which are always connected to distinguishing those who are successful from those that are not. The emphasis on competition has long been a central value of education, but it has become more pronounced in this era of intensified testing. Increasingly, schooling is about the process in which young people learn to see their peers as rivals and contestants in the game of invidious comparisons. We have already noted its effects in the increased amounts of anxiety and stress among young people. Its effects are also morally corrosive. We know that students view cheating as an increasingly acceptable risk in the high stakes game of schooling. From the social standpoint we are reminded again and again of the damaging consequences of institutions that encourage the growth of divisive distinctions among young people. We have seen its results in the unleashed rage of individuals who find themselves designated as losers in the competitive hothouse of school cliques and rivalries.

It is important to remind ourselves that education is not an end in itself. Education embodies our aspirations for what kind of world we wish to see and what kind of human behavior we hope for. It is the site in which these aspirations are nurtured and shaped. As inheritors of the progressive political tradition, we have always believed in the possibility of a world in which solidarity and mutual care are cherished values. However, in this era of market triumphalism fewer voices seem ready to articulate such values. Yet can we be in any doubt today of the importance of our vision of a world that values community and caring above competition and rivalry? Our nation and our world cries out for human connections that are more compassionate and socially responsible. Whether we look at the lack of health insurance for so many, the numbers of our fellow citizens deprived of adequate nutrition or housing, or the proportion of children growing up in impoverished circumstances, we are confronted with the shocking reality of the dysfunctional character of our own national community. The market society has unleashed a social order that is extraordinarily predatory and selfish. Our society has become one in which the bonds of connection between human beings have become increasingly instrumental and exploitative. Greater numbers of individuals experience themselves as used and manipulated, whether in the world of work, in relationship with colleagues, even in relations with intimate partners. We are urged to relate to others in ways that emphasize appearance and the capacity to impress rather than through relations of authentic concern and connection.

Education alone cannot transform our increasingly atomistic and divisive society into a caring and compassionate community. But we certainly might ask that it educate our young to the importance and possibility of human relationships where care, compassion, and cooperation matter more than the culture of winning and losing. There is good reason to believe that, at least with younger children, this is precisely what already matters to teachers and educators. We can imagine schools where the competitive emphasis of grading and the attention to differential rewards and status among students gives way to a quite different moral climate —one where young people are encouraged to share and assist others in the development of their talents and understanding, to see one another not as rivals for achievement but as collaborators in learning. We have plenty of examples of how peer learning and cooperative relations can be nurtured in the classroom. Our vision becomes the quality of the school community as a whole. Our concern is the full inclusion of everyone regardless of difference in abilities, skills, or interests. Above all else, it is our responsibility to convey to our young people the unconditional worth of all human beings.

We need progressive voices that will promote education’s connection, not to competition and individualism, but to the value of community as critical to our nation ’s social, moral, and spiritual well-being. It is human generosity, connection, and care towards others that provides the deepest sense of fulfillment in our lives, and provides the most enduring sense of meaning. Education needs to explicitly combat the ways human beings are divided and excluded from one another, whether through racism, religious intolerance, sexism, ethnocentrism, or homophobia. Education is a powerful vehicle for helping young people to recognize themselves as part of a single family in which no one deserves to be demonized, treated without dignity, or deprived of human rights. While we should educate to see ourselves as part of a single human family, this in no way detracts from the importance of recognizing and celebrating those mediating human communities of nation, ethnicity, religion, language, etc., that have been, and continue to be, the locus of much of our sense of meaning and identity in the world. It is within these communities that much of who we are and what we cherish finds expression and realization. More than providing the rich expressiveness, beauty, and diversity of wisdom found within the human experience, these mediating communities also often carry the valiant as well as painful memory of their struggles for justice and human dignity.

We must attend, as never before, to the universal dimension of what it means to be human. We must bring our students to recognize the terrible inequities in our world —the poverty, suffering, and indignities that scar the lives of so many—and also the multiple human efforts to bring hope and redress to this situation and the ways they may contribute to this work. Like never before, humanity is threatened by the destruction and abuse of our environment. The present crisis demands from us a radical realization of the interconnected nature of life on earth. To an unprecedented degree we are witnesses to the danger of acting as if our actions and behavior do not have drastic consequences on the lives of others. We exist as part of an interconnected web, which demands from us an unprecedented sense of concern and responsibility for all life on our fragile planet. Education has a key role in helping us to see beyond our divisions and separations to what connects and unites us. Candidates for office have a special responsibility to try to ensure that a new generation is educated to understand themselves as responsible and concerned members of the human community.

Educating the Whole Person

Finally, education ought to be one of the primary ways through which we can realize the fullness of human existence. It is a sad fact that so much of what we now regard as the importance of education has to do only with its instrumental purposes. The mission of education is increasingly defined in terms of ensuring that students will become part of a globally competitive work force. Now, of course, the capacity to be economically secure is an important dimension of the education we offer our children. But when this dwarfs all other concerns, our educational vision suffers. Our vision of human life has become one-sided, distorted, and constricted. Where is the concern for our children ’s emotional life, intellectual curiosity, creativity, ethical awareness, and spiritual development? Young people experience schooling as primarily something of extrinsic value. Education ’s reward is in the grade awarded for a course, the end of term test score, the certificate or diploma received at the end of a program of study. Little is derived through the intrinsic nature of the pedagogic experience. Students rarely expect to be moved, inspired, or intellectually roused by their classroom experience. The classroom becomes, above all else, a place where we learn the meaning of alienation. We are trained in the arts of daydreaming and clock –watching, mentally and emotionally estranged from our own activities. Above all, schooling teaches us what it means to not be present to our own lives, how to survive the exhaustion of experiences that leave us mentally passive and emotionally dead. Years in this environment rob many students of the capacity for passionate engagement with their world and the aliveness of awakened curiosity.

It is a sad fact of our public discourse that the word joy is rarely used in the same breath as education. From our first days in school, children are taught that what they are engaged in is ‘work,’ not ‘play.’ They are told that education is a serious and difficult business to be contrasted with what is pleasurable and inherently satisfying. The usefulness of what one learns is to be found mainly in the way it equips one for the next stage of schooling. Education is to be regarded principally as an instrumental process that takes one somewhere else, not because learning itself is its own reward in joy, stimulation, and illumination. It is easy to see how this process contributes to the emotional dis-ease of later years, when so many adults find it impossible to experience themselves fully in the here and now. No wonder that our bookstores are filled with volumes that promise to help us calm our minds so that we can be alive and present to what is already here rather than what might come next. We are a nation in a state of permanent distraction from where we presently are, always on route to somewhere else. Our view of the joy of play is still schizophrenic; it is at once immensely desirable but still caught up in the Zeitgeist of guilt, in which it is the sweet dessert that follows the onerous obligations of work and production. We are, if we need to be reminded of it, a workaholic culture. The notion that school should be centered on the pleasure of learning, rather than preparation for a work-centered life is, for some in our culture, a disturbing or even disruptive concept.

Yet there continue to be voices that warn us against this shrunken view of human life and purpose in which people appear to have no other existence than as future employees in our corporate-driven economy. It is worth reminding ourselves that the rational-analytic abilities that are so much the focus of academic learning represent only a fragment of human capabilities. Such an emphasis ignores our intuitive and emotional wisdom that is indispensable to understanding human relationships. It minimizes the kinesthetic understanding of the world that comes through our embodied nature and that provides a very different vehicle for self –awareness and knowing. It ignores the aesthetic dimensions of learning with its attention to imagination, creativity, and form. And it ignores our spiritual capacity that can enable us to have such a profound recognition of the ineffable beauty and mystery of the universe. Against the two-dimensional view of human life that constitutes today ’s dominant vision of education we need voices that remind us of the richness and complexity of human life. We are holistic beings who seek meaning, struggle with ethical dilemmas, relate to others with empathy and compassion, are enlivened by our sensual impulses and our capacity for love, have deep commitments to social and political change, and are moved by spiritual and religious awareness that enables us to experience our world with awe and wonder. Tragically, we forget this when we reduce our education to the prosaic and pragmatic purposes that now seem to constitute schooling ’s mission.
The call to re-envision education is not about one more reform to improve achievement, make us more globally competitive, or even to close the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged in our society. Nor is it about blaming or retraining teachers, or making principals and other educational leaders more efficient or effective managers. The task for those who would offer a new progressive direction for our country is to articulate a different vision about the very purpose and goals of education. But to talk about the purpose of education is also to talk about our purpose as a society. It means to ask what kind of a world we envisage for our children and what kind of lives we wish for them. Our talk about the meaning of education must also be about what it is to live in ways that are worthwhile and meaningful. Such talk requires going beyond the boiler plate language of political debate. It will require what the philosopher Cornel West refers to as parrhesia, the capacity for bold and courageous speech that challenges deeply held assumptions and offers us radically different ways to understand what is both possible and needed at this time in our nation ’s history.

Svi Shapiro teaches in the Education and Cultural Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His most recent book is Losing Heart: The Moral and Spiritual Miseducation of America’s Children (Lawrence Erlbaum).

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