The Knowledge Deficit

July 22, 2006

The Knowledge Deficit, the latest philippic from E.D. Hirsch, Jr., author of the best-selling Cultural Literacy as well as a dozen little baubles on the theme of “what every child needs to know,” ought to carry a warning label, or, better, a straight-forward subtitle: An Infomercial. It’s a tirade, of course, but here Hirsch, as manic and breathy as any television pitchman, is busy pushing product on every page. There’s scant substance, even as it announces itself a work of “Science,” and so we are left with a sparkly, self-promoting advertisement masquerading as deep thought.
His thesis is easy enough to summarize: there’s a powerful, monolithic ideology emanating from our colleges of education that has controlled American educational thought and practice for a century—he singles out as exemplars the Bank Street College of Education and Teachers College, Columbia University which he calls the “parent organism” spawning romantic principles and doctrinaire professors who scatter throughout the land stifling dissent and drilling prospective teachers in their mistaken “theology” (p. 20) (full disclosure: I attended both); the principles of this dominant dogma must be understood and defeated because they are the chief cause of America’s dismal record of reading achievement; Hirsch’s mission is to break the strangle-hold that generations of romantics and progressives have applied to our schools, and, thereby, to liberate the masses of students for a great leap forward in reading.
The enemy ideology consists of a “terrible trinity” (p. 112) plus one: naturalism, or “the notion that learning can and should be natural” (p. 134); formalism, or “the ideology that what counts in education is not the learning of things but rather learning how to learn” (p. 135); determinism, or “the blame-society theory” (p. 15) that posits inequities—racial and class hierarchies, for example—as significant variables in school success; and, as a bit of an after-thought, localism, the idea that “our states or our towns will decide what shall be taught in our schools” (p. 112). Taken together these pillars of romantic thought are the “deadly enemies” (p. 21) of reading achievement. They must be overturned.
Hirsch makes a case for the power of ideas to move and shape societies. He announces his intention here to analyze the common sense assumptions and relevant ideas driving educational policy, including their historical roots, and then to challenge them with “alternative ideas” (p. 17). His aim is “to help create a public demand for the kind of knowledge-oriented reading program that is needed” (p. 17), for he believes that once such a demand arises, “the rest can safely be left to the cunning of the market” (p. 17). In other words, the territory of ideology will be his battlefield of choice, and here on these pages he intends to mass his army.
At this point one expects the fun to begin, the fireworks to be ignited or the opening volley to be fired. We are, we hope, at least in for some spirited intellectual exchange. But here Hirsch disappoints. Again and again he huffs and he puffs; again and again he pulls back and fails to blow the house down. I found myself rooting for him to let loose just once to see where it might take him (and us), but he never does.
And so we are asked to take this jeremiad on faith. His attack on the “theory of demographic determinism” (p. 15), the idea that poverty plays a substantial role in school failure, is a case in point. He names Richard Rothstein, former education reporter for the New York Times, as the theory’s “most eloquent defender” (p. 15), and yet one can’t find in Rothstein any mention of this “theory,” nor adherence to what Hirsch claims as the theory’s pillars: poverty causes low reading scores, and the schools are powerless to have an impact on that failure. In fact, Rothstein’s view is much more nuanced than that, and in part much closer to Hirsch’s later assertion that schools “can do a far better job” (p. 15).
Hirsch never engages the scholarship, research, or even the polemics on poverty and schooling. There’s no mention, for example, of the work of Jonathon Kozol, Jeannie Oaks, Pedro Noguera, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Lisa Delpit, Deborah Meier, Michael Apple, Angela Valenzuela, Jean Anyon, Asa Hilliard, Michele Fine, or William Watkins, to name a few. His woofing against a straw-man is, for him, apparently enough.
When Hirsch needs a citation to back an assertion of fact he often leaves a blank: “research has shown a body of specific background knowledge to be necessary for reading proficiency…” (p. 41); “According to received views in the American educational community, no specific background knowledge is needed for reading” (p. 39); “It [the Core Knowledge Sequence] is now used in several hundred schools (with positive effects on reading scores), and it is distinguished among content standards not only for its interest and richness, but also because of the carefully-thought-out scientific foundations that underlie the selection of topics” (p. 77).
If a student had written either of the first two sentences, any teacher would respond, “Where’s the citation?” As for the third, Hirsch cites himself, which is a bit troubling. While self-referencing is always a sign of bad writing, it is particularly egregious in a book claiming the mantle of science. But citing himself or his Core Knowledge Foundation to back up his most basic arguments is a major strategy, and it begins on page 3: “Reading proficiency is at the very heart of the democratic educational enterprise, and is rightly called the ‘new civil rights frontier.’” Who could have made that insightful comment, I wonder? Look up footnote number 5… Why it’s E.D. Hirsch himself, from an earlier book.
Go further: On page 12 we learn that “The only thing that transforms reading skill and critical thinking skill into general all-purpose abilities is a person’s possession of general, all-purpose knowledge”; on page 84 that “The chief cause of our school’s inefficiency is precisely this curricular incoherence”; on page 111 that the “lack of commonality across classrooms in the same school and across schools in the same district means that no definable curriculum exists.” Each of these tautologies and assertions may be of interest, may have some merit, and may be worthy of thoughtful inquiry, debate, and analysis. None of that apparently matters much to Hirsch—he cites only himself and then moves on. This is fact-free, faith-based social science at its most fabulous.
Teachers in the thrall of “ed school professors” are a real problem for Hirsch, and absent any clearly defined curricular content that must be delivered no matter what, teachers are “the main sources of indoctrination.” (p. 114) Hirsch gets really worked up here:
Under the covering idea that what counts is how-to knowledge, and in the absence of specific content guidelines, the teacher is left free to teach critical thinking and deep understanding with whatever content seems appropriate. I well remember picking up a German grammar book in Communist East Berlin long before the Berlin wall was erected. Precisely because the book was oriented to the formal elements of German grammar, the content was left to the indoctrinators. If the grammar was to teach declarative sentences, examples were sentences like “The American capitalist imperialist is unfair to the worker.” The formal character of an imperative sentence was shown in “Yankee, go home!” A process orientation offers no inherent protection against indoctrination. Irresponsibility is much less likely to occur when the schools are clear about the basic specific academic content that children should be taught at a particular grade level. (p. 114)

It’s quite a jump for most of us from teachers “left free to teach critical thinking” to the sloganeering of the apparatchiks, but Hirsch makes the leap look easy. He portrays himself as under relentless siege from an insidious antagonist, and here he employs pure demagoguery. Demagogues need enemies, even invented ones: “the press”, “the Jews”, “the reds”—each played the part historically. But “ed school professors”? Teachers manipulated by a “covering idea” turning into propagandists of the authoritarian state? It seems utterly preposterous.
But wait, there’s more:
The public schools in a democracy should not take sides in still-disputed areas. Gay marriage comes to mind. Children are required to attend school. They must not be compelled to attend a school that inculcates ideas that their parents and caregivers find repugnant. The Untied States, because of its history of religious refuge, has a first-rate tradition of cultural sensitivity—for example, in the way it has treated Amish beliefs and sensibilities… Deeply inbred in our history and law is the principle that this tolerant civil polity will trump each intolerant sect that tries to control other sects or antisects. (pp. 113-114).

After all the bloviating, it’s unclear whether we should or we shouldn’t mention gay marriage—it came, after all, to his mind, why wouldn’t it come to the minds of others? What intolerant sect is he indicting? Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Hirsch is really a born polemicist (and not a very good one at that) but apparently feels it necessary to dress up in scientific drag and parade his polemics as scholarship—he wants these salvos taken seriously. He hopes, and based on past success has reason to believe, that as long as he labors in the credulous fields of school reform he can get by as a lab rat. But while a good polemicist often writes biting sentences, they must be minimally recognizable to the opposition. When Hirsch defends using good literature for children in classrooms, for example, and writes, “But stories are not necessarily the same thing as ephemeral fictions” (p. 78), the weaknesses in his thinking and his writing are on full display—there is, after all, no one who will stand and defend ephemeral fictions as the same thing as excellent stories. Similarly, when he sums up the writings of John Dewey, “the father of present-day American education” (p. 5) (Read: the bad stuff), as “the conviction that children would learn what they needed by engaging in practical activities such as cooking” (pp. 9-10), he is dissembling and throwing buckets of sand—or diced onions—in our eyes.
Further a good polemicist goes to the heart of the matter, relying on the power of characterization and critique to unmask the stupidity or hypocrisy of the opposition: Hirsch, on the other hand, dallies in the shallows, reminding us again and again that his arguments are solid and research-based, that “my aims… are entirely constructive” (p. 17), or that “this book makes strong arguments…” (p. 16). If a graduate student paper contained assertions like these, I’d write all over the margins in red: “Let us be the judge of that.”
And, no, in fact in this book he does not make strong arguments. It’s scholastic at best, not scholarly. Hirsch is for content-driven, knowledge-based curriculum—he repeats the phrase like a mantra until our eyes are feeling heavy—but even when he himself asks, so “what exactly does that enabling knowledge consist of?” (p. 74) he shrinks back and refuses to answer. Where’s the honesty of Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind? He promotes an “adequate scientific theory of reading” (p. 127), but never produces one. Where’s the forcefulness of a Mr. McChokumchild?
What Hirsch is busy avoiding is the obvious—any sensible and serious effort at school improvement must address several challenges simultaneously: the scandal of unequal funding and the inequitable distribution of education resources, the inadequate system of support and reward for teachers, the over-reliance on bureaucratic control and simplistic scales of student success, the loss of focus on the large goal of supporting youngsters to develop into functioning citizens and producers of both wealth and culture. These are complex challenges, to be sure, and must be worked out on the ground. But addressing these challenges is essential if we are to build outstanding schools fit for a democratic society.
As one of the major intellectual defenders of the triumphant conservative agenda in education E.D. Hirsch is a terrible disappointment. He’s simply not up to the task. He’s selling his Core Knowledge Foundation products, true—you can practically see the 800 number subliminally embedded on every page—but that’s about it. So here’s a time-saving suggestion: skip the ad—this book—and go straight to the handsome website of the Core Knowledge Foundation. You’ll get the whole bit delivered in power point in about five minutes.

KAPPAN Backtalk: A Response to Christine and Laughlin

July 22, 2006

In spite of Gary Laughlin’s thoughtless repetition of the clichés and received wisdom regarding the pathology of the “inner city” family, the central point of his note is important and, I believe, correct: all human beings, and most markedly adolescents, need a nurturing environment and a place to belong in order to thrive. There’s overwhelming evidence that adolescents do much better on several important measures when they are allowed to participate in smaller, more intimate learning communities. It’s not rocket science, to use another cliché.
An important part of the evidence is simply to notice what the most privileged people in our society provide for their kids—schools with a focus and a clear mission, small classes, lots of special programs. But there’s other evidence: countless studies not only affirm the value of smaller learning communities, but show further that kids who are poor or from traditionally oppressed groups benefit most in these settings.
None of this—and let’s add here Charles Christine’s call for “relevance” in high school programs and a culture that he calls “camaraderie”—leads logically to the conclusion that we ought to support JROTC per se in urban schools. We could, as well, support breaking big schools into smaller, themed academies, or we could advocate for a generously funded program of clubs and teams in which all would participate, or we could develop an intense and engaging community apprenticeship/internship/mentoring program. Or a lot else. Why JROTC, and why only JROTC?
Mr. Laughlin finds it “reprehensible” that I would allow my “personal views to dictate what is correct”—an odd reprimand since my “personal views” are the only ones I have, just as his “personal views” are the only ones he has, and in any case having “personal views” is not the same as sitting on a stiff chair in an arid room under a single bare bulb refusing all experience, art, conversation, input, dialogue, and literature, which I don’t do, and neither does he, I hope—and then turns approvingly to a “Rand study” in support of his views. I’ve seen a lot of studies on JROTC and they have several predictable problems. Bill Bigelow from Rethinking Schools points out that JROTC is an elective in most places, and that if kids don’t attend or do poorly, they’re simply removed from the rolls. Further, comparing JROTC with the general school population is fundamentally flawed because in many places it’s promoted as an accelerated program, in others kids are hand-picked to participate, and in still others it’s the most hopeful pathway to scholarship money and a college education. So, give kids something where they have nothing, offer them some attention in big, anonymous and failing schools, and certainly they’ll do better. A more meaningful comparison would be between the attendance and grades of JROTC kids to, say, kids enrolled in AP classes. The only problem with that hypothetical study is that most of these schools don’t offer AP classes.
And so we’re left to warrant JROTC in its own right. And here I return to my original argument: militarizing the schools is bad for teachers and terrible for kids, it undermines meaningful and robust education, and it distorts our democratic values and the possibility of building a culture of democracy. According to the military the goal of JROTC is “to create favorable attitudes and impressions toward the services and towards careers in the Armed Forces.” This, then, requires that we accept and warrant the role of our military in our lives and the world. And while JROTC sells itself as a promoter of “character” and “discipline,” the means to that imagined end involve fear, intimidation, shame, and unquestioning obedience. Dr. Christine’s “camaraderie” can be a product of the basest, most vile bonding rituals, as history has taught us over and over again.
Dr. Christine’s letter is built on the idea that the US military is a beneficent force in the world—he cites the Strategic Air Command motto “Peace is our Profession” as accurate, and says, without any irony whatsoever, that, “There have always been and will always be nation states that further their interests by dominating their weaker neighbors.” From my perspective—my “personal view” based on boat-loads of evidence—that sentence perfectly describes US foreign policy from its inception until today.
The courageous journalist I.F. Stone had a simple rule-of-thumb that guided all of his efforts as a reporter, and he urged his colleagues to keep this at the center of their consciousness: Remember, he said, that all governments lie. The old Soviet Union, of course, and China, but also Algeria, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Dominica, Egypt, France, the Gambia—the entire alphabet of nations lies. And in spite of our hopes and aspirations and mystifications, the US is no exception. In fact the US—near the bottom of the alphabet—is near the top of the list of liars. Perhaps it’s US military power or economic reach, perhaps it’s the sense of self-importance and destiny, but whatever drives it, our government lies to us and to the world from morning until night.
A brief history lesson should at least allow us to proceed as skeptics:
∑ President Polk cast Mexico as the aggressor in 1846, saying it had “Shed American blood upon the American soil”—a lie—and proceeded to seize half of that nation “in self-defense”…
∑ President McKinley said in 1898 that the US had a moral obligation to “liberate” the Cubans from Spain, and later to “civilize” the Filipinos—all lies—as he conquered new territory and murdered hundred of thousands of patriots and resisters and ordinary people…
∑ President Wilson prodded the country into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy”—a lie—as he joined the frenzy to divide the earth and its resources and markets among the old and emerging imperial powers…
∑ President Truman claimed that Hiroshima was a “military target”—a lie—and that dropping nuclear bombs on Japan saved “a million American lives”—an invention of monstrous proportions…
∑ President Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin, and before him Kennedy lied about the extent of US entanglement in Viet Nam, and after each of them Nixon lied about expanding the war into neutral Cambodia…
On and on and on—Reagan lied about Grenada, Bush the First about Panama and Iraq, Clinton about the Sudan… It never ends.
We are today witnessing in public and political life a steady barrage of lying as justification for war, invasion, repression, torture, constant surveillance, and occupation. We are sold a terrifying scenario of risk, as well as a romanticized version of our beneficent mission in the world. Educators must ask ourselves if we are helping our students look critically at these and other received truths steadily raining down upon them from the powerful. Are they able to separate fact from fancy? Can they interrogate whatever nonsense is given to them? Can they identify arguments and sort through conflicting claims and various sources of information in a steady and thoughtful and engaged way? Must they obediently conform to all they’re told? Can they talk back? Can they imagine themselves acting effectively within the world?
We must, with our students, learn to ask the essential questions again and again, and then find ways to live within and beyond the answers we receive. Who are you in the world? How did you (and me) get here? What can we know? What do we have the right to imagine and expect? Where are we going? Who makes the decisions? Who’s left out? Who decides? Who benefits? Who suffers? What are the alternatives? In many ways these kinds of questions are themselves the answers.
The great American historian Howard Zinn argues that we should “Put Away The Flags”:
On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.
Is not nationalism—that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder—one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?

Patriotism is perhaps the single concept in greatest need of being subjected to intense scrutiny and questioning in our country today. We live, after all, in a time of empire resurrected and unapologetic, of war without borders and seemingly without end, of greed enthroned and of a rapidly widening gulf between rich and poor, of the elusive and seemingly intractable barriers to racial justice, and of patriotism rehearsed and paraded in every corner, and yet the basic questions of who we are and where we are eludes us. When National Geographic recently surveyed US young adults, huge percentages couldn’t find Iraq, Israel-Palastine, or even Great Britain on a world map. An astonishing 10% couldn’t find the US. I blame the schools, the media, the misinformation culture. Perhaps we really don’t know where we are in the world, and perhaps we harbor a deep sense that it doesn’t matter much. We’re here, after all, and we matter most; everyone else must pay attention to us because we count, but our attention to them—those masses of others who don’t after all, count as much—is pointless.
This enforced ignorance is part of the logic of patriotism, which is of a piece with the logic of nationalism: anyone who by chance was thrust onto this small specific patch of earth is to consider himself or herself superior to all those unfortunates who were thrust onto some other patch. This beatified place is imagined to be qualitatively unparalleled, so different from all other places that it’s as if a high wall shuts it off from the rest of the world. And walls as metaphors are reinforced with barbed wire erected in East Germany, Israel, and now the US on its southern border. Here, within the wall, a chosen people, so to speak, live blessed lives that are nobler, greater, deeper and wiser and more beneficent than the lives led by any other human beings anywhere else.
This is the constant conceit of patriotism, the narcissistic and arrogant stance. The result is that we are willing to fight, kill, and die—or as is almost always the case, to at least send the children of the laboring classes as proxies to do the killing and dying—in a patriotic fever for real estate before reason.
Samuel Johnson called patriotism “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” and Bertrand Russell, “the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons”—patriotism is justification for murder. And the great Malcolm X advised that no one become “so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality…Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” Howard Zinn describes the typically disingenuous justification for war:
As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our secretary of war, was saying: “The American solider is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”
We see in Iraq that our soldiers are not different. They have, perhaps against their better nature, killed thousands of Iraq civilians. And some soldiers have shown themselves capable of brutality, of torture.
Yet they are victims, too, of our government’s lies.

Could patriotism possibly be a universal value? Is it specific? Should all people in the world at all times be patriotic? How about if some specific country or government is a disaster? Should Germans have been patriotic during the Third Reich? Rwandans during the genocide? Israelis or Americans today? Is America always a force for good?
There is in fact—my “personal view”—no fit between patriotism and humanism. The nation-state has been at bottom always an engine for war and repression. Sometimes—as in our own country—a wobbly and outdated concept of a single national identity lords it over the true variety and diversity and pluralism of human life. We need to notice that a single inflamed identity is always a deprivation, and we need to teach into this contradiction. How is it that the broad human beings in Sarajevo of 1992 were transformed into the ruthless Serbs and fierce Croatians of 1993? Violence, of course, creates identity just as identity creates violence. This is the violence of identity, of nationalism, and of patriotism. The “camaraderie” of murder.
Inflamed identities are morally backward, dangerous and destructive, as well as descriptively wrong. As Anartya Sen writes in Identity and Violence, while “a Hutu laborer from Kigali may be pressured to see himself only as a Hutu and incited to kill Tutsis…he is not only a Hutu, but also a Kigalian, a Rwandan, an African, a laborer and a human being.”
Walt Whitman—his crazy exuberance, his limitless faith in possibility, his joy and love and ecstasy spilling out of him in all directions and only occasionally under control, his generous embrace—instructs us in “Song of Myself,” to see ourselves whole and to reject any one-sided, pumped-up, or flushed identity:
I celebrate, and sing myself…
I am an acme of things accomplished,
I am an encloser of things to be…
Do I contradict myself? Very well then
I contradict myself.
(I am large. I contain multitudes.)

Each of us contains multitudes and so we can choose to emphasize identities we share with others. Circumstances will necessarily constrain our choices, but we must note that identity is not destiny. Still we can choose, and still we must.
While we hear people say all the time, “My country right or wrong,” it’s weird to say, “My sister, drunk or sober.” If my sister is wrong, I have an obligation to criticize her, to correct her. If she persists and does great harm, I’m obliged to stop her. No less my country.
It seems plausible, in fact rather simple, to love your family, your neighbors and friends, the land itself, and to simultaneously oppose the state, the government, the military—it’s essential here and now to draw a bright distinction between the American people and the US state. After all there’s no such thing as a single, unified thing, no one narrative, called America. America as a spiritual concept floating above state power or government apparatus or law or military might is simply a myth. It’s this disembodied spirit we’re instructed to love, and yet the state rambles on, leaving wreckage in its wake.
All cultures and societies, of course, teach about themselves, and all cultures tend to assert their supremacy over others. Societies often construct their identities against some imagined other: the Greeks had their barbarians, the American settlers had the Indians. We study our traditions, our own great works, the language, and it moves us toward reverence. And, as Zinn points out, national spirit might be temporarily benign in a soccer match, say, or in a country “lacking both in military power and a hunger for expansion.” But no culture or society exists in isolation, and our nation is so huge and so militarized so that “what might have been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.”
Since the study of one’s own tradition is taken-for-granted, we must—as teachers and students—look outside ourselves at others in search of our fuller humanity. We must teach toward becoming citizens of the world, to stretch and to struggle, to reach toward a fuller humanity. A militarized classroom, a military culture stands as an obstacle. That’s why we should kick the military out of our schools.

A Single Spark

July 22, 2006

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Single Spark

A single spark can start a prairie fire—an ancient saying that appears in many forms and in different cultures, carrying a range of shifting implications and meanings. In the version I first heard—from China—it pointed to the power of one action to inspire other actions, which themselves catalyze a cascading chain of actions and reactions. One flint and a single stone struck together in the right direction under optimal conditions can begin a conflagration spreading throughout the countryside. Prairie fires, in this telling, are not always catastrophic; they can be, as well, naturally occurring events, necessary and renewing, removing the thick mat of thatch that suffocates life, releasing the seeds while encouraging the birds and the insects and the other animals, all the flora and fauna, opening and crawling, transforming and lurching to life.
This old saying fits so perfectly, maps so naturally onto teaching because teachers strike sparks within every student every day. There is simply no way to predict with any certainty which will come to nothing, and which spark might just start that prairie fire. We are striving into the unknown, a place where teachers might feel the awesome power they wield, might experience, as well, the unknowable potential of each student, each three-dimensional human creature before them. Teachers might pay closer attention to every aching detail and each overarching circumstance, to sense at every moment that what they do—or, just as important, what they fail to do—has a significance beyond itself, that some act or another may in fact make a mighty and magnificent difference, entirely unforeseen by them, in this life or in that one. Teachers might not change the world in dramatic fashion, but we certainly change the people who will change the world. This single spark could be that long-anticipated catalyst, that historic meeting of flint and stone that releases the flames of change.
All teaching is enacted in a specific here and now, all of it brought to life in the mud and muck of the world as we find it—this prairie or that field, this street or the other one. We don’t choose the world as such; rather we are thrust into a world already there, going, going, going, up and running. We need to take the world as it is to start, unvarnished, and plunge forward as participants if we are to live fully, deeply, purposefully—if we are to see both the beauty and the pain of it, if we are to add our little weight to the balance.
It is in this sense that teaching is both an intellectual and an ethical enterprise. It requires thoughtful and caring people to carry it forward—not a head without a heart, and not some vaguely smiling flame without a brain. Teachers need to both think and feel their way into what we’re doing. In fact, it’s at the crossroads of the intellectual and the ethical where teachers begin to find their bearings. It’s here that we crawl toward love—not love as a “throbbing heart or a soulful imploring” as Pat Carini has written, but love as a call to action, an impulse that insists that all human beings matter, even when law or custom or social practice or restriction says otherwise.
We teachers are increasingly deskilled and hammered into interchangeable cogs in a bureaucracy, pressured to reduce teaching to a set of manageable and easily superviseable tasks, and to sum it up on the basis of a single simple-minded metric, to strip it of any moral purpose or intellectual engagement or creative action whatsoever. In these circumstances, at this moment, it becomes even more important to find ways to resist, to fight back, to rescue teaching from the gathering forces of mindlessness and carelessness.
The prophetic poet Audre Lourde wrote: “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed. But when we are silent we are still afraid.” It might be best, then, to take a chance, to speak out and to act up. Since all life is a risk, stepping forward affords at least the possibility of a different perspective, the hope of something better. If what is before us is out of balance, if some part of what we see stands as an obstacle to our humanity or if it is in some sense unacceptable or offensive to the better angels of ourselves, we are called to say “no.” It is in this spirit of resistance and hope that we go in search of a humanistic pedagogy.
Educators face a contradiction at the heart of their efforts: the humanistic ideal and the democratic injunction tell us that every person is an entire universe, that each can develop as a full and autonomous person engaged with others in a common polity and an equality of power; the capitalist imperative insists that profit is at the center of economic, political, and social progress and develops a culture of competition, elitism, and hierarchy. An education for democracy fails as an adjunct to capitalism just as an education for capitalism fails to build either a democratic ethos or a participatory practice—either the schools or the system must die.
Two slim but important books offer thoughtful looks at this age-old conflict. Holding Values by Brenda Engel with Anne Martin is subtitled “What We Mean by Progressive Education,” and the “we” refers to several key, long-time members of the North Dakota Study Group, an irregular band of guerrilla educators Vito Perrone assembled for the first time in 1972. Its general focus has always been the state of education and the current challenges to humanistic and democratic practices, but over three and a half decades the range of specific issues addressed and engaged has been impressive—evaluation and assessment, standards and testing, racism and diversity, children and the curriculum, and always, at bottom, the promise and the demands of democracy. This small but hardy and determined group meets annually, and boasts among its members Rebecca and Hubert Dyasi, Lilian Weber, Jay and Helen Featherstone, Francisco Guajardo, Pat Carini, George Hein, Edward Chittenden, and Deborah Meier, as well as Joan Bradbury from the Frances Parker School.
Bob Davis’ Teaching Tough Kids explores the work of “five provocative educators” of the twentieth century, each an explorer and in their own contexts a revolutionary—the redoubtable Deborah Meier again, a living American, a MacArthur Fellow, a charter North Dakota member, and four Europeans whose experiences span the twentieth century: Russia’s Anton Makarenko, who came of age at the dawn of the Bolshevik Revolution; Poland’s Janusz Korczak, who was murdered with his charges at Treblinka in 1942; France’s Celestin Freinet, imprisoned by the Vichy government during World War II; and Great Britain’s Chris Searle who taught in working-class London and Sheffield as well as revolutionary Grenada and Mozambique. Davis describes each teacher in action, locates each in the unique concentric circles of context—historical flow, social condition, cultural surround—that make these lives sensible and important, and finds in each a person wrestling with the knot of this fundamental contradiction: reverence, awe, respect for the humanity of every student; energy, focus, effort to create a society in which that reverence can breathe and perhaps one day thrive. These are teachers offering students the opportunity to change their lives, all the while working to change the world.
Davis might have chosen a hundred others who taught toward transformation—one thinks of Paulo Freire, of course, and Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Carter G. Woodson, Herb Kohl and Septima Clark, Myles Horton, Bob Moses, Mike Rose, Bill Bigelow, Linda Christiansen, George Wood, Bob Peterson, Rita Tenorio, W.E.B. DuBois, or Bob Davis himself. He might have chosen any of the teachers represented in Holding Values. But these five are well-chosen—each taught for many years, each founded a school, each developed innovative curriculum and wrote thoughtfully about teaching, and each faced the challenge of authoring a unique teaching life against a backdrop of, and while participating in, the upheaval to create a new, more peaceful, more just social order.
Vito Perrone and the sixteen educators he convened in November, 1972 in Grand Forks, ND were all “energetic, experienced, and imaginative thinkers about schools and schooling” (p. 5). Some, like Lillian Weber and Deborah Meier, were life-long socialists and activists engaged in struggles for civil rights and peace, and determined to reorganize public schools as sites of democratic practice. Others, like Pat Carini, founded or worked in small, independent alternative schools, counter-institutions they hoped would be examples and catalysts for humanistic changes in education and society more widely. All were people alive to and aware of the contradiction at the heart of teaching: the humanist ideal struggling to breathe in a social and economic surround determined to choke it to death, a system that will not and cannot tolerate its existence. This intolerance, importantly, requires no extra effort or human will, no mobilization or evil intent whatsoever to do its murderous work—the normal functioning of the system crushes community and destroys democracy.
Brenda Engel does a good job of bringing the North Dakota characters to life, and of unearthing the visions and values, the moral principles that animated this far-flung and talented group. The Study Group itself is an example of another healthy contradiction that lives at the heart of excellent classrooms—strong-willed individuals, each with a mind of her or his own, engaged in intense, sometimes contentious dialogue, which moves the collective forward. It has been traditional for Vito Perrone, the group’s godfather, to open and close the meetings, and his presentations have always been “discursive, low-key, informed, often ironic, humorous, and inclusive” (p. 7). Engel quotes from one of Perrone’s opening talks to give us a feel for the tone, style, and content:
The standards-based reform direction is generally discussed as new to American education, getting us caught up with other major industrialized countries in the world. We should all exert caution every time we hear that something relating to schools is new. It usually means that those speaking of the new haven’t chosen to examine the historical record. Our need for historical perspective is always large. Otherwise, we lose sight of the larger context, the roots of our work. We also lose, I believe, the potential for genuine reform. In addition, we should worry when the motivation to do something educationally is to help us catch up with some other country—a stance that seems to look right past the students most of us see day in and day out, almost as if they aren’t there. I envision here a group of six- or seven-year-olds being told that they have to study hard to make sure we stay ahead of the Japanese. Why would any of these children care about competition with Japan? Why should their teachers even have that in mind?

Jay Featherstone writes of the large themes that constitute the transformational-humanist tradition. He sees these themes as sites for investigation rather than settled dogma, and so he invites us into a series of challenges to engage. The first is the challenge of democracy itself: What is democracy? What does schooling in a democracy look like? How might we build democratic communities in our classrooms? Featherstone points to the mismatch of increased standardization and the tightening of bureaucratic control over schools at a time of unprecedented immigration, movement, and dislocation, a time when the need to model living democratically is at its zenith. He cites the greatest poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, who wrote that democracy “is a great word whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten because that history has yet to be enacted” (p. 43).
Another challenge involves “the ecology of childhood—the task of making schools and other settings good environments and communities in which children develop as whole and healthy people—not test factories where kids get evaluated in one-sided ways” (p. 43). The school, then, should align to the child, and not the other way round. This means there must be a focus on the quality of children’s lives, and on opportunities for imagination, expression, and experimentation in a safe and buoyant space.
A further challenge is for inclusion, “the democratic goal of educating all students for participation in intellectual and academic complexity” (p. 44). This means both breaking down the barriers to full participation of historically oppressed or excluded groups, and offering everyone “an intellectually ambitious education” (p. 45).
And joined with these and at the center of things is the challenge to see the larger society as it really is—riddled with injustice, burdened by racism, disfigured by imperial ambitions, with the schools at least partially maimed as they are pressured to become sites that reinforce “inequalities of class and race and gender” (p. 45). Featherstone sums up the progressive teacher’s ambition as linking “democratic possibilities in education to fresh possibilities in politics and our national life” (p. 45).
If democracy is a special social arrangement, how would we describe its specific character? And if education in a democracy requires something different from the requirements of education, say, in a totalitarian or royal society, then what is that different something?
The short answer is obvious: totalitarianism demands obedience and conformity, hierarchy, command and control. Royalty requires allegiance. Democracy, by contrast, requires free people coming together voluntarily who are capable of both self-realization and, at the same time, full participation in a shared political and economic life. Democracy is a form of associative living in which people embrace a level of uncertainty, incompleteness, and the inevitability of change. There are no immutable, fixed standards, the same for all, that will ultimately serve democratic purposes.
Teachers in democratic schools cannot be mechanical cogs in a bureaucratically-driven machine or place-holders in an impersonal system, but rather must be highly-trained and well-rewarded professionals afforded a large degree of flexibility and autonomy in order to attend to and support the growth of children. In a democracy teachers must be models of thoughtfulness and care, exemplars of problem-solving and decision-making, people capable of asking deep questions, drawing necessary connections, incorporating the surprising and the unexpected and the new as it occurs into classroom life.
Assessment in democratic schools, then, must be transparent and public, collectively decided upon, and rooted in ongoing student work. It is not a separate and isolated event, above and beyond teachers and students; rather, assessment is a broad, relevant and connected part of classroom life, an exercise providing an ongoing look at progress and need.
But look for a moment at most schools as they actually are—all the commonsense assumptions, the broad commonplace features and activities, the reality beyond the rhetoric. What is expected of us—teachers and students, parents and administrators? What have we become accustomed to? The simplest, most eloquent answer comes from the mouths of James Herndon’s young students, locked in a segregated ghetto elementary school. Whenever they were asked why they were kowtowing to some arbitrary or particularly maddening and inane school custom—begging permission and then lining up to use the toilet, for example, or spending hours on mindless, repetitive tasks—their response was, always the same: because that’s “the way it spozed to be.”
The way it spozed to be is characterized by division and isolation—students against teacher, teachers against the administration, the union versus the board. Worse, school divides students against one another—each a little one-man skiff on his or her own bottom—through mechanisms of grades and tests and rankings. It divides and alienates students further within themselves—the arbitrary demarcation of experience and knowledge into disciplines and subjects, the disconnection of interest and relevance, initiative and courage from school-sanctioned success. And those tests and grades and scores: a reductive shorthand that turns kids into stick-figures, lifeless and brittle; they trumpet the triumph and unambiguous wonder of objectivity, when in fact objectification itself is the greatest problem and weakness of the standardizing tests. All this disunity and disengagement, all the segregation and isolation—where does it leave us?
The way it spozed to be bows before numbers, genuflects to the values of quantification. Schools then promote a flattened world where things get counted, or, as one of my education professors told us years ago, everything that exists exists in some amount, and so everything that exists must be measurable. We asked him about love, hope, beauty, joy, imagination, and possibility, and he said we were being foolish. Teach only what you can test, he said, and test only what you’ve taught. The “measure of man” is the impossible ideal of a scholar like that, and the mismeasure of humanity the inevitable outcome.
The way it spozed to be requires testing, sorting, labeling, ranking. I remember the eccentric and always amusing A.S. Neil, founder of Summerhill School in England, when pressed by twelve-year-olds to give them an examination because… well, you know. He sat his charges down and administered a real test. Here’s a sample question:
Where are they following: Madrid, Thursday Island, yesterday, love, democracy, hate, my pocket screwdriver?

I’m always a little skeptical when reformers come forward with schemes to “integrate the curriculum” or to “create real-world projects and internships.” Why was the curriculum segregated in the first place? I ask. When did the unreal world get such a mighty foothold in our classrooms? Why does the student feel walled off from society and the earth anyway?
If we peek for a moment beneath the official high-sounding justification for compulsory schooling—to create good and productive citizens, say, or to allow students to reach their full potential, or to unlock the talent and energy of each little darling—there’s a truth that dares not speak its name: the way it spozed to be is designed to mold and control the herd, to engineer and shape-up the unruly crowd, to grind potentially free people into obedient soldiers, servile and efficient laborers, mindless consumers. Our rulers were not always so wimpy, so reluctant to say it plainly and out loud. In 1909 Woodrow Wilson shouted out, to no one’s amazement, that “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
The way it spozed to be is designed to sort youngsters into these classes, to find for each a proper role in the existing social order. Schools reward conformity and mindless habits of obedience with a vengeance, but not without reason; they punish deviance relentlessly and sometimes ruthlessly, but with a clear purpose. In this sense, and with this aim of education noted explicitly, schools are doing one heck of a job—they are terrifically successful sorting machines.
Brenda Engel notes that her group was originally called the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation. Even though the last two words have been dropped, evaluation in the largest sense remains a central concern. Engel points out that “The issue of educational evaluation has to do basically with power relationships, which are at the heart of politics: Who has the right to evaluate what and whom? Who decides on criteria and instruments? What degree of consent needs to be sought from those having a stake in the consequences?” (p. 13) Questions, questions, questions; challenges to received wisdom; demands to be heard, to be seen, to be valued as an equal—the center of a democratic pedagogy and a democratic society.
Because teaching aims both to guide and to set free, to initiate into as well as to liberate from, teaching is one part prescription and another part permission. Great teachers walk this fault line consciously, with courage and confidence, working to move their students into thinking for themselves, awakening in them new awarenesses, igniting their imaginations and encouraging them to live awhile in possibility, spurring them to go further and further. And with all this teachers simultaneously provide students with access to the tools of the culture, the structures of the disciplines, the various languages and literacies that will allow them to participate fully and freely. This is possible when teachers present themselves as questioning, fallible, searching human beings themselves—identical in this regard to those they teach.
It is always a struggle for conscientious teachers to be true to students while keeping an eye on the world those students will inherit. There are some common themes, however, from the lives and work of the educators assembled by Engel and Davis that will be helpful for further thinking and rethinking, for action, and for rethinking once more:
* Teaching toward transformation involves seeing students as whole human beings with hearts and minds, bodies and spirits that must somehow be taken into account. We must find our way beyond the half-language of labels.
* We must be doubly serious in our efforts to teach our students the various literacies that will allow them to become competent and powerful in their worlds.
* We must provide opportunities for students to do and to make, to be authors and artists (not outlaws) and to become valuable and valued in their various communities.
* We must learn from rather than about the world—from work, not about work; from democracy, not about democracy; from nature, not about nature; from history, geography literature, maths, and so on.
* We must bring the community into the school and the school into the community. Classrooms are contested spaces, and the sooner we face that fact, the more effective we might become.
An education for democracy begins with the belief that each person has the right and responsibility to participate publicly, that each can and should make a difference. The principles of associative living—community, equality, liberty—must, then, be brought to the fore in both classroom and community.