A Single Spark

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.

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