Part of--Not Apart From
"There is no independent mode of existence. Every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.'' --Alfred North Whitehead
I remember, years ago, standing on Galata Bridge in Istanbul, amazed that the whole world seemed to meet at the Bosporus. There were sampans and Chinese junks bouncing in the wake of motor launches, and a hundred freighters anchored out in the harbor waiting to dock. There were spires and steeples and turquoise blue minarets to dazzle the eye, homburgs and turbans and fezzes, Western rock and Indian sitar, and every spice imaginable, a wondrous panoply of sights and sounds and smells.
There were opinions on every issue, some in harmony, others clashing, people of different races and ethnic groups and languages mixing in a society of beggars and rich tourists, Ottoman Empire traditionalists and visionaries, fishmongers and diplomats.
I returned from my teaching assignment in Turkey, and started thinking about what seemed to be a myopia afflicting education in the United States. After my experience on the bridge and elsewhere in the Middle East, I was dismayed to return to our superabundant confidence that every question could be reduced to one indisputable answer. Ours was a society which was certain it was right, too powerful to notice that other perspectives existed, self-assured in the presumption that everything of consequence in the world could be based on Western assumptions.
I returned to the pragmatism of American schools. Why bother to change, we used to say, because for the better part of the century our approach did work. If there were domestic problems to overcome, they were our problems, but regarding the rest of the world, there was no need to change when our economic and military might could overwhelm friends as well as enemies. We taught the truth as we saw it, flat out disagreeing with C.S. Lewis's assertion that, "at best, American teachers are propagandists,'' and we didn't even notice when the Lebanese historian Amin Mahloof decried "the intellectual prism of Western education.''
Mr. Mahloof and Mr. Lewis were both telling us that we must teach teachers how to teach so that American students recognize and know that they are part of--not apart from--world society.
Happily, today there are more than subtle hints from higher education and the foundations that they are ready for real cooperation with elementary and secondary educators, because something is seriously amiss with teacher education, both in terms of the scope of what we teach and our pedagogy.
- When Lester Thurow pronounced from M.I.T. that, "There is not a single world-class high school in America today,'' I think his assessment connoted his willingness to confront the problem.
- The statement by Willis Hawley that "signs of continuing disaffection with the U.S. higher-education role in the professional development of teachers seem to be everywhere'' is clear indication that the University of Maryland education dean will not accept further temporizing.
- The Pew Charitable Trusts' Robert Schwartz provides optimistic assurance that "higher-education institutions now can figure out a useful role with the schools, because a national reform strategy finally is beginning to emerge.'' Mr. Schwartz emphasizes, "The pre-service and continuing-education needs of teachers must assume a higher priority within our colleges and universities, an enormous opportunity, given the looming teacher shortages and the demonstrable need for a massive investment in professional development.''
The collaboration of elementary, secondary, and higher education will come about, in part, because we have national education goals and we all are searching for strategies to reach them; we are trying to create national standards (however voluntary) and responsible assessment of student performance; and we are widening the debate on teacher certification. But I hope that we are not driven to join forces only by standards and the desire for higher test scores. Let's remind one another repeatedly that one of our foremost tasks is to prepare teachers to prepare students for citizenship in a world of startlingly rapid change.
Historically, all of us taught in a narrow tunnel and learned by rote, because we had not yet applied the research about hands-on learning or the tactile and kinesthetic techniques of instruction necessary to reach some children. We learned in linear fashion, and if we forgot what we studied right after the exam, it seemed not to matter one whit. For years, we were taught from the green book, History of Civilization: Earlier Ages, by Robinson, Breasted, and Smith, whirling past the Chaldeans and Assyrians and Babylonians, at a rate of one civilization per week. If today we remember Hammurabi or Tiglath Pileser, it is only because a talented teacher defied the curriculum to spend considerable time on people and events and ideas, which she hoped we would come to understand. But most of the time we learned for the moment, without necessarily comprehending--because it worked.
Now in the 90's, that kind of lockstep approach has lost favor. But many of today's teachers know no other way to teach, and so the schools are stymied and the education offered is almost irrelevant to a world where relationships between nations and the new global economy have no historical precedent. We cannot continue teaching as if we are frozen in time, a time when all commercial transactions were conducted in English, when we expected nations to accept our form of government and economic system. We used to win every contest easily, automatically, because the rules of the game were all ours.
Well, the game has changed. The rules are new to us, and we don't even know how to play. What we teach in most of our schools does not remotely resemble the realities of the world on the brink of the new millennium, the world of E.C. and NAFTA and no U.S.S.R., the world where Mandarin is the most prevalent language. The way we teach in a huge majority of the nation's 110,000 elementary and secondary schools, and in the more than 1,300 colleges and universities, is an American anomaly, a perspective limited and anachronistic, out of touch with a dynamic, tumultuous world.
The task for teacher-educators, seeking to create a solid continuum between undergraduate pre-service and continuing professional development, is to define ourselves within the larger context of people and nations. Yes, to understand ourselves and our history, but also to understand how we are changing, a nation once again of immigrants, more than two million a year, the numbers from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East outstripping every demographic prediction of the 1980's. We need to recognize that to solve our problems, new ideas for the future must replace old patterns of thought.
We think that we have some of the answers to effective learning in childhood and the adolescent years--foreign-language study at an early age, smaller schools and the middle school model advanced to the high school, the extended-year, science curriculum with scope and sequence relevant to postindustrial society. But we are still a long way from creating a consistent continuum in teacher education. The initiative has been taken by researchers and practitioners in higher education to forge the coalition--by Ernest L. Boyer, James P.Comer, and John I. Goodlad, as well as by Lester Thurow, Willis Hawley, and Robert Schwartz. A comprehensive, coordinated response from elementary and secondary educators to link in-service to pre-service is now needed, not just in Theodore R. Sizer's 200-member Coalition of Essential Schools and Mortimer J. Adler's Paideia schools and the University of Pittsburgh's Administrator in Residence program, but throughout all the states and the 15,000 local school districts, in the parochial schools, and the nation's independent schools.
Perhaps it will help if we keep that bridge in Istanbul in mind, a bridge where East meets West in what was once a remote and inaccessible land--keep that literal bridge in mind as we build the figurative bridges between elementary/secondary and higher education. We know that we need to re-examine content and objectives, values and methods. We also need fresh vantage points from which we can re-examine our perspectives on all learning, perhaps heeding the novelist Richard Powers, who commended to us "the hierarchy of awareness, no longer to look at the object from my vantage point, but at myself from the vantage point of the object.'' The task is so difficult and different from anything we have ever tried, we'd better do it together.
Peter D. Relic, the president of the National Association of
Independent Schools, has taught in public and private schools and
colleges in the United States and in Peru, Turkey, India, Germany,
Puerto Rico, and Japan.