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A Language of Hope

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There were four wide boards nailed to the front wall of the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse. They were painted black, a chalkboard. The desks were separated into four columns, seven rows deep; there was a long bench in front. The youngest children sat there. Then, arranged by age, the others, probably through 8th grade, found their desks. It was dark but for the glow of daylight that filled the open door and window; thin streaks of sunlight pierced through the gaps in the walls. I walked to the last row--the floor creaking--and sat down, imagining a column of numbers on the blackboard, hearing the rough tap of chalk. I was somewhere off Highway 321, between Townsend and Greeneville, Tennessee.

About halfway between President Bush's convocation of the nation's governors at Charlottesville--the 1989 education summit--and the passage of Bill Clinton's Goals 2000, I began a journey through our nation's public schools to document good work, visiting classrooms judged to be effective and decent places by those closest to them--parents, principals, teachers, students--places that embody the hope for a free and educated society that has, at its best, driven this extraordinary American experiment from the beginning. As I traveled, I took side roads, stayed overnight with people, consulted historical societies, and visited places like the Greenbrier Schoolhouse. All this sparked thought about schooling in our country, about classrooms and my own long history in them, about the way we have come to talk about this institution that commands so much of our personal and collective lives.

I had taught for 25 years--mostly in public institutions, from kindergarten to adult literacy programs--and had studied classrooms and had written critically about them. I knew the damage inept teachers and curriculum can do. But our national talk about education had begun to shift beyond critique. It was moving toward despair. A dangerous hopelessness. Dismissive. Cynical. The country was--and remains--in the grip of nasty reactive politics, a volatile mix of anger and anxiety. And people of all political persuasions were withdrawing from engagement in the public sphere. It was a time of economic and moral cocooning. The question for me--framed in terms of public schools, our pre-eminent public institution--was how to generate a hopeful vision in a time of bitterness and lost faith.

The Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse was built in 1882, thick planks on a stone foundation. There were nearly a quarter of a million one-room schoolhouses at that time in the United States. Now there are 800 or so. I visited one in western Montana's Grasshopper Valley, a neat frame schoolhouse through which generations of valley residents passed, vibrant with student work on display: large crayon maps of the valley, bar and pie charts, collaborative poems ("Foxes hide fast in the red/dead trees"), rock sculpture, hand-bound books, watercolors of the landscape. I saw many classrooms like this, and as they accumulated in the journey, an imagery of possibility began to shape itself, an imagery at odds with our typical representations of schooling.

In Calexico, a California-Mexico border town, I listened while 3rd graders gave reports in Spanish and English on current events, following the journalist's central questions--who, what, why--and elaborating on the significance of the depleted ozone layer, of Haitian boat people's repatriation, of smog in nearby industrial Mexicali, of changes in the local school board.

In Chicago, I sat in while 12th graders thought through As I Lay Dying, trying to make sense of the characters' varied perspectives, offering provisional explanations of key events, posing then revising central themes, gaining a sense of the power of wading into the uncertain, of speculation, of proposing something that may be half-right in order to forward inquiry. And in a series of small towns along the Mississippi Delta, I followed children as they walked through and then drew pictorial representations of fundamental algebraic operations, part of civil rights activist Bob Moses' Algebra Project, a curriculum as well as a social movement that helps prepare children, regardless of academic background, for algebra, which Moses defines as a key pathway to opportunity.

When you shift your attention from classrooms like these to our national discussion about schools, you're struck by several things:

  • The paucity of examples of student intelligence.
  • The paucity of examples of good teaching--of the mix of high expectation and encouragement, care and intelligence, interpersonal and intellectual skill.
  • The abundance of talk about competition and individual achievement and the absence of talk about collaboration, joint problem solving, the putting of heads together.
  • The connection of excellence and rigor with test scores and not with puzzling something through, reflectiveness, trial and error, intellectual suppleness and integrity.
  • The absence of talk about curiosity, enjoyment, creativity, respect, growth, intellectual or civic virtue.

For all we hear about education--and since the publication of A Nation at Risk 13 years ago, we have been hearing a lot--there is little in that national discussion that either harks back to the hopeful vision of learning and democratic society that inspired the development of free public education or that helps us think in new ways, lifts our sights and spirit, sparks pride in young people, and galvanizes national hope. We've become so accustomed to a discourse of economic need and imminent decline, of basics and narrowly defined excellence, that we cannot imagine other ways to think and talk about school. Our civic imagination is shutting down.

A citizenry is obligated to question its public institutions. To periodically rethink, even recreate them. And, to be sure, there is ample reason for us to think hard about public schools. But instead of careful thought, we trade in a ready store of commonplaces about how awful our schools have become. Though researchers for some time have challenged the simplicity of these representations, their challenges--with few exceptions--rarely enter our public discourse in any significant way. "America's schools are the least successful in the Western world," declare the authors of a book on the global economy. "Face it, the public schools have failed," a bureau chief for a national news magazine tells me, offhandedly. "The kids in the Los Angeles Unified School District are garbage," a talk-radio host exclaims.

There are many dangers in the use of such language. It blinds us to the complex lives lived out in the classroom. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation's most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources--even the assertion that money doesn't affect a school's performance--and the curative effects of free market forces via vouchers and privatization.

I am not trying to ignore the obvious misery in our schools or the limitations of too many of those who teach in and manage them. This is not a call to abandon the critical perspective a citizenry should have when it surveys its institutions. What I am suggesting is that we lack a public critical language adequate to the task. We need a different kind of critique, one that does not minimize the inadequacies of curriculum and instruction, the rigidity of school structure, or the "savage inequalities" of funding but that simultaneously opens discursive space for inspired teaching, for courage, for achievement against odds, for successful struggle, for the insight and connection that occur continually in public school classrooms around the country. Without a multiplicity of such moments, criticism becomes one-dimensional, misses too much, is harsh, brittle, the humanity drained from it.

Public education demands a capacious critique, one that encourages both dissent and invention, fury and hope. Public education is bountiful, crowded, messy, contradictory, exuberant, tragic, frustrating, and remarkable. We need an expanded vocabulary, adequate to both the daily joy and the daily sorrow of our public schools. And we are in desperate need of rich, detailed images of possibility.

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