Opinion
Education Opinion

Historical amnesia

By Deborah Meier — June 29, 2007 3 min read

Dear Diane,

I was talking with a young man yesterday who is working at a new NYC high schools for students who have dropped out or are about to. He’s very enthusiastic about the work and the school. He thinks Bloomberg and Company invented such schools, and that his is the first.

Historical amnesia is, alas, widespread. In a piece on Bloomberg’s ambitions for the Presidency and another on the High School of International Business and Finance, NY Times reporter Sara Rimer suggests that Bloomberg/Klein are the first to worry about how to educate the kids at the bottom, the first to develop small schools, the first to be enamored of test score accountability, the first to eliminate “social promotion” and so on. How does she explain that half of NYC’s kids were starting high school at least one year over-age in the late 80’s. Shouldn’t a fact-checker catch such historical untruths? My young friend’s ignorance is forgivable, the NY Times reporter’s is less so.

Small, personalized schools for kids who are floundering, or for kids in general, is not a new idea. It was thriving 30 years go. Steve Phillips, now teaching at Brooklyn College, ran a district that served thousands of NYC’s most needy kids in small, personalized and relatively successful schools. He operated a “system” of schools for twenty years that was threatened by each new Chancellor, and disappeared finally under Bloomberg/Klein. With it NYC’s school history was rewritten. Phillips’ “domain” eventually included many small schools that weren’t designed just for dropouts—like CPESS, Vanguard, Landmark, International etc. By the time his work was dismantled, Phillips had created a system that was larger than Boston’s. How sad that this new recruit to NYC’s schools thinks his school has no history to draw upon.

Amnesia is dangerous, and that’s why I agree with you, Diane, on the importance of history. But “teaching” history and getting in the habit of wondering aloud about its uses and abuses do not always go together: The reason you had “no problem” deciding what to include in your California curriculum proposal was that you included everything. (Leaving, as Sizer used to point out, the hard question of what to leave out to classroom teachers.) Getting into the habit of asking questions such as “has this ever been tried before?” “what happened?” “is there a pattern here?” “based on what evidence?” and “does it matter?” is what takes time and patience to work into the classroom’s life where decades and centuries whiz by so fast. Thoughtful questioning starts in kindergarten and is built on every year thereafter if—mind you, “if” that’s what we want young people to carry away from 13 years of schooling.

It’s not unconnected with what we’d both like to see in the reporters who cover the education beat, who probably aced school history courses but are missing the know-how and perhaps the guts to speak truth to power. I’d love to see a real debate based on Lynnell Hancock’s wonderful Nation piece (subscription required). It deserves some heated words in response as we separate mythology from history and dicover that uncertainty has its place in history—and science—too.

The “new” dogma that teachers (and kids!) will work harder or smarter if they are paid for high test scores also enters the debate as though it has no history, no research on its risks, etc. I’m sometimes chided by proponents of “merit” pay for assuming that good teachers will be motivated by such crass incentives to do things they know are not educationally sound. We can’t have it both ways. Either it’s a waste of money or an effort to undermine professional norms by punishing anyone who doesn’t fall in line. It’s a simple-minded form of current economic orthodoxy gone wild. Meanwhile our critics blather on about character education—as we systematically undermine what is at the root of character: some courage.

Schools that lack the courage to teach in ways that honor what they believe is most important about the “liberal arts”, and agree to dumb it down to fit into a multiple-choice format are a danger to liberal society. But a Mayor and Chancellor who have done their best to encourage such cowardice are at least equally at fault.

Deb

p.s. The reason I love Mike Rose’s work is that he, like Gerald Graff, is prepared to liberate “the liberal arts” from its narrowed “academic” definition.

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