Education Opinion

Honoring judgment

By Deborah Meier — May 02, 2007 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Agreed. Most people’s ideas—good and bad—are adapted by others in ways that would surprise the original author. Sometimes the “followers” have improved on the original, but it hurts when they have massacred it. Which is another way of agreeing with you that Dewey’s ideas have not always led where he hoped they would. Ditto for Jean Piaget, from whom American educators borrowed the idea of cognitive “stages” and tried to figure out how to rush children onto the “next stage” faster. Sometimes the original idea is partially to blame—clearly containing the seeds of its own distortion. In John Dewey’s case, given the times and context, much that survived would have dismayed him. Poor Karl Marx if he were able to see how Stalin twisted his words or imagine Christ’s dismay over the legacy of much of Christianity. And so on.

On a rather smaller and humbler scale, the role I’ve played in both pushing and implementing the idea of school choice and small schools sometimes haunts me. Choice has been co-opted by those who want to privatize public education and as a means for resegregating by class, race, “talent” or “future vocations”. Small schools, for some reformer, just means creating more manageable sub-divisions in order, I sometimes suspect, to make monitoring for compliance easier. It’s far harder to be unnoticed—for good and bad—in a large school. But the story is not over, and both of these concepts may yet be turned around to represent reform practices we both like.

In today’s culture, the closer our children get to adulthood the fewer adults they know well, and the less they experience the adult world first hand. We have largely abandoned the young to a peer and media culture that is built round only one value system: the profit motive. (I notice one of our respondents thinks this is precisely what’s missing from public school—the profit motive.) I wanted small schools to reconnect strong adults with would-be strong kids. Only powerful schools in which adult life is robust and visible to the young can create the kind of democratic culture we need. The adults include the staff of the school, of course, and the families of the students, and others in the larger community—face to face, not solely through virtual realities.

Our schools are not great at valuing intellectually thoughtful adults, inclined to take their ideas seriously, eager to exchange ideas and know-how with others, and deeply dedicated to include the next generation in such activities. Dedication alone would never be enough, of course—because there is more to bridging cultures than the sheer desire to do so. But it’s a starting point. Then we need to be open to the possibility that those we teach confront the information and ideas we want to pass on with a mindset of their own, experiences that lead them to translate our powerful ideas into their own powerful ideas. The kind of mutual respect between teacher and learner and the “x” that both are focused on is hard to come by under the best of circumstances. Most of the time, in the schools we have, the teacher’s focus and the kids’ are entirely disconnected.

Rereading the work of physicist and science educator David Hawkins on the “thee, thou and it” of schooling is well worth doing. The “it” is what you and I, Diane, often disagree about. I hope those disagreements can be precisely the stuff that faculties and school boards feel free—maybe required—to grapple with. I’m perhaps less optimistic than you are that they will resist the temptation to turn judgment over to others—objective instruments or remote curriculum experts. They are, for perfectly good reasons, more likely to stick with conventional practice than to use their freedom too adventurously.

Judgment is at the heart of intelligence, and must be honored at every point along the way. It’s not a bad word. We both want kids to experience adults proud to make judgments—whether they are doctors, lawyers, athletes, artists, teachers, politicians, or citizens—within a community prepared to confront such judgments critically. One nice definition of being well-educated is having the disposition and tools to exercise, defend and revise our judgments about an incompletely known world.

There are, as you point out, serious trade-offs involved. “The people” are not to be romanticized. But by thinning the liveliness of democratic life—in school and out—to the most trivial of decisions, reserving the important stuff for experts, we make it hard to excite kids (or citizens) about joining such a culture. It becomes a “student government” charade.

Accountability is at the crux of democracy—maybe even another word for it. Voting is, of course, one such act of accountability. So is arguing, speaking out, and participating in a range of local decision-making bodies. If this isn’t practiced in our schools, where do we imagine it will be learned?

The bills that are likely to come before Congress in the immediate future are, I agree Diane, likely to be scary. NCLB—all 1000-plus pages—wasn’t read by anyone who voted for it last time, surely not in its entirety. Even “War and Peace” can’t be read overnight, and Tolstoy was a livelier writer than the authors of NCLB. Probably the main thing the Feds can do well is provide the funds needed for schooling and teacher education to create a leveler playing field and information that we can more or less respect and trust. The fewer direct consequences there are—rewards or punishments—associated with such data collection the greater the likelihood that it will be honest. We need less of the Texas “miracle” and Enron-style data, and more of the “academic” type. Aha, you see, I finally found a positive use for that word!


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.