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Education Opinion

Learning Shouldn’t Be Easy to Shake Off

By Deborah Meier — April 17, 2008 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

Perhaps the most revolutionary thing we can do, as educators, is provide examples of adults who use their minds freely and toughly, in the interest of raising smart, feisty youngsters!

On a recent visit to Wesleyan, where my granddaughter is a student, some teachers and students played with the question of whether schools should provide young people with opportunities to act on their ideas. After all, teenagers have historically always been activists, not just scholars. I think probably yes—but, if so, don’t we need to be equally prepared to support the “actions” that we disagree with as those we agree with? Given the power relationships in a school, that may be unrealistic. This, too, is another one of those complicated balancing acts.

But I’m so glad you raised so vehemently your view of “the street” and “popular culture.” Probably we need to examine our use of these phrases. “The street” is my shortcut for where kids spend their time when we’re not watching them. I want schools to serve as a place where students exercise the same “habits of mind” to thinking about the “street” (or popular culture) as we ask them to bring to bear on history, and science. We’ve paid too high a price for saying to one large group of kids, “park your ‘other’ self outside before you enter ‘our’ house of learning.”

Our debate reminds me of the distorted controversy about Ebonics (the colloquial speech of some African-Americans) that took place a decade ago. The idea wasn’t to “teach” the kids Ebonics, but to understand where it did and didn’t correspond to “standard” English, to see that all languages have rules. In short, the idea was to use Ebonics as a tool to understand grammar and language rules rather than pretending it was just “bad” English. By bringing it out of the closet of taboo subjects, it could be studied, examined, explored. It was an explosive subject, but that’s because it’s so fraught with a history that we all need to better understand, not hide.

In fact, “bullying” isn’t acceptable on the street. The “street” (the kids’ out-of-school-and-home culture) is more complex than that. It was one reason we had a column in Mission Hill’s weekly newsletter describing what kids did during recess in the school’s back yard—to help us understand the rules and language of their “free” play, in all its complexity.

By the way, I think the kind of schooling I’m describing might be far more accountable, in the true sense of that word, than any federal mandate could achieve. I stopped last week before I got into how schools might be governed—which is at the heart of accountability—so that we could focus on “content.” But, of course, they overlap. I sometimes think that our difference lies in part upon how we can imagine our roles. I immediately imagine myself the recipient of mandates—the one who has to obey (or sabotage or get around them). Perhaps you see yourself as designing them? As a thought experiment I wish we’d both imagine what it might be like if Bush’s favorite educators had had the power to design our course content; what basic concepts, ideas, facts might he impose? Perhaps I want a wall of separation between state and classroom.

But in addition, I’m an opportunistic educator. One takes advantage of the moment, the setting, and the people on hand, One plays to their strengths, and to the time in history one is living through. One “uses” everything available to excite the (controlled) passions of the young. And their teachers’ passions, too. Because it helps the retention rates of both.

And finally, anything worth learning shouldn’t be easy to shake off. We studied physics for two years at CPESS, and covered half the usual textbook. It wasn’t enough for kids to know that light travels in a straight line. We wanted them to consider what ideas about light preceded this “discovery”—as well as what they thought before we showed them Truth! We wanted to “uncover” more than we wanted to “cover.”

But it all goes back to the question that isn’t asked: So, what’s it all for? (And, who decides?)

A good friend sent me the mission statement of a school I respect, High Tech High. Their answer: “To succeed in today’s global and knowledge-based economy.” So I wonder, should I have a right to say that this is not okay as its primary mission? (And, does “succeed” mean make a lot of money?) Can I demand—and under what rules of the game—that all U.S. schools must first and foremost justify their work as meeting, and thus understanding, the demands of a democracy? Is that or isn’t that akin to George Counts’ chutzpah?


P.S. How rare it is, Diane, to be reminded of our educational history—thanks.

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.