Education Opinion

Reminders of What’s Possible

By Deborah Meier — February 02, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Your California trip sounded wonderful. (I realize I’m a little late in saying this. By now you’ve probably been to half a dozen other states!) I’m encouraged by your positive experiences and that you can keep up the pace. I’m encouraged also by the shift in the language of politics of late, surely stimulated by the Occupy movement. Inequality now is at the top of list. Perhaps, fingers crossed, there will always be openings for pushing a pro-democracy agenda.

Meanwhile, I’ve been here and there meeting such wonderful, if often demoralized, colleagues: Baltimore is an interesting place (all charters are unionized, and the number of interesting ones encouraging). And Rochester, N.Y., where I met with the union president and the superintendent. It’s an atypical city, too, and full of signs of hope.

We won’t always win, and democracy is not a sure bet by any means, but the drive for personal liberty and our insistence that we actually are our “brother’s” keeper is hard to kill. (On the same theme of optimism: Reading Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” has not entirely convinced me, but it has shed a different light on some of my depressing fears. It was once worse.)

The latest issue of Commonweal has a piece by Peggy O’Brien Steinfels on Vaclav Havel which I recommend. Once again, a reminder of what’s possible. Remember that many once held it to be impossible to overthrow a totalitarian regime from within. Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” strikes a deep chord. One we need to remember when “they” try to make teachers, parents, and students powerless.

Somewhere inside lurks a reminder that our task is to nourish the better part of our “natures” or, more simply perhaps, to be vigilantly on the side of those who get pushed around and to commit oneself not to push others around! Especially those less powerful than you. I thought about that while in Japan last month—having grown up in a culture filled with stereotypes of the ugliest sort about anything Japanese. The relative success of democracy in Japan cannot be the result merely of American dictates in the post-WWII period. There’s something more to Japanese (and human) history that allowed democracy to take hold—some continuity that I know so little about. Something that accounts perhaps for that brief news piece about Osaka that I mentioned earlier. Teachers in Japan are refusing to comply with renewed demands to sing traditional patriotic songs, etc. (Three strikes and you’re out is the government’s solution.)

Years ago a wise mentor, Ted Chittenden (of Educational Testing Service!), suggested that it would help if we thought of education by imagining an axis, with one arrow standing for student initiative and the other intersecting arrow for teacher initiative. An
education for democracy would lie, he suggested, in the sector where both student and teacher initiative are high, while the current “reforms” lie in the opposite corner—where both student and teacher initiative are zero-to-low. (Traditional education is high on teacher and low on students, and “free schools” are high on student initiative, low on teachers’.) Can you picture this? Try drawing it. And I suspect one could produce a similar diagram with one arrow representing individual liberty and the other communal values. Democracy is the square where both are high! It was useful to me.

Oddly enough we offer a lot of my favored sector in the way we educate preschoolers, and after that we go in the opposite direction! In part because we simply can’t control the very little ones as easily as we can pre-teens and teenagers. Besides the adult-student ratio makes it easier to substitute affection for coercion. Little kids don’t yet know about shame and despair. But remember that some of the kids who “act out” or “refuse to learn” are exercising that powerful human ability to resist powerlessness! They’re just not as lucky as Havel was.

I hope you have followed me enough to respond. It’s more fun when there’s an audience and an argument, as Parker Palmer notes in Healing the Heart of Democracy, his very recent book. I’ll write more about it some other time, but meanwhile read it and tell me what you think.

What troubles me most about the KIPPs of the world are not issues of pedagogy or the public/private issue, but their “no excuses” ideology implemented by a code that rests on humiliating those less powerful than oneself and reinforcing a moral code that suggests that there’s a one-to-one connection between being good and not getting caught. It tries to create certainties in a field where it does not belong. (Maybe that’s why I enjoy Commonweal‘s religious essays; they remind me of a good Talmudic dialogue—always probing further.) Life is never so simple that we can award points for “badness” on a fixed numerical scale of bad-to-good. As we once reminded colleagues, Nazi Germany had a successful school system—so what? I’d be fascinated to interview some KIPP graduates to learn how its work plays out in their lives. My friend and former Mission Hill colleague, Emily Gasoi, is finishing her doctoral dissertation looking at the underlying adult culture of Mission Hill and a particularly interesting KIPP school, which intrigue her for their differences and similarities.

So, we come back to my other recurring theme: trade-offs. I’m for making the trade-offs that hold fast to values of democracy, even if inconvenient. But ... it’s not easy to sort this out without more long-term argumentation and investigation.

I look at curriculum the same way. There is no perfect curriculum, but I base my preferences on precisely the principles underlying democracy. It’s our teacherly obligation to consider what students will “need” to join fully into the life of a democratic community. But one of those qualities is celebrating self-initiative, personal passion, the power of the heart, as Parker Palmer uses that tricky word. Ditto for society and teachers! There’s an essay in the latest Dissent magazine by mathematician Joi A. Spencer. He reminds me that what to “cover” lightly vs. what to “uncover” deeply even in a math class rests on judgments we need to make explicit between mathematical understanding and democracy.

More on this another time. But test preparation of the kind we now call math teaching won’t help. I like that Occupy rests its case on a mathematical model: 99 percent vs. 1% rather than on slogans about equity.

And one more last thought! Everyone must read Michael Winerip’s marvelously funny/sad piece entitled: “In Race for the Top, the Dirty Work Is Left to Those on the Bottom” in The New York Times.


P.S. Sometimes what I remember most about other countries are oddities. For instance, I miss the warmed toilet seats in Japan! Imagine bus and subway schedules that are accurate to the second. People actually bowing to each other. No tipping ALLOWED.

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.