'Profiles in Courage' Won't Include Administrators
As a curriculum director laboring in the 1980's, I have been nagged by a most radical thought: "The business of school is teaching and learning." Ten years ago, that statement would have been a cliche. Today, it will get you in trouble with superintendents every time. "Surely you must be joking," they'll respond. "Idealism is wonderful and it used to be for the young, but it's not practical. Let me help you see the light."
In those words, or facsimiles thereof, the keepers of the educational kingdom dismiss such idealism and lead one to see the wisdom of the ''right" course: For whatever the reasons, superintendents work on survival, not teaching and learning. Curriculum is not a major focus of superintendents' or central offices' attention these days.
A look at school-committee agendas leads one to conclude that the business of schools is business. The central office works primarily for the school board, not for the teachers or students. We write policy statements and concentrate on process--yet in the process we forget what the outcomes are supposed to be. We conduct needs assessments, as if to delay action on what we know is wrong. And there's always a hint that we must not stir up controversy--curriculum should reflect community values. This being the case, an active curriculum developer on the South Shore of Massachusetts is as much out of place as a human-rights official in El Salvador.
The curriculum most attractive to the central office is that with an economic payoff. Courses and training that can be translated into jobs galvanize our embattled leaders into action. Even the "Nation at Risk" report equates basic employment with good citizenship. One of our high schools is considering changing the course "Joy of Cooking" to "The Student Chef." There's no joy in cooking unless it leads to a job and an economic payoff.
We worry more about what students are going to be doing than about what they are doing. Articles in the popular press tell us that an inordinate number of people are unhappy in their jobs today. That research also reveals that the malaise is not the fault of the jobs; the workers are unhappy with themselves. Are we concentrating solely on student vocations, with no concern for what kind of people they are?
Beyond the goal of "jobs for kids," the central office is now more susceptible than ever to those who plead for redressing societal problems. The litany of causes is endless--health, alcohol, drug, career education (and, please, make the curriculum cover K-12). There is nothing wrong with schools addressing these problems, but parents, employers, and others can and should do the job better. Even the current boomlet on critical thinking, which invites students to look beyond the world of work, has too often been programmed and mechanized so that students can learn to justify their own prejudices.
Have we forgotten that this is a country that was born in revolution and based on freedom and justice and liberty? We who pride ourselves on our colonial history don't live it. Two hundred years ago, the name "John Hancock" symbolized revolution and independence; today, John Hancock stands for insurance and security. Profiles in Courage will not include any chapters on central-office administrators.
So what has been happening while the central office has been on educational hold? We've had a Presidential election, and the good news is that 52.9 percent of eligible voters voted. The bad news is that 52.9 percent of eligible voters voted; that's the lowest percentage of voters in any democratic country in the world.
What has this to do with administrators? I would submit that the kind of adults students become is largely shaped by schools--not so much by what they do, but by what they don't do. We in the central office need to be evaluated not only on the basis of the quality of teaching and learning in the school system, but also on the quality of the citizens we produce. Alas, the central office counsels restraint on any such radicalism; we must continue on the school's traditional mission of inculcating national loyalties and facilitating vocational training.
The world in which our students will be living and working is far different from the one the central office envisages. It's a jungle out there in the real world. Armed with their "community values," our students are experiencing culture shock. Most people out there are not like us. Most are not white, nor are they Christian or democratic. And, horror of horrors, most of the world doesn't like us.
Are we preparing students for that world? How many of our high schools require a semester or year-long course in non-Western history with the avowed goal of combating ethnocentricism? How often do we ask our students to look at the world through other folks' eyes? When President Reagan says the USSR is "the focus of evil in the world," do we require our students to commit it to memory? Would it subvert national loyalties if we encouraged questioning?
Let me suggest that a free society should not use the public schools to concentrate on turning out more efficient workers adapted to the present economic regime. We should be graduating people who will be actively involved in the preservation of a free society. We should be providing teaching for students that asks them to clarify their thinking on a variety of issues now confronting us and for which there don't appear to be single, "right" answers.
The curriculum is there already if we can only recognize it. In great literature we find the questions that humankind has struggled with for centuries. Every historical decision contains ethical overtones. Every advance in science and technology seems to create moral dilemmas. As a pluralistic society, we should recognize that no one set of values, inculcated or not, is right for all.
The dilemmas that confront us are unceasing. We've now transplanted hearts from baboons to humans for the sake of scientific experimentation and we have still other baboons in the on-deck circle. The United States has refused to sign Article 48 of the United Nations Charter, an article that would outlaw genocide. Life-sustaining equipment is very much with us, yet we have no readily available answers for who should pull the plug--if, indeed, anyone ever should. The CIA continues to print pamphlets that instruct American agents on how to "neutralize" (substitute "murder") foreign leaders.
How are we preparing our future citizens to deal with these issues? I would suggest badly or not at all. We should be preparing our students to deal rationally with public issues, rather than for a mere cog-in-the-wheel existence. We should be interested in what kinds of citizens they become, and not only in their college placement or future vocation. We should be interested not only in basic skills but also in what students will do with those skills. We should be listening to the words of Fred Rogers (known to preschoolers as "Mr. Rogers"):
"It's easy to convince people that children need to learn the alphabet and numbers. How do we help people realize that what matters is how a person's inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life? What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or for the description of a sunrise, and his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand new bridge."
To do what I've suggested will require staff development; teachers aren't prepared to handle these questions because the central office has placed its survival ahead of that of the young. To do this requires commitment. To do this invites opposition. To do this requires leadership and courage. But if we don't do it, we will graduate intellectual, emotional, and moral cripples.
Vol. 04, Issue 31, Page 18