Sponsoring 'Organic Intellectuals'

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The Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci (a writer not much cited these days) developed a theory of what he called "organic intellectuals" that has become a vital part of wider efforts to understand how modern societies work and how their working might be improved. I think teachers are our organic intellectuals, organic because they are part of their communities, and intellectuals because of their vocational commitment to ideas and knowledge. If the constant question about students now is "What do they know and what can they do?," it must be teachers who know what is worth knowing, teachers who are able to teach what is worth doing.

Much attention has been given to the problems of schools as a product of society at large. Violence in the society produces violence in the schools, for example, and for that example there is much to be said for this argument. But in a fundamental way, a society is a product of its schools, a fact that has been recognized at least since people began to talk about world-historical battles having been won on school playing fields. If we are to have a better society, our schools must continually improve, and (it seems odd to need to say so) the heart of a school is the knowledge and skill transmitted from teacher to student. Without that, nothing else counts for much.

Now, there are two unknowns in this function: that which the student needs to learn, and that which there is available to teach. Teachers are able to solve for that first unknown. Given minimally decent working conditions, they will be familiar with their students, familiar with what they already know and are able to do, familiar with their ways of knowing and doing how best they might work to acquire new skills and construct new knowledge.

The second unknown, the available knowledge, has become a terribly complicated factor. I am rather unsure about how novel this situation actually is. There have been other periods when knowledge has seemingly increased at an unprecedented rate. It may be that periods in which this happens, such as ours, are times when the definition of what counts as knowledge suddenly changes. In any case, we are in such a period. That which teachers learned in their own under-graduate classes no longer suffices. And that which they might learn this year in a graduate class or through their own research will be insufficient next year or 10 years from now. The teacher and her student, under these conditions, cannot be considered as a closed unit. The teacher must have a connection with the sources of the production of new knowledge and interpretation. Those sources can be found in a number of places; most often they are conveniently gathered in colleges and universities.

That which a student needs to learn is individual. This student knows one thing; that student knows something else. We group students in various ways, for what I would call technological reasons--we have an inadequate technology for dealing with students one at a time--but we know it would be best not to, and we try as best we can to act on that knowledge. Hence the popularity of computers as an aid to individualized instruction. The knowledge that teachers need for their work similarly varies from one to another. Each has different students, every student with his or her own special needs; each teacher knows and is able to do different things herself.

The conventional response to this situation is quite strange. The small amounts of funding usually available for the intellectual needs of teachers, their research needs, as it were, are pooled and held not by the individual teachers, nor by their school-based professional-learning communities or departments, but by administrators in a district office. It is not this centralization of funds that is strange--after all, science funding is essentially held at the federal level--but the way in which the location of those funds coincides with decisions over their use.

It is not unusual, for example, for a school district's central office to invest in "professional-development days" without regard for the needs of individual teachers. All the elementary school teachers in the district will, say, spend four hours learning about a new method for teaching reading. Or all high school teachers will spend two Saturdays learning about something else undoubtedly useful. It is not the topics of professional-development programs that I find odd, although some are odd, it is that this structure exists at all. Can one imagine a situation in which all the physicians in a city would rely on similar professional-development days, with topics selected by city or county health-department administrators? A situation in which all the lawyers of a city would spend their time in such a manner?

When members of the learned professions wish to learn something new, they make a decision about what they wish to learn, and they then conduct their own research or attend seminars on that topic. So should it be with teachers. Professional-study funds should be distributed in a way that fosters individual responsibility for professional study among teachers. There are various ways to do this. The American Council of Learned Societies sponsors a program which asks groups of teachers in schools to determine what they need to learn, then supports a delegate from that group with a yearlong sabbatical spent with other teachers at a nearby research university where they learn how to access that knowledge and other types of knowledge that they might find useful.

There are other useful approaches, such as that pioneered by the Center for the Liberal Arts at the University of Virginia. The key is for individual teachers to determine what they need to learn, rather than for administrators to make those decisions, or for even a group of teachers, in a districtwide committee, to make those decisions for other teachers. If decisions concerning professional study are made by individual teachers, the knowledge sought and acquired will be the responsibility of the teachers in question, as will the knowledge and skills transmitted to their students. It is this chain of responsibility and authority that is missing in many aspects of public education in the United States. Forging these crucial professional-study links of that chain will do much to improve the quality of that system.

Vol. 14, Issue 18, Page 34

Published in Print: January 25, 1995, as Sponsoring 'Organic Intellectuals'
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