School & District Management Opinion

A Disrespect for Knowledge

By Deborah Meier — October 16, 2008 4 min read
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Editor’s note: Today, Bridging Differences returns to the conversation Diane Ravitch started Tuesday, before yesterday’s entries on William Ayers.

Dear Diane,

There’s a connection, as you suggest, between the economic crisis we’re now in and our misbegotten effort to “reform” schools. Maybe it’s got something to do with our disrespect for knowledge.

An odd thing for me to say? Not at all, but I realize that there are some (maybe even you?) who might think that my argument on behalf of “less is more” in terms of curriculum coverage is because I don’t respect knowledge. Quite the opposite. It’s because I honor real knowledge so highly.

We’ve gone from an economy based on expert tinkerers and close observers—to one that rests on generic training in “how to think.” “Critical thinking” and “problem solving”—which progressives like me promote—have been taken to their extreme absurdity. We’ve disconnected them from their base—deep knowledge.

I’ll bet most (all?) of the big-time school reform outfits today are headed by people who have not read more than one or two of the 100 books I recommended at the end of “In Schools We Trust.” They have no idea that their latest gimmicks have been tried before. In 1971, the Center for Urban Education published a book called “Education and Jobs” by Ivar Berg. It’s controversial, outrageous, and worth reading if that subject interests you. In 1974, David Tyack wrote “The One Best System.” Worth a read if one’s current pursuit is “systemic” replication. I spent the summer before opening CPESS curled up with “The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform” by Seymour Sarason. Right or wrong, these are works that anyone tackling the same issues today and claiming to seek a new paradigm for solving them ought to be aware of. Then there are the works of Meier and Ravitch, of course.

Instead, they think they’ve “discovered” pay-for-results. And hold-overs, and zero tolerance... Hah. They’re the “best and the brightest” with generic smarts and a willingness to ignore the “special interests” of labor and management, not to mention parents and kids—a new breed with nothing to learn. History can teach them nothing. It’s the low quality of the people who went into education, plus laziness and unionism that got us where we are, they claim. What else do we need to know?

They represent a mindset that has been a disaster for American economic prosperity, for the auto industry, the banking business, the publishing industry, not just schooling. The days when these fields were led by people who knew autos, banks, and books is long gone. (Silicon Valley still rests on the tinkerer craftsmen, perhaps) And while McCain says it’s all about “greed,” he has forgotten that “greed” is what Milton Friedman was counting on. Is he planning to outlaw it? But even Friedman imagined that greed required knowledge.

The inventive “play” of the wizards who have undermined America is of an interesting sort. In their playpens nothing actually gets built. They don’t get their hands dirty in the mud, they don’t construct their skyscrapers block by block. They just shout “mine,” “I did it.” If it doesn’t work, they move on to other playpens—but always richer than before.

It’s probably not a coincidence that my brother and I developed second careers in our thirties that embedded us in the making and doing part of life. He became an architect, and I became a kindergarten teacher. To our parents’ surprise. We were attracted, in part, to work where we could see concrete results that touched on how people lived their lives. But we were also attracted because both architecture and teaching were crafts that required hands-on expertise and knowledge. There was no way to fake it. Both architect and teacher played incessantly with the tools and materials of their trade, got their hands dirty, loved the stories that went with their craft.

The American genius lay precisely, I still think, in this “hands-and-minds-on” approach. It’s what people educated in schools and workshops shared—a merging of “street” smarts and “book” smarts. The schools we deserve need to build on that genius. At best they are a genuine place of work—a laboratory, library, artist’s studio, and marketplace of ideas for teachers, kids, and their fellow citizens.

I used to say that, “if they ran their businesses the way they run our schools, we’d be in trouble.” I suspected they took their workplaces more seriously. Maybe I was wrong. Because, oops, we are in trouble on both fronts. Short-term greed trumped long-term wisdom in American industry just as it is increasingly trumping wisdom in classrooms and schools across the country.


P.S. Our reader, Brian, is inclined—like me at times—toward libertarianism. (Unlike me, he pairs it with being a Republican.) What we have to hash out (the ‘Brians’ and I) is the role of democracy as a form of accountability.

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.