Standards Opinion

Before ‘What’ (We Teach) Comes ‘Why’

By Deborah Meier — November 14, 2013 5 min read
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Deborah Meier’s conversation with Robert Pondiscio continues today.

Dear Robert,

Welcome to you, and your many friends and fans! This should be fun.

I have been doing a lot of school visiting lately—private, charter, public (traditional), public (progressive), rural and urban! In New York City; San Jose, Calif.; and more. As I write this, I’m sitting in the office of June Jordan High School—a 10-year-old small public school in San Francisco. Which reminds me that it would be interesting and useful sometime to visit schools together—ones you admire and ones I do! Your two most admired educators coming, as you say, from very different perspectives suggests that you meet one of June Jordan’s fundamentals: “Assume Positive Intentions.” That’s our shared starting point—however naïve.

June Jordan H.S also has four basic principles: Respect, Integrity, Courage, and Humility. That last one is a bit unusual in schools I visit. I am not a David Brooks fan, but I have taken note of our shared view of the importance of “Humility.” Plus I would add: a sense of humor, especially about ourselves. So nothing so far tells us where June Jordan fits on a left-to-right axis. Nor does Mission Hill’s “Work Hard, Be Kind,” which is much the same as KIPP’s motto. Points for your point. (Clue: Both June Jordan and Mission Hill are proudly progressive schools.) Interesting.

Let’s focus on the “ideals” we each “cling to with both hands.” It’s interesting that your first (a common core or The Common Core?)) wouldn’t make it onto my 10-point agenda! As for your other ideals, who could object to safety and (maybe) even order, competent and committed adults, educating for citizenship and college and career? Yet ...

Yes, we overlap, of course, on some points. But my overriding interest in education lies first and foremost on the impact on a very fragile, complex, and critical idea: democracy. For 50 years my essential question has been: Can K-12 public schooling prepare everyone for being citizens of a democracy by the time they are 18?

“Being a good citizen,” without the rest of the sentence, has no meaning for me. There are plenty of societies in the world today in which I hope neither of us would easily fall into the category of “good citizen.” I have occasionally simplified the idea I have in mind this way: I want schooling for ruling in a society in which every adult is a member of the ruling class. “Government for, by, and of” all the people presents difficult dilemmas and trade-offs that need both much thought and much practice.

The ancient Greek ruling class relied upon collaboration, equality, trust, and leisure time. But it also rested on a “ruling class” consisting only of males with common interests, plenty of leisure time, and good reasons to feel unafraid—a very small sector of “the people.” In 1776, we were still closer to that ancient idea of who belonged to the ruling class than we are today. Today we have the chutzpah to claim that citizenship extends to nearly everyone—although with some rarely noted caveats. That means we have to be a bit more skeptical about the ideals behind those ancient Greek virtues. Not one of them actually matches well with modern America. The consequences of this discrepancy are too often ignored.

Where oh where do we presume “everyone” has “studied,” and continues to study, being such a citizen? Where might they witness it in action, have time to inquire about it and think it through? Have we invented a gradual process of becoming an equal and trusted member of society, with the skills and habits needed to engage in democracy? For example, we require adults who can engage in both collaboration and resistance, who can balance trust and skepticism.

It also means that we have a way to provide even a small portion of the time that serious deliberation takes—even one-tenth of what the aristocratic democracy of ancient Greece and Rome assumed their ruling classes required. “Ruling” takes continual “schooling"—formal and informal. Democratic deliberation rests on our continual learning from experience, books, conversations, debate.

Where is it we imagine that future citizens of a democracy will learn about what democracy entails? I think we are stuck with one answer: our public schools. It would be nice if private ones did also, and if the media saw it as their task, and, and ... but the only ones “we the people” can insist must “teach democracy” are our public K-12 schools. Under such circumstances, perhaps the “curriculum” as well as the school as an institution’s most important rituals should rest upon a demonstrated ability to join the critical discussion that democracy rests upon—about the common good.

The “habits of mind” that guide schools who are members of the Coalition of Essential Schools (my reason for being on the West Coast), are an example of one approach to “defining” what a citizen—of the “right” or “left"—might conceivably agree upon. (Check out the Coalition’s website www.essentialschools.org for its 10 Common Principles.)

So it is on the basis of democracy, for example, that I find the common core risky—regardless of one’s conservative or liberal views. Even if it was not enforced by testing, and even if it were not written in a way that actually impinges on “pedagogy,” and even if I wrote it myself, I believe it distorts some essential intellectual premises upon which democracy rests.

I say this not because I don’t think “what” we teach is unimportant. But before “what” comes “why.”

Since we don’t all agree about how means and ends connect, not to mention what ends are more important than others, we are ill-advised to try to rush into settling century-old debates by fiat. Both the “what” and “how to teach” reading or math or science or history or music or art should not be subject to centralized control! That might even seem to put me in agreement with some on the far right?

I want communities, teachers, and students to have lively discourse about what “the future” will look like, rather than “teaching to” a preordained one. We write our own histories in a democracy, after all. That is precisely what democracy is all about.

But in an imperfect and messy world—which it will probably always be—we have to join together in thinking through which rules must bind us all and which require mutual respect for different solutions. No “commission” can do more than propose. Then, it’s up to “us” to decide one of the critical issues facing any democracy: “Who should decide what” is the debate too many are avoiding. I welcome such a debate.

Your turn.


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