“The spirit of liberty, which is not too sure it is right ... which seeks to understand the minds of others... which weighs their interests alongside its own ... that remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded.” - Judge Learned Hand in a 1944 speech to new citizens.
Sometimes friends ask me why I blog with people who fundamentally disagree with me. The answer: It fascinates me—and some readers, I hope. In short, you’ve raised issues that could keep me happily busy for many decades.
But, believe me, after 50 years, one thing I know for sure—many schools are not places that respect either students, teachers, or their families. Respect is hardly the norm—ask parents who send their kids to under-funded schools where no one knows them well and where they receive a prescribed and uninspired standardized curriculum—sort of like the citizenship tests you write about. Chicago’s public schools were the first institution I encountered that treated me with a range of disrespect that I had never before encountered.
Does the U.S. Citizenship civics test offer a good basic definition of the knowledge we all should possess, you ask? Some of the 100 questions are halfway reasonable; some are absurd. An example: Who wrote the National Anthem? Most pass because, like the paper-and-pencil part of state drivers’ tests, one is provided with a manual to prep for the test. Do you still remember how many feet from a fireplug you can park? Is there evidence of a correlation between good driving records and scores on the written driver’s test?
No, it is not “fair"—or sensible—to hang citizenship (or a driver’s license) on this kind of knowledge. Nor do I imagine any legislator who voted for them (did such a vote happen?) ever try passing the test. Would you take citizenship or voting rights away from those who fail the test? (We did something similar when people of a certain color regularly failed the voter tests.)
I chortle at the idea of legislating that no test could be used for high school graduation or citizenship purposes that wasn’t taken by every legislator—with scores published in rank order. In any case, I hope we agree that the 100 items in the citizenship pool do not take us close to understanding democracy, or liberty.
It’s probably easier to teach about liberty than democracy. The former is perhaps “natural” to the human species. Even little tots object when their liberty is infringed upon. It is within the context of democracy—or so people like me believe—that one’s liberty is best protected, but also where one’s liberty is best restricted. Only kings of yore believed they had unrestricted freedom. But where to draw the line? That’s where democracy comes in.
I’m not for defining democracy once and for all, or liberty. These are ideas that have evolved and are still evolving. The “struggle” to define them is ongoing. Schooling ideally prepares us to join in that struggle. It’s what politics is about—drawing the line. Like justice, which is represented by a scale that always needs some readjusting.
That’s where we get back to my claim that democracy is not “natural” or intuitive. It’s a means, not an end. No two nations, states, or organizations that may rightly call themselves democratic have the same bylaws, etc.
Democracy hopefully is precisely what protects other rights, such as fairness, liberty, equality, privacy, even “happiness.” And the “common good.” Different contexts and histories have led to different ways of organizing the power of the people, including deciding who “the people” are. The idea that the right to vote should be universal is new—and still shaky. In 1789, most of those living within our borders could not vote: women, slaves, Native Americans, and, in most states, men without property.
We agree: Most of the dialogue about power is conducted in a language unfamiliar to many citizens. Meanwhile, our fellow citizens—those who seem to lack the proper language for understanding “us"—may well be speaking with equal depth and understanding but in a form that “we” do not understand. Maybe those with more power have an obligation to better understand their fellow citizens, not just vice-versa. Expanding the world that “belongs to us all” is something schools could do if ... rich and poor, black and white attended “common schools” devoted to such a task.
Do we really have to “teach” a common core to promote thinking—or do we mean “thinking like us”? I have friends from abroad who think quite well, but share a different set of “common” and “uncommon” knowledge. I find our discourses even more interesting for that fact.
I never found that my students, even at 5, were less interesting because their “home language,” dialect, or vocabulary were different than mine. In fact, it was these differences that drew me into becoming a teacher. Sometimes because of their age, but also because of their own situations and histories, they aroused my curiosity and added to my knowledge. It is often a handicap to good thinking when we share too much “common sense” knowledge and vocabulary, or pretend to. “You know what I mean.”
Whether we’re creating essay, short-answer, or multiple-choice tests, we have a “bias.” There’s no way not to. As I recognized in my college courses, it was easier to get an A on an essay question where I agreed with my professors than when I didn’t. We naturally think that those who say what we believe have more sense than those who don’t. Ditto for multiple-choice tests.
The solution? I’d like to use those 12-plus years of school to come closer to “getting it"—who we are. There’s a huge body of knowledge that such a course of study could uncover, and a lot that would remain uncovered. My hope? That the “test prepping” prepared our students to demonstrate strong intellectual habits in a range of academic and nonacademic domains, on topics of their choice—subject to the judgment of a committee of faculty, family, and external public experts. Over and over. Until it truly becomes habitual. Like good driving.
I’d hope that all publicly funded schools have the freedom to develop their own assessment tools (or even choose a pre-existing standardized one). But I hope that they also would be required to articulate the connection between the idea of democracy (and liberty) and whatever curriculum and assessment system they have chosen.
I’d also ask the schools to “show me” the connection between their purposes and the structure of the classroom and school as a whole. What do kids learn about democracy and liberty from the school’s adult world? Who are the school’s citizens? What are their liberties? Do parents or those whose taxes the schools rest upon have citizenship rights? Whose expertise trumps whose? And where do children of different ages fit into this web of cross-cutting citizenships?
Given the fragile state of our democracy (about which we agree), we must sometimes sacrifice some other more strictly private purposes (being more successful than others, having more money, or—god forbid—even pursuing a private hobby of pleasure only to a few). Public schools funded and controlled by the priorities of their citizens will each draw the lines differently. But without considerable locally based control we will flit from one all-size-fits-all fad to another.
Local communities, operating within the law, may even figure out forms of choice that enable people to make some decisions collectively and others more selectively, while agreeing not to substantially injure the available choices of others. They will swing back and forth between the party of order and the party of flexibility. A diversity of knowledge claims is essential for democracy and liberty, as well as for the arts, sciences, technology, etc. When one “best practice” rules, it undermines liberty, democracy, and progress, in general. We need collaborators and resisters, collegiality and ornery individualists.
I do not want to specify for others which of all the wars Americans have fought they most need to understand. Reality tells me that there is NO WAY they seriously understand even one if obliged to cover all. But ... let others try. Ditto for the sciences. And for math. Mastery of basic probability and statistics, however, would surely serve democracy better than calculus.
Central Park East, Central Park East Secondary School, and Mission Hill— schools where I’ve had a direct influence—each approached curriculum differently, although all three built their studies around “habits of mind.” I’ve learned from each, and I am very aware that each made some painful trade-offs. Still, talking with graduates of each reassures me that what right-wing blogger Danette Clark calls “the Marxist-Communist political, amoral, and social ideology behind Theodore Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools” flourished in all of them.
There are some things effectively mandated centrally, but not as many as even “my team” acknowledges. Democracy and liberty both are safer when we all see ourselves as more or less in the same boat together, where my liberty and yours rise or fall together. We’re a long way from achieving that spirit of liberty in our schools.
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.