Curriculum Opinion

Lines Between Courtesy and Democracy

By Deborah Meier — May 08, 2008 4 min read

Dear Diane,

The question may be: Which aspects of the Finnish “answer” are most pertinent? Maybe we should simplify our alphabetic system, maybe we should improve healthcare, maybe we should have a more homogeneous society, maybe a national curriculum.

America’s “genius” has rested not on its fixed intellectual “tradition,” but on its enormous and equal respect for “practical smarts”—including thinking outside the box intellectually. We can force an artificial curricular consensus. But teachers forced to teach it, and students to learn it, will not succeed as well as they might in Finland—because their students are coming at the world from much more disparate views, customs, experiences, and values. And because some come from a state of poverty and ill health that Finland does not know.

I’m in the midst of reading a book that I think we would both applaud, entitled “No Place But Here, A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community” by Garret Keizer. It was first published in 1988. I read it and try to imagine how a national curriculum would have affected Mr. Keizer’s and my life.

Granted, maybe rural northern Vermont and East Harlem are more alike than we pretend. But what about our particular expertise and passions? Or a new idea! I fear we’d lose us both. But equally I think we are far from understanding the potential of public schools to reach and transform the lives of what our “friend” Charles Murray (whose views we might explore in the future) sees as the God-given natural losers. There are too few examples of “what works” if we intend to reach his “unreachables” and “unteachables”—whose votes and views impact on our culture, who serve on our juries, who we call neighbors and friends, and whose intellect thus is critical to our future.

You and I might, in short, quote from different parts of Keizer’s book. You’d note that his freshman high school class reads “Antigone,” “The Odyssey,” “Macbeth,” and Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native”. None abridged or paraphrased.

I’d want all our readers to underline profusely from the chapter entitled “Courtesy”. Combating the common discourtesies of our larger culture requires huge self-conscious doses of adult modeling in school. “I avoid sharing anything with a class that a student would want to share with himself or herself alone. I avoid writing comments on top of a student’s writing, or putting a grade on top of a student’s name. We work one-to-one, not one-on-one. I ask permission before quoting from a composition…. I try to be certain that no students stand for any length of time while I sit…. I apologize, privately if the offense was private, publicly, if public…. With all of its opportunities for trespass, with all of its peculiar relationships, a school is a good place for younger and older people to discover the pleasure of reciprocal acknowledgement. Which is what courtesy is.” What a lesson in democracy!

Slightly reworded, we’d both probably appreciate his reprint of the F.F.A. Creed (Future Farmers of America). Maybe the one from Finland that you told us about and the F.F.A.’s are a good place to start. I know that many readers would like to find a magic bullet that could cure us of our schools’ problems. Me, too! Just as I’d like to find one to cure our larger social mess! The latter is no more easily fixed than the former, and vice versa. But I’d love a nationwide discourse about those two documents!

The Japanese have social promotion until the end of high school, and their teaching day is only slightly more than half as long as ours. The Chinese and Indian economies are booming, even though half of their citizens barely complete elementary school. Many a well-educated American graduate cannot find a job that couldn’t be done by a high school dropout. (And Massachusetts outperformed most of the world before MCAS.) But how much smarter would we have to be to justify the standard of living we cling to?

As Keizer would say, what’s even worse is our failure to be thoughtful in the most basic senses of the world. Our tolerance of Guantanamo speaks more to my distress about our schools than international test comparisons. I can live with our being somewhere in the middle when it comes to math and science test scores, if we weren’t at the very bottom when it comes to domestic rates of incarceration, death penalties, income disparities, rates of voting, etc. Schools need to be places that are “accountable” for those comparisons, too. That I rest my hopes on “democracy” is not easy to justify by hard data, or evidence-based studies. It’s a leap of faith. But it is a leap we as citizens of this land have agreed to. That’s what makes it seem reasonable to me that we could demand that schools address it more seriously than they address calculus.

I can live with many ways to produce a democratically minded citizenry, if only we’d agree that it’s first among many noble goals! Just that. I suspect it starts with Keizer’s way of thinking about courtesy. What does it take to create school settings in which adults are responsible for that first step?

My defense of small schools was originally based on only one hope. That if the school was small enough the entire faculty could sit around one table and thrash things out—courteously. Only through such a process could the school’s adults hold themselves accountable for their impact on the young. We’ve gotten plenty of “smallish” schools, mandated ruthlessly from above, in which the faculty is still too large, too numb, or too powerless to sit around and thrash anything out, and where accountability is therefore conducted “discourteously”.


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.