Curriculum Opinion

Solidarity With Strangers

By Deborah Meier — March 03, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Why this anti-teacher and now anti-public sentiment?

I scratch my head over that, too. Of course, it’s a problematic fact itself, as many polls indicate the opposite. But there is certainly enough of it to stir trouble.

There ARE the rational self-interest reasons. The fewer unions, the better, and without unions public employees would not be worth bashing. For some, it’s the political clout or ideological assumptions underlying unions that are the targets. For others, it an extension, perhaps, of being against all things public—period. For still others, it’s a way to keep costs down in order to reduce taxes, make more profits, etc.

But for some it’s uglier than these self-serving or ideological views. There are two reactions we can have to the betterment of “others": envy or emulation. “Why them?” vs. “Why not me also?”

All the egalitarian slogans that marked the political terrain from the early 1930s to sometime in the late 1970s WERE based on the rhetoric of solidarity: we’re all in the same boat. Equal sacrifice in World War II represents an ideal we can hardly imagine today. The rich paid very high taxes, and war-profiteering was seen as obscene. The draft and rationing were all frankly implemented to ensure that the price of preserving democracy was paid by all. By the 1990s these ideas were passé. There has been much nostalgia for the olden days that never were—when men were men, children were obedient, and bad language was taboo. But the current strictly marketplace/merit/self-centered view of our mission in life hardly comports well with a mannerly and compassionate view of our fellow planet-dwellers. Today making profit off war seems just good capitalism. Solidarity is seen as a tool for the weak and hardly meritorious. Increasingly so in school and at work

How can schools counteract this—if we even want them to? Talking to Strangers is the title of a book by Danielle Allen (University of Chicago Press), and “Don’t talk to strangers” is the opening sentence of a fall 2006 review of Allen’s book by Leo Casey in Dissent. Allen and Casey argue that the capacity to “talk to strangers” lies at the heart of democracy. Alas, it does not lie at the heart of the schooling we require of future citizens. Nor of what parents tell their children. It’s an important idea with repercussions that are, of late, troubling me more and more. Because while I advocate schools that feel like families, there’s something wrong about that metaphor. Schools are not just preparing us to be good family members (although dysfunctional families are too commonplace), but for membership in a common public community. It asks us to “imagine” that we can have solidarity with strangers. The two are not the same, and we need to play with the implications of this. Allen and Casey argue against the idea of unanimity: “Disagreement,” says Casey “is woven into its warp and woof as much as consent and agreement.” I thus treasure our disagreements.

When 5-year-old Darryl insisted his rock was a living thing, which is not factually correct, should I have demanded he comply with scientific consensus? Or take a vote? Or could we listen carefully and learn from him how he defines “living” vs. “nonliving”, and see where that takes us? Which best prepares Darryl for citizenship in a democracy vs. getting a higher test score?

I think, Diane, that a common curriculum will make “seeing where it takes us” harder to do, and that the core will take far more than half a day (especially for those who purportedly are most in need of it, and especially if that’s what we’re held “accountable” for). But, in addition, I don’t even want to universalize my approach to Darryl. Or even the approach we took at Central Park East Secondary School or Mission Hill that students must be prepared to show us how they use our Five Habits of Mind in a variety of disciplines and defend their work to an audience composed not only of warm allies.

I’d love to persuade folks that this approach works. But what we should all be required to do in public education is institutionally defend our reasons for believing that “our” approach helps nourish future citizens of democracy, plus keeping long-term data that will support our conclusions or lead us to revise them. Instead of spending public dollars on trying to make us all alike, we should be spending it on developing diversity that serves critical common purposes. Instead, we’ve settled on finding a “consensus” (among elites) on standardized tests as the unifying force.

“We will not change our behavior unless we change the way we measure our economic performance,” argues Nicolas Sarkozy in the foreword, of Mis-Measuring Our Lives by Joseph Stiglitz et al. This applies equally to schooling. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s delightful and pertinent “The Order of Things” in The New Yorker. It’s striking how the two works neatly dovetail: we are mis-measuring our economy and K-12 schooling to the peril of democracy.

And while I’m at it, I can’t resist urging you to read/subscribe to Commonweal. The March 11 issue will more than explain my reasons—from cover to cover. I don’t even mind on occasion “listening in on” an argument about Catholic liturgy. Individual teachers must meanwhile take some risks to allow alternate voices to survive. It’s not a bad practice for democrats to take the time to listen in on the arguments of neighbors and of stranger—and to learn how to do so in our public schools.


P.S. Re. Madison: Who can resist this argument? Only five states do not currently allow collective bargaining for educators.
 Those states and their SAT/ACT rankings are as follows:
South Carolina: 50
North Carolina: 49
Georgia: 48
Texas: 47
Virginia: 44

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