Teaching Opinion

The Task of Building a Thirst for Knowledge

By Deborah Meier — December 19, 2013 7 min read
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Deborah Meier’s reply to Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst.

Dear Robert,

Here’s a much too long reply. The time I allotted for editing has been cut short by the death of a colleague, Herb Rosenfeld. He was a math teacher in New York City for many years and one of the founders of Central Park East Secondary School. Reading what his students had to say about Herb on Facebook is a reminder of my final point below—how much it matters that teachers and students and families see themselves as members of a shared community. (I’ll try next week to print out some of those heartfelt memories.)

Back to your Tuesday letter. I had a classroom “rule'—never say “obviously” or “there can be no dispute.” It turns out that it’s when we’re most inclined to say this that we are also about to learn something new. But I’ll leave your assumptions about language and common knowledge for another letter. It’s an important issue, so thanks for raising it again.

We agree, what we do at school should be a hefty part of the knowledge an 18-year-old leaves us with. But trying to make a list of “must learns” is a different matter. Actually, if the “experts” could cram it into just one page I’d sigh and go along. But remember, if “good old” Mr. Mayor/Governor/President X can mandate pages and pages of grade-by-grade knowledge, and control the scoring, then what’s to stop Mr. Y, when he gets elected? That’s why we should both be on the same side on this.

The crux is that, what we won’t know, even after a lifetime of learning, is far more than what we will, no matter how hard we try. Not to mention at 18. A lot of what we won’t know or understand is important stuff, but so is what we will know. (Including the stuff the poor know that the “common core” curriculum doesn’t dignify as real knowledge.)

The task from K-12 is building a thirst for knowledge, pleasure in speaking up, and curiosity, curiosity, curiosity—persistently pursued. We need habits of the mind that carry over to the many hours we are not in school and the years and years that follow. “Take your hand off my throat so I can breathe” is precisely what the best teachers are crying out for.

Too many of us—students and teachers—are having trouble breathing freely. Here’s where right and left could perhaps meet. Some of our paranoia might be useful, and some a burden (like imagining that carrying guns will prevent Big Brother from taking over). Sometimes we’re both right to be paranoid. We all do resort to occasional plots to get our way, so why is it surprising that those with power do, too?

And yes, even the Cato Institute folks probably agree that state mandates are sometimes unavoidable. Like mandating whether we drive on the right or left side. But whenever we don’t need them, let’s not. That’s my motto even at the schools I designed. I wanted teachers hungry for freedom as well as for the collegiality required to protect our freedom. So we had mandated retreats and weekly meetings. We went slowly deciding where the border was between our individual passions and our communal commitments to the school, our students, their families (and our own families). But we agreed that closer the decisions are made to where they must be implemented, the better off we’ll usually be.

I’m a Dewey-an on means and ends. The trade-offs you fear seem rare. We can both boast about our “ends"—the kid(s) who got into “Harvard.” Maybe we both need to boast more often about an old-fashioned form of success: “the good life.” We tried to capture this in Mission Hill’s “mission statement"—but it doesn’t easily translate into data. We were told innumerable times that Progressive schools like Central Park East (CPE) wouldn’t “work” in East Harlem. But by year three, we had to open CPE II and III and then many more throughout New York City. I think our schools, like Ted Sizer’s across the country (Coalition of Essential Schools), have demonstrated their viability whenever we were able to actually carry out all 10 fairly common-sense principles. I visited one of the oldest, the Lehman Alternative Community School (a local public high school) in Ithaca, N.Y., last week. I’ve had it with dictators who will lead us to democracy. Hah.

Failing at school stuff is much like failing to learn to swim or ride a bike or learn a new language or play the piano. However, the consequences are tougher. Some outliers take it as a challenge. Good for them. But most of us, faced with persistent failure, decide “it doesn’t matter,” “it’s just not for me,” and harden ourselves against the bows and arrows of failure and disrespect.

In short, I think the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s progressives only scratched the surface, but the results have been extraordinary. We haven’t “closed the gaps” that make the children of Mr. Gates influential in places of power in ways most CPE/MH Coalition school graduates are not. It would be easier if we had the resources that Calhoun, Fieldston, Trinity, Cathedral, Dalton, et al have. (And I was impressed with Dalton, and I modeled CPESS on Fieldston.)

I also wish I already had the wisdom that another 80-plus years might give me. But none of us should blame our kids, our teachers, their parents, or public schools for their “failure” to outperform the rich on, of all things, tests which we know are, by design, sensitive to class and race.

Meanwhile, we are reducing support for precisely the children most in need (e.g. food stamps) while the upper ... 1 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent—have enough to pay three or four times as much on their children’s day schools; plus all the after-school, weekend, and summer advantages; and, perhaps best of all, all those powerful networks they are firmly a part of based on their family position. Hardly a level playing field, and widening daily! That’s the real crisis facing democracy.

If we wanted to tackle even these school-based inequities we’d need schools that were organized very differently. Schools where we’re not only told there should be “homework,” but we count the hours involved in reading and responding to it; or schools where everyone agrees we need more parent “engagement” so we make time and space for this to occur, or schools that parrot the slogan—each child should be taught to his or her individual strengths and acknowledge that we have to tackle class size and a teacher’s high school pupil loads of 150-plus students a day. The answer? A computer-based test that will compute these precious “differences” makes a mockery of reform. (Imagine the starved concept behind this idea of “individuality.”)

Can schools hold liberty in high esteem when children rarely see adults who dare exercise their liberty or have a direct voice in deciding important matters about their own profession? Democracy is not just a mechanism for being represented—whether in a union, a corporation, or the government. Democracy’s strength lies in all that leads up to that vote and everything that follows it. And learning how “to do” democracy is best learned close and near, in institutions where we can practice it directly.

Representative democracy is the next-best thing when direct democracy cannot be practiced. It’s in those direct and more intimate settings however, that we get better at reading each other’s agendas, imagining alternatives, and find the compromises we need to make. Representative democracy was once a way to avoid giving power to “the people,” and today it’s still essential for deciding many things on the scale needed. But direct democracy is not therefore unnecessary the rest of the time.

As our graduates and I looked back upon our years together, what stood out was that their schools were settings of mutual respect where significant personal relationships were forged, including some that crossed generations. I realized at the funeral for Herb yesterday, that we had organized our schools—from top to bottom—to increase the odds that every student would find at least one adult who’d become a powerful mentor—above and beyond being a good teacher.

A lot else is needed, but after reading what the graduates had to say about Herb on Facebook, I’m more convinced than ever that nothing matters much without tackling that.


P.S. In these days of growing inequality these old lyrics from an Aretha Franklin (and first Billie Holiday) song, “God Bless The Child,” come to mind.

Them that’s got shall get

Them that’s not shall lose

For the Bible says

And it still is news.

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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.