Reading & Literacy Opinion

Utopia vs. ‘Real Politics’

By Deborah Meier — April 14, 2011 5 min read

Dear Diane,

It was fun to catch even the last 10 minutes of your speech last week at AERA in New Orleans. It was too bad that half or more of the audience couldn’t get in to hear you. (I finally found a secret rear door to sneak in.) And thanks for exposing to one and all that I have lived 10 years longer than I had planned. 8o is surprising, but I like it. I encourage others to aim for it.

Two experiences come to mind as I read your blog and heard you speak. It’s said briefly in the title to Mike Rose’s book: Why School?

In September 1969, I asked 20 5-year-olds this question while teaching at P.S. 144 in Central Harlem: “Why do you suppose your parents sent you to school instead of keeping you at home with them?” (Or something like that.) They had lots of first-round responses. “To learn to raise your hand.” “To learn to line up.” “To learn to talk only when the teacher tells you to.” “To take turns,” and so on. Finally, one child said: “To learn to read.” I followed up on this by asking why they’d want you to learn to read. Almost everyone agreed: so you won’t be held back. Already at age 5 they were worrying about that. (I read an article around that time about what young children most feared. The death of a parent came first, and being “held over” in school ranked second.)

OK, I said, but then if you go on to 1st grade, why would you keep reading? They had fun with this. “So you won’t be held over in 1st!” they chorused. And so it went until they got through school. Then, I persisted, can you stop reading then? No, said one child after thinking carefully: “You’ll have children, and you need to read to them so they won’t get held over.” I’m not making this up!

Now, of course, young children (and I, too) love stories that go round and round as this did, to all of our immense pleasure. So it may be that they were just pleasing me. But I doubt it. The point of school is to do well so you will continue to do well in school. At least with math, we also try to convince the young that someday they’ll find math “useful"—there’s a whole industry out there to explain this to 5- to 18-year-olds.

About 10 years later, I had the extraordinary opportunity to teach courses co-sponsored by New Rochelle College and the public workers’ union—DC 37—in downtown Manhattan. It was a remarkable college (and reminds me of another I visited last week—Metropolitan College—that provides a course of study for so-called non-traditional students to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees). My students were often those who struggled with their own K-12 education, but believed in the new American dream: college or else.

My new students were largely older (often older than me) women who had no intention of changing jobs. But they wanted a B.A., and they wanted to be “better educated.” They had no words to explain why, and it seemed mean to probe too far. It meant something “precious.”

But we’ve never explored very far in the public domain what that “precious” thing is all about. We instead encourage children from ages 4 to 18 to think it’s mostly about doing better in school so you’ll do better in school OR, big step forward, you’ll get a better-paying job. (Or ANY job.) We actually offer them statistical proof of this, over and over.

I sometimes refer to the old-fashioned phrase of the “leisured class” as a synonym for the ruling class. For a long time, the two concepts went hand in hand. You were fit to rule if you were “educated” and had the leisure to use that education to think your own thoughts, share them with others like yourself, and “of course” play a role in shaping the world around you based upon such ideas. This was one reason that the working-class movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were filled with fanatics about such concepts as child-labor laws and universal (and mandatory) free education, as well as the shorter work week and the security that the wealthy took for granted. Only when these were in place would all children be in a position to be active members of the ruling class. (Thus the struggles over women’s education and the even more bitter fight over educating people of color.)

But in the process, education—except in its most rudimentary definition—lost its early meaning virtually entirely. The job of being a member of the ruling class was redefined to being allowed to vote every so often. (And serve on a jury, or get drafted?) But the heart of it— the exercising of high levels of intellect in decisions critical to one’s own, one’s family’s, one’s country’s, or even one’s planet’s future remained quite another matter. The only job served was the job that paid you. Just as the old ruling class looked down on such utilitarian purposes, so the new education both raised it as the raison d’etre of schooling while simultaneously viewing it as a put down! And then we’re surprised that it doesn’t work for so many.

Today “academics” are honored and put down in the same breath. (Think of what it means to say, off-hand: “Well, that’s academic.”) Think about the sneer in our voices about the word “practical” in front of any course title? Practical-math courses are for dummies, ditto for science, and the arts. They are, at best, useful for getting a low-skill job. The “academic ones,” in contrast, allow you to “sound” as though you are educated and “pass for” being smart. (As such, they will also help you get a job.)

I’m simplifying the argument. Yet for many Americans I think I’ve summarized it pretty accurately. We’re still closer to the long-honored belief that the strong-hearted pioneers who went west to do practical work (shoot, hunt, herd cattle, and struggle against nature’s odds) are the “real” Americans compared with the effete Ivy League aristocrats. And I’m a member of the immigrant generation that was caught between the two.

We need to think this through and acknowledge the trade-offs involved, and the proper balance between these two “ideals” that might better serve the planet.

Utopian? Well, once again, I’m for some naïve utopianism alongside hard-headed “real politics.”


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