Teaching Profession Opinion

‘We’re Eventually Irrepressible’

By Deborah Meier — June 02, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

One familiar definition of a revolution is that it involves a dramatic shift in WHO has power. In general, power begets power while powerlessness too often stupefies.

We are almost all victims of myths that intensify the divisions of power. Examples:
The myth that the Left controls the media, that union bosses are all-powerful (and rich), that we spend too much money on x vs. y (confusing millions with billions or trillions), and the power of teachers’ union bosses to dictate contracts and get their way. It gets to seem reasonable even if it is pure nonsense. We can resist these myths, but this can be a mixed blessing. Many kids I know resist knowledge because of who and how it is offered.

Some of our readers were distressed at my hostility toward wealth and power. In fact, they have a point. It is in part sheer envy. In part, it is an inherited trait. In part, it is a product of the career I chose. In part, it is rational.

Andrew Carnegie did a lot of good with free libraries. If I had not become a teacher, maybe I would have become a library reformer. Less hush-hush, more discussion. That’s what should be going on in libraries. (My mother-in-law was a neighborhood librarian who told scholarly customers that if they wanted silence they should go to the nearby Washington University library.) It may be unnecessary to privatize public libraries because private bookstores have displaced libraries for many, and Amazon and Google for others. Meanwhile, my apologies to Carnegie.

Ditto Harvard. It’s not a bad place, but we can acknowledge that it stands out in terms of arrogance. Still, many of my best friends and colleagues and their offspring went there or taught there. Even I taught there. (In our own way, we University of Chicago’ans are also arrogant, but somehow I find it less offensive.)

Maybe having “enemies"—in the form of people—is a necessary evil. In part, because some problems are actually perpetuated by greedy people for greedy ends, with a well-honed blindness to the side effects of their policies on others. Still, some of those are blinded, as I have argued earlier, by “seeing like a state.” Some I always hope to convert—which requires not seeing them as enemies! After all, we are every single one of us guilty of blindness at times. Other names for it might be egocentricity, arrogance, lack of empathy, and even just wishful thinking. Infantile egocentricity, which Jean Piaget wrote about so well, doesn’t disappear, but reappears in more sophisticated forms.

The expression “you have to break eggs to make an omelet” wasn’t perhaps first said maliciously, and good people nodded in agreement. They didn’t identify with the eggs. But when the eggs are you, you ought to get suspicious.

I speak with humility as well as arrogance. I know that I have spent 45 years sheltering myself from most of the Important discussions and been consumed with thinking small—about this and that child, fascinated by their ideas, mistakes, wisdom, and foolishness, intrigued also by my own and my colleagues’ often vain efforts, our theories that didn’t produce the results we intended, plus ideas we shunned that we later saw had merit. Staying close and observing closely has advantages. But staying close also has disadvantages: one isn’t as prepared as one should be for the larger political context. Such was the case with my varied love affairs with neighborhood schools, small schools, choice, open education, John Dewey, integrated curriculum, whole language, constructivist math, teacher power, and parent power! I am more intrigued than I was by home schooling—and precisely for social rather than “academic” reasons—the reverse of what I’d first assumed.

What those like myself often miss are the trade-offs that our “discoveries” might entail writ large by policymakers. Or even colleagues! I remember talking to one of my favorite kindergarten teachers (Pam Cushing) about a new idea I had about the connection between our thoughts, the pencil in our hands (or the keyboard), and paper. In taking dictation, psycho-linguist Frank Smith suggested, we may reinforce the mistaken presumption that “authoring” is just writing down what you have said aloud, a form of dictation. It may have unintended consequences.

We played with this idea, and then Pam said, “Oh dear, I’ll have to stop taking dictation! And I love doing it so.” “STOP! STOP!,” I said, “or I’ll never explore an idea with you again! It’s more than ‘just an idea,’ but less than a confirmed one, and even were it confirmed, maybe taking dictation has other benefits that outweigh its drawbacks!” She was relieved. Me, too.

Similarly, I used a finger-counting method with Jason, and it was so magical that I wanted to call a staff meeting so that we could do it with everyone. But having colleagues with equal power held me back. Luckily for me and them; otherwise, we’d have resorted to sabotage and other forms of resistance.

My conclusion? We need to put more power into the hands of parents, teachers, and students to accept and reject new ideas, extend them, revise them, and on and on. Publicly. Whether it’s a proposal about what to include in our curriculum or what way of teaching the decimal system works best, it’s never sufficiently “solved” to turn it into a national mandate.

If brainwashing humans with our truths (for their own good) worked, we’d long ago have become a flawless tyranny. We’re eventually irrepressible. We see other possibilities; we dare; we challenge. Working alongside colleagues, families, and students has convinced me over and over how glad I am of that.


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