Curriculum Opinion

What About Students Who Don’t Want to be Students?

By Diane Ravitch — April 01, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Deb,

I was just sitting down to reply to your post and thought I would first scan my email. I opened the daily email from ASCD SmartBrief, which links to interesting stories about schools across the nation. There was a story from Pontiac, Mich., with this headline: “Teacher Recovers from Attack: Police Say 3 students Assaulted Northern High instructor, who has a fractured skull, a broken rib and an injured lung.” This incident occurred because the teacher told several students to leave the boys’ restroom. They followed him to his classroom and beat him up. The president of the Pontiac Education Association said, “Teachers are in a war zone, and we should be getting combat pay. Teachers are scared going into their jobs every day, in both the middle schools and high schools.”

Now, I do not mean to suggest this kind of violence is typical. Thank God, it is not. But what I do suggest is that there is a level of disrespect and misbehavior that has become commonplace in many schools. Readers say it is confined to urban schools, and they may be right. You say that if I go back to the “Little House on the Prairie” books, I will see that restless, school-averse, mischievous children were always part of the educational landscape. Huckleberry Finn didn’t like school; neither did Tom Sawyer. True.

I am reminded of my own historical research about the schools of the 19th Century and early 20th Century. Educational authorities then complained about students who were “wild” because they chewed gum or spoke out of turn. In one extreme incident, a boy was reprimanded for throwing stones at another boy after school. When you look at the actual behavior of students who were “out of line,” it seems awfully tame as compared with students today who look the teacher in the eye and say “— you.” Or who beat up their teacher or classmates in school with no regard to the consequences.

As one of our readers said, classrooms should be for students who want to learn. Those who don’t want to learn should not be allowed to make life impossible for the teacher and the willing students. Why not charter schools for the kids who hate school? Give them a chance, free of all the usual bureaucratic restraints, to show what they can do with the students who don’t want to be students.

I don’t think this is really about progressive vs. traditional education. The John Dewey High School in New York City was “locked-down” on March 26 when a gun fell out of a student’s backpack. This school has always been known for its progressive methods and curriculum, which has nothing to do with this student’s decision to bring a gun to school.

As I have often insisted, there are many strands to the progressive education movement. Since I like you so much, I put you in the strand I admire, the educators who were trying to figure out (as you said in your last post) how to “reexamine the power and nature of the ‘academics’ so that they connect with the curiosity and interest of the young…”

The strand that I find objectionable (I wrote about this at length in “Left Back”) was the progressivism that not only “watered down” the curriculum but made no effort to connect with the curiosity and interest of the young. They simply didn’t want the children of working-class and poor families to have any contact with what we call the academic curriculum. They didn’t consider these kids worthy. There were progressives like David Snedden of Teachers College (and commissioner of education in Massachusetts) who wanted the schools to focus on vocational and industrial education, except for the privileged few who were college-bound. There were progressives like John Franklin Bobbitt and W.W. Charters (the creators of the curriculum field) who tried to turn the curriculum into job-preparation only. There were progressives like those in the life adjustment movement of the 1940s and 1950s who thought that 60 percent of the population were unsuited to either an academic or a vocational education and needed only to be “adjusted” to their lowly station in life.

John Dewey’s own school at the University of Chicago was rich with academics. Teachers worked really hard, collaboratively, to connect deep understanding of history, literature, science, and mathematics to the lives of their students. When I read the curriculum of the Dewey School, I realize how much we have lost. The school did have a curriculum. It was academic, but brought to life by inspired planning and teaching. The Dewey School did not teach down to those who were restless. Of course, as a private university school whose students were mainly children of faculty, it did have a huge socioeconomic advantage.

If every school in the U.S. had the curriculum—the coherent, content-rich curriculum of the Dewey School in Chicago—and the well-educated, reflective, selfless teachers at that school, we would be in great shape.


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.