Teaching Profession Opinion

When There is No One to ‘Look in the Eye’

By Deborah Meier — November 11, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

It was nice to see a few “old” (meaning both my age and people I’ve known for a long time) friends make it onto The Nation‘s list of the most influential “progressives” of the 20th century. Ancient history.

The Nation‘s listing also led me back to thinking about that word: Progressive. You and many of your present and former colleagues use the word in the one sense that I least identify with: the belief in efficiency as an end in itself, modernity, productivity, scientific management, etc.

But the use of the word as an approach to teaching/learning and the role of schooling as exemplified by John Dewey, Jean Piaget, the many distinguished women who led the early Bank Street explorations, et al stems from quite a different place. Of course, there were overlaps—just as sometimes there are today between Rick Hess and me; John Holt was, after all, “for” homeschooling and for “progressive” education. We cannot sacrifice either individualism to community or vice versa. That’s a tension that democracy demands we negotiate, over and over and over. The revolution that took place between 1900 and 1950 was amazing, and schools are one place we see it most starkly. From a tiny percentage to more than two-thirds of the population attending high schools! As well as the enormous and very rapid expansion of our college system. But who was going to be “in charge” of making decisions about these rapidly expanding institutions and what purpose they would serve was up for grabs.

The progressive tradition that The Nation honors is in quite a different camp from the scientific management folks on the “who decides” question. Among the hard-core shared agreements that bound such progressives together were those that built the union movement. “Don’t mourn, organize.” “Solidarity forever.” “There is power in our united voices.” “The governed must govern.” Or, as I used to say about Mission Hill and Central Park East: “It’s an honor to be the principal—head teacher—of a school of strong teachers and parents. Who wants to brag about ‘leading’ a bunch of wimps!”

The school I went to was, amusingly, started as a free school for the children of working-class men and women—to build the habits of heart and mind necessary for exerting greater workplace influence (Ethical Culture schools). I say this with amusement because once a year we celebrated the founding of the school, which of course by the time I attended, was populated largely by students who were children of the owners, not the workers! But the school had an influence on us all and, in the end, the schools I started were an attempt to go back to those noble roots.

It was based on a faith, not requiring evidence, that every single person deserved respect. It was based on the assumption that each and every child born on the Earth “deserved” what the wealthiest believed essential for their own children.

In short, what concerns us, Diane, is not new, but part of some ancient issues that reappear over and over. Ted Sizer used to say that he wanted his own kids in schools where he could look the decision-makers in the eye and personally expect an answer, other than “I had to do it. THEY made me.”

It’s increasingly hard for us to raise our kids that way, but above all if we are not rich. And the charters—for which Ted had high hopes—mostly seem to represent the other kind of “progressivism"—the efficient boot-camp type.

That’s bad for the kids, for democracy, and for our future prosperity and happiness. Since 1940—almost halfway through the 20th century—there were half as many citizens in the land and nearly 10 times as many school boards. Think of the ratio of folks who probably knew someone on one of those school boards in 1940 and the ratio of citizens to school board members today. Two different worlds. Ditto for the size of schools and their geographic reach. And they, like so many other local institutions, have less and less to say about their own work. In New York City, we have a mayor who is still modestly popular for his stewardship of the city—wrongly I think; but the same polls show he has lost “the people’s” confidence as a school manager and lost by a larger margin the confidence of those who must or do send their children to public schools.

But there is no one to “look in the eye” between a single parent and the mayor. The teachers used to have their unions to protect them from the arbitrary whims of their supervisors and “the system.” But the union has lost a great deal of power (it can’t strike legally) in the past half-century. The only power it has left is “political"—and for that it has been tarred and feathered. We’re just beginning to get the “other side” of the rubber-room story, and it’s mostly drowned out by those who view parent and teacher organizing as the last hurrah of a bygone era, of selfish, self-interested politics!

So here we are trying to figure out how the education of our young can prepare or handicap our future citizens’ capacity to reason together about what the future should be like, and it is not going to be easy.


P.S. A week ago I went canvassing for votes in Hudson, N.Y. The votes have been counted, and I mostly lost. But how we respond to both winning and losing depends a lot on the habits we developed from our own families, communities, and—yes—schools!

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