When I was in high school, I hated history class. All that dry history in all those heavy textbooks felt dead to me, obsolete. Hardly surprising, of course — like many teenage boys, I had about as much empathy as a piece of scrap metal. But the older I get, the more vital and urgent studying history seems.
That’s because I’m realizing more and more how alive is the past, how still it shapes us in ways we hardly understand. I think sometimes of George Santayana’s famous dictum about those who cannot remember the past being doomed to repeat it but I think even more often of William Faulkner’s: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”
I think about this a lot, for instance, when I reflect on how to be an American means to be intimately tied up with racial discrimination in ways that we can barely begin to untangle. We’ve made progress, but the past still haunts us. We’re not past it yet.
I remain committed to the idea that the only way out of the grip of the past is to understand it.
I try to live this in my teaching. I try to teach my students about the complex history of pernicious influences: of marketing, of discrimination, of pervasive cultural attitudes. You can’t get past something until you know it. That, to me, is the gift of a liberal education.
(This is why I’m always confused when I hear English teachers say they’d like to do more “interdisciplinary” teaching. How are you really teaching anything at all if you are NOT incorporating history into your lessons?)
I am struck by how few would-be school reformers have a sense of history.
Here’s one of the favorite pitches I’m starting to see from ed reform groups. This one comes courtesy of a group called XQ, which markets itself as “an open call to the nation to rethink and redesign the American high school.” They link a video on the front page of their website that makes an argument I see being used more and more by reformers:
In the last 100 years . . .
. . . cars have changed a lot
. . . phones have changed a lot
. . . and everything else has changed a lot, too.
But our schools have stayed EXACTLY the same!
Often I see references to “factory model of education” or the Carnegie Unit, or to the Committee of Ten.
Why, goes the argument, are our schools so obsolete?
Then comes the pivot: We need change right now, urgently. Not small, incremental change, but big, bold, radical change. Then, buzzwords: innovate, equity, disrupt, achievement gap, college and career ready. In this video: “learn by doing,” “focus on the future,” “spark curiosity,” “build community,” and “unleash potential,” “solve real world problems,” and “ask students what they think.”
Next you’ll get the call for whatever method they’re pushing. Sometimes it’s school choice or charter schools. Other times it’s “greater accountability” (although that seems to be easing out of fashion). Right now it’s usually some version of “personalized learning” — which basically means anything at all. That’s mainly what this video is selling: Hey, no more seat time!
And guess what, they’re not pushing an idea. They’re not evil overlords. They’re asking us to “reimagine education” . . . you know, by organizing a competition that pits cash-strapped schools against each other by dangling huge piles of dough. Wait a second . . . I think I remember something like this. Could it be that the winning bids are supporting some of the ideas that XQ is pushing, like personalized learning? Hmm. I think I remember this plan — didn’t we have some kind of “competition” like this . . . and it got us more testing and teacher evals tied to test scores? And isn’t XQ headed by Russlynn Ali, former former assistant secretary at the US Department of Education under . . . Arne Duncan? Funny. Feels like we’ve been down this road before.
Now, look. There is nothing wrong with this. Education always needs reforming. Teachers and educators always need pushing. We should always be evaluating what we’re doing.
But if you want to reform something, first you need to know what’s going on. And that sort of simplistic, “Can you believe how OLD these schools are” rhetoric does not generate in me much confidence that you have any clue that you know what you’re doing. (Neither, for that matter does naming your think tank, “XQ.”)
Before you break out the old “schools haven’t changed in 100 years” argument, do your homework, or at least start asking some questions. Here are some:
–Wait, have you been to a school? Most schools look quite different than even 30 years ago: projectors, screens, laptops, and (dammit!) cell phones. Classrooms are full of kids getting distracted by their cell phones. XQ is bankrolled in part by Steve Jobs’ widow, so . . . . thanks for that, Steve!
–Hmm, maybe some schools still look like that because they’re starved for money, compared with, you know, phone and car companies you also show?
–Or . . . maybe there’s a good reason schools not all schools are totally wired up with technology? Maybe it’s because there is some a-historical need to keep kids focused, reading real-live books, and talking to other, real-live human beings. Maybe you don’t need or even want a whole lot of tech to do that? Think about how different a living room might have looked 100 years ago compared to now:
1918: You might have seen a family sitting around a wood stove together, talking, telling stories, and perhaps reading aloud to each other.
2018: Yeah, they’re all on devices.
Is that new picture any better?
–What about the idea of personalization? Isn’t that something teachers have been working for years and years trying to do? We had other names for it, of course, like giving “choice” and “differentiating” or “incorporating students’ interests,” but how does that balance against the kinds of communal experiences that we also know kids need, too? How does that balance against the high-stakes standards that are still very much in the air (you know, the ones we got after “competing” for Race to the Top money)?
It’s always weird when age-old ideas, like building in choice to your lessons, come back repackaged as some wildly new and innovative thing. Has to be sort of like when someone who has been making due just fine is suddenly told that she needs to buy the latest and greatest product to finally make it possible for her to do just the thing she has always done well on her own. That’s not called reform; that’s called marketing.
Learn your history. Ask yourself: why have so many reformers failed, proposing exactly what you’re proposing right now. Wait, you didn’t know that they have? Yep, exactly the same thing, including the same promises that sweet, sweet tech would fix everything. Your ideas are as old as student-centered learning, as old as John Dewey, or the Dalton Plan, or the Eight Year Study, or Progressive Education, or schools without walls, or open classrooms, or Mastery Learning, or a thousand other movements and methods that have washed over the shores of schools, mostly for the good.
But if you believe that all these great movements failed (which I don’t, but which you evidently do), then . . . why was that? How exactly will yours be different?
It’s always ironic when those people who would reform education have not learned to do their homework.
You have to learn about the past before you hope to change the present. Because the present is not just influenced by the past, it’s often another iteration of the past, come around again. The old battles are fought, we forget about them, we swing too far the other way, then we come back. We try the same stuff again, we pick up old toys and play with them. We tinker, in Larry Cuban’s great phrase. The cycle continues.
That is what Faulkner meant. The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. It’s present, it’s happening right now, repeating itself anew in ways many of us are asleep to.
Too often reformers, in their zeal, fail to adequately study the thing they’re trying to change, underestimate how vast and alive something like public education really is. They don’t know it. And they don’t know its history either — history very much alive in the ever-present debates about student-centered vs. teacher-centered, about the importance of time in learning (and how best to measure it), about the need for organization vs. flexibility. These debates roil, and the past repeats itself, and shapes the present in ways the reformers don’t see. They travel down the same roads as their predecessors, not caring to realize the obstacles that await: the strength of traditional school as a cultural institution, for instance. The sheer size and scope of managing 800 teenagers and 70 teachers in a single building. The innate conservatism of many teachers and parents when it comes to that cultural institution of school. The past’s grip on all of us.
If you want to make change, real, lasting change that outlives the videos and the money and the PR, you can’t underestimate history. And you cannot misunderstand it.
Because then you’re doomed to — well, you know the rest.