Shadows on the Cave

It’s spring break right now, so I’ve got a lot of books on the side table next to what my son calls the “Dada couch.” I’ve been reading Shelby Steele’s book, “The Content of Our Character,” an old book, and one very much out of vogue at the moment, but deeply rich, inward, human.  I’ve also been reading the great Gloria Ladson-Billings — several of her main journal articles (“Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education”) as well as her early 90s classic, The Dreamkeepers.  Just finished it a few days ago, and I’ve got a longer blog post coming out soon about it.  I really enjoyed it — it’s so accessible.  It’s about a lot of things — community, believing in children, why experience in teaching matters (especially with African American students), why teachers must know the children before them.  What a book it is. More on that in another post.

I have also been reading and re-reading two other books:  reading David Tyack’s 1967 historical work, Turning Points in American Educational History, and re-reading passages of John Dewey’s ultra-classic 1915 work Democracy and Education.  These two works, taken together with The Dreamkeepers, form a triumvirate of approaches that I want to ensure, for the rest of my career, that I’m always in touch with.  Let me explain what they are and why they’re important.

First, Ladson-Billings’ book represents research — specifically, research into practice.  While a lot of research can be pretty dry and surprisingly inconclusive, I still think it’s important for practitioners.  The whole idea is that it teaches us what works.  Ladson-Billings’ book is a perfect example: she takes you inside the classrooms and the minds of great teachers, contextualizes their work in research and theory, and lets the findings speak for themselves.  There’s always a little bit of incredulity in the ones — like The Dreamkeepers — that center especially high achievement.  There’s always the whiff of the superteacher who works all the time, the particularly supportive administrator, the discrepancies among local contexts (the old “that would never work in my district”), the new, novel techniques that seem suspiciously like shortcuts.  At its worst, these books seem to advocate some sort of cure-all.  But done well — like The Dreamkeepers — you avoid hagiography or product-pushing, and you walk away really feeling like you have a fuller understanding of what creates successful conditions.

Let me take a moment and sound off on the genre of books I have never been particularly interested in:  How-To books for teachers.  Don’t get me wrong, these books have their place.  You know the genre: A Teacher’s Guide to Creating High-Quality, High-Interest Algebra II Lessons!  Or 101 Practical Strategies for Teaching Like an Ass-Kicking Champion Badass!  Or, So Your Administration Doesn’t Give a Shit and Just Wants Test Scores.  These books are usually written by practitioners, and often contain a lot of really helpful, practical ideas.  But there are two problems with these books: Localism, and Plato.  Let me explain.  The localism problem is just what I mentioned above: the old “That would never work with MY kids.” Even more banal is when you’re reading along and the author starts writing:

“So after I got out of the hospital because the students threw a chair at me, I decided it was time to Change Up the Paradigm (CUP).  I started introducing more high quality literature.  We week later we were reading Shakespeare, and the chair-thrower was accepted early to a local college (Harvard).  Let me share some strategies for getting your young readers into scholars of the Bard.”

You’re thinking — wait, connect the dots for me.  There’s a lot of that with these books.

The real problem with these surface level lists of strategies — and that’s basically what many of these books represent (and teaching is such a fantastically impossible, but also professionally isolated profession that these books will always sell) — is the second problem I referenced:  Plato.


One of my professors asked me last year, when we were reading Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, whether I ever felt as though I was merely seeing shadows on the wall (copies of things, rather than things themselves).  My answer was, I see this all the time with practice, and with practitioners.  Like it or not, so much of our “knowledge” is homespun.  Not to say that it’s not “scientific” (I don’t aspire to that in something as complex, political, and psychological as education), but too much of practice lacks its opposite: theory, philosophy.  To me, it’s not enough that something simply be “grounded in experience.” That’s the secondary step.  Anything can be grounded in experience — even poor practices can “work.” But that sort of approach lends itself to the localism I mentioned above — one teacher writing about her own experiences in one particular classroom, in one particular place.  That’s why I think of them as shadows on the cave: they’re about local circumstances, local conditions, and too often they are simply pale imitations of real ideas and real theories (which they hardly understand).

The problem is that too many of these books never start with what I believe the first step should be:  a guiding philosophy or rationale.  They never situate their strategies in anything wider.  Give me a guiding philosophy, and then fill in the steps that you’ve found that work, and I’ll take it from there.  Hell, I’ll even buy into any of your strategies that seem aspirational, or ill-suited to my local context if I see that the underlying ideas have value.  Even tips and tricks need to be grounded in wider observations about human adolescent behavior, not just about what works for you — who might have the type of personality that makes students, ipso facto, respond to you in ways that have in turn shaped which “tricks” actually work.  If I’m reading a book and it has some quirky, person-specific practice, that’s not always going to work for simply because of who I am.  If I was to read, for example, a female teacher write, “What I do when I’m having trouble with a female student is I give her a big hug” — yeah . . .  not going near that one.  If you’re writing about how to select clothing, tell people that they should match it to their style and preference, don’t just say “Put on a blue polka-dot shirt.” A lot of these books have me shaking my head and thinking, “I could never pull that off” — it’s because the strategies aren’t grounded in a wide enough base of theory.

This is what the best “practice” books do: as the old adage goes, they don’t just help you catch a fish (with strategies or narrative explanations of what has worked and why), they teach you to fish — by giving you a compelling rationale for a wider approach that they then show you how to adapt to local contexts.

The best example I have ever read in my field, English Language Arts, is Don Murray’s 1969 (and much-updated) classic, A Writer Teaches Writing.  Murray’s book has stood the test of time not just because it is “grounded in experience” (nor because it is beautifully written, though it is).  Murray’s work endures because it explains the goals and philosophy behind a process and conference-based approach to writing.  It offers the most compelling, pointed rationale for effective English instruction: the focus should be on improving students’ understanding of how to improve their own writing.  That’s the argument, more or less.  It’s tight, it’s cogent, and and it makes a hell of a lot of sense.  Then Murray shows you how he has adapted his whole approach to achieving that goal.  No matter if you can’t set up an ambitious schedule of 39 conferences per day, as he did.  You’re seeing one man’s attempt to address a real, compelling goal, and you’re empowered enough by the shared vision to address it in your own context.

This gets to the second type of work that I like to keep in touch with: works of philosophy or theory.  Now that I am older and I have read enough of those how-to books, seen those shadows on the cave wall enough times, and perhaps (somewhat) escaped that cave myself, I find myself more impatient when I read.  Nowadays I don’t mind a difficult book about education.  In fact, if that difficulty is the result of sophisticated ideas, I’m actively interested.  It’s like how nowadays I don’t want to eat junk; I want real food.  Same with books: I want real ideas.  I want real thought and reasoning, real reckoning with goals, real understanding of what the alternatives are.  I’ve done enough practice and I’ve come to realize that it’s all about the bigger picture.  I don’t want to be, in Keynes’s cutting phrase, a slave to some defunct economist.  I don’t want to be enslaved to false idols who are really just poor (unwitting) imitators of Rousseau.  I want Rousseau himself.  

There’s a weird modern bias in . . .  everything.  That bias is particularly acute with reference to ideas.  It says that older books are less potent than modern ones.  Maybe that’s because we believe that modern books improve on older ones, or that they’re more adapted to our time; the older ones are simply outdated.  And there’s a kind of currency for a certain kind of person in keeping up with what’s new, of course.  And for teachers, as I’ve alluded to, there’s surely a bias toward finding the quick, easy solution that inclines us toward the practical and the practitioner (which is always an inclination toward the modern).  

The older I get though, the less I believe it’s true that older books are less potent — at least when you’re talking about the important older books.  Yes, you’ve got to work to understand them, but more often than not what you’re going to get by going back and reading Democracy and Education (as I did, for the first time last year, and am rereading again, this year) is what we used to call in kayaking the “Real Shit.” That’s crude, I know, but it fits.  Go back to the source and you’re just going to get more interesting ideas (often shockingly modern), more potently expressed, more conversant with the real alternatives (and often more combative with them), and just a much more distilled essence.  That’s the word I think about when I think about why I like reading philosophy now: distilled.  Philosophy is often hard, obscure, and sometimes dry.  But once you learn how to persist, you actually realize that it packs a punch tin a way that weaker practitioner books or inch-deep textbooks or (at the worst) hot-take internet writing, or even (at the very worst), impulsive social media posts never could.

That’s because, when you get down to it, philosophy is at the base of everything we do in education.  I don’t care how great your strategies are, they’re based on a philosophy or on a theory.  You’re either conscious of them (and thus can change them) or you’re not.  You’re either up above, appreciating the sun and the real flowers and trees, or you’re chained down in that cave, talking to the other prisoners about what kinds of activities work best for twelve and a half year-old boys who come from two-parent homes and live in a suburban setting and like reading fantasy novels.  In this sense, philosophy is really where things get down to the brass tacks.  I’m not just talking about huge, pie-in-the-sky questions, like “What does it mean to be educated?” (Answer:  “Whatever the School Board damn well says it means . . . ”).  I’m talking about questions of methods:  What’s your philosophy for teaching reading?  What’s your philosophy of assessment?  

See, that’s what made the whole how-to-create-unit plans genre pretty handy (with the best version being the Grant Wiggins book, Understanding by Design).  The reason those books (and approaches) were valuable was because they began by outlining a well-articulated theory that the rest of the book was based on (which was, ironically, that students learn better when teachers create units and lessons centered on well-articulated goals and theories).  

That’s what I like at this point: philosophy, well distilled, cogent, up on the high ground, I’ll fill in the practitioner stuff on my own.  Just give me the theory and I’ll take it and run.

The third category that I like is represented by Tyack’s book.  That category is history.  I’ve written about this a number of times before (and this post is already quite long), so I won’t go on too long, except to say that I like two aspects of studying history: First, history puts everything into perspective and helps us understand the fundamentals of what’s going on.  I am especially fascinated about how the movement for racial justice in our culture and in our educational system right now (and its related calls for a kind of moral mission for schools, a primary focus of social justice, the use of schools and teachers to not only understand social problems, but to fix them) relates to similar movements in the past, particularly the George Counts-era Social Reconstructionism of the 1930s, and the social revolutions of the 1960s (Civil Rights, Vietnam, broader counter-establishment politics).  I plan to write a separate blog post about that sometime soon.  But I do think history can help bring needed perspective to today’s events, and it can help us retrospectively understand them.  I have a feeling we’re all going to be “processing” the Trump era for a long, long time.  And I think trying to place it all (the educational aspect, in my case) in historical perspective will really help with this process.

The second thing I like about educational history is that it helps you understand the origins of a thing, and origins often have an inordinate impact on determining a thing’s overriding goals and philosophy pretty much forever.  Yes, institutions change, and educational movements change, but it’s pretty illuminating to understand that, as I learned this morning from Tyack, Harvard University was founded to train Puritan ministers.  Origins matter.  The founding rationale of a place, the original philosophy, often has large impacts on what follows.  There are of course, several types of “origins,” as well.  There are the origins of a place or institution (like the Harvard example).  Then there are the books or thinkers who have really begun a movement (like Dewey with the child-centered educational movement).  Or sometimes what good historical books do, I’ve found, is to show you not necessarily the origin of something, but to provide a strongly influential, strongly representative work to take you back into the time period to understand the era as it was understanding itself.  A good example with the present culture I believe would be a book such as Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” — striking book in its own way.  Surely it’s not the origin of Critical Race Theory or any of the relate academic discourses from which it originates.  But at the same time, what a representative book, crystalizing everything about a particular movement, and representing the moment a number of hitherto obscure ideas burst into the consciousness.  That, too, is tremendously contextualizing.

So that’s what I like: research, philosophy, and history.  Research to show you what works (so long as it gives you enough context and background), philosophy to give you distilled rationale and real alternatives, and history to help you contextualize what’s happening now, and to understand the origins of a place or of a movement or of the important ideas.  All part of a good reading balance.  

Now if it would just stop snowing so I could get outside . . .