Cremin II: Public Education and the Education of the Public (1976)

Yesterday I blogged about finishing Lawrence Cremin’s 1976 book, Traditions of American Education.  Today I happened to pick up his other book from the same year, simply called Public Education.  First of all, a short side note: I love bland, overly broad titles like this.  The other day I was reviewing one of my advisee’s grades with her when we noticed that her geometry class has only one main academic “standard” simply called “Geometry.” That’d be like if I started off my 12th grade classes with a unit just called “English.” I could just say: “Look, I don’t want to restrict what we’re going to learn.” 

Public Education (The John Dewey Society Lecture) by Cremin Lawrence A.  (1976-04-01) Hardcover: Books

Anyway, I’d actually begun this book first, but had put it down and, frankly, just sort of lost it in the swirling chaos that is the living room of every family with a toddler on the loose.  My son is now tall enough that he can just reach up onto counters and tables and select what he wants: box of cookies, steak knife, major credit cards.  It sort of like living with one of those Great Danes who can just walk over and eat off the table (except with less self control, in my son’s case).  So this book had ended up buried in no-man’s land behind the couch and it wasn’t until today that I found it again.  I’m glad I did.

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Lawrence Cremin

Having read quite a bit by Diane Ravitch, I always wanted to go back and read more by her mentor, Lawrence Cremin, the so-called “dean” of American educational history writers and the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University.  Last month I got two more new Cremin books and I’ve just finished one, called Traditions of American Education.

cremin - traditions american education - AbeBooks

There are several things I like about Cremin’s approach.

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Skinner’s Metaphors

The other day I was standing in line outside the coffee shop waiting on my order, as one does now in this time of COVID.  My local coffee shop has erected a giant, rooved enclosure right outside their ordering window, with heaters and everything, and I was standing there, waiting for my drink, perusing a book of educational philosophy I’d been delinquent in returning and was on my way to do so when I came across one of the chapters I’d been skipping over for some time: behaviorism.  I leafed to the end of the chapter, where the sample writings are, and found myself transfixed by one of the passages, a write-up by BF Skinner called “The Etymology of Teaching.” 

Skinner and Behaviorism – Harvard University Brain Tour
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Teaching Ethics in School

The other day I happened to spend some time leafing back through an old copy of The English Journal that had ended up on my office floor, when I came across a really fascinating article that I thought bears commenting on.

It’s an article written earlier this year by a professor named Ross Collin about the relationship between ethics and what we read in English class.  It’s called “Four Models of Literature and Ethics.” The premise is that the author has identified four different conceptual models that contributors to The English Journal have used, knowingly or not, to explain how to teach ethical knowledge while reading literature.

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Discouraging Creativity as a Teacher

Tina Fey Says She Won't Take Over SNL When Lorne Michaels Retires

I think I’ve posted in the past about my quest to read my way through some of the “classics” in education, and one of the few definitive lists I was able to find (which says something interesting) is educational writer Grant Wiggins’s, posted on his blog before he died.  Last night I found myself poking around on his site and discovering, from the author of Understanding by Design himself, several interesting blog posts about the very topic I’ve found myself thinking a lot about while teaching during this pandemic:

To what extent should we as teachers plan (and how)?  To what extent are educational experiences educative — if we had the ends and goals in mind ahead of time?

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In Their Natural State

The year 2020 has been, for most teachers, an utterly singular, draining, exhausting, and more demoralizing school year than any of us could have ever imagined. In my experience, this year has been both an overwhelming community challenge for our country, states, schools and school districts, but also on an individual level for each of us, with its seemingly-endless variety of highly particular problems faced by each individual educator, often quite different from those faced just next door by coworkers. This has almost been the hardest part of it for me — even in a fairly well-run state and district, the notion that my coworkers and I are each facing our pretty unique challenges somewhat alone — in part because nobody else has the energy to help anyone else as we might normally — that’s probably what’s worst in all this. It’s the same in our wider communities, too — not only do most of not have wherewithal to help, but we’re actually forbidden to help in person in such a variety of ways.

I’ll write about all this in-depth sometime; I’m sure I’ll be digesting the lessons and takeaways from this year for a decade to come. Right now, I’m still too close to it, still too enmeshed in the struggles of it to really reflect meaningfully on teaching-in-a-pandemic in any illuminating way. For now though I just want to write about a question that has been kicking around in this teacher’s mind for some time, one that has been given extra urgency by this crazy, crazy time to be a teacher.

That question is the following: To what extent should teachers reveal to students exactly what we are going to teach them? And — the wider question here — to what extent should teachers calculate ahead of time exactly what they expect students to take away from their lessons?

This question has really come to a head for me this year because of the almost unrelenting dictates of our new schedule, which is predicated on a dramatically reduced amount of time in-person with our students, a whole new curriculum created specifically for this year, and myriad other responsibilities that impede meaningful collaboration time with colleagues. To what extent should we plan ahead of time, and to what extent should we prepare what students are going to learn.

Part of this has nothing at all to do with the pandemic; proficiency-based education, all the rage still in Vermont, has fetishized a more and more precise articulation of what students should know and be able to do. About six years ago, our administrators started asking us to post learning “targets” or objectives on the whiteboard each day and to review these with students at the start of class.

Early on, this struck me as ruining the illusion of good instruction. When I first began teaching, I saw myself largely as an improviser, a conjurer, a skilled discussion leader.  I now recognize that I was very much coming from a place of wishing to engage students by not only valuing their contributions to class, but by what I considered to be cocreating meaning together. 

There are perhaps several ideals behind this.  First is the notion that learning is social, that one learns in a class by building meaning collaboratively, that the sort of learning one could receive in direct instruction from a teacher is far less valuable than that constructed for one’s self together with one’s peers.

Another is the Socratic notion that you build off of what students already believe, you draw them out, and then lead them to higher truth.  

The idea of posting learning targets (as elaborated in our district by the UBD framework) and of spending our time deriving careful ones in the first place outlining exactly what students should know based off a given lesson, struck me as overly pedantic. Seeing myself more in the Socratic tradition, this struck me as ruining the magic of teaching, which in its Socratic form actually used surprise to assist with making learning meaningful: if you arrive at a truth more organically, rather than having it being shown to you where you are going, the moment of revelation, of learning, is far more impactful.  It’s a corollary of the psychiatric ideal of the patient discovering a truth for himself, rather than being told the goal ahead of time by a therapist.  It seemed to me that anything worth learning shouldn’t be told to you ahead of time: a teacher needs to lead you to it on your own, otherwise the learning won’t be as meaningful, nor will the path there, which should, at its best, be organic and shaped by the student, and completed without realizing where a student is going.

It’s really interesting to unpack this. In this view, teaching is a kind of magical trick, in which the recipient should be somewhat unaware, in their natural state, because that way you are more accurately addressing them where they are.  They have to be unaware of what you are doing, almost as though you are trapping them, because they will be more honest, and you can more Socratically lead them to truth if they are being honest about their thoughts and about where they are at a given moment in their understanding. 

Yet two problems exist with this: first, that students in this vision are not exactly copartners in learning but unwitting and unknowing participants, passive, really, like the observers of a magical illusion.  The other is that students themselves benefit by being ignorant of the goal of a unit because if they are aware of a lesson’s goal, they will somehow know the “answer” ahead of time and participate in ways that are attempting to shortcut the true process of learning, by trying to demonstrate they already understand what is to be taught or by anticipating what the teacher wishes to hear and not engaging as honestly with the challenges of the learning experiences.

But now that I actually write this out, I realize how odd it sounds. I suppose it would make sense if you showed students the exact answers to multiple choice questions on the very final exam they will be given, but it is ridiculous to think they could somehow cheat the process if the learning goals a teacher communicates have any real heft and challenge. For example, it’s hard to imagine a student told ahead of time that the day’s learning goal is to understand how to use an outline to organize his thoughts following a first draft of an essay. After all, it’s not enough to say you can do it, or to say it’s important to do — you must show that you can do it, a process that requires work, understanding, and practice. A soccer coach who tells his players he wants them to learn how to open their bodies and keep their heads up when receiving the ball is not allowing them to shortcut the learning process by telling them this and then deliberately practicing this.  Instead, he is simply being clear about what he wishes students to learn to do, enlisting them in the goal by telling them precisely what he wants, not hiding that it is multi-faceted and challenging, but allowing no disclarity about what he hopes they will achieve.

Perhaps at the start of the drill they will be trying harder to keep their heads up and open their bodies than they might normally, but this is not a bad thing to have students who wish to try to do exactly what their coach wishes them to do. Just the same with the teacher who aims to teach the outline: having students who know what you are asking them to learn is important, because they will be working in partnership (given a good classroom environment and motivated students) to achieve the same goal.

Think about the notion of showing students exactly what we’re looking for — by using models.  Yes, there is always a danger that students simply copy these models, but copying or trying to do something they are asked is partly how students learn how to improve.  Are we sometimes afraid, as I suspect, that students will give us exactly what we want, and therefore be copying us, and we do not want to restrict them, and so as a result, we actively try not to think too clearly about what it is that we want?  I think that this is the case.

But the real diversity and creativity we should be looking for is that which is achieved through the use of deliberately chosen strategies.  Our ideal should be the student who has achieved facility, not at rote memorization, but at the deliberate selection from among a variety of consciously-weighed techniques or moves or approaches.  Teach them a variety of approaches, then allow them to do the selection.  Show them a model not to copy, but to inform them about the techniques available and to eye the choices one writer made, and to compare them to others.  Models as possible examples of what may work well, but the freedom comes in choosing your own method of achieving a given purpose.

Anyway, this is very much a question that is on my mind, and I have no clear answers. But it is really interesting to bring some of these reservations to the surface. I think that too often we believe, especially secondary humanities teachers, that we should be not too directive with students, and, as a result, we don’t even allow them to be part of the learning process.

Done with Giroux

I think I am done with Henry Giroux, founder of modern Critical Pedagogy.  

Had a chance to read another of his essays today, “Neoliberalism and the Politics of Public Pedagogy” and I think it turned me off to Giroux for good.

The reason?  This essay really seemed to be the moment when Giroux was facing up to both what his actual vision of a good society is, and when he seems to confront the “liberal” challenge to his critical pedagogy.  On both fronts, I was highly disappointed.

For starters, Giroux, despite pages and pages of ultra-dense, jargon-heavy prose, simply does not offer any sort of comprehensive vision of what his “substantive” or “radical” democracy looks like.  I really had no clearer idea after this essay, which is ostensibly devoted to this topic, than I did before.  Again, he continues to criticize existing political arrangements (“neoliberalism”) and even existing methods of pedagogy — particularly “liberal educators” who simply “raise questions” or teach students “argumentation” and who believe their work “neutral.” Instead, Giroux believes that teaching should be “directive and interventionist on the side of reproducing a democratic society” (170). 

It is interesting that Giroux, at a fundamental level, seems to agree with the idea that education is reproductive.  I think, in a way, I agree with this statement, but there are two problems that I see:

1.  How do you define “democracy”?

2.  To what extent should education be in service of a specific political goal in this way?

3.  To what extent should the political purposes of education be more important than other goals of education?

Let’s start with the fact that Giroux can’t even seem to imagine, from what I have read of him, even asking questions 2 and 3, much less answering them.  He simply presupposes that all education should be “critical” . . .  and can’t really seem to conceive of questioning that.  I was really struck by the difference between a writer like Phillip Jackson, with his slow, careful, methodical steps toward arriving at even some basic level of truth — patient reading, “with doors left open” as Nietzsche would say — and Giroux’s fire hose activist / protest writing that hardly slows down at all.  

As for question, #1 above, Giroux simply refuses to flesh his answer out.  Again, this would be one thing if he was arguing against fascism or oligarchy or some other form of government, but he clearly means to draw careful lines between what we have now and what he has in his head.  He is clearly critiquing the existing democracy hard, and seems to have some normative conception of — as he puts it — “inclusive and radical democracy” . . .  But he simply cannot articulate it.  It is as though he simply does not wish to engage with political philosophy, with the hard questions of what it means to govern a vast, multi-ethnic, multi-everything democracy in the United States, and to compare his own ideas with those of existing philosophers or practitioners.  When he does allow himself to flesh out his ideas a little, they — surprise, surprise — sounds suspiciously like what he might derisively call “common sense” or every day conceptions of liberal democracy.  He talks about how educators need to using “modes of critique and collective action that address the presupposition that democratic societies are never too just or just enough.” Or that, “democracy [is] a promise, a possibility rooting in an ongoing struggle.” 

What is hard for me is that I am very curious about alternative forms of democracy — whatever he means — and how those work in reality.  But it’s as though Giroux has some normative idea in his head, and he’s going to take swings at the existing system from a partisan position.  It’s very clear, reading him, who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, but it’s as though he is never clear what he is aspiring toward.  

Every time Giroux was mentioning a “radical project” that all educators should be undertaking, I found myself thinking about how, actually, so much of our liberal democracy really *is* a radical project.  For instance, the idea of free speech — of allowing your enemies to speak, of even protecting that, even when they say something that you consider beyond the pale.  Same for us living in such a multi-everything democracy and exercising self-governance in a country so large and diverse.  It really is quite a radical project.  Does Giroux appreciate this or understand this?

All this hedging on Giroux’s part about what his vision is seems especially ironic in light of the way he criticizes traditional teachers who simply “teach the conflicts” or “repeatedly open up a culture of questioning.” He is not satisfied with this because, “these positions fail to make clear the larger political, normative, and ideological considerations that inform such views of education, teaching, and visions of the future.” How ironic, given his own oblique position.  Again, it’s hard not to feel as though every time he takes someone to task it is because they are not being “critical” educators, placing the analysis of power among societal groups first and foremost in their concerns.  

Again he criticizes traditional educators for failing to be critical theorists when they “emphasize argumentation and dialogue” because “there is a disquieting refusal in such discourses to raise broader questions about the social, economic, and political forces shaping the very terrain of higher education.” He also adds a Marxian dig at these teachers, saying the do not consider “what it might mean to engage pedagogy as a basis not merely for understanding but also for participating in the larger world” — which Giroux specifically pegs as, “how to encourage students pedagogically to enter the sphere of the political, enabling them to think about how they might participate in a democracy . . .”

This is a tough question — to what extent should teachers encourage students to engage directly with political life beyond the classroom, in what ways, and for what causes.  For example, to what extent is it meaningful for students in college to engage in political issues?  Is it more important to live a just, compassionate, private life?  Is it better to be someone bent on changing “the system” via activism than it is to be empathetic and charitable on a local, civic, or even interpersonal level?  What about the ways that students should be engaging in political life?  Surely many students in high school or college are uninterested in some of the hard, incremental, low-profile work — slow persuasion, consensus-building — that often creates real change . . .  and are more interested in the flashy, good-versus-evil confrontations that often provide more heat than light.  How is it best for teachers to instruct them in meaningful participation?  

These are hard questions, but Giroux mostly steamrolls through them, setting up a classic straw man (educators who teach students to argue and debate without teaching them why this is important), giving space to a counterargument for all of about a single paragraph before bowling over it with pages of prose, and, as always, making the presupposition that all pedagogy should “giv[e] students the tools they need to fight oppressive forms of power.” It’s amazing how Giroux, to my eye, can’t even fight off this brief counterargument (by someone named Gerald Graff) that critical pedagogy is “indoctrinating” students.  He can’t seem to beat this back, for me, because he doesn’t really pay it much attention in the first place.  He writes, “While no pedagogical intervention should fall to the level of propaganda, a pedagogy that attempts to empower critical citizens can’t and shouldn’t avoid politics.” Again, he is assuming that the goal should be getting students to be “critical,” and he makes the straw man argument that liberal teachers who teach argumentation are merely “avoiding politics,” “teaching methodology,” or have no “language” for teaching students how to enter the political arena.  Again, teaching students *how* to change the world is tricky stuff, and what Giroux can’t seem to imagine is that many teachers think that there is a very fine line between encouraging political involvement and using the power of an educator’s position to indoctrinate or manipulate students, or, at the very least, to make students reluctant to speak frankly about their political beliefs for fear of running afoul of the teacher’s chosen affiliation.  

And again, this is to say nothing of the deeper questions of to what extent must education be aimed at not just understanding, but taking political action.  One gets the sense that one will not even hear such a perennial question entertained in Giroux.  Toward the end of the piece he is still going strong, indefatigable, writing about the imperative to use education specifically for social reform: “We need to link knowing with action, learning with social engagement . . . to fight for an inclusive and radical democracy.” In fact, he writes, “education in the broadest sense is not just about understanding, however critical, but also about providing the conditions for assuming the responsibilities we have as citizens to expose human misery and to eliminate the conditions that produce it.”

Again, this is that “normative” dimension that critical theory seems to way everything against.  The idea that education should be focused on making the world a better place is one thing; there are many ways to do that, as I alluded to.  You could say, for instance, that the world is better served by some students becoming good accountants, or good plumbers — both because society needs those, and because society is better served when people do what they enjoy or are good at.  But the idea that education should be focused on political change, on unmasking oppression, or alleviating “human misery” is quite a different idea.  As I noted when I wrote about Paolo Freire, it’s a very righteous way to view the world, to start from such a moral understanding of society — that there are “oppressors” and “oppressed.” This is especially questionable when you are teaching young people, whose every impulse already is to group the world into black-and-white categories, without stopping to slow down to ask what is really going on.

But Giroux is not the writer to encourage you to slow down and take a careful look at reality.  He is endlessly prolific; he has written no fewer than 67 books and I can see why.  His writing seems to come from a place of passion and strong conviction, but it is not the passion of inquiry; it’s the passion of activism, of protest.  No doubt he is a great speaker, too, but he is really a polemicist.  It really struck me, as I said, that the one brief, obscurely quoted counterargument he allows to slip into his prose is never really answers because he never really slows down to confront it and so seems to stand even more insistently, waiting back among those thickets of unyielding prose.  It’s that same unyielding, totally-certain-of-itself, humorless protest writing that George Packer critiqued in late Coates, as I mentioned in a previous post.  It cannot fathom that it would be wrong.  

It’s endlessly proficient, but ultimately it’s not clear about its own vision, insists that its own methods are the only option, it’s causes the only options.  It’s certainly a lot of things, but in the end, even though it may be Critical, it’s sure not critical.

Radical Democracy

I have been spending some time over the last few days reading Henry Giroux’s “On Critical Pedagogy.” I am trying to understanding what Critical Pedagogy (CP) is, how it is different than other approaches such as teaching critical thinking / liberal inquiry, and — especially — what its goals are.

On the one hand, it’s pretty easy to tell that the goal for CP is for students to understand the true causes and manifestations of oppression and to see how to bring those to the light and presumably to fix them.  But as I have alluded to before in posts, it can be hard with CP or Critical Theory (CT) in general sometimes to tell what the goal is beyond a sort of pointing out of moral shortcomings.  

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