New Educations

1.

I survived high school by reading books about education. My mother worked at the local college and was using her tuition benefit to do an M.Ed. Often, I accompanied her to the library.

High school was tough for me for all sorts of reasons, not least being that I just wanted to be an adult. I had hated being a child and I hated being a teenager even more, because being a teenager meant being on the cusp of adulthood without any of the benefits. My favorite people were adults, the books I read were about adults, and everything I wanted to do in life — such as move to New York City and become a writer or an actor or a theatre director — was the province of adults. High school felt like an obstacle.

Certain books gave me hope. At the library, I discovered John Holt’s How Children Fail, Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, and William Glasser’s Schools without Failure. I devoured these books, less for their individual prescriptions than for their overall message that schooling as I knew it was terrible and that it didn’t have to be that way. (My mother handed me her library copy of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but it was too abstract for me. I didn’t have enough understanding of the world to understand Freire’s writing. I returned to it in my senior year as an undergraduate, and by then I was ready. Freire’s work has been important to me ever since.) Later, I took an elective class called something like “Resistance and Rebellion” and we were assigned a photocopied excerpt from Jonathan Kozol’s The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home, which soon obsessed me, and on my next trip to Boston, I found a copy of the book in a new edition at the giant Waterstones bookstore on the corner of Newbury and Essex Streets, and I bought it, even though I rarely bought new books (too expensive), and I remember not so much reading it as devouring it. Soon after, someone gave me (or maybe I got it for a birthday or Christmas present) a hardcover copy of Theodore Sizer’s Horace’s School: Redesigning the American High School, which I carried around like a bible.

Those were exciting days. Reading about how education could be different eased my life as a student not because the books changed my own schooling — they didn’t — but because they let me imagine what might be possible. From then on, I wanted to be a teacher, because I wanted to try to put into practice some of what I’d imagined.

2.

Cathie N. Davidson’s The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux brought me back to how I felt in high school when reading those books about education. I’m about to begin my 20th year as a teacher (first of high school, now college), and a lot of my youthful idealism got scraped off along the way. But The New Education reminded me that the idealism, though lacerated and scarred, isn’t gone, and I’m now in a position to put a at least a few small dreams into action.

I read The New Education so quickly and energetically the first time that I’m now going back over it more carefully, because most of the details have slipped away from my memory, even though my first reading was only a few months ago. On that first reading, I couldn’t let the book go — I read well into the night, long past when I normally go to bed. It was a book I needed desperately, but hadn’t known I needed until I opened it up and read the first few pages.

“Right now,” Davidson writes, “Redesigning higher education demands institutional restructuring, a revolution in every classroom, curriculum, and assessment system. It means refocusing away from the passive student to the whole person learning new ways of thinking through problems with no easy solutions. It shifts the goal of college from fulfilling course and graduation requirements to learning for success in the world after college. It means testing learning in serious and thoughtful ways, so that students take charge of what and how they know, how they collaborate, how they respond to feedback, and how they grow.”

This is a vision of truly student-centered learning.

3.

I wrote earlier about some of my experience with educational innovation, good and bad. One of the effects of some of those experiences was to make me skeptical about the term student-centered learning. So often in my experience, if that term has not been a vague, feel-good label, then it’s been a term for marketing to students, seeing them fundamentally as customers or consumers. I wanted nothing to do with it.

My favorite chapter in The New Education is the second, titled “College for Everyone”, about what 4-year schools can learn from community colleges. Fundamentally, it’s a chapter about what it means to be truly student-centered.  “The infrastructure of the research university is based on exclusion, sorting, selecting, and ranking: the infrastructure of the community college is based on inclusion, remediating, improving, and offering first chances — and second, third, or however many are required for success. … In community college, virtually everyone is admitted, and the task is not for the student to replicate the expertise of the professor but, rather, for the student to gain the basic literacies required to move ahead.”

Davidson ties this to community colleges’ open admissions systems: “When your mission is to accept everyone, everything else about your institution has to support every student’s success. This means low tuition and fees, access to financial aid, academic flexibility and variety, basic literacy and numeracy training, basic language and cultural training (including for immigrants), specialized skills-training opportunities based on the specific and up-to-date occupational requirements of a local community, professional certifications to augment traditional degrees and diplomas, personalized attention (with an emphasis on advising and small class size), extracurricular components, and online course offerings to supplement local courses and offer flexibility to those juggling the demands of school, jobs, and home life.”

And then the kicker: “The community college is set up to focus on the student — not the professor, not the profession, not the discipline, all of which are central to the status of the research university.”

In this formulation, the research university is — pretty much by definition — institution-centered. It cannot truly be student-centered. When in conflict, the needs of the institution, the professors, and the disciplines will always end up trumping the needs of the students.

That formulation is not necessarily a criticism of research universities. There is something to be said for joining in the shared endeavor of an institution. There is something to be said for wondering, “What can I bring to this place, this system?” rather than “What can this place, this system do for me?” As a society, we need both. As individuals, we probably also need both: a student-centered system to help individuals learn how to learn and an institution/discipline-centered system that can then both focus and magnify the efforts of people who have developed confidence and individuality as learners.

The difference may be that student-centered systems need teachers, while institution/discipline-centered systems need managers and participants. Of course, I don’t mean teachers in the sense of people who simply convey knowledge — managers and participants can do that just fine, too — but rather people who are experienced in training people to learn for themselves.

Maybe teachers is the wrong word here. Maybe I mean liberators.

4.

I’ve been reading around in Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (trans. Kristin Ross), an odd and often frustrating book, but a provocative one nonetheless. It tells the story of Joseph Jacotot, who hit upon his educational method when, supposedly, he taught French to Flemish students who spoke no French and he no Flemish. The details of all this, and the meanings and implications for philosophy and politics, I will leave aside. (You can find some interesting accounts of Jacotot via Google Books, e.g. An Account of M. Jacotot’s Method of Universal Instruction by B. Cornelius, and there’s plenty of secondary material on Rancière, including a good introduction in the book by his translator.)

What sticks with me from The Ignorant Schoolmaster is this passage, from pages 14-15:

Joseph Jacotot applied himself to varying the experiment, to repeating on purpose what chance had once produced. He began to teach two subjects at which he was notably incompetent: painting and the piano. Law students would have liked him to be given a vacant chair in their faculty. But the University of Louvain was already worried about this extravagant lecturer, for whom students were deserting the magisterial courses, in favor of coming, evenings, to crowd into a much too small room, lit by only two candles, in order to hear: “I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you.” The authority they consulted thus responded that he saw no point in calling this teaching. Jacotot was experimenting, precisely, with the gap between accreditation and act. Rather than teaching a law course in French, he taught the students to litigate in Flemish. They litigated very well, but he still didn’t know Flemish.

That passage reads like a fable or a parable. Perhaps it is. Yes, I think it is.

I must teach you that I have nothing to teach you.

(I’m tempted to put that sentence at the top of my syllabi.)

There is much work in teaching you that I have nothing to teach you. All of our systems and expectations are designed otherwise. Decades of experience as both student and teacher lead me to think it is my job to teach my students, and it is their job to learn. That is the most comfortable position for many people, teachers and students both, but as countless progressive educators have pointed out for centuries, it is not a liberating vision.

We must, then, in every meaning of the word, disabuse ourselves. We must unlearn to learn.

5.

Jacotot began from an assumption that everyone is equally intelligent and that everyone has the capacity to teach themselves. Rather than wanting to argue these assumptions, I find myself wanting to play what Peter Elbow calls “the believing game” — what are the implications if we assume these ideas are absolutely true? Would they strengthen our pedagogy or dilute it?

This brings us back to Cathy Davidson’s ideas about learning from community colleges. When your mission is to accept everyone…

It may not be possible, or even desireable, for all our schools to accept such a mission, but perhaps we as teachers should imagine how accepting the mission might shape our everyday practice of teaching and learning.

Appendix

I first learned of The Ignorant Schoolmaster from Adam Kotsko’s essay “The Courage to Be Ignorant”, which is well worth reading. 

One thought on “New Educations

  1. I am deeply honored by your insightful, inspiring engagement with my book The New Education. I love this: “Maybe teachers is the wrong word here. Maybe I mean liberators.” Yes. Yes, exactly yes.

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