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A Sense of Place

A response to Educating a Democracy, by Deborah Meier.

Theodore Sizer

The most recent national "summit" meeting on the reform of elementary and secondary education was held several years ago at the conference center of a Fortune 500 corporation and involved fifty governors and fifty business leaders, each of the latter chosen from his state by its governor. The President of the United States and his Secretary of Education were the 101st and 102nd conferees.

The meeting was, apparently, polite, earnest, and enormously well-intentioned. There were calls for "world class standards." A private organization, largely controlled and funded by major businesses, was organized to promote, coordinate, and, to the greatest possible extent, calibrate children’s scores on standardized tests across the nation, thus enabling a national, state-by-state "report card." The existence of this "report card" would stir up the competitive juices of states to do whatever was necessary to get their kids’ scores up. "World class standards" were, apparently, assumed to be the same thing as high scores on standardized tests. The conferees called for the people to follow them in this quest for better schools. Most major state and city governments did. Many locals were not so sure.

Needless to say, Deborah Meier is not so sure. Her paper raises many of the profound philosophical and practical issues that present challenges to much current central government policy. Let me extend some of Meier’s argument in two directions.

Who controls my child’s mind?

The community does, to some degree: I cannot educate my child to be insensitive to the collective needs, socially accepted restraints and agreements of the people with whom she or he lives. The character of knowledge ("science," broadly defined) necessarily affects my child: she is likely to make good sense of the world by standing on the shoulders of smart people who have earlier struggled to give rational shape to our surroundings. As a parent, I have a duty to see that my child reflects both my values and those reasonably reflective of what I believe to be the best within the larger community. My child’s mind is my responsibility, at least until that earlier-than-I-might-like day when my child begins to make up her own mind.

Virtually all American parents want their children "schooled"–that is, to be given the tools and attitudes necessary to flourish into adulthood. Beyond the obvious matters of literacy, numeracy, and fundamental understandings of civics, thoughtful and decent people can disagree, especially about the secondary school curriculum. For example, some will insist that each of their children master calculus. Others will not, arguing that calculus is important for only a small minority of adults. Some will want their children immersed early in controversial texts, ones which (these parents believe) may help ready them for shocks that reality will deal them in but a few years. Other parents may want to protect their children as long as possible from any sort of shock. Still others will seek some middle ground. Some parents will want their children exposed to the ideas of Charles Darwin and to the evidence of the validity of his ideas. Others will not. The list is almost endless. Given that these matters are only partly of science and as much of the heart, single answers to such questions are never universally acceptable. As a result, every parent–whatever my income and educational level–wants a substantial say about these issues. The ideas to which my child is exposed are important. My right to control many, if not all of these ideas, deserves to be a fundamental American freedom.

Arrogation of this right by central governments is an abridgment of freedom. The myriad, detailed and mandated state "curriculum frameworks," of whatever scholarly brilliance, are attacks on intellectual freedom. "High stakes" tests arising from these curricula compound the felony. Yes, the community has the right to impose some common values, ones that make our freedom a practical reality. And, yes, the community must expect civility and a readiness to compromise when compromise is essential. That said, it is the apparent readiness of contemporary government to reach beyond this that signals government’s failure to respect and trust its own people. Without such trust, there can be no democracy.

As Meier tells us, freedom is messy. The disagreements over important ideas cause tensions; but such tensions, and the willingness to confront and work through them, lie at the heart of democracy. Meier goes even further: the students’ observation of how adults come to collective understanding in the face of those disagreements is itself a powerful and worthy lesson.

Simply, the detailed contours of culture–and, willy nilly, schools are crucibles of culture–are too important to be given to central authorities unilaterally to define and then to impose. Yes, there must be compromises between what I want and what the community wants. However, I personally want to be a party to the definition of those compromises. Yes, there is the matter of empirical evidence: I cannot simply walk away from such evidence when it suits my prejudices. However, I expect that government will never assume that it always knows best.

I know that we all cannot agree all the time. Save at the obvious margins, why should we? Variety is no sin. For my children I would like a choice among schools that play out the necessary compromises between the values of the state and those to which I am thoughtfully committed. From among these I can elect a school which reflects my deepest and fairest sense of the culture in which I wish my child to grow up.

This sort of parental authority and choice is well established for wealthy American families. By choosing to live in a culturally congenial district or selecting a private school, they can buy whatever education seems best to them. If such choices make sense for rich folks–and rich folks will fight hard to protect their right to choose their children’s schools–why not make them available to everybody? Intellectual freedom doesn’t stop at the door of a bank. Intellectual freedom is what characterizes a confident, mature democracy. Intellectual freedom reflects the trust of government in the ultimate wisdom of its people.

What is a school?

For many of us it is a building into which children go for a portion of their time, say 190 days a year or "990 hours a year of delivered instruction" (as one state bluntly defines it). A school is a place where children are gathered under the force of the law to pursue the learning of what the community believes is important.

Of course, children, and especially older children and adolescents, learn much more outside of school than within it. The kids watch us all the time, learning from what they see, admiring (or not) what we do and how we do it, whether we are family members or neighbors or representations of people and places displayed in the media. That is why "child care" is such an enormously important profession.

If what is "outside" of school rewards a child and gives access to that which is valued within school, a symbiosis results. If the "outside" neglects what the place called school values, the child is at best confused in school–"How could this be important when I see so few people in my own neighborhood valuing it?"–and at worst a failure in the school’s eyes. For whatever they are worth, test scores and truancy rates tell this story.

For fifty years, government has evolved policies that assume basically common approaches for teaching youngsters from kindergarten through twelfth grade. As a result, patterns of practice, such as daily attendance, and rituals, such as enthusiastic "support" of one’s school as a premier, valued and special place, are commonly applied to young people from age five to age eighteen. Differences are represented (little kids may be bussed to school, older kids expected to make do on public transportation) but the commonalities persist. When most people talk of "public education," they make few serious distinctions between what is due the very young and what is due their teenaged elders. The result, not surprisingly, is Procrustean.

Deborah Meier is unusual in that she has designed and led both elementary and secondary public schools. Each is a "place," and each fiercely protects its own boundaries. All are schools of choice. All are small, self-conscious communities. All expect to be alliances of teachers, children, parents and their relevant neighborhoods. All are places where the necessarily endless confrontation of important ideas about which people may disagree proceeds in a respectful way; they are places where relationships are as important as abstractions. All have sophisticated notions of what intellectual excellence is and therefore how it might be represented. All aim ultimately at "enduring and worthy habits of mind," at what sort of thinking adults these young people may become, at how they think and act when no one is looking. To the limit of their school systems’ regulation, all connect their students with the world beyond them. All are intensely demanding, of everyone involved.

Nonetheless, even such imaginative places touch predominantly the "school-going time" of their students. Secondary school students may hold internships and more, but the metaphor is a young person leaving "the place" to get something to bring back. The next step is to perceive the formal education of adolescents, especially of older adolescents, as comprising on an equal basis both a "place" and "outside" opportunities beyond it.

Perhaps, with all good intentions, we Americans infantilize our older teenagers by holding them to the same sorts of routines and standards as those younger. The policy hammerlock on the definitions of the substance of a high school education deplored by Meier needs to be broken. But perhaps also we need a fundamental redefinition of the obligations a growing adolescent must accept for himself and for the community of which he is a part, and then of what structures will help him reach of those obligations. Most adolescents are eager to take responsibility. They deserve our imaginative effort to give them the opportunity to express it in constructive ways, ones that help them build principled and informed minds.

Simply, it may be not enough only to refine what is best for high schools. It may be better to redefine what is best for the learning of our older children.

Such a prospect is miles away from the school world implied by the proceedings at the recent education "summit." The assumptions there were familiar, predictable and represented devices used with limited success for fifty years. Something bolder, more democratic and more reflective of the realities of growing up in a modern, information-rich society is badly needed. Deborah Meier has started us down that important road.

Originally published in the February/March 2000 issue of Boston Review



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